Archive for day September 25th, 2011

CNET: San Francisco Police Request Bar Security Footage In Missing iPhone 5 "Case" [IPhone]

The mysterious iPhone 5 prototype at the center of that bizarre is-it-or-isn't-it police case in San Francisco took another twist this weekend. Mainly, the police are asked for bar security footage even though they admit no crime took place there. More »

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Jack Loftus

September 25th


Clinging To Friction: Some Thoughts On Facebook’s f8


It’s been over 72 hours since Facebook first debuted a series of groundbreaking new features at f8, which is all the time I need to predict the company’s long-term outlook, the way it will reinvent the web, and the pricing of its inevitable IPO.

Okay, maybe not. But it’s given me some time to try the features out, as opposed to basing my impressions off of Facebook’s well-crafted keynote presentations. And while many of these obviously have a lot of potential, in practice I’m finding them to be a mixed (or, in some cases, a downright irritating) bag.

Social Overlubrication

One of the big announcements at f8 was something called frictionless sharing. Here’s the gist: Facebook will let third-party sites and apps integrate what’s effectively a sharing firehose. Turn it on, and everything you do in the app gets shared with your Facebook friends.

As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained during his keynote, the idea is that a lot of people aren’t sharing as often as they could be, because there’s friction involved with clicking all those ‘Share’ dialogs. Hence the term frictionless sharing: you visit a site or app, activate sharing once, and you’re done. Everything you do from that app gets automatically shared, and you can always turn it off if you decide you want to keep your activity private. Pretty nifty, right?

My concern with this new, frictionless sharing, is that it doesn’t actually get rid of the friction at all — it just moves it. Where before I’d have to exert some effort (albeit a minimal amount) to explicitly share a piece of content, with this new effortless sharing I’m going to deal with a nagging feeling in the back of my head wondering if I really want the article I just clicked on to be shared with friends. I think the word for that is stress, or maybe anxiety. Which qualify as forms of friction in my book.

Put another way, with old-school sharing, the only real potential downside is that I’ll forget to share something that my friends might find interesting. Big whoop. With this new, lubricated sharing, a mental lapse could wind up with my sharing something uncouth with my friends. Which, depending on who your Facebook ‘friends’ are and your profession, could actually matter.

Granted, there are going to be applications and sites that people are willing to freely share from without any hesitation — you’d be hard-pressed to find many stories over at The Economist that you’d be embarrassed about sharing (why yes, I did spend the afternoon reading about Argentinian trade restrictions). But there are plenty of mainstream sites that run news on topics that you might not want syndicated to your boss or family members. Things like drug legalization. Or sex (ack!). Or Jersey Shore. Which means another privacy backlash might be around the corner.

I know, I know — the press (including me) has cried foul over Facebook’s privacy-stripping features many times before, and the vast majority of its users have shown time and time again that they just don’t care. But I attribute that more to them being ambivalent than I do to Facebook knowing what its users find socially acceptable. Maybe this is the time they’ve crossed the line, maybe it isn’t — either way, we’re going to see a lot of news articles about frictionless sharing and probably some letters from Congress.

If nothing else, I bet the warning signs on the ‘Accept’ dialog for this feature get a lot more prominent in the next few months. Check out the box below — they’re not exactly going out of their way to point out that this is sharing every article you read through the app, are they?

And, privacy and friction aside, there’s another big question: does anyone even want to see these auto-shared items in the first place?

The Ticker

One of the big features launched by Facebook this month, and the one that facilities this frictionless sharing, is the Ticker. It’s that real-time stream on the homepage’s right sidebar, and it’ll follow you throughout the site if you open your browser  on a wide enough screen.

Unlike the News Feed, which uses a bunch of algorithms to try to surface interesting content, the Ticker is supposed to be a real-time stream of everything all of your friends do (or at least, it uses far less selective algorithms). And because all of this content is constantly flowing past, you don’t have to feel bad for filling it with these auto-shared posts, since your friends will only see them for a few seconds. That’s the idea, anyway.

The first day the Ticker showed up for me, I thought it was nifty. Finally, Facebook was giving me a constantly-updated stream of content to scan, in much the same way Twitter does. I like to waste time as much as anyone, so this was a welcome addition.

