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“Peak Google”? Maybe, But Is “Native” The Reason?

By - October 23, 2014
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From Thompson’s “Peak Google” post.

I love Ben Thompson’s Stratechery site, so much in fact that I’m writing a response to his recent “Peak Google” post, even though these days most of us limit our bloggy commentary to the 140-character windows of Twitter.

I’m responding to Thompson’s post for a couple of reasons. First of all, the headline alone was enough to get me interested, and judging from the retweets, I was not alone. But I try not to retweet stuff I haven’t actually read (which, as Chartbeat has shown us, is not the case with most of us). I waited until this morning to read Ben’s post, which compares Google with IBM and Microsoft, each of which once could claim king of the mountain status in tech, but have since been eclipsed.

But the real reason I’m responding is Thompson’s thesis that Google is at its peak, about to be eclipsed by Facebook or Pinterest or some other advertising-based company. Thompson theorizes that native advertising will carry the day, and because Google lacks the skills necessary to win in native, the company will slowly fade into profitable irrelevance (as have IBM and Microsoft).

I think the story was picked up for the resonance of its headline meme – that Google may be at the peak of its power, poised for decline – rather that the substance of its argument around native advertising. And that’s a shame, because Thompson makes any number of interesting points about Google that bear debate. In no particular order:

– Google isn’t good at native or the more “human” side of advertising. I disagree. As Thompson acknowledges in an update to his original post, Google’s search ads are by definition native – I believe search advertising is the most scaled, profitable, and useful native platform in the world. And while Google has struggled to find its voice as a media company, it’s been near-perfect at creating a platform that lets others express their voice in advertising – millions of customers use AdWords to create authentic ads in real time. And its YouTube platform is poised to be one of the largest brand channels in the world.

– Search isn’t a brand platform, and native is. I also disagree – that search isn’t a brand platform, anyway. Yes, search ads tend to be “down funnel” and direct response driven. But any brand who isn’t playing in search, which includes creation of search-friendly content, is missing a huge part of the role brands must now play as creators of great content.

– No one has yet “won” in native. Totally agree. We’re in the very early innings, though Facebook has been a clear winner to date.

– Search ads will be eclipsed by native. I sort of agree – but I prefer to think that neither native nor search ads will dominate going forward. Instead, we’ll see a blending of the two – what I’ve called programmatic native. And there’s no greater example of programmatic native than search. It’s not clear Google will win here, but it doesn’t hurt to own both search AND YouTube, not to mention Android and Google Maps/Local/Earth/Now, as you work on figuring it out.

Again, I think there’s a reason that “Peak Google” resonates so strongly in this industry – we’ve seen the movie with IBM and Microsoft, and everyone loves a story that fits a common narrative. But I’m not sure native advertising is the reason Google will fade to irrelevance over time.

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The Next Stage of Mobile Quickening: Links Get Intelligent

By - October 05, 2014
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How Branch Metrics works…click to enlarge.

Early in a conversation with Alex Austin, CEO of mobile startup Branch Metrics, I had to interrupt and ask what seemed like a really dumb question. “So, wait, Alex, you’re telling me that the essence of your company’s solution is that it….makes sure a link works?”

Alex had heard the question before. But yes, in truth, what his company specializes in is making sure that a link works in a very particular kind of mobile use case. And doing so is a lot harder than it might seem, he added. Branch Metrics, a three-year old startup that began as a way to create and share photo albums from your iPhone, is now devoted entirely to solving what should be a dead easy problem, but thanks to the way the mobile ecosystem has played out, it’s just not. (Alex has written up a great overview of his journey at Branch, worth reading here).

A month or so I wrote Early Lessons From My Mobile Deep Dive: The Quickening Is Nigh, an overview of my initial learnings as I explored today’s mobile landscape. A major conclusion: the emergence of deep linking is leading to entirely new opportunities in mobile, and the mobile marketing machine is a key place to explore if you want to understand the implications.

Since then, I’ve spent more time talking to folks like Alex, and I’ve come to another conclusion: the next step in the mobile quickening will be intelligent links.

Now, before you go Googling “intelligent links” – I’ll admit there is no clear nomenclature per se, because in the past we’ve not had a need for such a distinction. After all, on the open web, all links can be intelligent, because they can pass information from site to site via cookies, redirects, and various increasingly sophisticated hacks.

Not so in mobile.

