Content and services

Google has a problem

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 02/28/2005 - 20:59

Google has wads of cash, and has to spend it on something. So the company has been experimenting with Orkut, a "social software" platform similar to other services like LinkedIn. It has also started offering Google Maps, which now works with more browsers. Unlike Mapquest and some other similar services, Google Maps is fast and produces legible maps. I've always found Mapquest an exercise in frustration; not only are the maps fuzzy and hard to read, the zooming feature is extremely slow.

Google has also rolled out a Local feature that tries to compensate for the otherwise completely useless search for local information. It's nicely done, and seems to be borrowing from Snap and other search engines that actually return inbound link information, and of course, it's tied to Google's map feature. But it seems to aggregate from a rather large area, and many of the inbound links seem to come from link farms, meaning the value of the ranking is suspect. But my guess is that Google has larger fish to fry. By providing customized local searches, Google can continue to vacuum up ad dollars from smaller and smaller companies who know they will get better placement because of the local feature. Will it be worth it? Time will tell.

Another little know Google feature which is potentially a privacy problem is Google's phone number lookup. Type in your phone number on the Google search page, and Google will return your street address. Handy, or great for stalkers and psychopaths who want to find out where you live? Note that you can opt out that.

It will be interesting to see where Google will be in five years. Google is starting to look an awful lot like Microsoft--the market leader with a huge audience, and so much money it can offer virtually any online service quicker and better than competitors. But Microsoft's day has passed, and Google may wane much more quickly.

"Virtual" sales a big business

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 01/24/2005 - 11:06

In my talks to community leaders, I talk about the ability to sell goods and services that are, literally, weightless, via the Internet. I get a lot of blank stares, as some folks still have trouble understanding the revolution in business.

The latest news comes from Apple, which reports it sells more than one million songs PER DAY from its online music store, or nearly half a billion songs per year.

Remember that in the distant past, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, music was pretty heavy. It came in the form of 12" LP records, then tape cassettes, and then CDs. The very same product that used to weigh nearly a pound, in the form of those old records, is now delivered to us as a stream of electrons, radio waves, and/or photons. Same music--better, actually, since the digital recordings don't wear out or suffer tape breakages.

It's a new world, and in every state and in many communities, some businesspeople and entrepreneurs have already made the switch. But what about the rest of your businesses? How are your economic development programs preparing them to boost their business by going online?

SMS and youth

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 01/10/2005 - 08:56

An article in the Roanoke Times yesterday (a NY Times reprint) discussed the phenomenal rise of SMS, or Short Message System. SMS, more often called "text messaging," is the cellphone service that lets you send short text messages on your cellphone.

The article was irritating because it implied that because most SMS users are twenty-something or younger, there must be something wrong with older people. The article, without any data to support the conclusion, said that older people were "more comfortable" with the telephone, implying we old geezers just could not get with the new technology.

I've seen a lot of dumb technology reporting, but this article was one of the dumbest. In conversations I've had with "youngsters" who are SMS fanatics, the only they could tell me they used it for was when they were bored. One twenty-something businessperson told me how great it was because when he was in meetings, he could send messages to his friends. The article also said that SMS was popular because you could use it when you were bored.

So here is the "old geezer," "not comfortable with technology" take on this: when I'm in a meeting, I'm trying to pay attention and contribute to the discussion, rather than text messaging about what I plan to have for lunch. That's not "uncomfortable with technology," that's called being mature and responsible.

The article implied that using the phone was somehow a quaint and old-fashioned mode of communication. No, it's fast and efficient. When I have something to say to someone, it's a lot quicker to pick up the phone than to try to type on a 12 button keyboard the size of my thumb. That's not old-fashioned, it's just sensible.

One unfortunate aspect of this technology revolution we are in is that there is this unsubstantiated belief that youth know more about technology than anyone else. I hear it almost every day. While it is true most young people have a higher comfort level with some of this stuff, the fact that a nineteen year old uses it does not inherently make it good or mean that everyone should use it. Let's not throw commonsense out the window with the crank telephones and VCRs.

More life without Google

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 01/07/2005 - 07:45

A colleague sent me a link to another up and coming search engine called Vivisimo. It's a bit different than Snap, which I wrote about yesterday, but like Snap, it handles search results in a way that is genuinely useful, as compared to the typical "jillions of hits" Google result.

