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Tag Archives: social networks

The problem with LinkedIn

By classical metrics like revenue and profit, LinkedIn is the most successful social network other than Facebook.  Unlike Facebook, however, it uses a seemingly more sustainable freemium business model, which sells your profile to recruiters via premium account subscriptions.  No autoplay video ads to see here.

But have you tried to actually use LinkedIn’s apps? They’re embarrassing failures of both concept and execution. AFAIK, their Android app doesn’t use native code and is outdone by 3rd-party clients like DroidIn. Their iOS Contacts app can’t add contacts, naturally. And their Web interface makes basic tasks, like changing your default email address, into labyrinthine ordeals (but it is good at showing you whom viewers also viewed and people I may know – thanks for the lesson in creepiness, and more on this below). For a company with $100s of millions in revenue, why can’t LinkedIn create either a fundamentally useful mobile experience or a Web experience that isn’t just a way to show off how it tracks profile searches?

Inertia, I think. When a category leader becomes entrenched against seemingly any competitor, it (and the writers who chronicle it) began to question the importance of quality or user experience. You can see this in mantras about how it “didn’t matter” that BlackBerry made ancient legacy devices that were out of touch with consumer trends because every serious CIO wouldn’t give up his Torch, or how it didn’t matter that the iPhone made hardware keyboards obsolete since real business users wouldn’t tolerate a software-only keyboard, even it it did have impeccable quality.

Well, let me say: experience and quality always matter. If a device or service is shittily designed, it will suffer, eventually. No one notices this, even after the fact, because it often takes so long for the bottom line to take a hit that observers have already moved on. For example, a forward-looking Cassandra might have thought that the debut of the iPhone 3G in the summer of 2008 would have spelled immediate doom for BlackBerry, which accordingly should have nosedived any day thereafter. It actually hit an all-time high during that summer, and sales increased every single quarter until early 2011. It weathered the first four iPhones, the first two iPads, and its own disastrous release of the PlayBook! As Paul Graham says: revenue is a trailing indicator. It can continue rising even as sickness sets in and waits for the kill.

To compound issues for LinkedIn, its dated design (which in its mobile agnosticism still looks like something built for Win XP in ~2005) may seem just fine to its users, 80% of whom are 30+ and who came of age before mobile-first app design, when niceties like iOS 7 and Android Holo were just twinkles in Silicon Valley engineers’ eyes. It also has a level of creepiness that I think should make even Facebook blush. I won’t try to innovate in pointing out the oddities of both People You May Know and People Also Viewed: there are two excellent articles about those subjects here and here. But I have noticed that LinkedIn does indeed have a knack for knowing that I “may know” an ex-boyfriend in another country who was not even in the contacts directory of my LinkedIn-linked email address. And, yep, it looks like the “People Also Viewed” ribbon for most profiles is populated by LinkedIn’s younger females members.

I’ve mercilessly made fun of Facebook in the past, but LinkedIn may have been the better target all along. It feels like a mid-2000s era dating service (the profile views tracker is particularly indebted to those forerunners) brought up to respectability by a critical mass of older professionals. It also has no real competitors at this point, at least in terms of sheer users. But  for services that rely on critical mass and assume that quality doesn’t matter, problems arise when even one successful well-designed product comes out and infringes upon their space. To wit:

-Facebook: the release of Instagram in 2010 revealed how relatively hard it was to share photos via FB, as well as how noisy and filter-biased FB was. Snapchat similarly exploited disillusionment with FB’s huge data mine, which until then had been seen as one of its most critical strong-suits. Aaron Levie was right to say that the moats that protect a company in one era become threats in the next.

-LinkedIn: Pulse News was a recent LI acquisition, which occurred with minimal noise and received bored looks from the tech press. Why would LinkedIn care about news reading? Well, because news readers are becoming venues for creating and customizing content. The best example here is Flipboard and its custom magazines. What if someday Flipboard let you create your own resume in a visually rich, interlinked way? LinkedIn would immediately be in trouble – Flipboard would be to software what BYOD has become to hardware.