But I’m increasingly coming to believe that Ticker, at least in its current form, falls short.

For the last few years I’ve played a little game with myself as I scan through my various social feeds. It’s called “Don’t Give a Shit”. Every time I read a post on Twitter and the voice in the back of my head says the aforementioned phrase, I add a number to my mental tally. If that number reaches a certain threshold, I cuss a few times and swear off Twitter for the rest of the day. I’d like to think it’s cathartic.

I should note that only a minority of the posts I’m disinterested in warrants such a visceral reaction — I really don’t mind, say, a link my friend genuinely thought was neat but didn’t resonate with me. Rather, it’s the updates that I wish were never shared in the first place. Syndicated Foursquare check-ins often fall under this category, as do multi-tweet rants and ‘live tweeting’ of panels that are being both live streamed and live blogged (and aren’t particularly interesting to begin with).

Facebook’s News Feed has generally fared well in this game. Sure, it has plenty of misses, but it’s rare for me to see a piece of content in my Feed that evokes real annoyance — which is why I’ve been reading my News Feed every day for, what, five years now.

Which brings me back to Facebook’s Ticker. It is losing at my game, and badly.

I do not care that a ‘friend’ I haven’t talked to since high school comments on the status of a person I don’t know. I don’t care if one of my coworkers is listening to a Lady Gaga song that came out two years ago. And when one of my Facebook friends goes on a ‘Liking’ marathon as they browse through their friends’ wall posts, I don’t need to see four separate updates telling me about each one.

These irrelevant updates wouldn’t bother me if they were the exception to the rule — but they make up the majority of the updates showing up in my Ticker feed. And the Ticker updates in near real-time, so it keeps moving and drawing my eyes toward it. What’s worse, even the Ticker updates from my real friends are rarely very compelling. The minutiae of my friends’ online habits just don’t interest me very much.

Take Facebook’s recently-launched music integration, for example. Right now as I stare at my Ticker, I’m seeing a stream of songs that my friends are listening to. Sometimes I’ve never heard of the song. Sometimes I have. Sometimes I really like the song. And, almost always, my immediate impulse is neither to ‘Like’ their update nor to start listening to that song myself. I usually just shrug my shoulders.

The fundamental issue is that there’s no context or emphasis around any of these posts. I see song after song scroll by, and I don’t know which ones are actually important to my friends. I don’t know which are the tracks they love — and which are the tracks they left playing as they stepped away to grab lunch. And, as more applications and sites begin syndicating into the Ticker, I’m going to run into the same problem. I won’t know which news articles my friends have endorsed, and which ones they just happened to click on because they saw a link in Twitter. And there’s just so much stuff.

Of course, you can still explicitly share the content you really enjoy (the Like and Share buttons make that easy). But these posts will be shared in News Feed, as before, and if they’re appearing in Ticker they’re going to be competing with a lot of noise.

All of that said, the feature is hardly doomed. Right now, Facebook employees are poring over all of the initial data from the existing frictionless apps, and they’ll doubtless be making plenty of tweaks to ensure that you’re seeing a lot of content that you’re at least somewhat interested in. But at this point, my eyes are already becoming numb to the Ticker.

The Good Stuff

Facebook launched other major features at f8. And, despite my gripes above, I really like some of them.

First up we have Facebook Timeline, which is an overhauled profile that gives a visual recap of your history on the site (and, if you take the time to add additional content from your pre-Facebook days, your entire life).

I think it’s nifty. Yes, the first time you scroll though it can be jarring — and, depending on the life hurdles you’ve faced over the years, can be quite sad. But the same could be said of a dusty shoebox full of photos or love letters, and it doesn’t take a whole lot of work to remove the things you don’t want to see from your Timeline (my fix for people who don’t want to revisit their past at all: Facebook could offer an option to simply begin the timeline at a more recent date).

Some people have written that Timeline is creepy, because it lets people get such a comprehensive snapshot of your past so quickly. I understand that sentiment, but I don’t think it’s as creepy as, say, the automatic sharing discussed earlier. For one, I suspect that many people habitually look through friends’ photos anyway (even going years back), and if someone really wants to look into your past, clicking the ‘More’ button on your Wall a bunch of times never posed much of a barrier.

