Friday, June 18, 2010

Phone-based Computing

Kevin Tofel at Gigaom laments that the Recipe for a Successful Smartphone is getting Bland. He talks about how every new "superphone" being released today is only evolutionary and not revolutionary. He wonders what the next big telephone innovation will be.

My answer: phone-based computing. Basically, your phone becomes your computer.

You want to use a desktop PC? You slide your phone into a dock on your desk. The dock is connected to a monitor and a keyboard. Voila! You have a desktop PC. You want to use a tablet? Just slide your phone into the slot provided in a dumb tablet-sized frame. There is your tablet. Hell, your phone will even be your TV! Just slide it into the dock that is connected to your TV and stream content from Google TV to the screen.

Today’s “superphones” have as much computing power as the yet-to-be-released Chrome-based tablets. So, there is no reason why we can’t have phone-based computing in the near future.

PS: Incidentally, I blogged about this idea back in Oct 2005, long before we ever heard rumors of the first iPhone.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Notes from the Future - Google Traffic

Disclaimer: Google Traffic is not a real product yet. In my "Notes from the Future" series, I like to describe imaginary innovative products from the future.


Google Traffic is Google's latest innovation that promises to change the world. It is a traffic light system built and managed by Google. It uses the most sophisticated traffic routing algorithm to manage the flow of traffic in dozens of cities, big and small, around the US. The results have been so encouraging in these American cities, it is estimated that hundreds of cities around the world will install Google Traffic within the year.

The main feature making this system so efficient is the traffic sensing cameras installed all over the city which provide constant feedback about the traffic conditions to the main traffic management system. For example, if a bunch of cars are moving along a single road, in a single direction, towards an idle intersection, and there are not many cars coming from any other direction to the intersection, the system learns about this long before the cars reach the intersection. It turns the right lights green so that the cars can pass through the intersection without stopping. This is just a simplistic example. In reality, the system can handle much more complex traffic patterns. The system is smart enough to calculate such parameters as the number of cars moving towards an intersection, the number of cars already waiting at the intersection, the average wait times, etc. It uses this information to ensure that there is minimum average wait time for the cars, minimum fuel burnt waiting and minimum time spent commuting to places.

Studies of people's commutes in cities with Google Traffic have shown an average of 3% - 9% decrease in travel times. More tellingly, the cities have shown an average of 2.5% - 5.5% month on month decrease in gasoline sales compared to the months prior to the Google Traffic installation. A clear sign that Google Traffic is delivering useful results. In the coming months and years, the system is expected to get smarter as it learns a city's traffic patterns, the areas and times of maximum and minimum traffic, the directions of traffic flow at different times of the day, and days of the week, etc. And of course, Google has its vaunted team of PhDs working on making the system more and more efficient.

So, what's in it for Google? Advertisement, of course. Google has started to buy up space on thousands and thousands of electronic bill boards in cities where Google Traffic is installed. The traffic system provides a valuable input to Google for targeting display ads in places where it can ensure maximum attention from passing commuters. Google changes these ads based on the traffic density in the area, the time of day, day of week, seasonal patterns, etc. Google even uses information from users of Google Latitude and Google Navigation who have opted-in to share information about themselves, their interests, and their locations with Google to target bill-board ads at them when they pass by. There is the story of a Google engineer who proposed to his girlfriend this way during the initial beta testing of Google Traffic in Mountain View, California.

Incidentally, users of Google Latitude and Google Navigation also form an input to the Google Traffic system, along with the roadside cameras. In a beautiful example of a reinforcing positive feedback loop, Google Traffic provides extremely accurate traffic information to Google Maps and Google Navigation. And in a major enhancement to Google Maps, the roadside cameras enable real time live streamed video on Street View.

Google Maps Contact Search

Contact Search in Google Maps will most probably be a future enhancement to Google Maps, especially the mobile version. As of now, it's only a feature in my own imagination.

Here's how the Google Maps Contact Search will work:

When you are on the Google Maps screen, just type 'C'. A search box will pop-up. Start typing in the name of one of your contacts in the box. Google will suggest names from your address book. Select a name and hit enter. Google will show the contact on your map in one or more of the following ways:

1. Display the contact's current location if contact has enabled Google Latitude sharing with you.

2. If you have the addresses for the contact in your address book, those addresses will be shown on the map too.

3. If you are using a phone that has Google Navigation installed on it, you can just tap on one of the contact points on the map and have yourself routed to that spot immediately.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Thirteen Tips for New Bloggers

Here are thirteen tips I sent a friend who has just started blogging this year. In no particular order:

  1. Adding pictures to the posts always makes them look better. Advice I hardly follow myself, but admire in others. Most professional bloggers add at least one picture to every post. They search online for copyright-free pictures to post. (Free pictures on Flickr!). It is good practice (and karma!) to mention the origin of the pictures in the footnote. Add other media like music, voice (podcasts!) and video - even better. If you are the original maker of these other media - that's the best!
  2. Subtle wording which encourages readers to comment is also good. This could be as simple as asking a question. I had one friend who often ended her posts with a question. She had a lot of participation.
  3. Blogs are a more casual medium. So, the tone of writing should be conversational, active as opposed to passive, first and second person as opposed to third person. Many successful bloggers make you feel like you are engaged in a friendly, personal dialog with them.
  4. General rule of online writing: avoid walls of text a.k.a. long running paragraphs. Breaking text into smaller paragraphs is always nice - even smaller than you would have in printed pages. Also, focus on just one topic per post and may be 2-3 main points about that topic. If you have more to say, you can always do another post. TL;DR (too long; didn't read) is a new and popular acronym online.
  5. Some bloggers have a popular theme or practice to which they come back regularly. Like, post on a certain topic every Friday. Or, answer reader questions on Saturdays in a post of its own. Some ideas for you: weekly recipes / seasonal recipes, first Monday on a professional topic, second Saturday post for kids, etc. Do enough posts on a single theme and you will end up with a neat little collection of essays you could publish as a book!
  6. Occasionally, do a post with links to interesting things you read / saw online. Not too much text. Just a set of 5-6 links. This is a way to share your reading material with your users.
  7. As you continue blogging, during the course of the day you will come across many topics which you think would make a good post. I immediately send myself a short email about the topic so that I don't forget. Later, I turn that into a post. Sometimes, if I am not ready to publish immediately, I will make up a draft and keep it saved. Then, I come back to it again and again, gradually adding more material until I am ready to publish. This happens rarely though - I am a one-sitting writer, even if it takes me all night.
  8. Be careful and conscious about revealing personal information. There are weirdos and stalkers out there. One day you might post an opinion someone doesn't like. They will read your entire blog from beginning to end, leave nasty comments, etc. Don't take it personally. On the other hand, talking about your personal passions and interests will connect you to many people who share the same. Those days can be fun.
  9. Another weird thing: your regular readers get to know you very well, while they remain total strangers to you. If you ever interact with them, they will talk to you as if they are old friends and you will feel somewhat uncomfortable. I guess that is how celebrities feel. But then, you might be familiar with being a celebrity already! :-)
  10. Participate in other blogs and discussion boards, leave comments. Link to other blogs, quote from other blogs. You will bring the authors and readers of those blogs to yours. I guess this is not much different from Tweets and re-Tweets.
  11. Some people do occasional guest posts. They invite a friend or acquaintance or expert to write a post for their blog, covering the same or related subject.
  12. Not to sound sexist, but for some reason, topics of interest to women bring lots of readers and comments.
  13. Keep the title line of the posts simple and straight-forward. They should give a good idea what the post is about. This is especially important because search engines like Google give a lot of importance to the words in the title and the top few lines of the post. So, be sure to mention the topic of the post in the title line and at least a couple of times in the first 5 lines.

Bonus: If your blogging tool does not already provide reports of visitor statistics, be sure to use free tools like Sitemeter and Google Analytics.

Do you, dear reader, have any other tips for new bloggers?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Google Goes Do or Die in China

There was some major news from Google today: Google will stop censoring search results in China, even if it means the death of Google in China.

They have not quite turned off the censor switch yet. An image search for Tiananmen Square on Google.cn still shows censored results, as compared to the same search on Google.com.

But Google has declared unequivocally that they will no longer censor in China, as written by David Drummond, Google's Chief Legal Officer:
We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.

What prompted this change?
Google discovered that in mid-December of 2009, there was a highly sophisticated cyber attack on Google's infrastructure, whose sole purpose was to hack into the GMail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Common sense might tell us that these attacks must have come from the Chinese government. After all, who else would specifically target only the Chinese human rights activists? But Google must have information which strongly suggests that the Chinese government perpetrated this attack. That is why Google sees no point in cooperating with the Chinese government any more and censoring search results. If the attack had come from any other source, why would Google pick a fight with the Chinese government?

It should come as no surprise to Google that it came down to this. If you decide to play with the dragon, prepare to have your hand burnt one day or the other. But if a burnt hand is what it takes for Google to stop censoring search results in China, so be it. This is a welcome development.

However, a few questions persist: When will Google stop censoring in other countries? Will it take a cyber attack by the government of a country for Google to stop censoring in that country? What about not censoring because it's the right thing to do? Because that is what freedom of speech is all about?

Google does different levels of censorship in different countries. Yes, Google censors in India also.