Acquisitions and copycatting can buy time, but it can’t protect a company against all possible comers. Some of them will succeed in siphoning off a key service into another app/location, like Instagram did with Facebook vis-a-vis photo sharing.

For these reasons, you can never feel that your service is “too good” or that its goodness doesn’t matter. Nothing can be too good – the sweating over quality and details is why Apple remains uniquely advantaged against its competitors, and it’s why Google continues to have little competition in search or maps in particular. I’m kinda scared to think about what a “too good” LinkedIn would look like (would it identify a secret crush as someone I may know? would my brother or alternate email profile show in the “also viewed” ribbon?), but LinkedIn itself had better start thinking about how to get there.

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Why I Don’t Care About Google Glass

Short version: this photo

Long version: For a field that so lionizes technical chops and scientific knowledge, tech is oddly fascinated with fantasy. The geekery of Google’s Project Glass and its computer-on-face ethos is perhaps the most obvious evidence for this phenomenon, but one can grasp it nearly any time that someone references the technology from Star Trek or Star Wars (or Blade Runner, or a cyborg movie) as an aspirational endpoint, or describes something as “the future.”

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?

Maybe. I think that viewing “technology” as the product not simply of a linear progression of machinery but also of contemporaneous creative artistic visions (which don’t necessarily follow a similarly linear path) can elucidate those aspects which make devices, software, and services appealing to people. Most individuals don’t know that much (and don’t care) about specifications, and in many cases likely cannot notice a huge difference between one product generation and another. But despite this general lack of hairsplitting over spec bumps and generation-to-generation changes, people do gravitate toward general product categories while shying away from others. iPad vs Surface, or Android vs BlackBerry, are some examples. In other words, people have good sense in differentiating categories, if not technical details.

But what do some of those more attractive categories have in common? For one, they were not totally obvious when they debuted. The iPad was based on almost no market research and resurrected a category – tablet PCs – which had been abandoned by other companies marching along on their own paths of “progress,” and which completed a circle back to nigh-ancient means of human interface design and input. Android made a wonky Linux-based cellphone OS successful during an era when most computing was still done thru closed-source Windows. And the iPhone? Well “[S]ometimes you see a new innovation and it so upsets the world’s expectations, it’s such a brilliant non sequitur, that you can’t imagine the events that must have lead to such an invention. You wonder what the story was,” is how one man put it.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have too-obvious devices like touch-enabled ultrabooks, the Surface line, and basically everything BlackBerry has released in the wake of the iPhone 3G shattering its reason to exist. They don’t fit into coherent categories, don’t do any single thing well, and only exist to loudly announce that they’re The Future, without doing the work necessary to qualify as such.

Google Glass is obvious. It hasn’t even been released yet and it already has its own mythology, about how it is driving (despite not being widely available) us into the era of “wearable computing” and, more importantly, stealing the mantle of innovation from Apple, who still prefers to do quaint things like wait until a product is finished and salable before thrusting it upon the public. Heads-up displays may someday be a viable product category, but this specific product – Google Glass – is going to be a flop.

Now, I’m obviously no Apple apologist, but the tech press has just gone nuts searching for any sign of weakness at Apple, such that they’re willing to drape Samsung’s specs-loaded, capable but boring phones with the mantle of “innovation” and, now, they’re eager to deem Glass the next phase in computing. It is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the anti-Apple wave, as well as a great litmus test of just how nuts said wave has become: “look! this unreleased product is already disrupting the iPhone!”

I agree with Guy English that wearable computing, for all the presumptive nods it gets in the tech media, is hardly a sure thing and possibly something that just won’t strike a chord with normals who don’t want to become cyborgs. As with the way-overblown demise of Google Reader, the tech press often forgets that it occupies a geeky echo-chamber fed by sites like The Verge and Reddit, in which reactions to things like the end-of-life of an RSS client and the impending release of a cyborg hat have much different currency and urgency than they do with the population at large. What I’m saying is: Google Glass is not a consumer product for average consumer.