Vivisimo seems to do two things very well. First, it tries to identify the most likely results, rather than just returning all of them. Snap and Vivisimo both seem to give you about the same number results on a query, which is to say, many fewer than Google, and those returned are of higher quality.

Vivisimo also clusters results, which is really neat. A little expandable outline appears on the left, and clicking various branches of the tree returns subsets of the total set of results. It does this by looking at related words that do not appear in your query. You have to try it to appreciate it, but once you try it, I think you'll see what an improvement it is over Google.

Open Source software and the iPod

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 01/06/2005 - 11:56

In a brilliant marriage of a free Open Source piece of software and the iPod, medical radiologists around the world are using iPods to store the huge image files generated by CT and other kinds of scans and x-rays. Eweek has the story of a frustrated radiologist who helped develop the free OsiriX software that allows radiologists to store and manipulate the images on the iPod.

Life without Google

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 01/06/2005 - 11:03

Can anyone imagine life without Google? More than any other Internet service, with the possible exception of email, the availability of Google has become a kind of icon for the changes the Internet has brought over the past ten years. It's even become a verb.

But Google has not changed much since it's start. And over the past year, I've become frustrated with Google results. Too often, a query returns tens or even hundreds of thousands of results. After the second page, you realize most of them have nothing to do with your query. Many other queries return junk starting on the first page; enter the name and state of virtually any town in the U.S., and what you usually get on the first couple of pages is mostly junk--bargain basement hotel room resellers running link farms so that they show up first.

Google as a company, as far as I can tell, has done only two things: they developed a pretty good search engine about six years ago, and figured out how to make Internet ads work. But on the search engine side, they don't seem to have done much since the company started.

I've looked a a bunch of competitors, and as frustrating as Google is much of the time, it's always been better than most of the alternatives. Until now. You might want to bookmark this site and try it a few times:

www.snap.com

Snap is doing things entirely differently than Google. Snap queries that I've compared with Google results look very promising. Snap, in my limited trials, has typically returned many fewer results that are much more relevant. Snap also offers you easy ways to resort the results according to different criteria, including what other people have been looking at, which can be both interesting and useful.

Snap is the first search engine that I've thought could dethrone Google. And it could happen quickly. Give it a try.

Music sales up

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 01/05/2005 - 11:17

The NY Times (reg. required) has a short story on the music industry. Music sales are up 1.6% this past year, for the first time in four years.

What happened? Apple legitimized the online music market with it's highly successful iTunes Music Store, and a horde of competing online music services rushed in to give consumers a wide array of choices. Music sales went up.

The music industry, which fought online music sales for years, and still is, actually, has been dead wrong. The music conglomerates have claimed that illegal online music sales were ruining the business, and instead of innovating, the music business ran to Congress to halt innovation with awful legislation like the DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act).

But Apple and other innovative companies weren't buying it, and found a way to give consumers what they wanted--affordable and convenient online music stores.

The music industry still has massive problems; artists still get too little of the royalty payments, and record companies are still charging the online stores the same fees they charged distributors for CDs, even though record company costs are now essentially zero.

But ordinary consumers have won, in a small way. Broadband (music downloads really don't work over dialup) brought music lovers increased choice in the marketplace, and allowed a host of new music companies to enter the marketplace and increase competition and choice.

Broadband is working.

AOL dumps broadband services

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 11/12/2004 - 11:56

AOL has announced that it is dumping its broadband customers in nine states. AOL has been in decline for years, and this is one more indication that the company is completely adrift. AOL's foray into broadband service was a mystery to me in the first place, since they had to resell access purchased wholesale from other providers.

I don't think AOL has ever really understood what it is about. For too long, it thought it was an access company because people bought AOL accounts to get Internet access. But I could told them that was doomed in 1997, if they had wanted to listen. Dial-up is over--growth in dialup peaked at least two years ago, and the DSL, cable, and other broadband providers have been taking AOL's customers since then.

AOL, in my mind, has always been a content company, but I don't think AOL has ever really embraced that as a strategy. They had it too easy for too long, with the Internet build-up dumping buckets of cash into their coffers while the Internet was hot. The problem for AOL has always been that it never was and still is not an Internet access provider. They've always maintained their own personal coccoon for users that was designed and developed long before the Internet took off, and they've never figured out an exit strategy. AOL's Web browser used to drive Web designers nuts because it was so bad--bad because AOL squeezed Internet data through an AOL sieve and still does. No one else does that anymore.

