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.”
Just started reading a Stephen King novel from 2006, “Cell.” Right before 9/11, I went through a phase in which I read most of his 1970s and 1980s work, before my reading time was taken up by more academic novels for English classes. I eventually got back into him in late 2011, ten years later, following the release of his novel “11.22.1963” about the Kennedy assassination.
During my sophomore year in high school, everyone in our English class had to do a study about a literary author. I don’t remember whom I choose, but one of my best friends at the time picked King, a choice that our teacher initially balked at but acquiesced to after admitting that he had produced a “significant enough” body of work. I was jealous. Plus, I agreed with her final judgment – my experience of King superseded whatever criticism I had read about his work.
“Cell,” even in its first pages, reminds me of why King is an enduring institution. There’s the distinctive, seen-it-all-before narrative voice that comes off as both grizzled and humorous, as well as the sharp cultural observations. “Cell” was released on the eve of the first iPhone and it captured the peak of a different mobile era, when phones were all very different from each other, with fanciful designs, custom ringtones, and dramatically different apps depending on the manufacturer and carrier:
“The peppermint-colored phone played the opening notes of that Crazy Frog tune that Johnny loved – was it called ‘Axel F’? … The two girls had exactly the same haircut above their iPod headphones, but the one with the peppermint-colored cell phone was blond and her friend was brunette; they were Pixie Light and Pixie Dark.”
There’s a lot to unpack here. Peppermint-colored? Crazy Frog (“who” topped the charts around this time, with a ringtone)? They became relics almost overnight as the iPhone and its imitators made standard-issue ringtones and a limited selection of design options – black or white; silver/gold/space gray in the iPhone’s case – the norm. Phones, from 2007 on, became part of the tradition that Andy Warhol once identified:
“What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.”
The president’s iPhone and your iPhone are essentially the same, give or take storage capacity differences and coloration. There’s an attractive egalitarianism and homogeneity there. What I like about the above passage from “Cell” is how it hints at what’s to come: there’s the “exactly the same” haircuts, conveniently about the “iPod headphones,” which had already done to the MP3 player and headphones markets what iPhone would do to phones. Then there’s “Pixie Light and Pixie Dark” – it’s like “Cloud White” or “Midnight Blue” or “Space Grey” or “Gold” when buying a phone.
Excited about this book already. Expect a few more entries, especially about its premise of mobile phones spreading an apocalyptic disease.
I was going to lunch today, walking along Lake St. in Chicago to a Jimmy John’s (conveniently next to a Starbucks, where I would get a coffee afterward) and I saw a Facebook ad. No, not one of those “Save 20% on designer shoes” or “Buy Dawg Pound merchandise here” in-stream shills, but a real, physical banner on a bus stop. It looked like this:
Kinda creepy. It was for Facebook Messenger, the app that was recently split off from Facebook proper on mobile (though you can still use all the features of Facebook together in the convenient mobile Web app) and that now has 500 million users. There’s not much Facebook branding here, really, which I think is intentional. Messenger is meant to be something as basic and habitual as text messaging or IM clients were just a few years ago. Facebook’s enormous databases – your friends, your profile, your history – are just the back-end, the magic behind the scenes.
I thought about calling this post “Facebook-as-a-service” (you can see it in the slug still) in a cheeky way, since the “as-a-service” moniker is most often applied to resources like servers and software that are delivered to customers on-demand, without the need to install anything. Messenger seems like just another app – a LINE or WhatsApp clone – but it’s being marketed as a way to do Facebook without really being “on Facebook,” i.e., scrolling through News Feed chaos. In that way, it resembles infrastructure- and software-as-a-service, which let you get more computing power and packaged applications without dealing with the mess of equipment management or software downloads.
Also, this ad is one of the only ones I’ve ever seen with a Windows Phone rectangle next to the App Store and Google Play equivalents. The sticker centerpiece is strange but overall the ad seems at least as effective as all those in-stream ones I’m missing out on by using AdBlock.
Updated 4/13/15 with Frostbite Caverns
I wrote an entry about Plants vs Zombies 2: It’s About Time earlier this year covering some basic strategies for making it through the game without spending anything. PVZ2 is the most carefully crafted free-to-play game I have played. It doesn’t even feel like a scam, since with a little planning and some fleet fingers you can make it through all stages with just the basic plants.