Another way of looking at it: just because you rarely venture back through your Facebook history doesn’t mean your potential employers, significant others, or bored friends won’t. So maybe you should clean things up anyway.

The Timeline is also where some of the more compelling parts of the new Open Graph API come into play. Developers will now be able to craft widgets that appear in users’ Timelines, and they can update these widgets depending on what users do in their apps. So, for example, if you had a recipe app on your iPad with Facebook integration, you could have a section in your Timeline featuring the recent recipes you’d made (and maybe even photos of each). Facebook offered similar third-party widgets years ago, but removed them because of clutter. The Timeline fixes this by presenting everything in a sort of sleek chaos that’s flexible without being overly messy, and there’s a lot of potential here for users and developers alike.

And, despite my gripes about music sharing earlier, I’m actually really liking the Music Dashboard, which presents the trends Facebook has garnered from your friends’ listening habits — things like top albums and artists. This dashboard, and the structured News Feed stories that show similar trends, seem like the right way to surface this auto-shared data. I might not care about the song my friend is listening to right now, but if two of my friends listened to the same album today, then hey, maybe I’ll check it out.

Is Sharing Still Caring?

To close, I want to take a step back and look at Zuckerberg’s Law, which was referenced during the f8 keynotes. The law goes something like, “the amount of information you share online doubles every year”. And, given the features Facebook just launched, this seems like it will certainly be the case (or perhaps even an understatement).

Thing is, I’m not sure Facebook or its users are ready for that surge in sharing. Between Twitter and Facebook, I think I’m approaching my limit for how much shared content I can consume on a daily basis. Hell, sometimes I find myself getting annoyed at certain friends for sharing too much. Which means Facebook needs to get much better at identifying the content that I’ll find interesting.

The site’s increased emphasis on friend lists will help with that, because it’s easy to hone in on the content that’s been shared by your closest friends. But even then, do you really care about your good friends so much that you want to read about each song they listened to, or article they read, or game they played? At some point, you’re going to get sick of them.

All of that said, this is hardly a new revelation for Facebook. They’ve been trying to surface interesting content since the origins of News Feed, and their most recently recommendation-related feature, Smart Lists, are actually scary smart sometimes. Let’s just hope that those algorithms can keep pace with the wave of content that f8 is about to unleash.

Company: Facebook
Launch Date: January 2, 2004
Funding: $2.34B

Facebook is the world’s largest social network, with over 500 million users. Facebook was founded by Mark Zuckerberg in February 2004, initially as an exclusive network for Harvard students. It was a huge hit: in 2 weeks, half of the schools in the Boston area began demanding a Facebook network. Zuckerberg immediately recruited his friends Dustin Moskowitz and Chris Hughes to help build Facebook, and within four months, Facebook added 30 more college networks. The original idea for the term...

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Jason Kincaid

September 25th


This E-Shirt Feels Like an Entire Hospital’s Got Your Back [Clothing]

Embeddable clothing isn't a new concept , but the idea's been around long enough that we should start seeing more and more real-world applications, outside of the lab, right? Right. Enter the eT-Shirt. More »

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Jack Loftus

September 25th


Facebook Cookie Tracks Users Even When They’re Logged Out [Facebook]

It's no secret that Facebook and privacy have had some issues. Take today, for example. Thanks to a modified cookie, Facebook knows where you are online—even when you're not logged into Facebook. More »

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Jack Loftus

September 25th


Nothing Says "Inevitably Stolen" Like Tokyo Lightsaber Subway Hand Rails [Star Wars]

The Force is strong with these promotional lightsaber hand rails, seen this past week in Tokyo as a way to promote the already massively successful Star Wars saga Blu-ray re-release. Let's hope whatever's holding them in place is equally strong. More »

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Jack Loftus

September 25th


Lobby-Sized Nintendo Game & Watch While You Wait [Hacks]

You know what that wall needs, Darryl? A giant, playable Game & Watch based on Arduino. More »

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Jack Loftus

September 25th


PayPal Now Processing $315 Million In Payments Per Day

Send Money, Pay Online or Set Up a Merchant Account with PayPal

Wow. PayPal released some new public numbers recently that show the payments platform is processing a massive number of payments per day. PayPal says that it saw $3,650 in Total Payment Volume every second in Q2 2011. By our calculations, that means PayPal is processing around $315.3 million in payments per day. On average, the payments platform is seeing upwards of over 5 million transactions a day.

