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Google in the real world

Google’s parent company, Alphabet, will publish its financial results for the third quarter today.

A couple of weeks ago, I was on a course for work about something utterly unrelated to technology.1 During one presentation, one of the tutors said something along the lines of:

The report of that public inquiry is really easy to find on G—

I mean, it’s easy to find if you search online. I was going to say ‘on Google’, but that feels a bit creepy nowadays, doesn’t it?

It’s the first time I’ve heard someone express that idea in real life, which felt like a significant moment to me. I’m not suggesting that a perception of creepiness is about to make a huge dent in Alphabet’s profits, but it feels like a far cry from the social cachet that a brand like Google once held. It doesn’t feel like that’s a positive place for a consumer-facing brand to find itself, and certainly not for the long term.

  1. It was about commanding the response to major incidents, which is the sort of course which is both incredibly useful and a bit frightening.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Post-a-day 2023, Technology, , .

How much would you pay to keep using Google now?

Five years ago, I wrote a post trying to answer a question posed by an Economist headline: ‘How much would you pay to keep using Google?’

At the time, I used a number of Google service and concluded that I’d happily pay a small fee to use them each month. Five years on, much has changed. I wouldn’t pay to use Google’s services today, and barely use any of them. I thought it worth setting down some thoughts as to why.

Fundamentally, at some point in the last five years—I can’t pinpoint exactly when—Google ‘crossed the creepy line’ for me. Instead of feeling delighted by how the company anticipated some of my needs, I began to feel a little stalked. Worse than that, I had the distinct feeling that Google was increasingly trapping me in a filter bubble, serving up only recommendations and search results that aligned with my preconceived ideas, and filtering out anything that might have challenged me. I began to feel a bit weirded out as Google’s analytics and adverts would follow me around the web. In Love Island parlance, Google was giving me ‘the ick.’

There was no great epiphany; over time I just drifted away from Google’s services.

Five years ago, I’d already mostly moved my search activity from Google to Bing; these days, my default search engine is DuckDuckGo. And, to allow you a peek behind the curtain for a moment, I actually had to go and check that to write this paragraph. When using a browser, I search from the address bar, so I’m not used to typing in a search engine’s URL. I’ve used a variety of providers over time: sometimes I like to use Ecosia because planting trees makes me feel good. Occasionally, I like to use Neeva because I like their ad-free approach. But mostly: I don’t give it a great deal of thought. There’s no significant difference in the quality of results as far as I can see.

When I wrote the previous post, I used Gmail. No more, not least because the web interface has become a bloated mess. I used Proton Mail for a while, but the tight security of the service cost me in convenience, and I ended up moving to and sticking with Fastmail, which has also replaced my use of Google Calendar. I thought that moving my email archive would be a pain, but it was elementary with Fastmail—so simple that I can’t even remember doing it.

Half a decade ago, I said I’d ‘definitely’ pay for Google Maps. These days, I’d undoubtedly pay to avoid using it for most purposes: it seems to have the highest number of junky, inaccurate points of interest of any service I use. For simple navigation, I tend to use Apple Maps—and also often end up using Apple Maps for default on the web because it is built into DuckDuckGo.

I had forgotten that I ever used Google Drive or Google Photos. I use iCloud for storing personal documents, and a variety of cloud services for saving photos, my hope being that at least one of them will stick around for the long term. Likewise, I don’t have a Chromebook, and my default browser is Safari. I do use the Chrome browser at work, but only because the installation of Edge is so locked down on my laptop as to prevent me from using a password manager extension—and Chrome is the only offered alternative.

Which just leaves YouTube. I’m not a frequent user of YouTube for the simple reason that I don’t watch much short-form video, but it is my go-to service for that purpose. I don’t use it enough to have the app on any of my devices. The website is profoundly irritating with its endless ads and trickily worded promos for subscriptions.1 I’d prefer to use an alternative if I knew of one.

I’m also struck that three of the five ‘newer’ Google services mentioned in that post—Allo, Duo and Now—have already closed, underlining the danger of integrating any new Google services into any part of one’s daily life or workflow.

I wouldn’t pay to use Google’s services nowadays: I wouldn’t even be tempted if they paid me, like Bing Rewards. Yet, it strikes me that I pay for many products where Google offers approximate equivalents for free (Fastmail, Neeva, iCloud, photo storage). As I said last time: ‘I am only one person, and I’ve no idea how typical I am in this context, but I wonder if my change in behaviour represents a wider portentous shift for Google’s fortunes?’

The picture at the top of this post is an AI-generated image created by OpenAI’s DALL-E 2.

  1. Asking users to click ‘skip trial’—implying immediate payment—to dismiss subscription ads is clearly intended to confuse.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, Technology, .

How much would you pay to keep using Google?

The Economist’s data team has today published a blog post called “How much would you pay to keep using Google?” Unusually for The Economist, the headline isn’t really an accurate representation of the contents, which actually discuss research findings related to the amount people would have to be paid to give up using search engines in general.

But the original question got me thinking. A couple of years ago, I’d have responded with a fairly substantial sum. These days, I’m not so sure. I wonder what that says about the state of the company?

Google used to be the only decent search engine. That is no longer true. A couple of years ago, I decided to see if it was possible to go all-in on Bing. Ironically, this was somewhat inspired by Matt Cutts, formerly of Google, who gives himself 28-day challenges to test assumptions and better himself. Surely, I reasoned, it can’t be as bad as people make out, nor as bad in daily use as an occasional search to try it out makes it seem. I switched my default search engine to Bing in Chrome and on my mobile.

