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What Will Search Look Like In Mobile? A Visit With Jack

By - December 18, 2014

I’ve come across any number of interesting startups in my ongoing grok of the mobile world (related posts: 1, 2, 3).  And the pace has quickened as founders have begun to reach out to me to share their work. As you might expect, there’s a large group of folks building ambitious stuff – services that assume the current hegemony in mobile won’t stand for much longer. These I find fascinating – and worthy of deeper dives.

First up is Jack Mobile, a stealthy search startup founded a year or so ago by Charles Jolley, previously at Facebook and Apple, and Mike Hanson, a senior engineer at Mozilla and Cisco who early in his career wrote version 1.0 of the Sherlock search app for Apple. Jack was funded early this year by Greylock, where Mike was an EIR.

I’d link to something about Jack – but there’s pretty much nothing save a single page asking “What Is Jack?” Now that Charles and Mike have given me a peek into what Jack is in fact all about, I can report that it’s fascinating stuff, and at its heart is the problem of search in a post web world, followed quite directly by the problem of search’s UI overall. Whn you break free from the assumptions of sitting at a desk in front of a PC, what might search look like? What is search when your device is a phone, or a watch, or embedded in your clothing or the air around you?

Jack is trying to answer that question, and the team is rethinking some core user interface assumptions along the way.

Search on mobile is by almost any measure broken – the core assumptions of what makes search work on the web are absent on your device. On your phone, there are no links to index, no publicly accessible commons of web pages to crawl and analyze. Just a phalanx of isolated chiclets – disconnected apps, each focused on a particular service. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to search in mobile, in fact, we search a lot on our phones. But the results we get ain’t that great. In the main, that’s because when we search on our phone, we get answers from…the web. But as Jolley and Hanson pointed out, answers from the web often fail when presented to us in the context of mobile.

BattelleMediaMobilevWeb

Mobile search queries are just…different. Let’s explore why:

- Context. When you search on your phone (or later, on any “liberated” device), you’re more likely than not in completely different context from when you’re “on the web.” Mobile searches tend to be service related – “How do I get to this address,” and/or location driven: “What are good nightspots nearby.”

- Query & Corpus. Because of this context, *what* we want to search is focused in a far smaller potential corpus of material. Mobile searches tend to have one exact answer – we aren’t loking for a list of links that we then want to peruse, we want an answer to a specific contextual question – mobile searches bias toward service and action as the query result. That means search’s presumptive barrier of completeness (the cost Google bears of keeping the entire Internet in RAM, for example) is not a barrier on mobile. You don’t have to have ALL the possible information “indexed” – just the right information.  And what information is that? Well, that leads us to ….

- Signal. With mobile, rich new signals are available that could (and should) inform search results (but don’t). Certainly the most robust such signal is your current location, but that’s just the start. Others include your location history (where you’ve been), the apps loaded on your phone, your usage history with those apps,  and the structure inherent in those apps to begin with. Which begs a huge possible difference in…

- User Interface. Search on mobile, for now, is identical to search on the web. It’s a command line interface, where you type in your query, and you get blue links for results. Google’s been working hard to address this, and the combination of its universal search product, which surfaces “one true answer”, with voice search, is a real step forward. But the folks at Jack showed me another potential search interface for mobile, and I found it quite compelling. That approach? Well, I’d call it “conversational.”

The Conversational Search Interface

Way back in 2004 I met with Gary Flake, then a senior technology executive at Overture, a leading search firm of the day (Yahoo! later acquired Overture, which fueled Yahoo!’s search results until the Microsoft deal in 2009.) Even way back then, before mobile was a thing, I was frustrated with search’s interface.

I asked him why we couldn’t move forward in search interface – the “ten blue links” approach was so … flat. I wanted to ask one question, get results, and then ask another. Or better yet, I wanted the service to ask me a question – “You entered ‘Jaguars’ – did you mean the football team, the car, the cats, or something else?” Gary looked at me ruefully and said something I’ve never forgotten: “If only I had just one modal dialog box…”

What he meant was that search, at that point, was a race for the best ten blue links, and anything that got in the way of that, like a modal dialog box that popped up and asked a refining question, would mean that a very large percentage of folks would abandon the search. And abandonment of the search meant loss of revenue.