In his wonderful post outlining Branch’s initial failures and eventual pivot, Alex notes: “The biggest growth issue we faced in our mobile app was the fact that Apple doesn’t let you track users and pass context through the install process. …To break down this barrier would mean making the mobile app ecosystem more like the functionality we’re used to on the web.”

So that’s what Branch set out to do – in essence, to make mobile work more like the web. Branch’s initial photo book product may have failed for any number of reasons, but what stood out for Alex was how hard it was for the product to self-replicate across a customer base. A customer would create a cool photo book, and then want to share it with a friend. Of course, the best way to share is via a link to the photo book – that’s the viral calling card. But when a friend clicks on the link, Branch ran into the limits of mobile apps. It gets kind of convoluted, so let me break it down in steps:

1. Customer downloads Branch and uses it to create a cool photo book.

2. Customer wants to share the photo book with her friends, which she does using Branch’s internal sharing features.

3. Branch’s sharing features generate a deep link that is sent via email (or a Tweet, or Facebook, etc).

4. Friend receives invitation via email to check out a cool photo book.

5. Friend clicks on Branch’s deep link.

6. Friend does NOT have Branch’s app installed, so is linked to the Branch app download landing page in the iTunes store.

**THIS IS FRICTION POINT #1. In an ideal world, a potential customer should not have to go through the Apple app store just to view a cool media object that’s been shared (this wouldn’t happen on the web). **

7. Friend decides to download the app, tells Apple OK, accepts the app’s terms and services, fires up the app, and….

8. Sees the generic welcome screen that the app brings up for every new user. Now he has to create a new account, set a password, etc. Confused, he wonders whatever happened to the photo book he was looking for.

**THIS IS FRICTION POINT #2. The friend just wanted to check out the cool photo book, but the information of the original URL, which pointed to the actual media object, has been lost.**

9. Friend is confused as how to actually use the Branch app to see his friend’s cool photo book. He pokes around a bit, but quickly loses interest when he sees a new notification from SnapChat, or Facebook, or whatever.

10. Friend never becomes a new customer of Branch, nor ever actually sees the photo book.

This is a deeply lame experience, and one that seriously limits any app developer’s business. “You can’t have someone have to type their password in, and go through a long install and configuration to start using the app,” Alex told me.

So Branch pivoted, and created a lightweight SDK (software development kit) that, when installed by the app maker, allows the media object in question to appear once the app is installed.

Sounds super simple, but according to Alex, it was quite complicated, not least because getting app makers to install SDKs is non-trivial. However, Branch is finding traction with scores of app makers because the company solves a major marketing problem in mobile – how to create more fluid conversion and engagement paths which ultimately lead to more customers.

This is the evolution of the intelligent mobile link – something that’s sorely needed in the mobile ecosystem. It all starts with the ability to pass data through a link – something that Apple has not allowed in the past. But Branch’s elegant hack around Apple’s shortsighted policy is one more important step toward creating a truly mobile web, one that combines the richness and device-specific capabilities of an app with the universality of an open web architecture.

“It’s like 1995″ in mobile apps, Alex concluded. “We are just figuring out how to turn on the Internet on the phone.”

When I start to think about where this goes from here, I start to get very excited – intelligent links are the beginning of a whole new mobile experience. The next step is to break down the hegemony of the app store itself – why should we have to go through an authentication, download, and configuration process just to see what’s behind a link? We shouldn’t, and soon, I imagine we won’t. Of course this has serious implications for the hegemonies of Apple and Google’s app store choke points, but in the end, both companies are all about creating great experiences for their users, right?

Take it one step beyond erasing the app store friction, and we can imagine a world where apps work like always on-call services, at the ready to execute their portion of a fluid user experience. Explaining that experience will be the subject of a future post. But for now,  amen for folks like Alex and companies like Branch Metrics. Keep up the good work.

Early Lessons From My Mobile Deep Dive: The Quickening Is Nigh

By - September 06, 2014
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Do you really want to eat them one at a time? Me, I prefer mashing ‘em up.

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!

It’s Time For Twitter To Filter Our Feeds. But How?

By - July 27, 2014

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“We don’t put an algorithm between you and your feed.” – Twitter exec Adam Bain, March 2013

“Please do.” Me, today

Twitter has always appealed to tinkerers, to makers, to the people who first took up blogging, who championed RSS and HTML in the early days – you know, the people who created the open web. And because of that, Twitter has always had a strong dose of egalitarianism in its DNA. Twitter expresses that DNA in a particular way: it never decides what you might see in your feed. Whenever you come to the service, you are presented with everything. It’s up to you to figure out what’s valuable.