This guide is more in-depth. I will show you one overarching strategy that works in almost stage. I’ll also look at each plant and rate it on a scale of 1-10. I’ll also provide tips for each individual stage in case you are stuck on one of them and want to move on without shelling out a few bucks for an overpowered chili pepper or some such.
If you read nothing else, read this part
Many stages feature seemingly indefatigable hordes of zombies decked out in armor and hardened against all your weaponry. Luckily it’s not hard to keep them at bay if you know what you’re doing. Introducing the Dragon/Wall strategy. You can start taking this approach as early as Ancient Egypt:
- Plant a full column of Sunflowers in the backrow. Plant a column of Twin Sunflowers next to it. Eventually, you may want to swap out the Twin Sunflowers for Sun-shrooms.
- Begin planting Wall-Nuts or Infi-Nuts a few tiles back from the right edge. This way you have sometime before the zombies reach them, allowing you to build your defense and bombard them on the way. Use the Iceberg Lettuce to freeze zombies that you think are moving too quickly.
- Build some Snapdragons in a column behind the Wall-Nuts/Infi-Nuts. Each one makes a fire wave that covers three tiles. A full column can shell out incredible, cascading damage.
- In front of the Snapdragons, built some Spikeweeds. The zombies will take damage while they’re trying to chew away at the Wall-Nuts, on top of getting scorched by the Dragonfires and bombarded by…
- Kernel-Pults! Build a whole column as far back as you can. Considering cost and effect, the Kernel-Pult is the best plant in the game. It deals decent damage by shooting kernels, but it is truly valuable because of its butter pats. These freeze the zombies for a few seconds. Ideally, built two columns of Kernel-Pults to increase the chances of stymieing zombies. The Kernel-Pult’s Plant Food move is also incredible – try using it when zombies walk over a Spikeweed or get close to your Wall-Nuts/Infi-Nuts – they’ll continue taking damage even while stuck.
- Keep an Iceberg (or if you prefer a Cherry Bomb) on hand to disrupt problematic zombies.
As the levels get tougher, the possibilities become endless as you acquire more plants. I wrote the above framework because it can be executed with plants acquired early in the game. You can replace or supplement the Spike Traps with Red Beans. Also, if you can afford it, Winter Melons are even better than Kernel-Pults. You may want to throw in a kew Coconut Cannons or Citrons or even Magnifying Grasses (powerful with Twin Sunflowers) for added power. Also, once you have a huge amount of sun accumulated, dig up the sunflowers and plant either Potato Mines or Kernel-Pults in their places.
Analyzing the individual plants
I won’t cover the plants that require real money to purchase. You’re wasting your money if you buy them since they’re only there to help you win a little quicker – no stage is so hard that you’ll need to be bailed out by an exotic specimens. Here is a quick rundown of what each standard plant does.
Makes one unit of sun at time. A staple in the early going, and not bad even later on though it’s almost always better to use…
You get this in Ancient Egypt and there’s no reason to turn back. You’ll have to wait for one unit of sun to fall from the sky before you plant one of them, but they’re worth it – after a while, the sun just piles up and you can use it to plant some tremendous defenses
It’s iconic, but not that good. It’s slow and outclasses by others.
This plant is great in Ancient Egypt but average elsewhere, once you’ve gotten access to more powerful alternatives. Its Plant Food move is devastating, though, making it a solid option if you’re the type that saves up a lot of Plant Food to beat back big rushes. It’s best placed as far back as possible. It can also destroy graves in Ancient Egypt.
A staple. It is both cheap and powerful, capable of dishing out lots of damage on top of delaying zombie progress.
It’s free and good. It’s never a bad idea to have one on hand in case you need to freeze a torch-wielding zombie or anything problematic.
It deals a lot of damage because it shoots boomerangs that hurt not only zombies but also graves. A little pricey and not that much of an upgrade over the Cabbage-pult or Kernel-pult, though
A good close-range plant, best used in tandem with the Wall-Nut or Tall-Nut, but outclassed by the Dragonfire.
Amazing – it can flame up to three columns at once, and when used in columns it’s almost unstoppable if protected by Wall-Nuts or Tall-Nuts.
Cheap and gets the job done. It’s more than just a defensive tool. Paired with Dragonfires and Spike Traps, it ensures that zombies go down en masse
Even better. This + the Dragon/Wall strategy is a tall order for any zombie horde to overcome.