But that idea – of search as a series of back and forth exchanges, a conversation if you will – has always stuck with me. So imagine my surprise when Jolley and Hanson showed me a very early prototype of Jack Mobile’s search interface and it looked like….a conversation!

Jolley and Hanson have asked me to not report the details of their prototype interface, but suffice to say, it’s quite different, and it looks and feels far more like a back and forth than anything on the web. It’s delightful, and using the service is also cool. Jack knows where you are, so if you ask it “Guardians of the Galaxy” it’ll find showtimes near where you are, and return that information as the result. If you ask it “Italian restaurants,” Jack won’t give you a list of places with the most Google+ reviews – it’ll give you highly rated eateries near where you are right now, perhaps enhanced by reviews relevant to you given the fact that you have the GrubHub or OpenTable app on your phone.

Takeaways

Jack is still in very early stages, but the co-founders had a number of key insights from their work so far. The first has to do with completeness – while long tail edge cases rule the roost in web search, mobile has far more distribution of “head end” search – which means you can narrow your indexing and your algorithms and still satisfy a large majority of queries.

Also, mobile search is deeply personal – there’s almost no such thing as one size fits all result. In mobile, results should be rewarded because they are the most likely answer, not because a ranking system has pre-determined them as most authoritative. Searching for “BMW 3 series” while standing at a Mercedes dealership should most certainly bring a different result than the same search from a Taco Bell on Interstate 5. While personalized search has become a mainstream attribute of Google, the truth is, it’s quite shallow – on the web, Google knows precious little about you. But your phone knows quite a bit. Unlocking all that data is still too hard, but it’s coming.

But perhaps the most interesting implication of Jack’s approach to search lies in how it might drive a new ecosystem between “publishers” and “audience members.” Web search, Hanson points out, is all about the consumer – the creator of the web page is a second-class citizen, stuck in a suckers’ deal of sorts: You have to “publish” your presence on the web, or risk irrelevance, but you are entirely at the mercy of black box forces you don’t understand when it comes to how people might find you. Hanson posits a different model for Jack’s index, one in which publishers deliver their app and content structures to Jack via a proprietary feed of discrete, small units tagged to specific query types.  If this sounds a bit like semantic search, well it is. Hanson, a veteran of open web standards fights via his work at Mozilla, told me he has “deep scar tissue” around the topic, but at the same time, he and Jolley sense that with mobile, a new kind of level playing field just might allow semantic, personalized search to truly emerge.

There are far more questions than answers hanging over Jack, but that’s why it’s interesting – here’s a small, well funded team of search, web, and mobile experts really leaning into a new way to think about a massive problem/opportunity set. It’s certainly one to watch in 2015.

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Google: The Information-First Conglomerate

By - November 21, 2014
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Larry Page on the cover of Fortune, Nov. 13 2014

Last week Google CEO Larry Page got the Fortune magazine cover treatment, the latest of many such pieces attempting to quantify Google’ sprawling business. The business press is obsessed with answering the question of whether we’ve reached “Peak Google.” (Clearly Fortune’s opinion is that we have not, given they named him “Businessperson of the Year.”)

“Peak Google” is what I like to call a “contagious misconception” – it seems to make sense, and therefore is worthy of consideration. After all, we’ve seen IBM, Microsoft, and other companies hit their peaks, only to drop back as they face the innovator’s dilemma.  Search is past its prime, Google is a search company, ergo – Peak Google.

But as the Fortune piece argues (and yes, I’m quoted, for what that’s worth), Google has a lot more going on beyond search. And while it continues to milk that multi billion-dollar quarterly profit center, it’s built five additional billion-dollar businesses – some of which are directly related to its search empire, but others that are not. Google Apps/Cloud, YouTube/Play, Android, Ventures, and Adtech are already past the billion-dollar mark. Huge businesses in waiting include plays in home automation (Nest), healthcare (Calico), transportation (Chauffeur/self driving cars), and connectivity (Fiber). Beyond that group lie a dozen or so potential blockbusters in energy, robotics, AI, wearables, and the unknown moonshots behind the curtains at GoogleX.