PayPal has unequivocally been the crown jewel in parent eBay’s family of businesses. This past quarter, PayPal delivered its first-ever billion dollar revenue quarter. Total net total payment volume (TPV) grew 34% compared to the same period of last year. And PayPal is actually closing in on eBay’s marketplaces segment in terms of revenue (which posted $1.6 billion in revenue in Q2).

Another area where PayPal is growing fast is mobile. The company said earlier this year that is seeing $10 million in mobile transactions per day, and expects more than $3 billion in mobile TPV this year, compared to $750 million in 2010.

To put the $315 million number in perspective, fast growing startup Square (which of course offers an in-store payments product) is seeing $4 million in payments per day. PayPal wants to also tackle in-store payments as well and will be debuting several retail partnerships for this technology this year. And Facebook is generating a fair amount of volume for PayPal as well. It should be interesting to see what eBay and Facebook have up their sleeves in a few weeks.

PayPal’s Total Payment Volume in 2010 represented nearly 18 percent of global e-commerce. With the way that the payments platform is growing, this number should increase in 2011.

Company: PayPal
Launch Date: January 12, 1998
Funding: $197M

PayPal is an online payments and money transfer service that allows you to send money via email, phone, text message or Skype. They offer products to both individuals and businesses alike, including online vendors, auction sites and corporate users. PayPal connects effortlessly to bank accounts and credit cards. PayPal Mobile is one of PayPal’s newest products. It allows you to send payments by text message or by using PayPal’s mobile browser. PayPal created the Gausebeck-Levchin test, which is that blurry...

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Leena Rao

September 25th


Google And Monopoly Theater

Al Franken

As I watched the Google antitrust hearings last Wednesday, with its gotcha moments and Senators pontificating about the dangers Google poses to society, it struck me that what I was watching was theater. And not just any theater, but monopoly theater. I am borrowing from the concept of security theater: “a term that describes security countermeasures intended to provide the feeling of improved security while doing little or nothing to actually improve security.” In the same way, talking about Google’s monopoly power and what the government should do about it provides the feeling of improving competition while doing little or nothing to actually improve it.

The hearing touched upon many serious concerns about Google’s market power, but in the end it was just monopoly theater. Nothing antitrust regulators do to Google will actually improve competition.

With 65 percent to 70 percent search market share in the U.S., 75 percent share of search advertising, and 95 percent share of mobile search (according to numbers thrown out during the hearing), it is not too difficult to make the case that Google does wield monopoly power in search. However, being a monopoly in and of itself is not illegal. The government would have to prove that Google is abusing that monopoly power in an anticompetitive way in order to take action, and that is where things get tricky.

Google in many ways is a natural monopoly. It benefits from its own unique economies of scale. The more people who do searches, the more data it gathers to pour back into its algorithms to produce even better, more accurate results. The more people who use Google, the more valuable it becomes to the search advertisers trying to reach them. So there are subtle network effects on both the consumer search and advertising sides of the equation.

Since Google offers most of its products to consumers for free, it is difficult to argue that consumers are being harmed, as Mathew Ingram pointed out in a post on GigaOm. But direct consumer harm is not the only test for anticompetitive behavior. Taking actions which drive competitors out of the market can be considered anticompetitive because it reduces consumer choice.

The main question the Senate hearing was trying to address was whether Google increasingly is using its dominance in search to favor its own products over those of competitors. Does Google Places hurt Yelp, or does Google Product Search hurt NextTag? It certainly does. In Yelp’s case, Google used snippets from Yelp reviews to help build Google Places (more recently, it bought Zagat). Yelp protested, but was told if they didn’t like it, they could block Yelp results from showing up anywhere on Google, including in natural results. This was a false choice because 75 percent of Yelp’s traffic comes from Google in one way or another. “Not being in Google is equivalent to not existing on the Internet,” Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman testified during the hearing.

