The belated wisdom of techies abandoning Google
July 12th, 2013 by ravi

Sam Whited via Hacker News on leaving Google:

Like many people, I recently decided to move many of my online services away from Google. The recent Google Reader shutdown and Google Hangouts disabling XMPP federation made me realize that any of my services could go at any time and I didn’t want to be so dependant on a single provider or the integrations between services.

Among the reasons for switching away from Google:

When you’re paying for your social network, it makes you a customer instead of a product.

All of the recent hand-wringing over Google, especially under this “customer vs product” meme, reminds me of Paul Krugman’s point that apparently, to be taken seriously, one has to have been wrong first. For was it not obvious from day one that by signing up for Gmail, Google Calendar, so on, you were submitting yourself to be Google’s product, not a customer?

So you have well-intentioned posts like this one from Whited, full of pointers to open source alternatives, and yet, three, four of seven years ago, when Whited was, as now, Google’s product and not their customer, he chose to sign up for Gmail and other Google products. Why?

I suspect the reason is a version of the usual confusion between “free as in freedom” and “free as in beer” that underlies Open Source itself.

Google used to give the warm fuzzies to techies because of its perceived commitment to Open Source. This is despite the fact that Google single-handedly made advertising on the Internet mainstream and respectable by purchasing DoubleClick, one of the most despised marketers on the net. Somehow, this sentimentality towards Google made it possible for techies to tolerate targeted ads displayed alongside their email, something that would have been an intolerable abomination in 1998. The sporadic (if genuine) gestures from Google to openness coupled with the “free as in beer” nature of Google products helped techies square the circle of their use of these products. Consequently, concern for privacy, aesthetic experience and user requirements was set aside in favour of zero cost, the fuzzy feel of openness, and a few power user features.

Now the response is to run away from “free as in beer” to “unfree as in champagne” options like App.net which are, if anything, less viable than free Google products that might be yanked at a moment’s notice. I doubt it is going to help much.


P.S: There is, of course, the option that is so obvious that it cannot be stated: iCloud. It provides web and app APIs to services like mail, calendaring, file storage, etc. And it is a product that is sustained by one of the wealthiest company in the world, a company which treats you as a customer, not a product.

Tim Bray defends Google Glass
May 23rd, 2013 by ravi

Tim Bray defends Google Glass

Tim Bray works at Google and on his blog (which reflect his opinions, not Google’s) he defends the re-masculating device in five or more paragraphs most of which are spent on answering criticism (of dorkiness, privacy invasion, so on), before getting down to the question of “Why Google Glass?”. That he dispenses with quickly:

Do They Meet a Need?

Seems pretty obvious to me; I’m damn sick of hauling out my mobile to find out what time it is, or to check on my next meeting, or to glance at a map, or to snap a quick photo of an interesting streetlight or whatever.

What he fails to answer is how obvious this is to others who may not be sick of occasionally using an appropriate tool to address an occasional need, rather than have one attached perpetually to their head. Even the guys who used to walk around with Bluetooth pieces permanently implanted in their ear seem to have of late taken a different view from Bray’s.

If anything, Google Glass use as envisaged by Bray limits the multi-tasking/interfacing abilities of humans by reducing their interaction with the device and the world beyond to vision and voice.

I wonder if Bray would be equally receptive to the idea of walking around with a fork strapped to his index finger lest he be at pain to haul one out of the drawer should a tasty meal present itself?

iOS Maps Reconsidered
May 6th, 2013 by ravi

iOS Maps Reconsidered

Scott Forstall had to go. It was owed to Apple users who had to suffer the onslaught of skeumorphism brought on by Forstall, that turned the OS X UI into a riot of over-the-top textures and tortured selection of fonts and colours. But when Forstall refused to sign on to the apology for Apple Maps (in iOS 6) he had a small point.

And that point was that for the majority use cases the new application did a pretty decent job. Stories of stranded motorists in the Australian outback, while true and horrifying, were misrepresented as the general case, to unfavourably compare the new iOS Maps to the latest Google Maps, the latter a product that has undergone years of updates and corrections — many of those corrections coming from users like me.

When Google released their own maps app for iOS, Apple, having shed Forstall from its ranks and bent over backwards in apology, went so far as to recommend it as an alternative to their own product. Media pundits giggled in delight at the opportunity to speculate wildly on the effect of the release of the Google Maps app on the adoption rate of iOS6, before reversing themselves once the data came in.

Today, Apple released a list of the 25 all-time highest downloaded apps, and right at the bottom, at #25 sits Google Maps, many slots below Facebook Messenger and the app that got in first among 500 peers and thus managed to claim the name Flashlight. Google Maps is relatively new, even in comparison to Facebook Messenger, and it is possible that the relationship of download count to a human being or device may be many to one (a device passes hands and someone reinstalls an app but using a different and new Apple ID), which would inflate the download counts of older apps in contrast to new ones. But one thing this does say, in my opinion, is that download counts for free apps do not tell us anything concrete beyond the fact that people like free stuff especially if it might be useful. You might disagree… perhaps you know a user or two that actually uses Facebook Messenger on their iPhone?