It’s that stunning breadth of scope – what Fortune calls the company’s seemingly limitless ambition – that has caused a prolonged internal debate around Google mission statement:

“To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Page has been floating trial balloons about expanding Google’s mission statement for nearly two years. When Tony Faddell, CEO of Nest, announced Google’s acquisition to his staff in January of 2013, Page took the stage and took questions from the stunned audience. One staffer asked Page why Google had any interest in a home automation company – it seemed quite orthogonal to Google’s focus on search, apps, and mobile. According to sources at the event, Page answered by acknowledging that Google’s mission statement may not be large enough to contain his company’s ambitions.

Since that first admission, Page has been testing out the idea of an expanded mission, and with Fortune he aired his ambivalence in public, telling Miguel Helft that “it’s probably a bit too narrow.” And on first blush, that seems right – what does a thermostat have to do with organizing the world’s information, anyway?

Actually, quite a lot.

When you look at Google through the lens of what I call “information first” businesses, things start to make a lot more sense. By that measure, Google is not only an information-first company, it’s also the world’s first information-first conglomerate – starting or buying businesses in every market undergoing the transition from “matter first” to “information-first.”

We see the transportation business shifting to information first, for example. The currently maligned but nevertheless extraordinary Uber is proof of it, but so is Zip Car, Tesla, and the entire autonomous car industry. The true value of these new kind of businesses is in how they understand information flows in the transportation markets, then execute new approaches to old problems (how do I get from here to there?) using novel and/or more efficient methods based on information technologies. Uber doesn’t put cars (commodities) or drivers (means of production) first – it puts information processing first. The cars and driver then reorganize to the new information flows and – voila! – a $17 billion company is born in four years. Uber proves that if you solve difficult information processing problems in traditional markets, you can create world beating value. Airbnb, DocuSign, Lending Club, and many more are further examples of the same thesis.

So what markets are ripe for transition to an information first framework? Well, let’s break down what makes for a “ripe” market. I think there are two key attributes of a market ready to be radically shifted by an information-first approach. First, a market where there’s liquidity of poorly organized and processed information. In other words, there’s a ton of data, but it’s not well organized or computed. Think about the world wide web in 1998, for example. Sh*t tons of information, terribly organized and lacking a processing layer. Google came in and – voila – a multi billion dollar company was born in five short years. Secondly, look for a market currently controlled through centralized chokepoints, but with the potential to be rapidly reorganized if and when consumers gain control. Again, look at search – before Google, portals like AOL and Yahoo ruled the web. Everyone went to a chokepoint to “see what was on the Internet.” After Google, consumers took control of their own web surfing.

So…what markets have both data liquidity and are currently controlled by centralized chokepoints? Well, let’s look at mobile. Tons of data, terribly organized, controlled by the chokepoints of carriers and OS vendors. Check! Or, how about healthcare? Oh hellz yeah! Energy? Yep! Connectivity? Most certainly! Markets where there’s not yet liquidity of information, but there’s about to be – home automation, food, retail – are also ripe for reinvention.

The world is turning into information, and that information wants to be organized, accessible, and useful. I don’t think Google’s mission needs to change at all. Whether or not they knew it at the time, Google created a manifesto that I believe will prove to be dead on in the context of an economic shift to a information-first paradigm. And when the history of this era is written, I’d wager that Google will be seen as the first information-first conglomerate to both identify and exploit that shift.

The Internet Big Five: Doubling In Three Years On A Trillion Dollar Base

By - November 16, 2014

From time to time I have tracked what I call the “Internet Big Five” – the key platform technology companies that are driving the Internet economy. Nearly three years ago I wrote the first of this series – The Internet Big Five. I identified Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook as the “big five,” and compared their relative strengths in financials, consumer reach, and technology strengths. Some of the metrics were admittedly subjective – ranking relative offerings in “engagement” and “data,” for example.