Another example that kept coming up during the hearing was Google Finance results which appear summarized at the top of Google when you search for a stock symbol, much in the same way that Google Places results take up a lot of real estate when you do a search for a local business. Google has been presenting these Universal Search results since 2007. If it can give searchers the answer they are looking for right in the results, like a small stock chart, it will.

Responding to a Senator’s question, Google chairman Eric Schmidt said, “In this case we don’t list anyone first. We show a summary, then the results. I disagree with the characterization that we were somehow discriminating against the others.” He pointed out that the first natural result underneath for a stock quote is usually Yahoo Finance, and that Google provides links to competing finance sites in the universal result itself. While this is all true, the first three links in the universal result for a stock quote generally go directly to Google Finance. If you click on the ticker symbol or the chart itself, those go to the Google Finance page, and Google Finance is listed first before Yahoo Finance, MSN Money, Daily Finance, CNN Money, or Reuters just underneath the ticker (see image below).

All of this seems like pretty damning stuff, right? With examples like these, it is possible to show that Google does use its dominant position in search to drive consumers to its other products. Shouldn’t Google Finance, Google Places, and all of Google’s other non-search products succeed or fail on their own merits? It is a common practice for companies to introduce new products to its existing customers, but again, different rules apply to monopolies. And Google might be wise to curtail some of these practices on its own before the government does it for them.

But even if Google is hurting specific competitors, that does not mean it is hurting the market as a whole. After all, Google changes its algorithm all the time, with some sites rising and other sites falling in natural results. Trying to prove whether Yelp or Google Places provides the better results is very subjective. As long as Google can honestly argue it is trying to provide the best results to consumers, it will be difficult for an antitrust court or the government to punish them for that.

Even if Google is abusing its monopoly powers, then what? Any remedies imposed on Google could be worse for consumers than the uncertain consequences of keeping Google unchecked. If Google had to pass every change to its search engine through an antitrust filter that could really screw up search, something which most of us depend on every single day.

The Senators seemed aware of this possibility, asking repeatedly what Google itself would propose for a remedy if an antitrust court ruled against it. Senator Al Franken suggested the possibility of a voluntary technical committee to provide oversight, to which Google’s outside lawyer Susan Creighton responded (quite correctly): “Google already changes its algorithm 500 times a year. I think a technical committee would be too slow to keep up with changes in the market.”

The hearing was monopoly theater. It was also farcical at times. The Senators kept trying to define Google and search in 2004 terms of ten blue links that take consumers away from Google. But search is very different today. Increasingly, Google is trying to give you the right answer in the results themselves. And you know who else does exactly the same thing? Bing. Telling Google that it needs to go back to the 2004 version of itself while Bing and others can keep experimenting with new ways to deliver information to consumers would just hamper innovation in search.

The government and antitrust lawyers can only look backwards. Technology changes so fast that any remedies they impose would be the wrong ones. Look at what happened to Microsoft. It’s monopoly power was eroded by the Internet and Google and (more recently) mobile computing, all unforeseen forces during its own antitrust trials in the 1990s. The same will be true for Google. Search could be displaced by social as the primary way people discover information on the Internet, or maybe some entirely new technology will take hold that nobody is even talking about yet. Monopolies on the Internet simply aren’t as enduring as they used to be.

Company: Google
Launch Date: July 9, 1998

Google provides search and advertising services, which together aim to organize and monetize the world’s information. In addition to its dominant search engine, it offers a plethora of online tools and platforms including: Gmail, Maps and YouTube. Most of its Web-based products are free, funded by Google’s highly integrated online advertising platforms AdWords and AdSense. Google promotes the idea that advertising should be highly targeted and relevant to users thus providing them with a rich source of information....

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Erick Schonfeld

September 25th


Radishes May Prove to Be Acne’s Worst Nightmare [Science]

Confession: I positively hate acne. While my face only bears the most subtle of scars, in my mind the red pimply warzone that covered it back in high school is still fresh, clear and just begging to be popped. More »

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Jack Loftus

September 25th


Apple’s October Event to Be Intimate Cupertino Affair [Blip]

Apple's secrecy means speculation runs rampant about pretty much anything it does. So, in that light, there's this: The mystery event scheduled for October will be at their HQ, not downtown San Francisco. That's atypical! Now, speculate. [All Things D] More »

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Jack Loftus

September 25th

September 2011
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