An Open Letter to Google: Design Matters
January 27th, 2013 by ravi

Dear Google,

you invariably put me in mind of my four year old. His intentions are always good, but his output varies wildly. And I sometimes wonder if he is leading the design department over at your HQ.

Consider Chrome, the subject of my latest struggles. Chrome would not exist today if not for Firefox and it is by piggybacking on the Firefox ethos that you were able to gain a foothold. That was uncool. But you are also the source of most of the more than 100 million dollars that Mozilla takes in each year (and naive old us thought Mozilla was a struggling little David to the Microsoft/Apple/Google Goliath). So that’s a bit redeeming. But that’s not what this letter is about.

The history and popularity of Chrome would be of no impact to me if not for Apple’s hate crime on the splendidly usable Web Inspector in WebKit (the HTML engine that you share with Apple’s Safari browser). Apple took an intuitive interface that was well laid out (big horizontally separated sections for sources and console) and mangled it into a three panel layout with cryptic icons, and (unless I am missing something), for additional insult, they took away useful features like adding new selectors and styles to the document CSS1. And therefore, for web development, I have had to move to using Chrome, which thankfully retains the old Inspector.

But this means I now have to use Chrome frequently, and thus deal with the strange design quirks you have adopted, that add up to a figurative migraine by the end of each day. And however much I ponder, I cannot fathom the thought process behind such things as:

Tabs on Top

At first this looked pretty cool, I admit. It also made sense that the URL bar, which is specific to a page and hence a particular tab, lie within a tab, not above it. Even Apple flirted with the look in an early beta of Safari 4.

The trouble is, with the tabs on top, the application window’s title bar height is reduced to a bare minimum, making it difficult to click on the app or move it around. Tabs on top also causes the page title to be displayed within the tab (rather than in the title bar), so we can abandon any chance of knowing the entire page title, even for those sites that set this HTML tag to some meaningful value.

And why on earth are the tab close buttons on the right?

That Awful Downloads Bar

What’s the point of this monstrously huge thing that sticks around at the bottom wasting valuable browser real estate long after it’s work is done? On the Interwebs everyone says there is a flag (about:flags) to disable this beast, but in an Apple’sque move you have now done away with the flag. Thanks for that.

Status Bar

Most browsers (Safari, Firefox) offer a toggleable status bar that is used for, among other things, displaying URLs when links are hovered over. You seem to have taken a dislike for this idea. For a browser that is willing to waste a large number of screen pixels on a Downloads bar, Chrome gets miserly with URL display, popping up a tooltip of sorts at the bottom of the page upon hovering over a link. Why?

A Bookmarks Bar to rival your neighbour’s Christmas decorations

Site favicons placed next to link/bookmark name in the Bookmarks Bar = a riot of colours and shapes below the location bar that is an eyesore and distraction. And mostly useless in an age when this bar is dominated by faceless bookmarklets. Away with those favicons, Google. Do I need remind you where the very idea came from?


I could go on, but I think you might have had enough of the whining. The thing is, these design bizarrities (surely with a name like Google, you do not mind if I make up words?) are a running theme across your product line. The new Gmail is a massive improvement and I congratulate you for that, but still… the massive buttons with little differentiation? The smorgasbord of options and links in the left sidebar? The pain remains. A visual experience as mutilated as the application interface you offer under the name of IMAP. And I will not even get into what you have done to Google Analytics.

Heed our pleas dear Google. Is this all worth the pretence that every problem is an engineering problem? Isn’t it enough that you have made millionaires out of countless geeks, already? We, the geeks, have won! Through you! Now is the time for a gracious gesture: give a designer a seat at the centre table. You will not regret it.

  1. Yes, there are hacks to bring the old Web Inspector back to Safari, but none have worked satisfactorily for me.
Google, Acer, Redhat and the future of Open
September 19th, 2012 by ravi

Much has been said about Google’s alleged attempt to strong-arm Acer into dropping its plan to release an [[Aliyun OS]] based smartphone because Aliyun is an “incompatible” fork of Android. The general criticism that this is a bit of hypocrisy on Google’s part given how much they have been pitching Android as “open”.  Hypocrisy or not, there is certainly a paradox in Google’s position.

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Open vs Free, the Android vs iPhone edition
April 2nd, 2012 by ravi

Over on GigaOm, Tom Krazit spins an old argument as a new one by characterising as silly the many recent blog posts on how little money Google makes on Android, in fact much lesser than what it makes on iOS (I have made such posts myself). Look beyond the dollars, he says, as if that’s a fresh and non-obvious point:

Not all investments are made with the expectation that a big payoff is around the corner. Google’s decision to bankroll the development of Android was just such an investment, which makes the past week’s back and forth over just how much money Google has garnered from that investment quite silly.

