Rohan Jayasekera's thoughts on the evolving use of computers -- and the resulting effects

Occasional thoughts by Rohan Jayasekera of Toronto, Canada.

My Photo
Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I've been online since 1971 and I like to smoothe the way for everyone else. Among other things I co-founded Sympatico, the world's first easy-to-use Internet service (and Canada's largest).

View Rohan Jayasekera's profile on LinkedIn Rohan Jayasekera's Facebook profile twitter / RohanSJ
Subscribe in a reader

Or enter your email address:

Powered by FeedBlitz

Friday, December 18, 2009

Hardware vendors get elbowed aside

Hardware and software people have different areas of expertise.  Obvious, right?  Not at hardware companies, which as long as I can remember have tended to hire electrical engineers to write their software.  Electrical engineers tend to hire other electrical engineers even when that's not the best fit, and the dismal results are everywhere.

Things are finally changing.  But not because of any reform at the traditional hardware companies.

One of the reasons that Apple has been so successful is that it's good at both hardware and software, one of the relatively few such companies.  By controlling both they can assure a good user experience.  But they no longer build the devices themselves; that's long been done by contract manufacturers who have the facilities and expertise to crank out quality hardware at a low price, built to the specifications of their customers.

Contract manufacturers have gradually become better and better at not just the manufacturing but the design, and many have become original design manufacturers (ODMs) who design and manufacture their own products and merely have them branded and sold by companies with a brand presence.  For instance, the T-Mobile MDA Vario and O2 Xda Mini Pro phones, which were sold by carriers T-Mobile and O2 respectively, were both the same phone, one designed and built by Taiwan's HTC Corporation.  While more recently HTC has also been selling products under its own name, the ODM phenomenon continues.

So now anyone with enough budget can become a hardware company.  Just tell an ODM what the machine needs to do, and they'll design and build it for you to sell under your own brand.

Rumour has it that Google will be selling its own phones and netbooks, getting ODMs to design and build the devices to Google's requirements.

Why would Google feel the need to do this?

Because the existing phone and netbook vendors are not up to the task.  They're hardware companies.  Google is a software and services company.

Hardware companies, even when they have an operating system supplied to them by software people, rarely put out decent products from the user's standpoint.  I won't use a laptop that isn't a ThinkPad or a MacBook (both created by companies that are longstanding hardware and software companies).  And the iPod pushed aside the MP3 players that were already on the market from hardware companies.

Where laptops have less than adequate usability, they have more than adequate power.  Laptops are still being sold on the basis of "more power" that hardly anyone needs.  Netbooks are one response.  The traditional PC vendors, and their high-cost suppliers Intel and Microsoft, have been mocking netbooks to try to stop people from buying them.

Google makes more money when more people are using the Internet, so anything that interferes with Internet use is something it wants to fix.  If Google does sell a phone, it will be because it's not satisfied with the software side of all the Android-based phones currently hitting the market.  And if Google does sell a netbook, it will be because the traditional hardware vendors are unwilling and/or unable to sell computers that are simple and cheap, with "simple" requiring that there be no user-visible operating system via something like Android or Google Chrome OS.

I expect to see more software and services vendors creating their own hardware products.  I want even my television set to come from a software company.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

140 characters to groupthink

I’m on Twitter a fair bit these days, but lately I’ve been getting quite frustrated by the number of occasions on which I don’t connect properly with one or more other people:  there are misunderstandings and miscommunications and crossed signals.  It seems to me that the common element among these occasions is some level of disagreement. UPDATE: Or attempts at humour.

In the various “echo chambers”, where people retweet each other, send each other links supporting their common beliefs, and support each other against common enemies, 140 characters is enough.  In contrast, delving into differences of fact or interpretation or opinion generally requires more space than that.  So Twitter sucks for any kind of meaningful discussion.

Furthermore, Twitter makes it easy to stick with members of your own tribe and nobody else.  Groupthink forms easily when nobody outside the group is present, and then any form of negativity or skepticism or disagreement is frowned on.  Meanwhile, existing beliefs common to the group get plenty of reinforcement.

On Twitter, how often does anyone’s mind get changed about anything?  I suspect that the answer is “not very often”.

My March 2007 blog post about Twitter, Reduced barriers to entry for ... narcissism!, was off the mark (I don’t mind admitting it since so many others were wrong too).  Perhaps the real downside of Twitter is that it contributes not to narcissism but to rigidity.  Mob psychology among people who aren’t even in the same place; just what the world needs.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Google, privacy, evil, and advertising

I haven’t posted anything here for a long time. I did once write a post entitled Blogging infrequently is a feature, not a bug, but by “infrequently” I didn’t mean such a gap!

Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, caused a flap this week by responding to a privacy concern with “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

I have a few comments.

Essentially all of Google’s revenue comes from targeted advertising. If you use Google’s services, it collects as much as information as it can about you in order to better target the ads that it serves you. If targeted advertising isn’t evil, and if the information collected is used only for that purpose, it isn’t evil either, right?  That’s how Google sees it.

Many people are in fact totally fine with having no privacy, especially those who indulge their exhibitionistic tendencies via Facebook and Twitter and location-sharing services such as Foursquare. That group consists mostly of younger people, and I would guess that some observers expect their attitude to dominate over time, i.e. it’s just a matter of waiting for the old fogies to become outnumbered and perhaps not realize what’s happening in the meantime (i.e. the frog in the slowly heating water).

I don’t believe that’s what lies ahead. According to Socionomics, which greatly influences how I view many things, we’ve been living through a very unusual period in history in which optimism and trust have been running at much higher levels than usual. If that period is in the process of ending, as I believe it is, we can expect a loss of confidence that it is safe to trust other people and companies with information about us that we wouldn’t necessarily want to be public knowledge. Not just the highly sensitive stuff that we generally manage to keep under wraps, but even some information that privacy-oblivious Googlers would think harmless.

Facebook has recently also been hit with privacy concerns, and although they haven’t done the best job of dealing with them to date, they’re continuing to respond and I believe can achieve an acceptable middle ground.

But Facebook and Google are in different revenue situations. Although Facebook too is largely dependent on ad revenue, it’s also going after other revenue that should in time reduce that dependence. Google also has non-ad revenue, in particular the growing Google Apps for Business, but relatively speaking the dependence is quite different. For Facebook, privacy is a pain in the ass but one that can be accommodated sufficiently to mollify users, while for Google, privacy is an enemy to be overcome.

Then there’s the dependence of advertising on the general economy. And then there’s what I believe is a long-term decline in advertising as the nature of customer engagement changes in a more connected world. What if advertising declines slowly over time, plus is hit across the board in a worsening economy, plus even its least-vulnerable spot of highly targeted advertising is hit by privacy concerns?

I understand why Eric Schmidt would like to think that privacy is in the past, because privacy is a major threat to Google. I think that belief is incorrect.

UPDATE added the following day:  I forgot to mention one point I’d intended to make:  advertising is widely seen as slightly on the evil side of the evil-good spectrum – and when the social mood (to use the socionomic term) is down, any perception of evilness gets magnified in the eyes of the public.