Compare that to Google, which decides what content you see based on your search query or, more recently, your location (and tons of other data), or Facebook, whose impassive algorithms sift through a sea of friends’ updates and determine what the service, in its ineffable wisdom, decides you will see. Both of these giant companies have, at their core, the idea of editorial judgement – they decide what you see, and for the most part, you have no idea how they made that decision, or why.

Twitter makes no such distinction. And this, of course, has always been both its declared strength and its obvious Achilles heel.

For it is in making editorial judgements that the edges of a media product emerge – and to most of us, Twitter is  a media product (it’s certainly an advertising product, which to my mind makes it a media product as well).

In the coming months, I expect Twitter will finally execute a major shift in its approach to our feeds, and roll out an algorithm, not unlike Facebook’s EdgeRank, which consumes the raw material of our feeds and process them into a series of media products that redefine our experience with the service. Doing so will solve for three of Twitter’s most critical business problems/opportunities: Its vexing “I don’t get Twitter” issue, its slowing user growth and engagement, and Wall Street’s ongoing uncertainty around how far the company’s current advertising model can scale (IE, whether it can grow to Facebook or Google level revenues, currently orders of magnitude larger).

Three years ago I wrote Twitter and the Ultimate Algorithm: Signal Over Noise (With Major Business Model Implications). My main argument was that Twitter has to figure out how to make my feed valuable to me – a point I’ve been talking about for years. It would take a lot of math, a lot of algorithms, and a lot of trial and error, but ultimately, I wanted Twitter to surprise and delight me each time I came back, and there’s no way a raw feed could do that. In short, I argued that it was time for Twitter to create algorithmically-driven editorial voice, one that presents me media product(s) that extract maximum value out of the feeds I followed.

It’s fair to say that three years later, Twitter hasn’t done what I wished for. Back then, Twitter wasn’t a public company, and its ad business was in its early stages. But today Twitter is a $24 billion public company with strong advertising revenues tracking at more than a billion dollars a year. So what do I know?

Well, I know that the problem still exists, and there’s no way Twitter can grow into (and beyond) its current valuation, much less compete with Facebook and Google, if it doesn’t tack into the waters of editorial judgement. This means Twitter has to stare down its existential DNA problem – it has to be willing to put itself between us and our  feeds.

And I think there’s all sorts of opportunity in doing so. I think nearly everyone wants Twitter to try, and while I have no inside information, I’m pretty sure that Twitter is working hard on doing just that. Ever since the company made it clear it didn’t want developers creating consumer facing applications that built new interfaces for the consumption of tweets, the responsibility for creating that value lies squarely with Twitter.

But even as the product and engineering folks at Twitter labor to create these new interfaces, there’s no need for the company to abandon its core philosophy of showing us everything – that should be a mainstay (and differentiating) feature of the service. We just want media products on top of those feeds that mine the best stuff and present it to us in a way that keeps us engaged, provides us significant value, and thereby keeps us coming back. This of course would solve for quite a few other pesky problems – user growth and engagement chief amongst them. Oh, and it’d create the kind of media product that’s rife with signals of user intent  – exactly the place where new Twitter ad products can thrive.

Earlier this year I argued that Twitter might encourage a class of “super curators,” a kind of crowd sourced approach to solving the problem, but that’s not enough. For Twitter to grow at Facebook or Google like rates, it has to build a media product that is automated, but feels uniquely “Twitter-y.” And to me, that means making something that exposes its inner workings to its users, and lets those users customize their consumption in ways that can be shared, celebrated, and even commercialized.  In Who Owns The Right to Filter Your Feed?, I wrote “No one company can boil the ocean, but together an ecosystem can certainly simmer the sea.”

It’s my hope that Twitter lets its tinkerers, makers, and users help make it better and better. The company’s roots are as a user-driven service. Users came up with hashtags, retweets, and other core Twitter features. One of its most valuable assets is its open DNA – and it needn’t abandon that to create an algorithmically edited version of its main product. In fact, given all the suspicions both Facebook and Google have fostered because of their black box algorithms, a more open approach could be a great strength for any new Twitter product. Show us why your algorithm created a particular media product, and let us play around with making it better. I’d bet that plenty of folks would love to do just that. I know I would.

