a semi-skeptical view of Google Glass

Dave Winer takes a semi-luddite view about Google Glass (which he refers to as Google glasses, minus branding and capital G). He writes,

I think they will make an excellent display device for the obvious reason that they’re mounted in front of your eyes, the organ we use for vision. The idea of moving your fingers to the side of your head, of winking to take a picture, well I don’t like that so much. I admit I might be a luddite here, and am going to keep my eyes and ears open for indications that I’m wrong. It happens, quite a bit when it comes to brand-new tech.

I think they could be a great part of a mobile computing platform. With more computing power and UI in my pocket, in the form of my smart phone, or in a big pocket, in the form of a tablet. They communicate over Bluetooth, and together form a more useful reading and communication device, but probably still not a very good writing tool.

I totally agree with Dave that a mouse/keyboard will be a requirement for any serious content creation, which is why I still prefer a Blackberry (lusting after the Q10, to be precise). But Google Glass is not going to be a content creation device so much as the initial, baby step towards true Augmented Reality. Note that Google describes Glass as having a primarily voice-directed interface, for initiating search queries, taking a picture, or real-time language transcription. The main function of Google Glass is to record video and take pictures (not content creation, but content acquisition), to facilitate access to information, and most importantly to overlay data onto the visual field, such as maps or translations. It’s the latter that is the “augmentation” of reality part, and is very, very crude.

denmo coil 1

A much more sophisticated vision of Augmented Reality is the one in the anime series, Dennou Coil. I’ve written a number of posts reviewing the series, including a review of my favorite episode where digital, virtual lifeforms colonize a character’s bald head (not unlike the Futurama episode Godfellas) and my closing thoughts on the series as a whole. The screenshot at right is from the first episode, which clearly lays out the technology paradigm: people wear special glasses that let them see virtual realities overlaid onto our real, physical world. Sound familiar?

But it’s cooler than that. In the screencap, the main character is using a cell phone that she draws in the air. There’s no need for physical technology anymore like cell phones or PDAs or even ipods or tablets. Literally, the entire world is your canvas and you consume your content through your regular senses. This is a vision that transcends mere augmentation of reality and becomes more akin to and extension of reality itself.

And it’s not limited to tech gadgetry – the concept extends to virtual pets, to virtual homes, even ultimately to evolution of virtual lifeforms that inhabit the same geographic space as we do but are invisible unless your glasses reveal them. I will be astonished if at least someone on the Google Glass team has not seen this series.

So, Google Glass really is a tentative step towards something new, and there is enormous potential in where it might lead. But as a device itself, Glass won’t be very transformative, because as Dave points out it will be an adjunct to our existing devices. And the content that people pay to consume won’t be created on Glass any more than it is created on iPads or Galaxy phones. Every single major technological advance of the past ten years has been in content consumption devices, not creation. Glass will be no different in that regard.

But content creation vs consumption is the old paradigm. The new one has less to do with “content” which is passively consumed and more with “information” which is a dynamic, contextual flow of information.

new TLDs could balkanize the Internet

Dave Winer has some cogent critiques of the idea that companies can register their trademarks as new Top Level Domains (TLDs), from an intellectual property perspective. However I think the danger is more pernicious than that – allowing deep-pocketed corporations to create new TLDs at will risks the destruction of the Internet. In a nutshell, why would Google or Microsoft even bother with www.google.com or www.microsoft.com when they can simply use http://home.google or http://home.microsoft? Ultimately you will see entire ecosystems vanish behind these TLD-walled gardens. Forget about gmail.com; now you get redirected to http://mail.google. Take this further: these companies make browsers (Chrome, IE). So now if you’re locked into the walled garden of Gmail anyway and Google says “use Chrome, you don’t have to type http:// anymore” and IE users accessing Gmail see a moderately-degraded experience, then there will be forced migrations to ecosystems that don’t exist right now. Facebook is the worst offender already; imagine if they got into the same game with Opera or even worse allied with Microsoft/IE.

It can get worse. There are numerous limitations and flaws in the HTTP protocol since we have shoehorned all sorts of functionality onto what was originally just a hypertext linking platform. And support for HTTP starts at the browser. Today it’s already hard enough to write webpages for all browsers, and designers can’t code for the latest and greatest CSS/HTML spec and be confident it will Just Work. Imagine if Chrome decides to create a new protocol, g://? shorter, saves you characters on Twitter, built-in URL shortening, and much faster handling of video and pictures. Built right into Chrome! Interoperability between browsers itself is at risk here if the fundamental communication protocol itself starts to fragment; we’ve seen it happen already with HTML and CSS and browsers, but with custom TLDs the incentive to do worse will be irresistible.

