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First take: Google Drive April 30, 2012

Posted by David Card in Uncategorized.
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Last week, Google introduced its would-be “Dropbox killer” cloud storage service, focusing on fairly aggressive pricing and integration with both its own and third-party services. Google Drive joins a crowded field that’s polarizing between consumer and corporate offerings, even as all the corporate entrants latch on to BYOD and consumerized IT trends as entry points into enterprise collaboration. Google is big enough to try to service both customer bases, but its lack of focus leaves a lot of room for competitors to differentiate.

What it means

Although Google might seem late to cloud storage, we’re still at the early stages of market development. According to our GigaOM Pro 1Q12 consumer survey, only 8 percent of online adults regularly use such services. Likewise, a GigaOM Pro survey of business executives conducted in the fall of 2011 showed that e-mail is still the primary means of sharing business content both within and outside of organizations, with web-based storage services used internally by 27 percent of the survey base and externally by 19 percent. There’s plenty of room for competition and differentiation.

Google is positioning Drive equally for consumers and consumerized enterprise collaboration via its application integration – Google Play for consumers and the Google Docs collection for company functions. Google Play is off to an inauspicious start, with music and books going nowhere and mobile apps and games – which don’t need personal storage anyway – potentially fragmenting. Google Docs is gaining traction in basic business collaboration through file sharing. But Gmail integration is oddly absent from this release. Google is fleshing out an API and developer kit for Drive, and offers some nice features like easy faxing through third party apps.

Don’t focus on price per gigabyte or how much free storage each competitor offers. Even the startups can match current price points. This won’t be battle of sheer storage scale unless a competitor offers near infinite capacity for free. Similarly, a diversity of mobile and desktop OS support is only table stakes. (Google Drive lacks an iOS app.) Consumer cloud storage differentiation will depend on easy to use, seamless synchronization and bundling storage with existing content and media offerings. Google looks weak relative to Apple and Amazon here. The suppliers aiming to power connected work will differentiate via integration with existing collaboration and content management applications, premium customer service, and suites of features geared to specific business functions or vertical markets.

Whom it affects

Dropbox is the most familiar name in the space. It recently added easy-to-use sharing technologies and photo and video support, and responded to Google pricing. Its offerings for corporate collaboration are thin, though its brand recognition and installed base may be enough to fuel a robust third-party ecosystem.

Box is farther along than Dropbox on incorporating support for enterprise features and integrating with existing applications and directory services. Box may rely a little too much on APIs for integration, but it has shown it will build out connectors to enterprise applications like Salesforce and NetSuite as necessary.

Apple has aimed iCloud solely at consumers to-date, and offers industry-leading synchronization features in support of music, video, e-mail and consumer contacts. As usual, Apple plays by its own rules and favors synchronization over cloud storage, but that hasn’t proven to be a limitation yet.

Microsoft is rolling out features for its consumer-oriented SkyDrive service and may at some point connect some dots with SharePoint and its enterprise cloud services. Microsoft might be smart – rather than slow – to distinguish between consumer and enterprise/small business offerings.

Others in the cloud storage space – including Egnyte, Syncplicity, YouSendIt, SugarSync, Citrix and Amazon – should also pick their battles.

Key takeaway

Consumer adoption was a side-door entrance into enterprise collaboration for the early players in cloud storage. That won’t work anymore; differentiation will come from integration, premium services and suites of features.

Disclosure: YouSendIt is backed by Alloy Ventures, which also backs GigaOmni Media, the parent company of GigaOM Pro and GigaOM.

Question of the week

Can Google Drive win over both corporate and consumer customers?

Mac users: Having Firefox pdf download problems? April 27, 2012

Posted by David Card in Uncategorized.
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I am. I was getting a blank white screen when I tried to download Pro reports in PDF format. Adobe’s PDF plugin isn’t very friendly with the latest versions of Firefox on MacOS. Here‘s a solution:

If you want to use Adobe Acrobat, you can just change the preference that was messed up:

Go into Firefox > Preferences > Applications and look for “PDF file”

Next to that, select use Adobe Acrobat (or use Preview) rather than Adobe Acrobat NPAPI 10.1.3

My preferences listed the document as “Preview Document (application/pdf)”

DRM doesn’t have to be all bad April 23, 2012

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The e-book price-fixing lawsuit against major publishers and Apple renewed discussion among the digerati last week about the evils of DRM. But digital rights management doesn’t have to be all bad. Companies should use DRM to unlock new revenue streams, rather than lock in outmoded business models.