Google’s Year End Zeitgeist: Once Again, Insights Lacking

By - December 17, 2013
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Great photo, but not one we searched for….

It’s become something of a ritual – every year Google publishes its year-end summary of what the world wants, and every year I complain about how shallow it is, given what Google *really* knows about what the world is up to.

At least this year Google did a good job of turning its data into a pretty media experience. There are endless scrolling visual charts, there’s a emotional, highly produced video, and there’s a ton of lists to explore once you drill down. But there’s also a Google+ integration that frankly, was utterly confusing. Called #my2013 Gallery (sorry, there’s no link for it), it showed photos from a bunch of people I didn’t know, then invited me to add my own. Not sure what that was about. The “Search Trends Globe” shows top search terms by location, but you can’t click through to see results. Odd.

So kudos to Google for giving us a lot of eye candy – there are top ten lists for all manner of categories, from dog breeds to NFL teams to memes – all by geography. But the search capacity is, well – confusing. Once you search inside what you think is the year end Zeitgeist, you end up getting Google Trends data, and you’re kind of lost, not sure if you’re in the year-end special anymore. Bummer.

And while there are far more lists than I’ve seen before, there’s still no … insight. Even the “What is…” function, which was an interesting, if limited feature from last year’s Zeitgeist, is gone this year, most likely a victim of political correctness. (For why, see my post about last year’s Zeitgeist).

I sure wish Google would surprise us with Zeitgeist, but once again, no dice.

Traffic of Good Intent: We Beat Fraud By Working Together

By - December 06, 2013

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Earlier this year I wrote a post titled It’s Time To Call Out Fraud In The Adtech Ecosystem. The overwhelming response to that riposte led to a lunch at this year’s IAB annual meeting, which then led to the formation of the Traffic of Good Intent task force (TOGI), an IAB-sanctioned working group composed of leaders from nearly every major player in the media and adtech industry. We’ve made a lot of progress since our first informal luncheon meeting nine months ago – I think the issue of fraud is now a top priority in our industry, and we continue work on best practices, solutions, and education. Today marks a milestone for our industry, the release of two white papers. Both are clearly written and intended to catalyze our progress to date.

Understanding Online Traffic Fraud gives a broad overview of the problem, laying out definitions of non-human traffic, and lays out half a dozen reasons you should give a sh*t. For me, the money quote is this: “Failing to root out traffic fraud funds criminal activity and supports organized crime.” Because as an advocate for publishers, that’s what fraud is: it’s stealing. It’s taking money and value out of the pockets of publishers, and putting it into the pockets of criminals. Along the way, any number of intermediaries also make money, and in the short term, they may be incented to continue to do so. We have to change that.

The second document, Traffic Fraud: Best Practices for Reducing Risks to Exposure, details actions all player in this ecosystem – brands, agencies, trading desks, technology providers, exchanges, publishers and more – can do to clean up this pervasive problem.

If you buy, sell, or traffic in online advertising, please read these documents, and help us move the needle even further. Fraud is not a problem that can be solved by pointing fingers or blaming one side or the other. We have to work together – and these documents are living proof that we can.

Apple+Topsy: It’s Not About Twitter (And Twitter Is Probably Cool With That)

By - December 03, 2013

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I’m going out on a limb, but a fairly stout one: Like Azeem, I think Apple bought Topsy for its search chops. But Azeem, who I admire greatly, says Topsy could become the search engine “for iOS… to index both the social Web, but also the best bits of the Web that power Siri and Apple Maps, [and] reduce the reliance on Google and reduce the flow of advertising dollars to the big G.” Certainly possible, but I don’t think Apple bought Topsy for its ability to search the web, or even for its trove of Twitter data. That might be a nice bonus, but I don’t think it’s the bogey.* Others have written that Topsy might be used to improve Apple’s iTunes/app search, but again, I think that’s not thinking big enough.

No, Apple most likely bought Topsy because Topsy has the infrastructure to address one of Apple’s biggest problems: the iOS interface. Let’s face it, iOS (and the app-based interface in general) is slowly becoming awful. It’s like the web before good search showed up.  To move to the next level, Apple needs a way to improve how its customers interact with iOS. Topsy will help them get there. Also, I think Twitter is happy that Apple bought Topsy – but more on that later.

