Google is now a subsidiary. A holding company called Alphabet, with former Google CEO Larry Page as its CEO, was formed today, with a diminished Google (now led by Sundar Pichai) as one part of the conglomerate. Parsing the press release, I could not really understand the move, though I thought the ever-reliable iOS indie developer Marco Arment (you should really read his blog) cut through the jargon perfectly:
“Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one,” said the world’s largest advertising corporation.
— Marco Arment (@marcoarment) August 10, 2015
This sentiment gets at the heart of what seems so lacking in all of Silicon Valley’s self-gratulatory talk about “innovation” in general and Google’s self-promotion as an “unconventional” firm in particular. Despite all the bluster about solving big problems and “disrupting” this or that, the essential business model of the ex-Google, Facebook, Snapchat, etc. is advertising, something with which a living room viewer with her rabbit-ears TV set in the 1950s would be readily familiar.
Moreover, how long can advertising last? It seems like an absurd question, but consider this argument from Astra Taylor’s excellent “The People’s Platform”:
“Advertising is, in essence, a private tax. Because promotional budgets are factored into the price we pay for goods, customers end up footing the bill. That means that, all together, we spend more than $700 billion a year on advertising, a tremendous waste of money on something that has virtually no social value and that most of us despise.”
This hatred of advertising has not reached critical mass yet. But it seems to be bubbling up in the increasing usage of ad blockers and services such as Disconnect and Ghostery. It also may be contributing to the operational and product changes pursued in recent months by ex-Google and Facebook, which split up and introduced a tightly controlled non-Web platform (Facebook Instant Stories) for publishing stories, respectively. Serving ads on the Web is a miserable business.
Early last year, I wonder what it would take for Google to decline, at a time when Google was seen as “catching up” to its chief rival, Apple (the monetary gap between the two has only widened since then). I compared Google to a church, with few or no direct payments from its “users” and heavy subsidies from everyone from big box retailers shelling their new deals to Apple itself, keeping Google as the default search engine in iOS and OS X:
“Google is like a church or a cathedral. That is, it is frequently visited, assumed to be a mainstay of the cultural fabric regardless of external economic conditions and – most importantly – it collects little to no money from any of the end-users who interact with it. Sure, parishioners may make a slight donation to the local church, but the real funding comes from other sources; likewise, Joe Web Surfer doesn’t directly pay Google for anything, with the possible exception of a buck or two for extra Google Drive space or Google Play Music All Access. Hence, the actual business of Google is abstracted from consumers, who end up spending little or no time contemplating how or why it could go belly up – it’s not like they can point to reduced foot traffic or ridiculous clearance sales as harbingers of decline.”
Google was a trailblazer not just in search engines but also in the $0-per-use business model that is now pervasive across the Web. A writer like me can churn out reams of “content” for the insatiable Web yet receive a fraction of the compensation of someone who builds the technical infrastructure that supports ad bidding and placement. Readers by and large pay nothing, existing only as “clicks” and “pageviews” to be monetized by irritating ads served by Google. And yet without us or the shrinking number of sites that still try to do original reporting instead of running on the homogenous Game of Thrones/Silicon Valley/Hillary Clinton hamster wheel created by Google, Facebook et al, what would the Web (or anything else that relies on “content”) be?
Alphabet is being spun as an exciting new phase in ex-Google’s history – no surprise there – but it feels like decline. It comes off as an inevitable running-aground, at a time when ads are resisted with rising fervor (blocking is coming in iOS 9) and all the low-hanging technological fruit – i.e., satellites, microprocessors, IP networks – spawned from the 20th’s century public sector investments has been picked, leaving only relatively mild “innovations” like Material Design or streaming music services to suck up the media oxygen and leave the sycophantic tech press breathless. The “big problems” that ex-Google is now structurally committed to solving are more of the same, fantasies spawned from direct obsessions with sci-fi and now-dominant geek culture. Google is normal, and Alphabet only confirms it.