[...]

The mistake is assuming that Google views this as a big problem, as if Android has been a waste of money because Google makes more money from its competitor. Would Google like to make more revenue from Android? Sure. Money is nice. But Android was a defensive move on Google’s part, and one that wasn’t primarily motivated by desire for revenue or profit.

The mistake in Krazit’s own thesis is that he sees discussion of Google’s revenue as an independent and sole criticism of what Google is doing with Android. That is not the case. The fact that Google does not derive profit from Android but gives it away for free to handset makers and telcos (not users, less than 2% of whom can upgrade to the latest version of Android released many months ago) is part of a larger argument or analysis of the nature of Android vs iOS. Since Krazit wants to rehash these points as if new, I will repeat my criticism which is a bit different from that of famous iOS defenders like John Gruber.
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Google and Apple
March 29th, 2012 by ravi

There was a time when Google and Apple were sitting on the forbidden tree… or something like that. Google CEO Eric Schmidt appeared on stage at Apple events and sat behind the scene on Apple’s board. Together they drove Microsoft out of our lives. Then Google decided to enter the mobile OS market out of fear of losing access to mobile phone users. And what better way to challenge Apple’s iPhone and its alliance with AT&T than to offer up the Google mobile OS Android for free to Verizon (and other telcos including AT&T)? This Google defined as “open”. Predictably Android provoked the ire of Steve Jobs who took to the company town hall to decry the terrible evil that had been done. The relationship turned sour and today the two giants are slinging lawyers at each other through intermediaries and proxies (heck, Google went out and bought an entire company, Motorola — a small step for Google but a giant leap for the science of lawyering up — while Apple coupled up with friends like Microsoft to buy patents from the defunct Nortel and others).

Building the Google-telco-user relationship around the free Android OS has led to a high level of fragmentation, lack of access to new features/updates for users (less than 2% of Android devices run the latest version of Android) and strangest of all: Microsoft makes more money than Google on Android (thanks to patents) and Google makes more money on iOS than it does on Android (thanks to Apple’s use of Google services).

There was another way this could have played out. As John Gruber writes today, “Google made a mistake by deciding to oppose rather than ally with Apple on mobile”. This is all the more the case given their complementary strengths and weaknesses. Google’s good at big data and infrastructure and poor at user experience. Apple’s infrastructure capabilities are only now being tested (iCloud) but they continue to write the book on user experience. Google it appears is unwilling to yield the user to others, lest it be cut out of the loop at a later date. It is not an illegitimate concern from a business perspective. From a user perspective, however, the rivalry is a net loss. Oh well.

Google social search brouhaha
January 18th, 2012 by ravi

A few days ago Google announced a change to Search, awkwardly named (as is their wont) Google Plus your World, and the Google first responders have responded with suitable outrage (as is their wont). For a good rundown of all the noise read this TPM post. “Google just broke it’s search engine” – that’s Farhad Manjoo on Slate. The TPM guy, Carl Franzen, went with the more subtle “Google Search is Dead“.

The rub? Google has started displaying results from your social network as part of its search results. That’s the “your world” part of Google Plus Your World (henceforth G+YW). It’s the Plus part though that has tech bloggers in a huff. In particular, the fact that your social world that Google Search reports from happens to comprise of one social network: Google’s own Google Plus.

Hence the outrage: Google is disingenuously shutting Facebook and Twitter (among others) out of search results using this new “feature”.

But are they? It would help to separate the issues here.

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The bizarre world of Android
December 12th, 2011 by ravi

We already knew that Microsoft makes more from Android than it does from Windows Phone 7:

Microsoft gets $5 for every HTC phone running Android, according to Citi analyst Walter Pritchard, who released a big report on Microsoft this morning.

It also turns out that Google makes more off iOS than it does on Android:

As part of the Senate Judiciary hearings today, former FTC official (and new Google employee) Susan Creighton, testified under oath today that Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! all bid to become the default search engine on iOS’s Mobile Safari Web Browser. [...]

[A]s part of the testimony, Creighton said briefly (before she was cut off) that 2/3rds of mobile search comes from Apple iOS devices.

Such is the bizarro world of product development funded by legacy monopoly money (Windows) and advertising (Google).

Google’s new design/experience: taking Chris Wiggins to heart
June 29th, 2011 by ravi

Google has progressed since the days of 41 shades of blue. At least in the user interface of their products. I had no insight into whether this reflects a change in the underlying process. But now there is some news on that front. Yesterday Chris Wiggins (Creative Director at Google) made a post to the “Official Google Blog” to explain the “new and improved Google experience … founded on three key design principles”: Focus, Elasticity, Effortlessness. I think the man, and the company, are serious, and I sincerely applaud them for it and wish them well.
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