Weaker than Wall-Nut, but regenerates its health. Usually not worth it unless you have incredible backup.
Useful for breaking up rolling zombies and dishing out tons of damage while zombies try to chew through nearby Wall-Nuts or Tall-Nuts. Always place right in front of one of those two barrier plants.
Super powerful – can break up multiple rolling zombies and does more damage than the Spike Trap.
One-use plant that blows away all flying zombies. It’s worth getting this in the Far Future before making your way through the Pirate Seas – it’s the best way to deal with the macaws and seagulls.
Shoots lasers. Economical (only 200 sun) for its power level.
Useless. Knocks a zombie back but then has to recharge. Don’t bother.
Also useless. You shouldn’t waste time or sun getting rid of graves. Just use Cabbage-pults, Kernel-pults and Bloomerangs to get rid of them while also damaging zombies.
One-use but worth it. Instantly kills all zombies within adjacent tiles.
Undoubetedly powerful, but impractical. You have to manually fire it. The Plasma is a better bet
Like the Coconut Cannon, but recharges/fires automatically, and is cheaper. A good investment.
Instantly kills the zombie that eats it and then causes that zombie’s gas to temporarily paralyze the rest of the row. You can use these in place of Spike Traps within the Dragon/Wall strategy.
Self-explanatory – a repeating Peashooter. A lot of power, but less versatile than the Kernel-Pult.
Shoots three peas in different directions. A feasible alternative to the Dragonfire if used in numbers
Shoots peas forward and backward. Useful for catching zombies that sneak behind your defenses (usually through the air)
Upgradable and capable of a lot of damage, but limited in its abilities and a bit slow, too.
Tremendous. Does a lot of damage, justifying its high price tag.
The creme de la creme. As powerful as a Coconut Cannon and as versatile as a Kernel-pult.
Disables machines in the area. Worth it for sure in the Far Future to stave off big attacks.
Uses up sun each time it attacks. But its attack is so powerful that the cost is worth it. Pairing it with a good store of Twin Sunflowers and/or Sun-shrooms is enough to hold even huge hordes at bay.
Creates power tiles for plants (i.e., if one plant on a tile uses its plant food move, all other on the tile follow suit). Starts off free but becomes more expensive with each deployment. Not critical to winning, but not useless, eitehr.
A scalable Sunflower – it produces more sun as it goes. A viable replacement for the Twin Sunflower.
A large attacker that damages multiple zombies in the area. Can stand in for Snapdragon in the strategy above
A temporary, short-range attacker. Much better than it lets on: it can be deployed in rows for quick, cost effective damage (each one is free)
Causes zombies that have eaten it to drop sun when attacked. A bit win-moar, but useful if you’re leaning heavily on Magnifying Grasses.
Takes away helmets and metal objects. Not usually necessary except perhaps in a few select Dark Ages levels.
A building block in Big Wave Beach. They don’t do any damage, but you need them for expanding your presence over the water.
Throws a ricocheting bowling ball at zombies. Doesn’t do much damage and is relatively expensive.
Very good. Instantly takes out a zombie in water, for a low cost.
Versatile. Can launch avocado seeds at zombies from afar, or chomp through them across the entire row if its proximity trigger is triggered.
Incredible power and reach, but slow and expensive. Still, a backrow full of these can deal with just about anything.
Essential for getting through Frostbite Caverns. Free and melts any frozen object (your own or an enemy).
Basically an upgraded Cabbage-pult. Doesn’t seem to do as much damage, but heats up nearby tiles to melt ice.
Excellent defense for flinging back big rows of zombies, but you’ll rarely need its power if you just use Wall-nuts etc.
A better Chili Bean. Great stall plant
Not that great on its own, but in rows it’s good since it gives you great coverage and lots of cascading damage.
-Tombstones are annoying, but don’t waste your time with the Grave Buster. It’s free, but planting it wastes time, and the graves respawn. Instead, try this: Plant a wall of Wall Nuts, then back them up with a row of Bonk Choys. Finally, behind the Choys, plant the Bloomerangs. The combination of Bloomerang/Bonk Choy gets rid of the graves, and, paired with the Wall Nut’s defense, mows down almost any zombies. This strategy works like a charm in the plan-your-defense levels in Ancient Egypt, in which you start out with a certain level of sun and can’t acquire any more.