Let me explain. First, my statement that iOS is “becoming awful.” Faithful readers know I’m not a fan of iOS. I switched to Android almost two years ago, and I’ve never looked back. But it’s not as if the Android interface is much better – I just like its chances of developing into something more powerful down the line. In the past few years, I’ve written several posts about the kind of interface I believe needs to emerge across mobile (which until last year, Apple pretty much dominated). Given my  obsession with the topic, it’s probably no secret that I view mobile’s biggest problem boils down to one of search.

In  Apple Won’t Build a (Web) Search Engine and Of Course Apple Is Going to Do Search, I argued that Apple must get into the “app search” game. Just as web search became the coin of the web realm, app search will be next. It won’t look like web search, I argued, but at its core, it’s quite similar.

That was three years ago, right after Apple bought Siri, launched iAds, and was relentlessly touting the growth of its app ecosystem. I was certain Apple was going to figure out a way to create value above the level of a particular app, using all that tasty data it had within its restrictive walled garden to build the next generation iOS interface.

But so far, Apple has failed to innovate inside its own ecosystem (unless you count minimalist icons and bright base colors as innovation). Three years later, we’re still stuck in a user interface of app-filled screens, most of which we never use, each disconnected  from the other save for the fact they happen to reside on your phone, possibly right next to each other, but otherwise unaware of the value they might reap should they magically start sharing links and data with each other. (You know, the way the web works.)

This has to change.

Google knows it, which is why I find Google Now so fascinating. Apple knows it too – the days of home screens littered with app icons are numbered. What will replace it?

My guess is some kind of intelligent, search-driven interface that “understands” you, based on the intent you signal through your use of all kinds of apps – including browser apps, of course, as well as true search apps like Siri (or Google Now). This new kind of interface responds to your voice as well as your location, your history, and anything else you might willingly (or unwittingly) feed it. It will strive to always put the very thing you need at your fingertips – something that simply isn’t possible without understanding your interactions as the equivalent of …. well, a personal interest graph.

And to do that, Apple needs a powerful engine, the kind of engine that, say, has been hard at work understanding a massive corpus of interest data for, say, six or so years. Something like Topsy.

My prediction: Apple doesn’t really care about Twitter data. The more I think about it, the more I’d wager that Twitter most likely blessed Apple’s purchase – and why not. With its newfound post-IPO billions, Twitter could have easily forced Topsy’s price well past $200 million. But Twitter is probably thrilled that Apple bought Topsy – Apple just took out a company that Twitter eventually would have had to either buy or kill. Now, Twitter is free to build enterprise value on top of its own data, as well it should, and Apple has a team of engineers who I’m guessing can’t wait to get their hands on a new kind of tweet stream – all that structured data captured, but not leveraged, off your mobile phone. It’s a win win win – if I’m right. Apple gets the tech and talent to build the guts of its next interface, consumers get a better OS, and Twitter gets to keep its cash and eliminate a potential competitor to boot.

Smart move, Apple. I hope I’m right.

*For the record, I spoke to no one at Twitter or Apple before I wrote this. It’s all my own brand of pure speculation. 

Google Now: The Tip of A Very Long Spear

By - October 09, 2013

Yesterday my co-author and I traveled down to Google, a journey that for me has become something of a ritual. We met with the comms team for Google X, tested Google Glass, and took a spin in a self-driving car. And while those projects are fascinating and worthy of their own posts (or even chapters in the book), the most interesting meeting we had was with Johanna Wright, VP on the Android team responsible for Google Now.

Some of you might respond – “Google what?!” – and that’d be normal. Google Now is one of those products that to many users doesn’t seem like a product at all. It is instead the experience one has when you use the Google Search application on your Android or iPhone device (it’s consistently a top free app on the iTunes charts). You probably know it as Google search, but it’s far, far more than that. It’s the tip of a very important spear for Google, and if you study its architecture, all manner of interesting questions and insights can be found about where Google – and the Internet – may be headed.

When you fire up the Google search application on your phone, Google Now is all the bits that are not the familiar search bar. Here’s a screen shot of my Google Now “home page”:

gnow

As you can see, the search bar, which in a PC format is usually the *only* thing one sees, is most certainly not the main event. Certainly it’s at the top, and voice search is prominently featured (I could write 1,000 words just on voice search…another time, perhaps). But, the screen is dominated by “cards” of information – in this case a reminder of a call I have coming up (Google Now integrates with my calendar and contacts), as well as information about my drive home (Google Now knows I usually drive home in the afternoon). If I were to scroll down, more “cards” of information are shown, including local weather, points of interest, and sports scores (when the SF Giants were playing this past summer, I’d see scores – because Google Now knew I searched for “SF Giants scores” a lot).