A fistful of dollars/for a few barrels more
Everyone wants a strong dollar, right? In the U.S., politicians will pay lip service to the notion of a strong dollar – i.e., in their minds, a dollar that trades more evenly against the other major world currencies (sterling, euro, yen) – because A) it sounds good; B) it feels good for American travelers who travel to Europe and Japan and realize that their greenbacks go pretty far.
When I visited Italy in 2008, I remember that the USD-EUR exchange rate was unfavorable to me (I’m American) and accordingly I felt the pinch of 50 EUR cab rides and 14 EUR gelato cones in Florence. At the same time, I remember fuel being expensive that entire year, with it peaking at near $150 per barrel that summer when Russia invaded Georgia.
That all feels like a 1000 years ago now. The dollar has strengthened mightily against the euro and oil trading for less than one-third of what it did the summer before Barack Obama was first elected. King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud of Saudi Arabia, whom George W. Bush begged that same year to increase oil production as energy costs skyrocketed in the run-up to the Lehman collapse, is dead. Bush himself is reduced to speaking at events in the Cayman Islands, an unmentionable even among his own party. Russia, though still ruled with vim by Vladimir Putin, is in economic and diplomatic free-fall.
But the strong dollar isn’t everyone’s friend. For starters, it is burden on corporations that sell goods around the world. Tech analyst Ben Thompson recently framed the problem in stunning terms, in ridiculing the widespread perception that Apple is always on the verge of catastrophe:
“It’s difficult to overstate just how absurd this is, but here’s my best attempt: last quarter Apple’s revenue was downright decimated by the strengthening U.S. dollar; currency fluctuations reduced Apple’s revenue by 5% — a cool $3.73 billion dollars. That, though, is more than Google made in profit last quarter ($2.83 billion). Apple lost more money to currency fluctuations than Google makes in a quarter. And yet it’s Google that is feared, and Apple that is feared for.”
I have been trying to wrap my head around this all day. All those seemingly minor variations in currency trading, piled up over and entire quarter at the scale of Apple’s business, ended up taking a cut out of Apple larger than Google’s entire quarterly profit – and Apple still managed the best quarter of all time, with $18 billion in profit.
Apple’s turnaround over the past 18 years is probably the greatest business story of all time. if you look at a chart of all the biggest quarterly results in history, it’s dominated by oil companies (Gazprom, Royal Dutch Shell, etc.) and Apple and no one else. It’s a neat coincidence that Apple keeps outdoing itself at a time when oil – seemingly its only competitor in terms of product profitability – is taking a nosedive.
Growing up in the 1990s, this is all so surreal. For a kid growing up in rural America, at the peak of Windows (I had just turned 9 when Windows 95 was released) era, when every class at school was built largely around writing things in MS Works/Word and saving it to a floppy, Apple was nowhere to be seen. I remember reading about Macs when playing some Sierra On-Line games that were built for both PC and Mac, but I never even used one until 1999, in a school in Gallipolis, Ohio. Apple was on the margins.
Not anymore. To quote almost any stat about Apple anymore is to send the mind fruitlessly in search of anything else like it. The company’s iPhone business alone – just the iPhone, without even taking the iPad, Mac, iPod and iTunes into account – brought in more revenue than Google and Microsoft combined in the most recent quarter. Each quarter, it makes more profit than Amazon has ever made. It has enough cash to buy IBM outright at IBM’s current market cap – and still have tens of billions left over.
Paradoxically, the vast complexities of Apple’s supply chains as well as the efficiency of its manufacturing and marketing processes have ensured that simplicity wins out. The iPhone and its brethren feel natural and easy to use (despite mounting software issues, which is a topic for another conversation), reinforcing what I have always thought: that one significant part of the success of iOS in particular is that it eliminates the paradox of choice that is so paralyzing with Android or almost any other computing platform. It’s a good design, like John Gruber recently noted:
“Who knows how long Apple’s ride at the top will last, but this is a moment worth savoring. A toast to the value of good design.”