-Early on, you may have a pressing need for mass removal but won’t have enough coins for the power ups. The Cabbage-pult (only 100 sun) is your best bet. Its plant food move (plant food is earned from glowing green zombies and temporarily boosts the power of the targeted plant) is devastating.
-It’s usually a smart move to include the Iceberg Lettuce in your arsenal. It’s free and it’s the best way to stop the flaming zombies.
-It is totally worth your time to use your first key and go into the future to get the Laser Bean (you only have to beat one level there). In the defensive levels, you can set up two Laser Beans in each column and then one column of Wall Nuts – that should be enough to hold back any advance.
-The Dr. Zombie battle is random; get used to this, and don’t expect to wear it down with strategy. Your best assets here are the Iceberg Lettuce and the Cabbage-pult.
-The double sunflower is your best friend – having a row of five is a sun-making machine, but you have to set it up right. A trick to use is to add both the basic sunflower AND the double one to your arsenal. Start off with a few basic sunflowers, then plant some doubles once you have enough sun. That way, you lay the foundation for strong infrastructure while also getting things off to a quick start. Once you get the shovel power ups, you can shovel up the basic sunflowers to recoup some of the cost and then replace them with doubles.
-The Kernel-pult makes the Cabbage-pult obsolete, and it is actually one of the best plants in the game despite costing just 100 sun. It can both damage enemies with kernels and slow them down with butter – its plant food move essentially freezes the entire zombie army for a few seconds. It’s usually a good idea to fill an entire back row with them.
-There are some tricky “protect the endangered plants/don’t let the zombies trample the flower” levels in this world. A good strategy is to build a row of Wall Nuts to protect the flowers, and back them up with lots of Snapdragons for cascading damage. In the levels in which the endangered plants are right near the water, you’ll need to act quickly and build up lots of sun so that you can pepper the back row with Coconut Cannons. These can instantly blow away the cannon zombies before they even launch.
-Symmetry is the name of the game. Maybe it’s just because I’m OCD, but it pays to be consistent in how you construct your rows – adjacent Snapdragons do more damage, and Lightning Reeds have a better chance of zapping zombies if you group a few of them together. Wall Nuts and Spikerocks are also good plants to put together:
-The mine carts give you a lot of flexibility in moving powerful plants up and down. It’s tempting to put a Coconut Cannon in one of them, but a better bet is the Repeater or the Threepeater. The latter does widely distributed damage, but the Repeater is arguably a better deal – remember that its plant food power up can be exploited after you start it by moving the cart up and down so that you can pick off zombies across multiple rows.
-The Chili Bean is amazing – for only 50 sun, you can instantly kill a zombie and paralyze an entire row for a few seconds. Don’t upgrade to the Chili Pepper for $2.99, it’s a ripoff.
-The Melon-pult is ridiculously powerful, but its high cost and slow rate of fire make it hard to utilize, especially in the complex levels with tons of chickens. You’ll need Lightning Reeds to fend off those chickens, which can easily slip past your other defenses.
-The Laser Bean is deceptively powerful – it makes huge rows of regular, unupgraded/non-hardened zombies easy to deal with. But it’s more useful in Ancient Egypt than here.
-The power-up squares are interesting, but the strategy is usually simple: put two Winter Melons on matching symbols and watch as you clear the board each time you get ANY Plant Food. However, it’s also worth putting Twin Sunflowers or just plain Sunflowers on the tiles for huge sun bonuses to power.
-Magnifying Grasses! These guys are amazing. Once you get them, you’ll need almost nothing else. They can kill most zombies with a hit, and their Plant Food Move is great. Try it with the power-up squares: it’s a complete board-clearer.
-The Sun-shroom is a good replacement for the Twin Sunflower. It’s cheap to plant and it’ll reward you in short order
-Puff-shrooms are the backbone of good strategy throughout the Dark Ages. Plant them back to back to give you free short-term damage and deterrence. You won’t need much attack other than these and maybe a few Magnifying Grasses here.
-The strategy at the top of the page isn’t so great here due to the preponderance of gravestones and potion-enhanced zombies. Keeping tidy rows won’t be as easy. Lean on the temporary threat of Puff-shrooms as well as the raw power of Magnifying Grasses (backed by Sunflowers and Sun-shrooms!) to carry the day.
-Magnet-shrooms are overrated. They can weaken a group of bucket heads, but most of the the time you can beat them down anyway with Melon-pults and Snapdragons.