These cards are extremely important to understanding where Google is heading with not only search, but with all of its various services (the card interface is now incorporated into Google’s “knowledge graph” search results, Google+, Gmail, and Google Maps, among many others). First, the cards “know” things about me – most critically my location, but also my search history, my calendar and contacts, my browsing history, key links in my Gmail, and more. They show up based on what interests and needs that Google believes will be most important to me. In essence, they are very tangible expressions of Google’s pivot from being a company that answers search queries, to being a company that anticipates your most important questions in real time, and answers them before you ask.

This, of course, has been the holy grail of tech  for some time – predating Google and even Microsoft. But now that rich data streams course constantly through the silicon veins of a very personal mobile device, that long-held vision is becoming reality.

In short, Now is Google’s attempt at becoming the real time interface to our lives – moving well beyond the siloed confines of “search” and into the far more ambitious world of “experience.” As in – every experience one has could well be lit by data delivered through Google Now.

Google knows that this moment – the moment of our lives becoming data – is happening now, and the company is very, very focused on seizing it.

If you doubt my hyperbole, I’d not be surprised, but I tend to test such hyperbole on multiple senior sources working deeply inside Google. To each I posited this question: “Is Google Now one of the most important products  at Google today?” Each answered emphatically yes.

To see why, consider this message, which popped up on my screen as I was preparing to write this post:

share daily commute

This is Google, asking me if I’d like to let selected people know where I am, in real time, during my daily commute. Of course, I can only share that status with people who are also Google+ users (no option to share on Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, etc) – and that’s my point. First, questions like these are habituating us to the idea of sharing intimate information about ourselves with others, in real time. Second, a feature like this is *only* available to Google Now because of its integration with Google+ – one platform is reinforcing the other. Will Google let others play in this sandbox? Such a feature raises a very important question about what kind of world we want to live in – a world dominated by tightly integrated vertical platforms, or a world, as David Weinberger elegantly stated it, made up of small pieces loosely joined?

It was this question that weighed on my mind as I sat down with Johanna Wright yesterday. Since introducing Google Now (and the extremely related Google Knowledge Graph), the company has introduced more than 40 cards – cards for hotels, car rentals, and other travel information (like boarding passes), cards for movies, events, music and local businesses, cards tracking your activity (like walking, biking, etc.), and cards for nearby restaurants. There’s even a card that listens to your TV and tells you what music is playing.

Sound familiar? It should, because, to put it in words we can all understand: There’s an app for that. Or rather, there are apps for each of those. Let me list just a few of them, in order what what I laid out above: Hotel Tonight, Expedia, Lyft, Sidecar, Travelocity; Fandango, NetFlix, Hulu, iTunes, Spotify, Eventful, Yelp, Foursquare; Fitbit, Jawbone Up, Fuelband, Human; OpenTable, Urban Spoon; Shazam.

Google Now supplants the need to open an app by surfacing cards – cards that magically turn into just the information you need, when you need it – *without having to go to an app to get it.*

You following where this is going? Google is potentially disrupting the app world much the way its Universal Search disrupted major web properties  – taking the most valuable service or information, and surfacing it up for free. You may recall that universal search was quite controversial when it came out, because it appeared to favor surfacing Google-owned properties, such as YouTube, Finance, and Maps, over other web properties. Now, six years later, Universal search is, well universal, and that debate, which included an FTC investigation,  is over. Google properties won.

It’s worth noting that a key product manager for Universal Search was Johanna Wright, now the VP over Google Now. With all this in mind, I asked Wright about Google’s plans for Now: Would it be an open platform, where third parties can compete to be surfaced based on merit, or would favored services win out? And would various commercial products and services be able to pay to get integrated into Now’s suggestions and services?

Wright was understandably careful with her words when approaching this question. She declined to talk about monetization and business models for Now, but she did note that Google’s overall philosophy was one that favored the open web. The key, she said, was that Google get the user experience for Now right. The business model will come later (though she did note that Google Offers was already integrated into Now).