The key is the ecosystem. Apps have shown us how companies move away from open protocols like RSS towards custom and closed APIs. TLDs will just accelerate and worsen the trend. Eventually your browser will run heavily customized and feature-extended HTML, with an optimized variant of HTTP that works best with the ecosystem it was designed for (be it Chrome/Android/Google or Facebook/Microsoft/Ie or Apple/Safari/iOS). Try to do anything outside that ecosystem and you’re forced back onto the “old” tools that will be slower and more unpleasant; sure, Hotmail will work on Chrome, but if you use IE it will be so much easier… switch! (to quote the Oracle of Pythia, “All this has happened before. All this will happen again.”)

Remember the old days when if you were on Prodigy or Compuserve, you couldn’t email someone on AOL without a complex extra header? We could be looking at the same thing, with the Internet. We will have to call it the InterIntranet.

the singular implication of uploading one hour every second to @youtube …

This is an astonishing statistic: Youtube users now upload one hour of video every second:

The video (and accompanying website) is actually rather ineffective at really conveying why this number is so astounding. Here’s my take on it:

* assume that the rate of video uploads is constant from here on out. (obviously over-conservative)

* the ratio of “Youtube time” to real time is 1/3600 (there are 3600 seconds in an hour)

* so how long would it take to upload 2,012 years worth of video to Youtube?

Answer: 2012 / 3600 = 0.56 years = 6.7 months = 204 days

Let’s play with this further. Let’s assume civilization is 10,000 years old. it would take 10,000 / 3600 = 33 months to document all of recorded human history on YouTube.

Let’s go further with this: Let’s assume that everyone has an average lifespan of 70 years (note: not life expectancy! human lifespan has been constant for millenia). Let’s also assume that people sleep for roughly one-third of their lives, and that of the remaining two-thirds, only half is “worth documenting”. That’s (70 / 6) / 3600 years = 28.4 hours of data per human being uploaded to YouTube to fully document an average life in extreme detail.

Obviously that number will shrink, as the rate of upload increases. Right now it takes YouTube 28 hours to upload teh equivalent of a single human lifespan; eventually it will be down to 1 hour. And from there, it wil shrink to minutes and even seconds.

If YouTube ever hits, say, the 1 sec = 1 year mark, then that means that the lifespan of all of the 7 billion people alive as of Jan 1st 2012 would require only 37 years of data upload. No, I am not using the word “only” in a sarcastic sense… I assume YT will get to the 1sec/1yr mark in less than ten years, especially if data storage continues to follow it’s own cost curve (we are at 10c per gigabyte for data stored on Amazon’s cloud now).

Another way to think of this is, in 50 years, YouTube will have collected as many hours of video as have passed in human history since the Industrial Revolution. (I’m not going to run the numbers, but that’s my gut feel of the data). These are 1:1 hours, after all – just because one hour of video is uploaded every second, doesn’t mean that the video only took one second to produce – someone, somewhere had to actually record that hour of video in real time).

Think about how much data is in video. Imagine if you could search a video for images, for faces, for sounds, for music, for locations, for weather, the way we search books for text today. And then consider how much of that data is just sitting there in YT’s and Google’s cloud.

Google+ is closed, Facebook and Twitter are open

There’s a simple reason that Google+ can not be a facebook killer – it adds to social noise and creates a walled garden where data can not be exported from nor imported to. There are no RSS feeds generated by Google+ that you can pipe into Twitter using Twitterfeed, nor can you import tweets to Google+ the way you can with Facebook. There is no Google+ API like the Facebook API that allows data import to the service from other services.

This is a huge, critical flaw in Google+ that guarantees it won’t be a Facebook killer.

A better use of Google+ would be to unify Gmail and Circles such that you can create whitelists for email with a single click. There’s no email service at present that permits a user to create a whitelist easily – you have to tediously set up manual filters instead, and even then there’s simply no way to say “send all emails (except some) to Trash”. A simple whitelist functionality is the real way to declare email independence. I fully support what MG Siegler is trying to achieve here but until we can say “receive mail ONLY from X, Y, Z” we will never be free of the tyranny of the inbox.

Maybe Google+ is the first step. But we need to stop treating it like Facebook and start thinking about how it can be used to improve the original social network – email. If Circles can be used to define whitelists, that’s real value.