It seems about time to take another look at the Big Five, and to consider a changeup – the introduction of Alibaba as a public company in the US certainly merits consideration. But before I do that, let’s quickly take a look at how the companies have fared over three short years.

Nov. 14 big five market cap

The first thing to observe is this: The top five Internet companies had a combined market cap of nearly one trillion dollars three years ago, a very large base to be sure. But in those three short years, the group managed to almost double their market cap – to $1.8 trillion. That’s impressive growth, and a testament to how central the markets believe these companies to be in our economy. Also, in terms of relative market cap, the Big Five have stayed pretty constant, with Facebook lapping Amazon, but not reaching the heights of Google, Microsoft, or Apple. It’s interesting to see that the market still values Microsoft above Google, something I imagine might change over the next three years.

Stock prices show a similar trajectory. You’d have almost doubled your money if you had invested in these five companies back in late 2011:

Nov. 14 stock big five

Clearly these companies are killing it at a very large scale. And Alibaba, at a market cap of nearly $300 billion, can now claim its place comfortably on the list above both Facebook and Amazon.

But what about strategic strengths? This is the area I find fascinating. Two years ago I wrote The Internet Big Five By Product Strength , and featured this chart:

TheIntBigFiveByProdv2-1024x642

Pulling back, it strikes me that the chart needs a refresh – something I hope to do during the more reflective down time of the coming holidays.  I’d also like to add in Alibaba. But a quick scan of this two year-old chart shows some interesting developments.

In Operating Systems, Social, and Entertainment, each company’s position has pretty much remained constant, but Facebook’s Oculus purchase bears watching in all three fronts.  In Productivity Software, Google’s position has strengthened, as has Apple, but I’d give the edge to Google, whose Apps suite has gained serious traction. In Advertising, Facebook is now very strong, Amazon has also strengthened, and it seems Apple has determined that advertising is a necessary evil not worth pushing very hard. “Tablet” doesn’t feel like a category to break out separately anymore – in the next rev, I’ll probably just call it “mobile devices.” In that category, Microsoft keeps trying but not gaining traction, Amazon flopped with Fire Phone but holds steady with Kindle and Fire tablets, and Facebook seems uncertain if it wants to play. Google and Apple remain the kings. Search as a category that bears scrutiny – what is “search” in a post mobile world, anyway? This question is fundamental to the next five or so years in computing, I’d warrant – expect more posts on that over the holidays. In Payment, Apple has strengthened, And in Voice, almost all the players have improved as well.

All of these companies have shifted over the past three years, some in unpredictable ways. With Page back at Google, the company has broadened its scope to include wearables, transportation, health, and energy. It’s become what I’d call the world’s first information-first conglomerate. Apple has kept its narrow hardware focus, expanding slowly into wearables (the watch) and shying from bets outside its clear wheelhouse. The market seems to be rewarding this focus. Facebook has made some big bets with drones and VR, and its advertising business is on a tear. Amazon hasn’t have any breakaway hits over the past three years, and I sense the company is uncertain how to proceed given the maturity of its core market.

In fact, one way to think about these behemoths is to identify and explore their core cash cows, and then map their strategies to diversify from that core. To wit:

Apple ———> Hardware

Microsoft —–> Desktop, Enterprise SW

Google ——–> Search Advertising

Amazon ——-> eCommerce

Faecbook —–> Social Advertising

Perhaps that’ll be the fodder for another post.

“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.

Else 10.13.14: Smiling Happy Facebook People (Not Teens, Though)

By - October 12, 2014
Facebook Atlas

Now you can buy real, smiling, happy shiny people all over the web, courtesy Facebook.

Today’s summary covers the past two weeks of worthy reads, with a strong dose of the Internet’s twin titans Facebook and Google. I’ve also been busy writing on Searchblog, so you’ll find three of my own pieces highlighted below.

Facebook’s new Atlas is a real threat to Google display dominance — Gigaom

The first such challenge in … forever.