While Wright deferred comment on Now’s business model, I have no doubts there are plenty of folks inside Google thinking long and hard about the next steps the company will take to monetize Wright’s work. For now (no pun intended), Google Now is, in the main, a closed platform – surfacing only information that Google has deemed worthy of being surfaced, and integrating on a selective basis with only those services that Google believes will add value its consumers  (Google’s restaurant card, for example, integrates with OpenTable). Just as it did with search, Google is angling to control a key moment of a person’s daily life and attention – the point at which we lift our phone up to receive new information. When and if Google Now become ubiquitous, I can certainly imagine that the question of access and fairness will once again be raised. This movie, it seems, is fated to play out once again.

Search and Immortality

By - September 19, 2013

google.cover.inddFunny thing, there I was two days ago, at Google’s annual conference, watching Larry Page get asked questions so pliant in nature they couldn’t be called softballs. They were more like tee balls – little round interrogatives gingerly placed on a plastic column for Page to swat out into the crowd. Not that we would expect anything else – to be clear, this is Google’s event, and I see nothing wrong with Google scripting its own event. I had moderated the final session of the day, but Larry was the final speaker. Perhaps wisely, Google brought  someone else on to “grill” Page – those were his words as the interview started. (You be the judge –  a sample question: “What are your thoughts about tablets in schools?”)

Anyway, I was certainly not the right choice to talk to Larry. I know the folks at Google well, and have tons of respect for them. We both know I would have insisted on asking about a few things that were, well, in the news at the moment of that interview on Tuesday. Like, for example, the fact that Google, on the very next day, was going to announce the launch of Calico, a company seeking to solve that “moonshot” problem of aging. Oh, and by the way, current Apple Chair and former Genentech CEO Arthur Levinson was going to be CEO, reporting to Page. Seems like pretty interesting news, no? And yet, Larry kept mum about it during the interview. Wow. That’s some serious self control.

And yet I think I understand – each story has its own narrative, and this one needed room to breathe. You don’t want to break it inside an air-conditioned ballroom in front of your most important clients. You want to make sure it gets on the cover of Time (which it did), and that the news gets at least a few days to play through the media’s often tortured hype cycle. It’s grinding its way through that cycle now, and I’m sure we’ll see comparisons to everything from Kurzweil (who now works at Google) to Bladerunner, and beyond.

But what I was reminded of was the very end of my book on search, some 8 years ago. I was trying to put the meaning of search into context, and I found myself returning again and again to the concept of immortality.  This was my epilogue, which I offer here as perhaps some context for Google’s announcement this week:

“Search and Immortality”

On a fine sunny morning in 2003, not long after the birth of my third and most likely final child, I typed “immortality” into Google and hit the “I’m feeling lucky” button. I can’t explain why I turned to a search engine for metaphysical comfort, but I sensed the search might lead me somewhere—here I was writing a book about search, but what did it matter, really, in the larger scheme of things?

In an instant, Google took me to the Immortality Institute, an organization dedicated to “conquering the blight of involuntary death.”

Not quite what I was looking for. So I hit the search again, but this time I took a look at the first ten results, etched in blue, green, and black against Google’s eternal white.

Nothing really caught my eye. Cryonics stuff, a business called Immortality Inc., pretty much what you might expect. I couldn’t put what I was looking for into words, but I knew this wasn’t it.

Then I noticed the advertising relegated to the right side of the screen. There were four ads, each no more than three lines of text. The first was someone who claimed to have met immortal ETs. Pass. The third and fourth were from eBay and Yahoo Shopping. These megasites had purchased the immortality keyword in some odd and obliquely interesting hope that people searching for immortality might well find relief through . . . buying shit online. (In fact, what Yahoo and eBay were doing was the equivalent of search arbitrage— buying top positions for a search term on Google and then creating a link to the exact same search term on their own sites, in the hope of capturing high-value customers).

Interesting, but I wasn’t looking to buy the concept of immortality; I wanted to understand it. I took a pass on those as well. But the second paid link pointed to the epic Gilgamesh, which I hazily recalled as the first story ever written down—in Sumerian cuneiform, if memory served. I clicked on the link, earning Google a few pennies in the process, and landed on an obscure bookseller’s page. The epic of Gilgamesh, the site instructed me, recounts mankind’s “longing stretch toward the infinite” and its “reluctant embrace of the temporal. This is the eternal lot of mankind.”

Bingo. I didn’t quite know why, but this was the stuff I was looking for. My vague desire to understand the concept of immortality had brought me to the epic of Gilgamesh, and now I was hooked. My search was bearing fruit. But I didn’t want to buy a book and wait for it to come. I was in the moment of discovery, the heat of possible consummation. I wanted to read that epic, right now.1 So I typed the title itself into Google, and once again found myself larded with options.