And do you know what? The vast majority of the time, it is perfectly competent. On very rare occasions when I’m struggling to find something I also try searching on Google: I’d say 75% of the time, I also fail to find what I’m looking for there. I’d also say, without any proper data to back up the assertion, that Bing’s results seem less replete with spammy useless links than Google’s. And Bing’s rewards scheme buys me an occasional coffee. I don’t think I’d pay for Google search.

But of course, Google provides more than just search. Would I pay for other components of their offer?

Would I pay for Gmail? There are perfectly decent alternatives to Gmail, and I rarely use my actual Gmail address but forward stuff to it from elsewhere, so redirecting future mail wouldn’t be a problem. Moving the archive would be a pain. I’d probably pay a small fee—a pound a month?—just to avoid the hassle.

One service I would definitely pay for is Google Maps. I use Google Maps every day and have not found anything that can even begin to compete. Back in December, Justin O’Beirne wrote a great essay on Google Maps’s moat—the content and time barrier which keeps it well ahead of competitors. On these terms, I guess Google Maps is probably the most “valuable” bit of Google to me.

Google Drive is great, but OneDrive is pretty great too. Chrome is my current default browser, but I’d happily switch to Firefox. Google Calendar is actually quite irritating (especially since ‘quick add’ was removed) and I use it only because it’s handy. I like my Android phone, but I’d get by on iOS. I’d be sad to lose my Chromebook, but Windows laptops aren’t quite the horror shows they used to be.

I enjoy watching occasional Youtube videos, but I wouldn’t really miss them if I couldn’t watch them any more. I use Google Photos, but I also upload all of my photos to other cloud services, at least in part because I don’t trust Google not to shut down Photos when it turns its attention elsewhere (à la Google Reader or Google Notebook, both of which closed while I was an active user).

More recent Google developments (Home, Assistant, Allo, Duo, Now) have totally passed me by.

Jeff Jarvis used to talk about “livin’ la vida Google” to describe his complete immersion in the Google universe. A couple of years ago, I’d have put myself in a similar category, but no longer. I am only one person, and I’ve no idea how ‘typical’ I am in this context, but I wonder if my change in behaviour represents a wider portentous shift for Google’s fortunes?

The photo at the top was posted on Flickr by Sigurd Magnusson, and is reproduced here under its Creative Commons licence.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Posts delayed by 12 months, Technology, , , , , , .

Weekend read: Is iOS7 ‘good’ or ‘great’?


Since Apple’s WWDC Keynote, there’s been no end of stuff written about iOS7. As always with Apple stories, the majority of what’s written has polarised into suggesting that iOS’s new look is either “insanely great” or “the beginning of the end for Apple”. And, as always with Apple stories, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

By some co-incidence, I was reading an interesting blog post from Paul Buchheit – one of the original Gmail developers – this week. It’s an old post, written in the aftermath of the announcement of the original iPad. He argues that many successful technology products share the attributes of doing a small number of things extremely well, while (at least initially) doing many other things poorly. The reaction of many commentators will be to criticise what the product lacks, whilst consumers will often be seduced by what the product offers.

It’s an interesting antidote to the reactionary guff that passes for news and reviews in the aftermath of a product announcement, and shifted my perspective to that of the developer in a way that many others try unsuccessfully to do. It’s well worth reading this weekend.

The picture at the top of this post was uploaded to Flickr by Kārlis Dambrāns, and has been modified and used under Creative Commons licence.

This post was filed under: Technology, Weekend Reads, , , , .

Of applications’ independence from devices

Flicking through my Twitter feed this morning, I noticed something about Google prophecying about applications soon been independent on the devices on which they run. I didn’t read any further, but the idea obviously seeded somewhere deep in my cerebrum, as it has been playing on my mind all day.

My initial reaction was “rubbish”. Web based apps are great – I’m a big user of Google Docs – but they’re far from device independent. I can access my Google Docs from anywhere, any computer, and even on my BlackBerry. But I’m not clinically insane, and wouldn’t try and write a dissertation on a BlackBerry. The application might work on one, but that’s not device independence.

But then something occurred to me: Email.

Not so long ago, I used to use Outlook Express to access my email at home. And for a while afterwards, I flirted with various versions of Outlook, Opera, Thunderbird and many others.

In my early years at uni, I had Outlook on my computer and a ZZN email account which would poll the various email servers I used and pull in copies for me to browse on the go when I was away from home.

Later, I had an iPaq – it seems so old worldly now, but it had no wireless or mobile connection. I would only get new email or send emails when it synced with my computer.

For a very long time, my computer was the centre of my email universe. That is no longer true.

Email is one application that is genuinely device independent. My Gmail is pushed to my BlackBerry, but if I’m sat at a computer I’m equally likely to just click onto a browser and access it that way – without a second thought.

I can access it using any computer with equal ease, and with full functionality. Due to their relatively short nature, I’m equally likely to tap out a reply on my BlackBerry as I am to reply via PC.

The idea of waiting, as I did only 5 years ago or so, until I get home to check my email seems hopelessly quaint and antiquated.

Is this level of unity gifted by the nature of email as an application? Or can Google (or anyone else for that matter) replicate it for other functions?

I wouldn’t be so quick to rule it out any more.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Technology, , .

Diary for 3rd August 2008

I’ve just spotted the Google Street View car in Newcastle. Very exciting stuff! «

This post was filed under: Diary Style Notes, , .

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