Google’s $1.5B Market?

While I hate to harp on Apple’s map woes twice in one day, this interesting post notes that Apple has removed traffic, transit, and street view from 1.5 billion potential customers, and stripped one or more of those features from a total of 5 billion potential customers (these numbers represent the affected populations of countries where these data have changed, not iPhone owners).

If Google were to offer even just the standard, old Google Maps for iOS, and charge a buck for it, there’s a pretty nice market. Good luck with that thermonuclear war, boys.

The first casualty of “thermonuclear war”

Steve Jobs famously quipped that he would go to “thermonuclear war” with Google, over his perception that the latter “stole” many of the concepts and design of the iPhone and iOS. While there’s little benefit to arguing that point one way or another, it appears we have our first major casualty of Apple’s war with Google on the mapping front.

If you haven’t followed the usual brouhaha that accompanies the release of a new iPhone, among the new features of the device is an in-house mapping program, that replaces Google Maps. Google Maps was included with every version of iOS, but slowly began to lag behind the version of the product shipped with Google’s own Android mobile OS, missing key features like spoken navigation and detailed reviews of local establishments.

Apple announced it would part ways with Google, and dumped Google’s You Tube video service from the iPhone while announcing it’s own mapping application. A raft of “he said, she said” emanated from both camps, with Google claiming it would gladly update it’s iOS maps application, and Apple declining. However, today it became clear that Apple has some “work to do” (as admitted by their PR folks) on the mapping application, while end users are a lot less generous. Apple’s maps have problems ranging from landmarks like the Washington Monument misplaced, to so little detail in some countries as to make them useless, to a complete absence of transit directions, a really great feature when you’re in an unfamiliar city. The navigation component even suggests a swim, or perhaps really long leap, over the Hudson River in Manhattan rather than a nearby bridge or tunnel.

With Google having reduced mapping to what amounts to a commodity, and Microsoft also a major player, one wonders what Apple hopes to gain investing hundreds of millions merely to reach parity with these two giants, all while frustrating and angering users. While Apple users are inordinately loyal to the company, history is littered with companies that got distracted, or took customers for granted, arguably including Apple during it’s “dark days” without Jobs. While there are surely some benefits to controlling all aspects of your mobile OS, bringing mapping in house looks like a high-risk proposition with correspondingly little upside.

I’m looking forward to the arrival of my own iPhone 5, and will be interested to see how Apple copes with its mapping problems. As someone who travels frequently and has come to rely on mobile mapping, I hope Apples seemingly misdirected efforts don’t literally misdirect me.

Xbox and the Gift that keeps on Giving

I have a Microsoft Xbox 360 gaming console, that I originally purchased for the occasional online game with far-flung friends. It continues to amaze me that a half-dozen of us from around the world, sporting goofy call-center operator style headphones, can chat and catch up while tossing virtual grenades at each other. The other aspect of Xbox that amazes me is that the device has evolved well beyond gaming. It can play movies, check the weather, suggest interesting songs and movies, and remains easy to use, with a fluid and intuitive interface.

Technology companies are constantly touting “partnerships” and “value-added content,” but this usually comes in the form of technical feature porn, or thinly-veiled advertisements for you to buy more, the worst offenders also appearing on a Microsoft product in the form of dozens of “crapware” applications that litter a new computer.

Where Microsoft gets it right with Xbox is that new features and capabilities are truly beneficial to the user. One gets the sense that the Xbox team is looking to make the product better for the end consumer, rather than add spec-sheet puffery, or squeeze another dime out of the consumer by loading the product with ads and junk. While most products lose utility and value over their lifespan, Xbox grows in utility with every software update. Does your product or service do the same?

Censoring Innovation

As we near the United States’ Independence Day holiday, which celebrates our country and its founding principles, I find it interesting that Google and Twitter have recently issued “takedown reports” that detail government requests for user information, and requests to remove content. These requests range from simple copyright violations (i.e. someone posting a clip from a movie) to requests related to criminal investigations, to requests to remove “politically offensive” information. Twitter, who released their first report yesterday, indicates that the US is responsible for nearly 80% of these requests, far above the second place United Kingdom, which originated a paltry 1.2% of these information requests on Twitter users. Google’s statistics tell a similar story.