My colleague Mathew Ingram isn’t the only one saying publishers created their own problems by insisting on DRM-enforced copy protection on e-books. Author Charlie  Stross also makes the case that insisting on DRM helped Amazon increase its power over the industry. They and others recommend that publishers abandon DRM.

I’m skeptical that eliminating DRM on e-books would instantly make other retailers competitive with Amazon and dilute its market share – dropping DRM didn’t do much to Apple’s iTunes digital music dominance. And e-books still don’t have file format compatibility, a situation that creates similar user lock-in without DRM.

Don’t get me wrong. DRM always gets cracked, and doesn’t prevent real copyright thieves. Awkward implementations inconvenience legitimate customers and alienate fans. Consumers are used to owning content rather than thinking of purchased books, music and videos as licensing arrangements. Once upon a time, the media and entertainment industry could lock down consumer “rights” via physical media. The industry used physical products to manage pricing and packaging, distribution, reproduction and release windows. It has tried to do the same with device- or merchant-specific DRM.

It’s all in the implemenation

But smart DRM implementation can enable new products and marketing opportunities, while handling platform proliferation and consumer choice. That can mean watermarking, the way Pottermore’s trying to treat the Harry Potter e-books, rather than copy protection. And as consumers adopt identity services from companies like Facebook and Google, it is getting easier to associate authorized access to content services with an individual rather than a device. That will relieve the consumer pain of typing passwords or complicated codes.

Features and services “good” DRM facilitates include:

  • Rental. On-demand streaming is one way to deliver content protection, but what happens to a user’s Spotify experience when he can’t connect to the cloud? DRM has long enabled local storage of “rented” music for services like Rhapsody. And content services could make rent-to-own offers by applying rental fees toward outright purchases.
  • Lending and discovery. You can’t do e-book lending without some kind of DRM. Amazon enables use-limited sharing on Kindles, and e-book borrowing for Prime customers. Microsoft experimented with Zune-to-Zune song sharing and RIM’s got a little of that for BBM Music. Think how much more effective sharing would be across services.
  • Affiliate re-distribution. Although they’re no longer around, Weed and PassAong Networks played around with music super-distribution. Consumers could garner affiliate fees by re-distributing music to their friends.
  • Frequent buyer programs. DRM or watermarking makes usage and purchase points work across different retailers for media companies that aren’t in the credit card business.
  • Un-lockable bonus content. This is betters suited to physical products like CDs and DVDs, and Disney’s even putting codes on Marvel comic books. But tagged digital downloads can get customers to go to the content’s source where a media company can establish a direct customer relationship independent of the content distributor or retailer.

See? Not all DRM is evil. While it may be wise to eliminate copy-protection from content that consumers purchase, media companies would be crazy to give up on DRM entirely.

Question of the week

What new products or services could DRM enable?

Potential Facebook-Instagram impact April 16, 2012

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It’s been a week since Facebook announced its blockbuster $1 billion planned acquisition of Instagram, plenty of time to sketch out what it means for Facebook and the mobile social media environment. Don’t be too quick to assume that Facebook is abandoning its HTML5 mobile strategy in favor of apps. As a defensive move, the acquisition would lock down Facebook’s strong position in photo-sharing, leaving little room for would-be competitors, but it gives Facebook few new weapons and no new revenue opportunities.

What it means

It’s too easy to say Facebook will steer its mobile strategy towards apps and away from mobile access to HTML5 websites. Letting Instagram thrive as an app still fulfills the three strategic objectives I said Facebook needed from mobile: ubiquitous access and high frequency usage, a common cross-platform user experience, and distributed technologies that reinforce its platform. Facebook is still counting on HTML5 to minimize development fragmentation across mobile operating systems and the web. Especially since such a framework would better allow it to apply its Credits virtual currency and payments system broadly, without giving Apple, Google or Amazon a cut. Facebook is trying to encourage app and web integration with discovery services, test suites and streamlined payments. Instagram’s limited use of its own APIs could tie into Facebook’s own social services.

Instagram’s app is simple and elegant, two things you don’t hear about Facebook’s app or its mobile website. But Instagram also uses core social networking techniques that shouldn’t be overlooked. In his post on the announcement, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg differentiates between sharing photos with friends and family versus sharing based on interest. And Instagram uses asymmetric following as Twitter does, rather than Facebook’s primarily two-way following system. Over time, those social networking technologies could add more to Facebook’s social graph than additional location data.