Big Wave Beach
-The Lily Pads are a necessary evil for expanding your reach in most levels here. They don’t do anything except give you a base to plant more plants on the water.
-Tangle Kelp should be utilized in just about every level. They’re useful for taking out the tough surfer zombies and other armored zombies.
-Bowling Bulbs are pricey for what they are. You can usually get a better setup by just waiting to build Banana Launchers that can take out just about anything.
-Guacodiles are really good and cheap. But be careful of using them in levels where you can’t lose more than [x] plants – each time one goes off chomping, it’ll count against your total.
-The Hot Potato is essential for just about every level here to stop the big rows of ice blocks that the zombies will push over your defenses.
-Use Snapdragons as part of the standard defense described here in intro; they’re even better here since the flames also help melt any frozen plants pretty quickly.
-Stay away from expensive plants like Banana Launcher in this stage, since the winds and the ice blocks make it hard to build up and sustain a major legion of plants. Stick to Pepper-pults, Snapdragons, Stunions and Rotobagas.
A recent thread in /r/AskReddit posed a similar question. The comments were revelatory, with plenty of resigned jokes about the heat death of the universe, antitrust proceedings, and the (unlikely) rise of Bing being the only ways for Mountain View’s best to be bested:
- “The first and most obvious way to cause a decline might be from some sort of anti-monopoly judgement being levied on them causing say for example the search engine portion of google, to be split from the part of google that manages android and chrome.” – /u/icantrecallaccnt
- “The heat death of the universe. Though they’ll probably buy some quirky startup that’s figured out how to reverse entropy and remain in business forever.” – /u/SoresuMakashi
- ‘The Big Bing’ – /u/tenillusions
- “If Chinese mega-sites and portals decide to really take expansion outside of their borders seriously. Baidu, Tencent et al are well on their way.” – /u/Tuxedo_Superman
Granted, there were some thoughtful responses that probed Google’s complacence and ongoing alienation of its important demographics (advertisers, developers – note: not end-users). But I think the issue isn’t so much that Google has gotten fat and happy and turned into Microsoft 2.0 (riding Search, Maps and Gmail the same way Ballmer et al rode Windows XP and Office). Rather, the issue is that Google is desperate.
Odd word choice? Not really – Wired picked up on it recently, too, with the keen observation that the middling Google+ has left Google clinging to ever-declining per-click costs while trying to find something – anything – to help it keep pace with rivals such as Facebook, that, despite having nowhere near Google’s profits, have arguably staked out a better slice of smartphone attention spans. I have often made fun of Facebook for being essentially a channeling of some of the best talents in computer science toward the end of designing hamburger buttons and click-by-accident advertising, but I admit that its new mobile strategy – discrete offerings for messaging, news, etc. – amplifies the threats to Google’s Web-centric business model that have always resided in walled-garden apps.
Still, you’d be hard pressed to find much appetite in the mainstream technology media for examining Google’s weaknesses. In contrast, Apple – the world’s most profitable company – is often construed as facing near-constant extinction if it doesn’t, say, release a smart watch in the next two months. The inimitable Horace Dediu succinctly broke down the double standard in his post, “Invulnerable” –
“I suspect the absence of scrutiny comes from Google being seen as an analogy of the Internet itself. We don’t question the survival of the Internet so we don’t question the survival of Google — its backbone, its index, and its pervasive ads which, somehow, keep the lights on. We believe Google is infrastructure. We don’t dwell on whether electric grids are vulnerable, or supplies of fuel, or the weather.”
I would go a step further and say that 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 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.
The signs are there, though:
-Let’s start with Android. Android was a defensive land grab to stop Microsoft and then Apple from shutting Google out of mobile. It has succeeded in terms of worldwide adoption, but it confers on Google nowhere near the profits that iOS has on Apple. Maybe that’s not a fair comparison, but it’s symbolic of how Android was never designed from the ground up as a sustainable business but as a vehicle for legacy Google services (there hasn’t been a really great new Google service since Maps in 2005).
As such, Google is always tinkering with Android to make it less like an open source project and more like its own Google service. Peter Bright’s article on forking Android understandably struck a nerve with Google, which is awkwardly trying to maintain Android’s chief competitive advantage (no licensing fees, tons of customization possibilities for OEMs and carriers) while bringing it further under Mountain View’s umbrella.