It’s obviously ironic that a country priding itself on freedom and individual liberty has a government that’s 75 times more likely to demand information about its citizens than the nearest competitor. More frightening from an IT industry perspective is the threat this represents to innovation. The U.S. has a proud tradition of unknown tinkers building businesses like HP and Apple, literally from a corner of their garage. Innovation requires risk, consideration, and rule breaking, attributes that are cultivated and thrive in free and open societies. With storm clouds like constant patent wars and government censorship, I hope the 4th of July holiday reminds us that innovation truly requires freedom in order to thrive.

The Tech Worker “problem”

Yet another study released today shows that US students are shunning tech-oriented programs, with only 4.4% of US born undergraduates enrolling in science, math, technology, or engineering programs. There’s the usual hand wringing on the part of politicians and industry captains, but I find it little wonder that US youth see little opportunity for a fulfilling technology career when this news is a few inches down the newspaper page from tech titan HP laying of 27,000 employees.

Every profession has its ups and downs, but if the perception of your industry is typified by layoffs, Dilbert, and Office Space it’s little wonder future generations are wary of technology jobs. Frankly I think the industry has a marketing problem; US youth are smart enough to invest their undergraduate careers where they see the most long-term growth potential, and IT has done a poor job making a compelling case that it can provide compelling, interesting, fulfilling, and relatively stable career options for the best and brightest.

IT Security and Free Markets

Several years ago I took some flak for suggesting during an interview with the IT press that Apple’s Mac OS was not subject to the virus and malware onslaught that’s plagued Windows due primarily to a simple function of market share. At the time, Windows XP was the dominant operating system on the world’s computers, and if your goal was to co-opt computers, steal information, or cause general mayhem, you’ll obviously target the most prevalent target. Call it the Willie Sutton rule if you will; the famous bank robber, when asked why he robbed banks, responded “Because that’s there the money is.”

Apple smugly marketed this dearth of malware as a sign that Mac OS was somehow superior, when much of the discrepancy was due simply to market share. The bad guys followed the Sutton rule and went “where the money is.” Along with increasing sales of Mac OS, we’re now seeing Mac OS subject to viruses and malware, recently with a “botnet” (a group of computers that have been co-opted by a nefarious entity) that contained nearly a million Mac computers.

Any mainstream computing product, from phones to enterprise software, will be subject to security attacks when it either reaches critical mass in the market, OR is run predominantly by companies with valuable information that’s worth stealing. The old quip about “security through obscurity” rapidly dissolves if you have something worth stealing behind that veil of obscurity, as recent bank, government, and software company hack attacks have demonstrated.

This commentary isn’t meant to incite fear and loathing, but rather to suggest a rational approach to risk based on what valuables your computing infrastructure holds. Just as you need not install Fort Knox-level security at the local convenience store, you need not go overboard on IT security. Conversely, you likely wouldn’t leave the door to your home wide open, nor should you dismiss IT security outright by assuming your company is too small, or your products too “magical” or obscure. In short, there’s a logical balance that should be driven by an assessment of risk, and the market share of the computing tools you use, not marketing copy or misguided notions of obscurity.

Movie Madness

I’m somewhat shocked that in 2012, there’s still not an easy way to buy or rent movies that can play on a multitude of common consumer electronics devices. The days of walking to a local retailer to purchase music on a disc seem long past, and something I’ll likely tell my son to quips like “Dad, you’re such a dinosaur”, yet Hollywood seems to cling to this model unquestioningly.

As a college student during the 1990’s when music piracy on the internet was new and my ideas about intellectual property were rather immature, digital downloads were all the rage. After unsuccessful efforts at everything from lawsuits to music playable on only some devices (one now-discontinued class of which was ironically branded “plays for sure”) universally-playable, non-protected music is available from Amazon and Apple for a buck. I’m glad to use a convenient online store, and instantly “scratch an itch” for a new song that I can play on my cheapo MP3 player I use for jogging, iPhone, and car. In essence, the paid product is easier to find, and of known quality versus the bootleg.

Hollywood seems to miss the message that consumers not only want instant gratification, but a product they know will work with minimal fuss on everything from their iPhone to their TV, or laptop at 30,000 feet while on a flight. Hollywood’s answer is increasingly complex copy protection, that necessitates particularly software and video hardware, and makes a consumer spend hours researching formats and protection schemes versus pirated video that will likely run on his or her device of choice.

