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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”:
Funny 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.
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.