My initial reaction to the announcement was that Instagram might be worth a billion dollars to someone, but not to Facebook. I thought the two companies’ customer base probably had a lot of overlap – so that Facebook wouldn’t necessarily be gaining 30 million new users – and that thousands of Instagram photos were already stored on Facebook pages. Recent figures from AppData suggest that 22 percent of Instagram users connected their app to Facebook. That overlap will increase as Instagram gains more mainstream users: Contrary to potential backlash fears, Instagram received an additional growth spurt from the Facebook announcement on top of its first Android app. Already 96 percent of U.S. social network users, ages 18 to 34, uses Facebook, according to our GigaOM Pro 1Q2012 consumer survey, so there’s minimal Instagram headroom.

Instagram doesn’t have any revenue streams itself, so it won’t solve Facebook’s lack of mobile monetization. Facebook has resisted showing ads on its mobile app or mobile website, and seems more likely to show in-stream promotions than mobile display ads or interstitials between photos. What Instagram does give Facebook is a near dominant position in photo-sharing, both mobile and online. Both Om and investor and Hunch co-founder Chris Dixon saw Instagram as Facebook’s biggest competitive threat.

Whom it affects

Google missed out on a chance to gain social media customers and attack a core Facebook stronghold. But Instagram won’t add enough user data to Facebook’s interest graph to weaken Google’s.

Twitter reportedly tried to buy Instagram, and it would have welcomed the user growth and bulked up its own nascent ambitions in photo sharing and storage.

Apple doesn’t make many apps, but desktop photo manipulation and management is one of them. Instagram would have been an easy fit, offering lots of integration opportunities and bringing much-needed social DNA to Apple.

Yahoo’s Flickr is still a huge web repository for photos – including ones taken with Instagram – that could have benefited from a mobile user base.

Other smartphone photo apps like Hipstamatic and Eyeem don’t have the size or growth rates that Instagram has. There’s very little reason for any of the previous group of companies to buy any of them rather than building their own app.

Other social startups might now be in play if the bigger companies above decide they need social media users. But Pinterest is really the only one with size, growth and potential ease-of-monetization. And Facebook still has plenty of money and stock.

Key Takeaway

Although Facebook is still committed to an HTML5-based mobile web strategy, keep an eye on whether it shifts towards a series of single-function mobile apps as a medium-term bridge tactic.

Question of the week

Who is the biggest loser from a Facebook-Instagram match?

Rating Google glasses for UI innovation April 9, 2012

Posted by David Card in Uncategorized.
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Last week, when Google released a concept video on how augmented reality glasses might work, it caused reactions ranging from skepticism to premature predictions of market mayhem. And parodies; lots of parodies. Should the industry take “Project Glass” seriously? Does Google have a truly disruptive user interface technology in its labs?

Certainly Google must overcome major technology and design barriers before bringing even a prototype to market. If any products show up this year – and Google’s not even hinting at how they might roll out – they’ll probably resemble location-based overlays of info snippets and alerts related to phone-based messaging. Think heads-up display of caller ID, text messages and, possibly, targeted local offers, rather than the voice-activated virtual agent of the vision video.

But implementation aside, does the video show that Google is thinking about a UI that could truly drive innovation, or is it just impractical science fiction? I’d say it is the former, based on key factors present in the groundbreaking UIs of MacOS, iOS, Nintendo consoles and Microsoft Kinect:

  • Input and output. Siri isn’t just speech-recognition. Besides the fact that it is doing lots of semantic analysis behind the scenes to figure out which sources to search and which apps to launch, Siri offers audible answers and follow-up requests for further detail. It’s that two-way give and take that makes it a potential game-changer versus voice-to text input mechanisms on other phones.
  • Contextual optimization. Early desktop GUIs were well suited for their device (keyboard, big screen, mouse) and their function (general purpose application and file management, personal productivity). Some day on-screen TV navigation will be optimized for genre and visual browsing based on personal preferences via remote as well as iOS is for laptop tablet browsing and light communications.
  • Easy-to-learn. Innovative UIs can gain fast adoption via the use of metaphor the way desktop GUIs mimicked documents, files and folders. Or they can teach users how to use new techniques the way videogames present training missions or simple tasks to gain familiarity.
  • Practical-to-use. There can be a big difference between easy-to-learn and easy-to-use, or rather effective-to-use. The UIs that gain the most widespread use can gracefully move from one to the other. Keyboard shortcuts and macros may be powerful, but they’re too hard to learn for the masses.

How does Project Glass stack up?