Facebook is unleashing its ads—and surveillance—onto the internet at large – Quartz

And while it took a long time, it’s now real. So what does it mean for publishers? Read on…

A tip for media companies: Facebook isn’t your enemy, but it’s not your friend either — Gigaom

The industry seems to be slowly waking up to the fact that Facebook is more complicated than perhaps we gave it credit for. Sure, BuzzFeed has been winning by leveraging viral content, but now that Facebook is leveraging its data across the web, including the data it picks up from publisher’s sites, those same publishers are starting to do the math and realize that perhaps they aren’t winning after all.

Teens are officially over Facebook – The Washington Post

Until they’re not.

Programmatic Ad Buying to Reach $21 Billion – CMO Today – WSJ

That’s a very large piece of a growing pie – and it’s set to only increase as programmatic underpins nearly all digital advertising, period.

Some pros and cons of Google’s plan to give every “thing” a URL — Gigaom

The phsyical and digital come one step to connection in this Google-led open source schema. Browse the web, browse the world…

End-user computing — The Truant Haruspex — Medium

I love pieces like this. From it: “We increasingly live in a computer-embroidered reality, and the ability to manipulate that reality is empowering. If we can find a way to bring that ability to a wide audience, it could have an impact comparable to the invention of the printing press.”

A Secret of Uber’s Success: Struggling Workers – Bloomberg View

“On-demand has thrived, in part, because the nation has dropped a bedraggled and optionless workforce in its lap — and on-demand’s success depends in part on the idea that our nation won’t change.”

Venture capital and the great big Silicon Valley asshole game | PandoDaily

Any piece that starts with “Silicon Valley has an asshole problem, and it’s high time we owned up to it” is going to get attention, and Sarah Lacy’s piece did exactly that. Lacy deconstructs the forces driving behaviors in the Valley these days, and finds our industry wanting.

Killer Apps in the Gigabit Age | Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project

What might a true gigabit Internet bring? Pew asked the experts.

A Master Class In Google — Backchannel — Medium

Steven Levy is right – to understand the world today, it sure helps to understand Google. Not sure that’s possible, but one can try.

Marc Andreessen on Finance: ‘We Can Reinvent the Entire Thing’ – Bloomberg

This interview lit up the Interwebs big time last week.

You are not your browser history. — Medium

Artist Jer Thorp launches a project to visualize what can be known from browser history.

New Statesman | The most influential tech company you’ve never heard of

Spoiler: It’s Alcatel-Lucent.

The NSA and Me – First Look

Veteran NSA watcher James Bamford tells his story.

The Next Stage of Mobile Quickening: Links Get Intelligent- Searchblog

In which I argue that what Branch Metrics is doing is a good next step toward a true mobile web.

My Picks for NewCo Silicon Valley – Searchblog

NewCo SV is next week!

Living Systems and The Information First Compan- Searchblog

Companies that put information flows at the center of their businesses are winning.

My Picks for NewCo Silicon Valley

By - October 09, 2014

We’re more than halfway through the NewCo festival season, with Amsterdam, San Francisco, Detroit, New York, and London/UK behind us, and Silicon Valley, Boulder, and Los Angeles coming up.

Next up is Silicon Valley, which goes off Oct. 21 – 23, centered on the axis of Palo Alto. This year’s Silicon Valley festival is a pilot – Silicon Valley is more of an idea than an actual *place* per se – and NewCo tends to thrive in city centers. But we’ve found a great partner this year in the city of Palo Alto, which really is as close to the beating heart of the Valley as any city in the south Bay. After all, it’s where Google, Facebook, and hundreds of other game-changing companies started. So this year we’re piloting NewCo Silicon Valley in two parts – first with visits to a small number of legendary Valley company campuses, and second, with a full day of 30 or so companies based in downtown Palo Alto. Here are the companies I plan to visit this year, and why, along with my “runners up” – companies I wish I could also visit, were there two of me.