There are few forums where the average Indian can participate in political discourse. The political blogosphere in India is still fledgling. Indians have very few alternative sources for news, other than the mainstream media. As such, it is extremely important that Indians have uncensored access to online discussion boards, mailing lists and blogs. The Indian public is still at the beginning stages of Internet connectivity. It is very disappointing that Google agrees to censorship of information on its web properties in India at this initial stage of the Indian Internet infancy. The irony is that, unlike in China, Google need not even die in India if it refuses to censor itself. It will have the support of the majority of the Indian public and will be hailed as a hero.

Update on 1/13/2010: Lots of interesting updates in this Arstechnica article. Most interesting among them:
Why only subject lines? If the attackers could get access to subject lines, why couldn't they access entire e-mails? Apparently because the hackers infiltrated automated systems set up to provide such information to law enforcement in the US and elsewhere. (Getting access to the contents of e-mail messages is harder under US law than getting access to addresses, subject lines, etc, which are considered to be on the "outside of the envelope" and subject to pen register searches).

According to a Macworld source, "Right before Christmas, it was, 'Holy s—, this malware is accessing the internal intercept [systems].'" Later, Google cofounder Larry Page supervised a Christmas Eve meeting on the security breach.

Fun fact: Google's security team managed to penetrate one of the servers being used by the attackers, which was how the full extent of the attack—more than 30 companies—was revealed.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Google - The Hidden Social Giant

Gigaom's Liz Gannes has written an interesting piece today about Google’s Approach to Social for 2010.

Many popular tech writers are very bullish about Facebook in comparison to Google, when it comes to the social web. The belief is that, in the long run, Facebook will beat Google due to the valuable social information it has got about millions of users around the world. Their theory is that Google is only good at the informational web, the one about indexing online info and making it easily accessible. The more lucrative and more valuable social web, they say, belongs to Facebook. Or so the theory goes. Well, there's many a slip between a theory and reality.

At first glance, the popular tech writers' theory might appear to be true. Google spends a lot of resources to index all kinds of content on the Internet. Facebook spends a lot of resources to collect information about your friends. When it is time to purchase a product or try a new restaurant or watch a movie, will you give more importance to an anonymous review you discovered through a Google search or the recommendation of a friend you know and trust? Does the information web have more value or the social web?

At first glance, Google is the place where you go to search for things. Facebook is the place where you formally identify certain people as your friends, you share your status messages with them, perhaps even some photos and may be invitation to events. And Facebook has been seeing spectacular growth to its user population in recent years and months. So, it's easy to believe that when it comes to all things social, Facebook is "where it's all at".

I invite you to take a second, more deeper look. In no particular order, this is what a sample of a second look shows us:
  • Facebook might know about your occasional mood of the moment through your status message or when a relationship starts / ends. But Google knows about a lot of things that happened in between - from the places you searched to go on your first few dates to the relationship advice you sought via Google.
  • Facebook might know about those itty-bitty messages you write each other on your walls, but Google has your entire emails and transcripts of your chats. Not only with people you formally designate as friends, but also with people you don't label as friends, with colleagues, former / current / prospective employers, with strangers you might have briefly communicated with... just anybody and everybody to whom you sent an email from your GMail account.
  • You might send an invitation to your friends for a day trip from Facebook, but Google knows all about it when each and every one of the trip group looked up directions on Google Maps.
  • If you are a GMail user, I bet your GMail address book is much bigger than your Facebook friends list. Google could use just the address books of all GMail users and easily draw threads connecting the majority of the world's online population.
  • Do you use Google Calendar either on the desktop or via your smartphone? Google knows a lot about the events in your life - big and small - than Facebook ever would know.
  • Are you a Google Voice users? Great! Google knows about the people you call or sms too - whether they are your friends or not. Last I heard, Facebook had no idea about your phone calls.
  • Do you use apps like Google Docs or Google Wave to collaborate with friends and colleagues? Google knows all the details about your collaboration projects.
I could list a lot more scenarios where Google has Facebook beat hands down when it comes to information about your social circle and yourself. Google was thinking of online social links when Facebook was still a baccha (Hindi word for child). Remember how GMail was launched? The concept of one person inviting another? It was not just a marketing gimmick. It was a way for Google to find out who knows whom around the world. To build a social map, so to speak. Google was the first email provider to think of listing every single person you correspond with as a contact.

On Facebook, there is a certain conscious "social web" action you to do in order to let Facebook learn about you. You know that you are posting something online to share with someone or for someone to see. The beauty of Google's approach is that, you don't have to do anything that explicitly feels like a 'social web' action; all you do is merely go about your life, using online tools which are truly useful. You are not conscious of sharing or posting something somewhere that someone could see. Consequently, you end up sharing a lot more.