-One of the best revelations of the ongoing Samsung-Apple legal battle is that Samsung really would like to move on from Android. Samsung isn’t a great leader, but the fact that it would even consider something as nascent as Tizen to take the place of Android on its smartphones lines is telling.
-Google Glass reeks of desperation. Jay Yarow of Business Insider insisted that Google botched Glass’ launch, ensuring that it would never take its apparently rightful place as the successor to the iPad as the next big thing in consumer tech. It’s a computer for the face, with no obvious use case as yet, a crazy price tag, and understandable cultural stigma. Tech media were wrong to puff it up as the Next Big Thing, but consider also the absurdity of this situation: Google is trying to sell a terrible HUD in order to get out ahead of the competition, like Apple did to much better effect with the iPod and then the iPhone.
-It’s not just Glass, either. The Nest acqusition, the Boston Dynamics aquisition, and the obsession with “sci-fi” projects at GoogleX. – Google could be looked at as “shooting for the moon.” Or, it could be viewed instead as desperately trying to find any revenue stream alternative to mobile ads, which just don’t work like desktop ones do and, moreover, are subject to intense competition from social networks and messaging platforms.
-The sci-fi thing merits more attention. Forever ago, I wrote this about Google Glass and its ilk:
“By “the future,” commentators usually mean “a reality corresponding to some writer or creative artist’s widely disseminated vision,” which shows the odd poverty of their own imagination as well as the degree to which they often underestimate the power of creative artists/humanities types to drive technological evolution. But can human ingenuity really aspire to nothing more than the realization of a particular flight of fancy? Should we congratulate ourselves for bringing to life the technology from a reality that doesn’t exist?”
Trying to actualize the fantasies of sci-fi is not forward-looking; it is, by definition, backward-looking, with respect to someone’s text or vision about what was possible in the past. If someone created a real Death Star today, it would be impressive – as a testament to madness. Why would someone exert such enormous, concerted effort at recreating a technology conceived for recreational purposes in the 1970s, by individuals who had no idea that smartphones, MP3s, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and on on would be invented?
To analyze sci-fi is often to analyze what it doesn’t conceive of. I watched Gattaca recently, a 1997 movie with a setting in the far future. What was in this high-tech future? Big, hulking desktop PCs and keyboards. Sci-fi is the product of constrained imagination (“the future is hard to predict” – Captain Obvious), but imitating it is even more self-defeating. For this reason, I am immensely pessimistic about the prospects of any of Google’s top-secret projects being a breakthrough that would expand its business or appeal in meaningful ways. Sci-fi is a small porthole on the future.
-Google’s customers are advertisers and other businesses, not individuals. It reaches the latter by its presence on platforms that belong to the former – think its default search engine deals for Firefox and Safari. There’s not any real competition on those fronts for now – Bing is good but has lithe mindshare, and Yahoo is still locked into its deal with Microsoft. But Marissa Mayer is driven to displace Google on iOS, and Apple and Yahoo have a good relationship (Yahoo provides the data for Weather on iOS, for example). As MG Siegler has pointed out, it seems implausible that Apple would go on subsidizing Google, enabling it to make so much money off of iOS, money that it can channel into Android.
-Once one gets into the “Google isn’t invulnerable” mindset, it’s easy to see everything as a weakness, sometimes without good reason. But think about its efforts to bring Chrome OS apps to mobile devices. Such a tack seems defensive – a way to halt the decline of the Web and keep matters squarely in the realm of JS, HTML and CSS. I’ve often argued that Chrome OS is more of a breakthrough than Android (it has the potential to disrupt both the business model of Windows PCs and the essential appeal of tablets), but it looks like it could turn into just a moat for Google’s existing (and, to be fair, highly profitable, at least for now) Web businesses.
-Google+ has become the DNA of Google services. Its profile system is a way of indexing Internet users. It has succeeded in helping Google collect more nuanced data, even if it hasn’t exactly done much to blunt the impact of Twitter, Facebook, and others. But now that Vic Gundotra is leaving, Google+ looks weirdly quaint – like nothing more than Gundotra’s messy senior project for getting hired by another firm. There are already rumors that the Google+ team will be split up and sent to other projects (in the same way that the Google Reader team was once chopped up to work on Google’s initial forays into social).
Look, Google isn’t going to turn into AOL or Yahoo. But it should be increasingly apparent that Google is not synonymous with the Internet at large, and is not guaranteed to constantly occupy so much mind share.