Go back and re-watch the video. Google shows glasses that blend the heads-up display of contextually relevant information and application options with voice-command based input. The applications it features are optimized for on-the-go activities like mapping and communications rather than, for instance, gaming or Google Docs. The augmented reality approach, where presumably camera, image-mapping and GPS are combining to identify relevant apps and information does all the work for the user, minimizing the need for training or, for that matter, proactive input. Google’s ideas seem aligned with all the necessary factors for innovative UIs.

But what of Google’s track record in user interface design? Android, Chrome and Gmail are competent implementations of principals invented elsewhere. Google’s UI leadership example comes from search. There’s no question that Google taught the world how to navigate the web through hyperlinks resulting from typing in one or two words. Google has de-emphasized approaches such as Q&A (Ask, Quora), faceted results from multiple filters (Best Buy), or visual cueing (Search-cube, Grokker) in favor of “guessing right” in the fastest manner possible. That explains Google’s ham-handed attempt to integrate its user and social media data to personalize search results.

So Project Glass aligns with the critical UI factors and it plays to Google’s strengths in user interface and its data, mapping and communications expertise. Apple’s own concept video for the “Knowledge Navigator” debuted in 1987, but it was set in September 2011. The company showed the iOS 5 iPhone with deep Siri integration in November 2011. I don’t think it will take Google 24 years to show results from Project Glass.

Question of the week

Will Google be able to do anything with its glasses?

Web development: Does Google matter? April 2, 2012

Posted by David Card in Uncategorized.
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These days, the digerati are not showing a lot of love for Google. Last week, a Gizmodo piece summarized much of the criticism of the search giant, and encouraged others to pile on. There was much scoffing – if not outright derision – for Google initiatives: a consumer activity log, a forthcoming cloud drive and a possible online hardware store. If Google has lost faith among Silicon Valley pundits, does that mean it has lost relevance for web developers?

Mat Honan’s Gizmodo essay says Google is losing consumer trust as it shifts its focus from search towards integrating Google products with Google+ as glue. I suspect few mainstream consumers are aware of most of the sins Honan enumerates: e.g., end-running Safari settings, favoring its own products in search results, settling with the Justice Department over Canadian pharma ads, scraping data from a Kenyan business directory. They’re certainly not abandoning Google products like search (66 percent market U.S. market share), Android (46 percent) or Chrome (19 percent and growing). But Honan’s sense that Google has violated its Don’t Be Evil credo is echoed by a former Google engineering director, who agrees that Google’s business objectives take precedence over technology innovation.

Fundamental tensions

My GigaOM colleagues Bobbie Johnson and Barb Darrow point out how Google’s business practices lead to vulnerabilities with the developer community. Bobbie airs the complaint of a startup founder that Google gets developers hooked, then abandons or, worse yet, competes with them. Barb shows how Google must combat a feeling among developers that its current business focus means that some core technology platform services could be abandoned on a whim.

And Google’s platform strategy is shifting in a way that could alienate developers. Google has long been a pioneer in web technology platforms, through standards organization participation (W3C), its own APIs and services (search, Maps, AdWords) and casual mash-ups like embeddable YouTube videos. Over the years, Google has delivered its platform through widely distributed services rather than depending on a web destination for housing third-party applications. Google’s search site was in the business of driving users to other sites rather than holding onto them for extended sessions.

But several factors are driving Google towards creating web destinations, exposing fundamental tensions between its destination and services that make developers uneasy:

Back to basics

Google could restore a lot of developer faith if it re-learned one of its own lessons and adopted a few from Microsoft. Google’s Android strategy proves that the company knows that platform-building requires long-term investment. That’s why its decision to raise API licensing fees on Maps was puzzling and risky. Historically, not only has Google been liberal with its API licensing, it was the first platform that came with a ready-made revenue stream for developers via its ad networks. Google just introduced a revenue-sharing survey service for online publishers as an alternative to paywalls. That service would work just as well for apps.

Unlike Microsoft, Google has been open with APIs, but too hands-off with developer tools and support. Google’s Go programming language has never caught on, while it is slowly rolling out APIs for Google+ apps. Spending some more money and resources on developer support, including packages of training, tools and its popular analytics offerings could gain Google a critical edge over Facebook. Facebook’s app momentum comes from its audience growth and unique technologies; it hasn’t done a particularly good job cultivating developers.

Google’s search, unified communications, mapping and visualization technologies are still leading-edge. Developers are still interested in Google technology – tickets to its June I/O developer conference sold out in 20 minutes. Tying some revenue-sharing and support programs a little tighter would sweeten a lot of the bad taste left by recent business practices.

Question of the week

What can Google do to spark developer interest and trust?