RSS isn’t dead. The demise of Google Reader last year inspired pearl-clutching about the demise of the standards-based Web and the rise of Google+ and other proprietary content filters. But here we are in late 2014 and podcasts (audio RSS) are thriving and there are multiple sustainable RSS engines available for subscription, from Feed Wrangler to Fever. Making a podcast client is the new making a Twitter client.
Meanwhile, Google+ has lost its mastermind and services such as SoundCloud, through their increasingly onerous EULAs, show the perils ahead for insular networks. RSS, email, et al will outlive Facebook. In my own ridiculously small slice of the Web, I have proposed that blogging will survive because it’s the foil to the artifice of social media and “solutions.”
Android is less a playground for RSS and podcast clients than iOS. It makes sense, given the Android clientele. Android lacks a built-in pod catcher like iOS’s Podcasts, though it can do RSS reading via Google Play Newsstand. For less than $25, an Android user can get a top-notch RSS and podcasting experience.
For RSS reading (news):
1. Subscribe to an RSS service
Feed Wrangler is my pick here. It’s got a simple, barebones Web interface that makes adding feeds easy. It only costs $18 for a one-year subscription.
2. Buy Press and log-in with Feed Wrangler or another account
Press is the best RSS client for Android. It has a sleek interface that nicely weaves-in Pocket, Instapaper, and Readability, support for DashClock Widget, and its own large widget. You can log into it with Feed Wrangler, Feedly, Fever, and Feedbin
1. Buy Pocket Casts
Podcasts are having a moment, for at least as long as Squarespace is willing to keep sponsoring episodes. Shifty Jelly have made an outstanding, Android-optimized podcatcher called Pocket Casts that offers variable playback speeds, easy navigation, lock screen controls, and a handy widget.
In my previous entry, I mentioned Link Bubble, a nifty Android app made by Chris Lacy, the creator of the Tweet Lanes Twitter/App.net client. Like DuckDuckGo (a merged search engine-browser-news aggregator), Link Bubble is on the bleeding-edge of mobile browsers. It doesn’t just try to compress a desktop experience for a small screen a lay Chrome, Safari, or Dolphin (all good browsers, but ones that are of a piece with almost every browser of the past 20 years). It realizes that the mobile Web is a destination rather than an immersive app – how many times have you ended up in Chrome et al because you clicked on someone’s link and had to wait for the page to load?
Link Bubble is an overlay – it is, sure enough, a “bubble” that is drawn over whatever screen you’re currently on. It looks like this:
Here’s how to use it:
1. Download Link Bubble from the Play Store. You’ll probably want to get the Link Bubble Pro upgrade, too, since it unlocks most of the features worth using (multiple bubbles, colors, etc.)
2. Click a link in any app (Hangouts, Google Search, email, whatever) and then, when prompted with the intent dialog, select Link Bubble and select “Always” so that it becomes your default browser. You may have to go through this process for several apps, depending on where you click most of your links. The clicked link loads in the background and shows up with a favicon to the side, in the overlaid bubble. The “HG” in the screenshot above is for Hardcore Gamer, for example. Since it’s done in the background, you don’t leave the app you’re currently in – convenient! Especially for Google searches where there’s more than one link you want to click. Here’s what it looks like when you tap on the bubble to go into the actual browser:
3. After it’s the default, open the Link Bubble settings (find it in your app drawer and click it) and set things up:
You’ll need to pick a fallback browser (probably Chrome unless you’ve downloaded something else) to handle any links that Link Bubble can’t handle. You’ll also want to pick the default behaviors for the upper-right and upper-left bubbles. It’s easier if I show a screenshot:
These extra bubbles (upper-left, upper-right, bottom_ show up when you tap and drag one of the bubbles (circles) at the top of the browser. You can customize it to your wish, but the default is Pocket (if installed) in the upper-left, share in the upper-right, and close tab at the bottom.