Related: a little slideshare I put together a few years back about managing social noise. Still relevant, if a little outdated.

remembering memory

Nicholas Carr (not to be confused with Paul Carr) has a tremendous essay which follows the theme of his writing in general being a skeptic of Google and the modern information era. Just a teaser:

Our embrace of the idea that computer databases provide an effective and even superior substitute for personal memory is not particularly surprising. It culminates a century-long shift in the popular view of the mind. As the machines we use to store data have become more voluminous, flexible, and responsive, we’ve grown accustomed to the blurring of artificial and biological memory. But it’s an extraordinary development nonetheless. The notion that memory can be “outsourced,” as Brooks puts it, would have been unthinkable at any earlier moment in our history. For the Ancient Greeks, memory was a goddess: Mnemosyne, mother of the Muses. To Augustine, it was “a vast and infinite profundity,” a reflection of the power of God in man. The classical view remained the common view through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment—up to, in fact, the close of the nineteenth century. When, in an 1892 lecture before a group of teachers, William James declared that “the art of remembering is the art of thinking,” he was stating the obvious. Now, his words seem old-fashioned. Not only has memory lost its divinity; it’s well on its way to losing its humanness. Mnemosyne has become a machine.

The shift in our view of memory is yet another manifestation of our acceptance of the metaphor that portrays the brain as a computer.

It’s entitled, “killing Mnemosyne”. I reject that metaphor, as well, and this ties into my own skepticism on Singularity, as well.

UPDATE – Mark comments, and discusses the relevance to Exformation. Now there’s a Carrian concept! I also agree that our blogs are probably our modern-day “commonplace books”, but I am tempted to try and actually do one in paper. My problem is my handwriting speed is not fast enough to record my thoughts, and the result is usually illegible. So the blog is probably the best outlet. This is kind of ironic.

Microsoft Bing: But It ‘s Not Google!

I’ve been increasingly using Microsoft’s new search engine, Bing in lieu of Google for my casual searches. One of the things that appeals to me is how the search results are so much more organized and comprehensive than just a list of ten text items. Google’s spartan deisgn was cool and chic ten years ago but today it feels increasingly stale, and Bing is pulling from Apple’s playbook in tailoring the interface to users’ needs. Some examples: saved searches are essential for keeping track of what you’ve been researching, and the live preview of video thumbnails on mouseover saves you a click – and getting video and photos along with text links on the same search results page is a huge timesaver. I feel like I spend less time using Bing. Right now I stil have to manually decide to go to Bing but I intend to switch the default search engine on all my browsers for a few weeks – including Chrome – and see how that works out.

Bing has been getting a lot of attention lately – there’s a piece on it in the New York Times, another in USA Today, and even a website, Bing Vs Google, that lets you see searches compared side-by-side. It’s good to shake things up – and Bing certainly has its rough spots, ut just like Google these should improve over time. The mere existence of Bing ensures that Google is forced to compete and innovate as well.

should Google spin off it’s advertising business?

This intriguing article for web entrepreneurs has a lot of useful information in it – particularly the interesting metric for assessing a companies value: 10 x (revenue – cost). However, in the course of the discussion he also makes an intriguing point about Google:

Google has one incredibly amazing business – keyword advertising. It relies on its own search service and deals with other search services and content partners for the audience that drives the keyword business. If you stripped that business out of Google, you’d probably have a business that has gross revenues of $20bn, net revenues of $13bn, and operating profits of $8bn to $10bn. That business is worth the approximately $100bn of market value that Google has right now. Everything else is valued at zero because it has a lot of costs and no revenue. Could Google unlock a lot of value by giving up on everything else they are doing? Maybe not, but they probably wouldn’t lose much value either. I am not suggesting they do that, by the way. But again, I just want to make a point.

That’s a fascinating point. It should be noted that everything Google does that isn’t directly related to search and advertising is essentially a distraction, and that shows: Feedburner has been moribund after it’s acquisition, YouTube can’t make a dime, and Gmail for all it’s wonderfulness is still labeled as beta. Even properties that are actively innovating, like Google Maps, Picasa, and Blogger, are still not earning any revenue for Google and are being actively competed against by Microsoft and open source software.

Of course, what would happen to all those projects if they weren’t subsidized by the web advertising business? In some ways, their very presence forces the competition to innovate. But in the looming economic clouds ahead, maybe the golden era has ended and everyone, even Google, has to abide by the rule that cash flow is king.

(via retweet of @TimOreilly from @JoeTrippi)