For certain kinds of users, AOL provides a good environment. They've done a nice job of providing a family-friendly interface, as one example. But unless they can finally let go of their legacy systems and reinvent themselves, the company will slowly go out of business.

MPAA to sue movie downloaders

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 11/05/2004 - 08:46

The MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) has decided to sue grandmothers and fourteen year old kids who are allegedly downloading bootleg copies of movies.

Like the music industry attempts at litigation, it accomplished little except prove the stupidity of these movie execs. When "millions" of people are trying to watch your movies, that's called a market opportunity, not a field day for lawyers.

If you haven't heard much about the evils of music sharing lately, it's because Apple (not a music company) is making the music industry millions of dollars through Apple's online music store. Competitors with similar legal music download services are also stuffing millions into the pockets of music company execs.

On the artist side, some bands and musicians now don't bother to even sign a recording contract. Instead, they market their music online, burn their own CDs and sell them online and at concerts, and are free of the tyranny of the music industry.

The movie industry is going through the same convolutions. The Blair Witch Project, an enormously profitable movie, was shot with cheap cameras and edited and produced on some Macintosh computers--no expensive movie industry post-production needed. Apple's Final Cut Pro is now being used to edit and produce big screen movies--changing the entire post production process that used to be dominated by high-priced Hollywood firms. The new technologies are putting much more control in the hands of musicians, directors, and writers--a good thing, unless you are an exec at one of the old Manufacturing Economy businesses that thinking sueing customers is great public relations.

Earthlink adds VoIP services

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 10/05/2004 - 08:23

Earthlink faces the same problem AOL is already struggling with--a shrinking market for dial access to the Internet. Earthlink has been staying in the black by slashing customer support and by providing barebones access, as opposed to AOL's tedious, ad-laden interface.

Earthlink has a lot of customers like me, who need occasional dial access from the road, and don't want the dreck AOL ladles out along with it. But I find I need to dial through Earthlink less and less as hotspots, especially in hotels, become more common. As I've written previously, I and many other travelers now pick hotels based on the availability of broadband, not on the kind of shampoo you find in the bathroom.

AOL has tried to keep its customers by extortion--for example, you can't forward your AOL email to another account, which makes it much more difficult to quit AOL if you have used your AOL email address for a long time. AOL is basically saying to customers, "Leave us and your life will be miserable while all your email goes missing for a while." Most other email account providers let you forward your mail.

But back to Earthlink, which is now providing limited VoIP services if you have an Earthlink broadband account. It's a clever move, because the appeal of free calling (at least to some of your friends and family) will help sell the access part.

We're going to see more bundling of services--the phone companies are trying to win back some broadband customers by bundling local, long distance, and broadband, and the appeal, aside from saving a little money, is that you potentially go to one bill from three. In theory, you should also be able to get better service and customer support (in theory).

The changing shape of the news

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 09/24/2004 - 08:51

Andrew Sullivan, in Time magazine, illustrates perfectly the changing landscape of writing, journalism, and more generally, the power of the Web that we now all have in our hands. Here is the most instructive quote from the article.

"Ten years ago I edited a money-losing magazine, The New Republic, which had 100,000 subscribers. Two weeks ago on my four-year-old blog, AndrewSullivan.com, I had 100,000 readers in one day alone. After four years of blogging, I haven't lost a cent and have eked out a small salary. And I don't even have an editor! Technology did this. And it's a big deal most people have yet to understand."

Not all of us are going to be bloggers. The really successful ones have a passion for something and are also great writers. But we are all users of content, and these new information channels, applied on a community level, will get good and useful information to us about our communities quickly and easily.

We also need to make sure that our children continue to learn the difference between truth and falsehoods, the difference between sarcasm and thoughtful commentary, and the difference between typing and writing (hat tip to Truman Capote). These are exciting times, and we still have much to do, but the technology, used appropriately, can make our communities truly great places.

Record companies making a fortune

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 09/23/2004 - 14:23

According to this article in the UK Independent, the record companies are making a killing from online music sales. The paper says that of the average ninety-nine cent cost of a downloaded song, the record companies are taking sixty-two cents, or apparently almost double what they made on a CD. Not only that, their distribution costs have fallen to virtually zero.

Meanwhile, the same record companies have been prosecuting grandmothers and 14 year olds, claiming online music was killing the business.

