Mobile dollars to donuts

Last Sunday’s New York Times included this article about the addictive nature of mobile apps, and the irresistible pressure to use mobile apps and services that are ever more intrusive and require ever more personal data. Specifically, Claire Cain Miller is concerned about Google Now, a new predictive search service that apparently promises to tell you what you need to know even before you thought you needed to know it.

Miller describes the arrogance of Google engineers (“…We’re just building the dream, and clearly users will have to get comfortable with it.”), and identifies a real potential problem with apps like Now: (“They give too much information to advertisers or the government, people fear, and eliminate the unpredictability of human existence.”).

Despite these serious issues, Miller finds Google Now to be first creepy, then considerate, then a trusted part of her daily life. So where’s the problem? Despite Miller’s happiness with this new tool, she still claims to be concerned that Google engineers (and presumably others in the Valley of Silicon) are not thinking enough about the “moral and privacy implications” of apps like these, and wishes that they would “fully engage with all of (technology’s) messy human implications.”

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Good luck. Google writes addictive, intrusive apps for the same reason that Krispy Kreme makes yummy donuts; they’re doing what they know how to do best in order to make lots of money for their employees and shareholders. I don’t expect that Krispy Kreme managers are that concerned either with the “messy human implications” of freshly baked donuts

It’s up to us as consumers to deal with those human implications through our actions. If you find a new app creepy, don’t use it. If you want to manage your diet, don’t eat donuts. True, this is hard and often not pleasant, but it is the most effective way to encourage those companies to change.

For all their talk about managing the world’s information and serving the greater good, Google, like other tech (and donut) companies, are public corporations driven primarily by revenues and profits, and by consumer reaction to their products. If customers don’t buy and use Google’s stuff, Google will have to stop making that stuff, and work on other (better, one hopes) stuff to please them.

Photo by Back to the Cutting Board from flickr

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Pretty accurate, except for the rabbits

An article in Slate pointed me to a site where Google reports the conclusions it has made about your age, gender, and ad categories that interest you. In my case, Google got it mostly right; it thinks I’m younger than I really am, but I can’t object to that.

The categories are mostly accurate as well (“Internet & Telecom – Mobile & Wireless – Mobile Phones – Smart Phones” of course!), but for some reason Google thinks that I’m also interested in “Pets & Animals – Pets – Rabbits & Rodents”. We had cats when I was a kid, but…

Photo by Robobobobo from flickr

A few random thoughts on SOPA & PIPA

On the day when a bunch of big Internet companies and sites are shutting down to protest proposed online piracy legislation, a few thoughts about the online piracy bills currently making their way through Congress. (I don’t have a voting representative in Congress, so writing to my representative won’t really help.)

I think the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA) in the House and “Protect IP Act” (PIPA) in the Senate are overkill, to say the least, but there is still probably a need for measures to stop piracy of intellectual property. I agree with the White House and Future of Music Coalition that there needs to be a balance between protecting IP owners and maintaining the openness and technical integrity of the Internet.

So how did we get to this point? I think there’s plenty of blame to go around, shared by media and Internet companies. It’s worth remembering in this debate that Google and Facebook, just like the big movie studios and record labels, are large commercial corporations with business models they want to protect.

The media industries, in particular the movie business, have been very slow to adapt their business models to the online world, and have resisted almost every new technology since the VCR and cassette tapes (and possibly before that). I heard this resistance from the music industry first-hand when I worked on mobile digital rights management (DRM) specifications in the mid-00’s.

I can sympathize to a degree: if you make music, movies, or books, for example, you will probably earn less from online sales than physical ones. On the other hand, as Rocky Agrawal suggests, that’s no reason to leave money on the table by not embracing more flexible distribution and sales models.

The Internet companies also share blame for deliberately misquoting Stewart Brand all these years (found the original quote here, page 49), and encouraging owners of intellectual property and content to give it away for free over the Internet. As Brand said (as well), “Information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable.”

Google and other Internet companies have not really made information free; they have merely shifted the revenue flow so it goes to them instead of to the content owners. Newspapers, for example, have always been supported by advertising. In the new digital world, the news business is still an advertising business, except the advertising revenue now flows mostly to Google instead of to the papers.

That’s my $0.02. Here’s hoping that the good old democratic process will result in an outcome that we can all more or less live with.