Perhaps I’m naïve, but I believe most consumers of pirated video would gladly pay for a high-quality product that was easy to find and easy to use. Browsing audio in iTunes and on Amazon is a joy, yet major studios complex licensing requirements and insistence on copy protection make the corresponding legitimate video product unwieldy. Want to watch a movie on a Friday night? Perhaps it was on Netflix on Monday, but pulled on Thursday due to a contract dispute. Interested in watching that movie you bought on iTunes? Too bad your Samsung TV won’t read the copy-protected format. Trying to use the new Hollywood “ultra violet” standard to watch a movie on your phone? Too bad there’s no supported player for your phone. It’s little wonder no one wants to buy a product with inferior features and a premium price.

While Hollywood certainly has reasons for attempting to cling to its old model, lambasting your consumers while simultaneously offering a grossly inferior product certainly looks like a tragic drama rather than a blockbuster of a strategy.

The Techie’s Car?

I enjoy following the tech news that emanates from Las Vegas during the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) each year. It’s a good way to stay on top of technology innovation, most of which is happening in the consumer space these days, and a fun way to research future tech purchases, or decide if there’s something worth waiting for in the next 6-12 months.

An interesting development this year was that an automaker, Ford, was a primary sponsor of the show, and unveiled its Fusion Energi model at the show. Aside from an awkward name, the car looks fairly decent, claims 100-MPGe (I’m still not sure what that pesky “e” means, but I’ll interpret that as “really fuel efficient”), and is loaded with technology usually reserved for higher end cars.

I current drive an Audi A4 wagon that’s exceptionally fun to drive, and also fairly advanced on the tech front, although surprisingly Ford seems to have it handily beat. I’ve wondered why it’s taken this long for automakers to integrate mobile devices beyond basic hands free functionality, since they’re now essentially computers and a broadband pipe. Ford claims your phone can do everything from provide music from a streaming service like Pandora, to allowing the car to read text messages, seeming to integrate smartphones in more than a cursory manner.

I have few doubts the Ford’s driving experience will be “uninspired” compared to my current ride, but I’ve come to the gnawingly painful realization that most of my driving is uninspired at best. I’m usually heading to a meeting, grocery run or other mundane activity, or have my 2-year old strapped in the back. Beyond that, I’m frequently on long, straight highway runs, where entertainment, technology and efficiency are more beneficial than cornering ability and acceleration. Certainly not a recipe for “spirited” driving. When I do plan on hitting the twisties, my motorcycle is usually the weapon of choice.

The success of the Prius, a goofy-looking vehicle that drives like a one-legged duck on land seems to indicate there’s a market for efficient, tech-heavy vehicles that Ford is aggressively attacking. Having grown up with Japanese and European autos being the pinnacle of quality while the Detroit Three were mocked as inferior creates some internal cognitive dissonance, but I’m ready to admit a Ford will be on my list of candidates when it comes time for my next auto.

Patrick Gray on Tech Talk with Craig Peterson

I was recently on the radio in the Boston market on the Tech Talk with Craig Peterson radio show discussing my book, the invasion of consumer technology in the enterprise, and where technology is headed in the coming years. You can download the podcast version of the radio show here, and look for my comments around the 8:45 mark.

Google, Apple, and the Permanent Beta

One of the most interesting features of Apple’s new iPhone 4GS is Siri, a voice-recognition “assistant” that is able to take colloquial spoken English commands. For example you can tell Siri to “book and appointment with John tomorrow” and “she” will check your calendar for available times. There are plenty of reviews of this feature, and that’s not the crux of this article. What is however is that Apple has introduced Siri as “beta” software: a product that the manufacturer believes is complete, but hasn’t been fully vetted and tested on a large scale.

This is nothing new in the technology world, and the preponderance of Google’s free online offerings also fall into this category despite widespread usage. Many other companies in the technology world generate consumer angst when they release what’s perceived as poorly-tested “beta” software to meet a release deadline, co-opting users as involuntary testers in the process and fixing the problems later, however they are usually selling what is billed as “complete” software rather than clearly denoting its beta status.

There’s no harm in a corporate setting to launching some “beta” initiatives, as long as the beta status is clearly spelled out to the user community, and not used as an excuse to release half-baked work for business-critical functions. No one has the resources to pursue every initiative to the fullest, but beta initiatives can test new technologies, or get you 60% of the way there on a problem that needed to be solved yesterday, bridging the gap to a more prefect solution. In short, if you’re not experimenting with a handful of beta initiatives, preferring to do everything “perfectly”, you are probably missing opportunities.