Google might never build a social networking website that is better than Facebook. It is not necessary. As long as Google knows more about you than Facebook and Google doesn't do evil stuff with that information and Google knows how to monetize that information without doing stupid things like informing your girlfriend about the engagement ring you bought her before you are ready to propose, Google will always be ahead of Facebook.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Will the Nexus One work in India?

Will the first Google Phone, the Nexus One work in India?

The Nexus One works over the following wireless bands:
- UMTS Band 1/4/8 (2100/AWS/900)
- HSDPA 7.2Mbps
- HSUPA 2Mbps
- GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz)

The top three bands above are 3G. If you can find a cellular carrier who provides service over those bands, you can use the Nexus One to its full potential.

In the US, T-Mobile is the only large GSM carrier who supports the above 3G bands. On AT&T, the other large GSM carrier in the US, Nexus One users will be limited to 2G EDGE speeds.

Almost all Indian cellular operators support at least the above 2G EDGE bands. 3G service availability in India is extremely limited right now. Even among the few Indian operators who seem to offer 3G in just one or two Indian cities, I did not find anyone who supports the above 3G bands. If you have differing information, please leave a comment with as much details as possible.

Bottomline: If you are in India and you want to use the Nexus One, you are assured of at least EDGE speeds.

I don't know how fast EDGE connections are in India. Here in the US, it is as fast as most residential wired Internet connections in India. I can watch Youtube videos on my BlackBerry phone over EDGE network. So, your Nexus One experience in India may not be so bad.

Nexus One Disappoints Android Fans

Yesterday, Google unveiled Nexus One, the first phone to be sold by Google through its own web store for mobile phones. This is arguably the best Android phone to date. Yet, fans of Android phones are disappointed.

Almost all of Nexus One's features and specs were known before yesterday's official launch by Google. This is hardly surprising, because Google had distributed thousands of these phones to its employees worldwide and to a select group of non-employees (including some bloggers) in December 2009.

As nice as the Nexus One seems to be, it represents only an incremental upgrade to both the Android OS and the phone hardware. Going purely by the handset specs, there is no reason for Google to sell this phone as its own. So, people expected that Google might offer some wow-inducing service with the phone. Alas, that was not to be.

When Google made big announcements in the past, it was to capture the imagination of the people and turn them into loyal users of its services. This time, Google has a more subtle agenda. Google has entered the phone selling business to break the nexus between mobile handset makers and the cellular service providers in the US.

Compared to many other countries in the world, the US has a small number of very big cellular service providers. Each of these carriers provide service over a different wireless band. As a result, most cell phones in the US work with just one carrier, rarely two. Almost all cell phones in the US are sold via carriers, bundled with their service packages. The carriers entice the customers by offering a rebate on the phone if they sign up for a contract. This power that the carriers have over which handsets will be sold to their customers, gives them extreme leverage over handset makers. For example, if a handset maker wants to sell a large number of phones to the customers of Verizon Wireless, he better not include any features in the phone that would displease Verizon. For years, the US carriers have used this leverage to artificially hold back any big advances in cell phone features. Why let handset makers sell feature-rich phones, when the carrier could milk customers for dollars by providing the same feature? Or, why spend too much money in upgrading their networks if customers get handsets with VoIP or video features?

Google realized that if it wants mobile phone users to freely access the Internet, Google's own services, and most importantly, the ads it serves, then it should break the strong say that carriers have in dictating phone features to handset manufacturers. Hence, it has setup a web store where people can directly buy feature-rich phones, instead of buying them through carriers. Google's ultimate aim is to offer a range of very attractive phones that are bought by people for their great features, and not for the carrier's network or the rebate the carrier offers. The choice of a carrier becomes secondary in the customer's mobile phone buying process. Especially when Google will start selling phones which will work on multiple carriers' networks.

Today, people who want to buy an iPhone in the US have no choice but to sign up for AT&T's service. This is a result of the tight bond between carriers and handset makers. In the brave new world of tomorrow, the phones Google sell will work on any network. So, the carriers have to compete with each other to win the customer's business. They won't get customers simply because they have an exclusive deal with the manufacturer of a popular phone.

If Google didn't free the mobile phones and its users from the hold of carriers now, in a few years when mobile ads are a multi-billion dollar business, the carriers will balk at letting Google's ads travel through their networks as freely as those ads travel over the Internet now. Google would be forced to share a large portion of its ad revenues with the carriers who would function as toll-gate attendants over the highways of their networks. Only the toll would be too high. By offering phones that people would want and by making those phones workable on any network, Google is ensuring that carriers cannot hold its ad revenues to ransom in the future. By selling phones itself, Google alone is in control of what features go into those phones. This is Google's ultimate agenda.