It’s perfect for the geek loner/showoff. Accordingly, it has about the degree of decorum and respect for others’ privacy that one might expect from the CEO of the similarly “futuristic” product, Uber, or from Glass-happy Mark Zuckerberg, who will surely bring Facebook’s exhaustive, intrusive status updates to the device. Ok, ok: some point out that we used to be afraid of how cellphone cameras would end privacy and decorum, too. But most cellphones aren’t made by advertising companies who offer lots of “free” services in exchange for data collection, and who also make the 2nd-largest social network in the West. How easy will it be for a secretly captured Glass photo/film to “accidentally” make its way onto YouTube or G+?

Silver-lining: Google Glass, to the extent that anyone uses it, will team up with services like Facebook Home to accelerate social-network fatigue. There will be no escape from carrying your friends list and wall posts everywhere, to the extent that reality itself may end up as a sadder place. The current attitude, often described as solutionism, sees Google Glass a way to “fix” apparent issues like smartphones apparently not being immersive enough (you can turn them off and put them in your pocket very easily, after all, and it’s obvious when you are/are not paying attention to bystanders while using one). It even seems to attempt “fixing” the issue of paying for stuff – Glass doesn’t even allow app makers to charge for their Glass services, or serve any ads.

Google Glass (the specific product/preview) isn’t “the future.” It’s just the best evidence yet of Google’s insistence on force-feeding the world questionable solutions to “problems,” like privacy and smartphones, which aren’t real problems for anyone except for iteration-/sci-fi-minded executives. If someone says something is “the future,” don’t take his word for it – after all, age-old inventions like silverware, shoes, and restaurants (to quote some of Nassim Taleb’s favorite examples) have outlasted literally thousands of years of disruption, and even CDs are still going strong. What we see as “progress” is often nothing of the sort, and Google Glass is a good reminder of that.

15 Useful Android Widgets

Widgets are a quintessential Android feature and one of its clearest differences with iOS. The best widgets provide convenient, live-updating streams of information, easy customization, and rapid access to important functionalities, all from your home screen. In many cases, they can replace the static app icons that you usually use to launch apps. Here are 15 of my favorite Android widgets for Android Jelly Bean and later:

Dashclock Widget

I’ve written multiple articles about this amazing widget. It can become the default lockscreen for your device, and it supports clickable mini-widgets/extensions for virtually every app or service on your phone.

Simple Dialer Widget

If you make calls with your phone, this free widget is a must. It provides a full-screen widget that lists the contacts from the stock People (contacts) app. Each contact is tappable, meaning that you can call them straight from the widget.

Beautiful Widgets Pro

Nice collection of weather, clock, and date widgets, with support for Daydream (Android 4.2+).

Tiny Flashlight + LCD

The most popular flashlight app for Android, and for good reason. Its colorful lockscreen widget lets you get your flashlight in a flash. And why not? You shouldn’t need to unlock and hunt down the flashlight app when you need it in a pinch.

Sound Search for Google Play

A built-in Shazam which analyzes audio and links you to the track in Google Play. It has a great lockscreen widget, which is essential when you need to tag a song before it’s over.

Widget Calculator

A full-screen sleek calculator widget. Like many of the other selections here, it supports lockscreen widgets and as such is handy for calculating tips etc.

Holo Clock

A nifty blue analog/digital hybrid clock. It fits perfectly with icon packs like SMPL Blue. It also clicks-thru to the Clock app so you can manage your alarms, stopwatch, etc.

UCCW

Highly customizable widget with tons of compatible themes and icon packs. Use it for a clock, weather, or as a shortcut to any app.

Reddit is Fun Golden Platinum

This is the best Reddit client I’ve used on Android. Its widget lets you pick a specific subreddit to monitor, and then it lets you scroll thru hot topics and go directly to links and comments from the widget.