Day One – October 21

tesla10 am session: Tesla Motors – Who doesn’t want to get inside this company? Tesla is an exemplar NewCo – using an information-first approach to rethinking a huge market, mission driven, and an inspirational working environment. Runner up: eBay. I visited eBay early this year and was struck by how much its headquarters had changed, from a cube-driven IT farm feel to an open, information-sharing design that mirrored some of the best offices I’ve ever been in.

google1 pm session: Google – I’ll admit, I’ve been to Google a few times already, but every visit is fun, this one will be about the driverless car project.  Both of these sessions are already full, but there’s a waitlist, and past history shows that the waitlist does clear more often than not.

Evening: The VIP Kickoff. This is an invitation only event, but readers of this site can get in by purchasing a VIP ticket here.  The kickoff is a celebration of NewCos (we’ll have five or six presenting quick overviews of their sessions), and in each city we pick a speaker who is emblematic of the region. In Silicon Valley, I’ll be interviewing Ro Khanna, candidate for the Silicon Valley’s congressional seat. Read more about Ro here. Also speaking will be the mayor of Palo Alto. The event will be held in the offices of Survey Monkey, a fixture in Palo Alto with an awesome rooftop deck.

Day Two – October 2

xapo10 am – Xapo. I’m fascinated by the bitcoin story, and the impact many smart folks claim is coming thanks to the blockchain. Xapo founder’s and CEO promises a “bit coin deep dive” in his NewCo session, and I’m all in to learn more. Runner up:  HealthTap, Science Exchange, and Survey Monkey. Oh, and City of Palo Alto. What a time slot!

citi12 pm – Citi Ventures. Very large companies have been coming to the Valley for decades, eager to figure out how to learn and invest in innovation. Citi has embraced this idea for some time, but I’ve never seen how it’s Venture arm works, and I’m eager to learn. Runners Up: Mightybell and Cloudera.

medallia2 pm – Medallia. I am a sucker for any company that has at its core a promise of making customer service and experience better through data and UX. The Sequoia-backed Medallia does both. Runners Up: EAT Club and Fundly.

houzz4 pm – Houzz. I knew that Houzz was a NewCo when I asked my wife if she’d ever been on the site, and she responded “I live on that site. How did you find out about it?” – it was as if I had discovered a secret passion of hers. Runners up: Piazza and WePay.

Day Three – October 23

LI10 am – LinkedIn. I just love this company and it’s been a while since I’ve visited. To me, LinkedIn is the ultimate NewCo when it comes to how work is done. It’s almost full, so sign up now!

scanadu12.30 pm – Scanadu. This innovative health device company is all about the patient revolution – putting power back to teh patient. Oh, and the company is at Nasa Ames, how cool is that? Runners up: Duarte and Polyvore.

yahoo2.30 pm – Yahoo! This Valley legend has so much going on. How will it spend its Alibaba billions? Is Mayer’s turnaround working? Who wouldn’t want to get inside and see how the sausage is made?

If you haven’t experienced a NewCo yet, registration is free, and the experience is extraordinary. More than 10,000 people have experienced NewCo so far – it’s just plain fun to go and, to my mind, a far better use of time than sitting in a dull ballroom all day.

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.

A Big Day For The Internet

By - September 10, 2014

sbodsearchblog

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.

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

By - September 06, 2014
chiclets

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!

Else 9.2.14: Don’t Worry, The Robots Are Our Friends. But the People?

By - September 01, 2014
Blade-Runner_610

“All these moments…will be lost in time…”

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.

Robots With Their Heads in the Clouds (Medium)

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.

Wednesday Aug. 20, 2064 — What’s Next (Medium)

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.

Will artificial intelligence destroy humanity? Here are 5 reasons not to worry. (Vox)

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 TWITTER, FACEBOOK AND GOOGLE EXECUTIVES BE THE ARBITERS OF WHAT WE SEE AND READ? (The Intercept)

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.

The Facebook-ification of everything! Sex, authenticity and reality for the status update era (Salon)

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.

Seeing Through the Illusion: Understanding Apple’s Mastery of the Media (9-5Mac)

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 players build working hard drives (Cnet)

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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