But this time the organic results (the search results in the middle of a Google page, as opposed to the ads on the right) nailed it: the first two offered direct translations of the stone tablets upon which the epic is written. Clicking on the first link, I found a Washington State University professor’s summary of the Gilgamesh story. It read:

Gilgamesh was an historical king of Uruk in Babylonia, on the River Euphrates in modern Iraq; he lived about 2700 b.c. Although historians . . . tend to emphasize Hammurabi and his code of law, the civilizations of the Tigris-Euphrates area, among the first civilizations, focus rather on  Gilgamesh and the legends accruing around him to explain, as it were, themselves. Many stories and myths were written about Gilgamesh, some of which were written down about 2000 b.c. in the Sumerian language on clay tablets which still survive . . . written in the script known as cuneiform, which means “wedge-shaped.” The fullest surviving version, from which the summary here is taken, is derived from twelve stone tablets . . . found in the ruins of the library of Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria, 669–633 b.c., at Nineveh. The library was destroyed by the Persians in 612 b.c., and all the tablets are damaged. The tablets actually name an author, which is extremely rare in the ancient world, for this particular version of the story: Shin-eqi-unninni. You are being introduced here to the oldest known human author we can name by name!

In my search for immortality, I had found the oldest known named author in the history of Western civilization. Thanks to the speed, vastness, and evanescent power of Google, I came to know his name and his work within thirty seconds of proffering a vaguely worded query. This man, Shin-eqi-unninni, now lived in my own mind. Through his writings, with an assist from Google and a university professor, he had, in a sense, become immortal.

But wait! There’smore. Gilgamesh’s story is one of man’s struggle with the concept of immortality, and the story itself was nearly lost in an act of literary vandalism—the destruction of a great king’s library. As I contemplated all of this, sensing that, just possibly, I had found a way to explain why search was so important to our culture.

I read the first tablet’s opening lines:

The one who saw all (Sha nagba imuru) I will declare to the world, The one who knew all I will tell about [line missing] He saw the great Mystery, he knew the Hidden: He recovered the knowledge of all the times before the Flood. He journeyed beyond the distant, he journeyed beyond exhaustion, And then carved his story on stone.

What does it mean, I wondered, to become immortal through words pressed in clay—or, as was the case here, through words formed in bits and transferred over the Web? Is that not what every person longs for—what Odysseus chose over Kalypso’s nameless immortality— to die, but to be known forever? And does not search offer the same immortal imprint: is not existing forever in the indexes of Google and others the modern-day equivalent of carving our stories into stone? For anyone who has ever written his own name into a search box and anxiously awaited the results, I believe the answer is yes.

Something to think about, anyway. Good luck, Mr. Levinson and Mr. Page. I’m cheering you on, even if I can’t quite explain why. Maybe it’s that missing line from Gilgamesh we’re all trying to find….

*Hat tip to one of my editors Bill Brazell, for pinging me as I was writing this about this very news.

Hasta La Alta Vista, Baby.

By - June 29, 2013

I just saw the news that Yahoo! is “sunsetting” Alta Vista, one of the first “good” search engines. This makes me a little misty, as Alta Vista was the search engine I used BG – Before Google – and it had a real shot at *being* Google, had its various owners not utterly screwed it up over the years. Did you know, for example, that at one point Alta Vista was the largest and most widely used search tool on the web? Its driving force, Lois Monier, once told me “search should be a pencil” – he was adamant that Alta Vista not become a portal.

But Alta Vista was owned by DEC, a now dead computer company, which was bought by Compaq, another now dead computer company. And they made it a portal. And through the now defunct Overture, the assets of Alta Vista made their way to Yahoo!, a still alive portal. But now, Alta Vista is going to truly be dead.

It’s hard to watch an important player in the early Internet go away – and it makes me reflect on a couple of things. First, how much or our own culture and history we’re losing day by day, even despite the best efforts of archivists like Brewster Kahle. And secondly, on a personal note, Alta Vista was the search engine that helped me find my birth mother way back in 1995, when my wife was pregnant with our first child, and my life-long wonderings as an adoptee took on a new urgency. Alta Vista pointed me to an online forum for people like me, and there I found a person who helped me find my mother. Pretty cool.

So I’ll miss you, Alta Vista. And if any of you want to know the engine’s journey, well, there’s a book for that.