Falcon Pro

Full-screen scrollable widgets are the bee’s-kness on Jelly Bean, and Falcon Pro (already one of the best Twitter clients in existence, alongside Tweetbot and TweetDeck) is the cream of the crop in this field. It lets you refresh your feed, compose, or toggle between mentions/timeline from the widget.

Minimalistic Text

This widget presents stylish, plain text readouts of things like weather, time/date, and phone statistics. It’s highly customizable.

Google Keep

I love Google Keep. And its scrollable widget lets you go through all of your color-coded notes, or create new notes/photos/recordings.

Google+

I usually set it to the What’s Hot filter since I don’t have many friends on G+ yet. Also works on the lockscreen.

Flipboard

A nice widget to keep tabs on news and Facebook (I don’t use the Facebook app for Android).

Eye in Sky

The best weather app on Android, and its stylish widget only strengthens its case. It has customizable color schemes, a host of cute icon packs, and read-outs for the entire week ahead.

-The ScreenGrab Team

Google+: No Exit

One of the only drawbacks of the Internet is that it dispels the illusion of independent thought. So, naturally, the WSJ ran a story yesterday about the increasingly intrusive advances of Google+, while I struggled to finish what I thought was a novel piece about how Mountain View’s pet social network, while struggling to match Facebook’s user numbers, could, with better execution perhaps, become both a blueprint for a truly cross-Web social experience and a chilling exemplar of how far Google would force our data thru its social portal. Well, I’ll post it anyway.

RE: the Wsj story, MG Siegler has predictably argued that Google +, like Windows 8, is the emperor’s new clothes, a lackluster project that is rarely called out (not true – it received a tongue-lashing from Farhad Manjoo at Slate). It can’t match Twitter in particular when it comes to the levels of engagement and ease of use, despite its nominally huge user base, which, while huge, obviously lags behind Facebook’s. All of this is basically right, but it misses the point because it overlooks how creepy unstoppable Google+ is. The question isn’t whether Google+ is a dud; it’s whether it can be stopped before it changes how the entire Internet works.

Do you use YouTube or Gmail? Chrome? Then get used to Google +. Like its spy movie partner in arms Google Now, it is blazing a trail toward a future (on Android at least, and that’s not nothing, what with Android accounting for 3/4ths of all smartphone activations) where your data is massaged by a free form service that know nothing about the sandboxes that separate apps a la iOS. Where does Google+ start or end? Unlike Facebook – the ultimate walled garden – Google+ is hard to define. It is a comment stream like Reddit, a reader like Flipboard or Currents, a public profile like Facebook, and a surefire steady stream of Gmail notifications if you make any sort of controversial or insightful comment.

What’s more, it is slowly creeping into the basic DNA of Android. The Nexus devices all come with Google+ preloaded, and even Samsung has begun pushing its Jelly Bean updates out with Google+ preloaded, too. Even beyond it becoming one of those dreaded uninstallable “core” apps, Google+ could become less like a traditional “app” and more like a largely unseen OS component that simply grabs info and modifies your social presence/profile. While I think that such a service would be cool, it would also be incredibly creepy

It isn’t clear whether Google+ can be avoided, especially considering how adept Google is at providing Web services. It still far outshines both Apple and Microsoft in this regard, which puts in the position of forcefully bundling its already stellar services with its perhaps less than optimal (so the conventional wisdom goes) social network. Like almost everyone I know, I rarely dabble into Google+, but I have done so more now that I use the Nexus 4 not only as my phone but as my primary computing device along with my Samsung Chromebook. It reminds me of a hybrid of Flipboard and Twitter, with lots of email spam.

That doesn’t sound so appealing, but with Google Glass on the horizon, and with the growth in mobile data speeds allowing for better video/chat apps like Tango, I feel like a truly “real-time” social Web is just around the corner, and Google+, which seems almost creepily designed to be a liaison between different apps, Google-made or not, could be one of its key pivot points. Searching with Google, or using YouTube or Gmail or Chrome or any of its other myriad services, will eventually be synonymous with signing over information and permission to Google+ and the new Web it is trying to create.

-The ScreenGrab Team