4. If you ever need to hide the bubble because it’s in your way, or simply want to close everything in one fell swoop, you can do so from the notifications tray (Link Bubble creates a persistent notification):
Touch it once to hide the bubble; you’ll be able to get it back the next time you click a link. Expand the notification with a downward slide to close everything.
Google’s Android apps are by and large top-notch, although the increasing number of them means that average experience may be getting watered down by duds like Google News and Weather. With so many apps only ported to Android as an afterthought (many, like Instagram, have ported over their bottom-icon heavy look), Google’s specialized design is refreshing. Chrome is no exception. While it doesn’t have Dolphin’s speed or customizations or Firefox’s open source character, Chrome is fine, fast, and full of useful options such as bandwidth conservation (which can sometimes make its rendering of Facebook.com perform better than Facebook’s actual Android app).
You’re waiting for a “but,” so here it is: Mobile Web browsing is stuck in the desktop era. There’s still the URL bar and a bunch of tabs stuck weirdly (and inconveniently) in something that looks like a file cabinet – it doesn’t get much more “legacy” than that. Plus, a mobile Web browser is often somewhere you end up, not somewhere you open with intent. You’re sent to Chrome (or Safari or IE) because you click a link and then wait a few seconds for a blank page to fill out.
There’s something jarring about that process. It really becomes apparent when going through Google Search results, clicking on one, seeing it open in Chrome, then having to go back to Search to go through more that may be interesting. The workaround is to just search directly from Chrome, but the UI is less appealing. Ideally, Google would merge Search and Chrome into one runtime.
Until they do, though, there are some good alternatives to Chrome, both in terms of usability, privacy, and innovative design. I’ve rounded up a few of the best ones here.
If you want something with more pizzaz: Dolphin
Dolphin is speedy, with excellent HTML5 performance a fluid UI. It’s also an ecosystem unto itself, with tons of add-ons and color packs. The look and feel is especially good on tablets and big phones, since it has enough real estate to pull off its desktop-like tab design (if you’re into that). Possible drawbacks include its awkward sharing menus (the best way to share to Pocket is to install a supplementary app) and less support for deep linking (i.e., having links redirect to relevant apps rather than websites) than Chrome. Nice quirks include the ability to create and save drawings that stand in for URLs – you could doodle an ‘F’ to go to Facebook, for example.
If you want something that is private and different: DuckDuckGo Search and Stories
DuckDuckGo is known mostly as an anti-NSA search engine that doesn’t track its users. It’s more than that, as its mobile app name suggests. On Android, it can serve as a news reader with customizable feeds drawing up on various subreddits and popular Web publications – it’s way better than the card-heavy Google Play Newsstand. It’s also a browser. URLs can be entered into the search box and they’ll go directly to that page if correct. You could do all your browsing from within the DuckDuckGo for Android app. Plus, there’s the option to use Orbot to connect the app to Tor for privacy.
If you want something futuristic: Link Bubble
Link Bubble isn’t a replacement for Chrome per se. It’ll still need Chrome or another browser as a fallback, but it’s really a leap beyond almost every other mobile Web experience for Android. Here’s how it works.
When you click a link anywhere, it’ll load in the background and then appear in a small bubble that is drawn over the screen (it lingers until you dismiss it using the notification tray). So say you’re in Google Search and you tap something. It loads in Link Bubble to the side, but you stay inside Google Search, uninterrupted. You can have many bubbles open at once (they’re basically like tabs). Link Bubble has a unique, fun UI for dragging the bubbles to the upper left to save to Pocket, to the upper right to share, and down to close.
Link Bubble is perfect reaction to the disruptive “click, wait for a blank page to load in a Web browser” behavior that characterizes most mobile linking and browsing. It takes some time to get used to, but it becomes a time saver.