The online stores are making a paltry four cents, which will cause most of them to go out of business, says the paper. And the artists? Well, apparently the artists, who actually create the product, aren't making a penny more. That's why many artists, like this one, don't even bother to sigh with a record company. They cut their own CDs, make a lot of live appearances, and sell their CDs online and at their concerts. It's a living, apparently. Jah Works has been around since at least '96.

For music lovers, as more bands forgo the record scene, it's likely more music with more variety will be available over the long term.

MIT invents community network

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 09/03/2004 - 08:58

Apparently at least one faculty member at MIT has been off the 'net entirely for the past twenty years. This story discusses Professor Keith Hampton's iNeighbor network.

Distributed by the New York Times New Service, apparently both MIT and the Times failed to do even a single Google search for "community network," which would have shown that there is not only a well-established national organization focused on online communities of place (the Association For Community Networking), but also hundreds of thriving local community network projects, some of them more than a decade old.

The article has the look and feel of a press release; apparently the Times no longer bothers to do any research or get second opinions. It's almost laughable in parts, especially where someone describes in glowing terms how they found a tennis partner online. This is news? Community networks have been supporting local social networking since the eighties.

Design and community portals

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 09/01/2004 - 09:31

Community portals should be clean, simple, and easy to use. Jakob Nielsen, one of the top Web usability experts in the country, has a new column out on the importance of good, usable Web sites.

I see too many community portals that make the same mistakes Nielsen outlines.

Your community portal is how the rest of the world learns about your community. You want to put your best foot forward, so that you attract Knowledge Economy businesses and entrepreneurs who will want your broadband and your great quality of life. If your community Web sites are the very best they can be, you are missing a lot of economic development prospects. Disclaimer: Design Nine helps communities design and develop high quality community and local government portals.

Cong. Boucher talks about the Induce Act

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 08/10/2004 - 15:09

Congressman Rick Boucher (D, Virginia) represents southwest Virginia, including Blacksburg. Boucher is guest-hosting law professor Lawrence Lessig's blog this week, and there is a cogent and fascinating discussion of the Induce Act. The Induce Act would build on the already questionable DCMA law to make it more difficult (in theory) to pirate digital media.

The Induce Act has already created a firestorm of criticism for its overbroad attempt to stifle piracy by making it illegal to introduct any new technology or device that MIGHT be used for illegal sharing. In other words, as it has been pointed out, the iPod and indeed, all MP3 players would be illegal. Boucher is co-sponsor of a bill that would try to hold back the Induce tide.

Most spam sites are in China

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 07/02/2004 - 09:59

The Register reports that China continues to be the world's primary source of spam Web sites--hosting the Web sites that show up in all that email spam. The U.S. continues to be the source of most email spam.

Why China if most spammers are in the United States? It's getting harder and harder to find a U.S. based Web hosting firm that wants the headaches associated with the complaints and problems associated with spam Web sites. China, half a world a way and run by a communist government that tends to turn a blind eye towards things like respecting copyrights and other niceties of the free world, is happy to take spammers' money for hosting the sites.

Is Google going to pop?

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 04/30/2004 - 10:02

The San Francisco Chronicle is one of many papers covering the impending Google IPO. I've written extensively on Google, and I still expect the stock to be grossly overpriced, because Google is overrated. Not as a search service, but as a company. Google's two recent forays into other services, the controversial Gmail and the quickly aborted Friendster-style social software indicates that the company has much work to do. It is almost beyond belief that the company thought Gmail's instrusive scanning of private email would not cause protest, but apparently they did. Google's Friendster imitation lasted all of two weeks and disappeared quickly because of massive security holes, which indicates Google is not immune to a common disease in the IT industry--the "we don't need to test our software because we got it right the first time" syndrome.

Finally, Google does not have a monopoly on good results from a search engine. Try Gigablast. The Google IPO could encourage investors to free up cash to fuel innovation in the IT industry, which has been starved for cash since the dot-com bubble burst. That would be a good thing. But it could also set off a new round of fanciful businesses based on the same arrogance and hubris that created the last bubble.

Gigablast: Better than Google?

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 04/26/2004 - 07:11

Just as Google is finally going to sell stock to the public, yet another search engine, called Gigablast, has appeared, with a name that is at least partly a sly pun (google is a '1' with a hundred zeroes after it; 'giga' is a billion).

Gigablast appears to have a different set of algorithms than Google, and a few queries I tried seemed to offer slightly better results, with fewer extraneous hits. As always, competition is a good thing, especially with Google's strategy of late of trying to tie their own content to search results--not a good thing fr

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