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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 2,437th post was filed under: News and Comment, Posts delayed by 12 months, Technology, , , , , , .

Weekend read: Goodbye Ctrl-S

Back in May, Jeff Jarvis wrote a brilliant reflective piece for Medium about the changing journalism workflows associated with changing technology. His compulsion to Ctrl-S is something that I share, and that I still do even though it is not longer necessary now that I use a Chromebook as my main machine.

Interestingly, one of the biggest changes that Chromebooks have had on my personal working patterns has come from the inclusion of a “search” button in place of the Caps Lock key. I cannot count the number of times I’ve hit Caps Lock on a work PC and typed search terms directly into whatever document I’m working on instead of finding the answers I’m seeking!



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This 2,258th post was filed under: Weekend Reads, , , .

Review: Public Parts by Jeff Jarvis

In Public Parts, Jeff Jarvis counterbalances arguments about the sinister effects of erosion of privacy in the modern world. He argues that openness and sharing, on balance, improve the world. He coins the word 'publicness' to describe open sharing, and argues convincingly that 'publicness' is not the polar opposite of 'privacy'.

This is a book which stimulates thought. I particularly appreciated Jeff's elucidation of the argument that regulation should focus on the use of information that has been shared, rather than the sharing of information itself. I had never considered the concept in this way before, despite it being a common one. I am a doctor: people tell me all sorts of things in confidence because they have a clear understanding that to do so is the best way to allow me to understand their condition, and diagnose and treat them. Occasionally, much of what a patient discloses – which is often deeply private – turns out to be irrelevant. But the code of ethics, not to mention the law, around these interactions means that they can share without fear.

While the patient freely discloses the information, the way in which the information is used remains within their power. They are free to allow me to share it with colleagues if they believe that this might help them (referring them on), or equally free to restrict me from doing so. Even if something deeply embarrassing turns out to be irrelevant, the patient is left no worse off for having disclosed it – and the possibility of benefit was probably worth the disclosure.

This is a single example of the effect Jeff's book has on many of the concepts around privacy and 'publicness'. He helps the reader to assume a different viewpoint on issues. The viewpoint is often one grounded in experiences that the reader already has, or can conceive of, but which they have perhaps not understood from the viewpoint described. This is a powerful technique.

Public Parts also discusses the trickier aspects of online life. It discusses cases where people share things that they perhaps should not have, and where this lack of privacy has caused harm. But he makes a convincing point that we all need to become more 'media competent', and that making the debate about 'publicness' more mainstream will serve to educate and inform, as well as helping to craft social norms in a more considered way.

The style of writing in the book is certainly fast-paced, and I know that others have been critical of this. Few things irritate me more than incomplete, superficial arguments, and so I was a little reluctant to read this book on the basis of those reviews commenting on the fast-paced nature, which I thought would be indicative of superficiality. On the contrary, I found the book well-paced. It discusses issues concisely, not ad infinitum, which I found refreshing. It leaves the reader to do some of the work around thinking through the issues surrounding the arguments. The author does not lead the reader step-by-step through every possible permutation and combination of situations and ideas, as other authors are wont to do.

I particularly enjoyed the discussions around the historical aspects of privacy and 'publicness'. Consideration of these issues is, in my opinion, far too often framed as part of the discussion around modern technology. In reality, there is little that is new about the issues themselves, merely new situations in which they need to be applied. The discussion was illuminated by description of how these debates progressed around the new technologies of the past – from Gutenberg's printing press to Kodak's camera. Similarly, the interviews with leaders in social media (and similar fields) helped to give some real-world perspective on the theories being discussed.

It seems a shame to me that this book has received so little attention in the UK. I get the impression that it hasn't been particularly widely read, which is a shame given that its discussion is relevant to us all. It strikes me that it is a book that could catch on among the political classes, and become widely read via that route. At least, I hope it might.

This book packs an awful lot in to 250 or so pages. It's a genuinely enjoyable read that provides a large amount of food for thought. I highly recommend it.

Public Parts is available now from amazon.co.uk in hardback and on Kindle.

This 2,220th post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

A personal apology to @jeffjarvis

Tomorrow, I'm going to post a review of Jeff Jarvis's Public Parts. Before I do, I feel compelled to write this post, which I probably should have written a long time ago, and certainly before my review of Gutenburg the Geek.

I think Jeff Jarvis is brilliant. I don't always agree with everything he says, but I certainly agree with him far more than I disagree with him. And, beyond that, I respect him. I respect his thoughtful consideration of issues. I respect his decision to live life in public. I respect his high quality writing.

In fact, Jeff's one of the few people whose writing I actively seek out, as I'm always keen to hear his view. I've read BuzzMachine since the beginning. I can't remember how I found his blog – I guess somebody must have linked to it – but I vividly remember reading his first post in the aftermath of 9/11. And I don't think there's any other blog I've followed so consistently since. I also love watching him on TWiG, though I arrived rather late to that party.

But, in the spirit of Public Parts, I feel like I should say something publicly. Jeff: I'm sorry.

I'm sure Jeff won't remember a tiny interaction we had nigh on a decade ago, but it has played on my mind for some time. In the run up to the 2005 UK General Election, Jeff kindly posted a link to my blog on his. This was kind of a big deal. He was (and is) a well-respected, highly trafficked blogger and journalist. I was a teenager blogging from my bedroom. And yet, for reasons I either can't recall or didn't even formulate at the time, I wrote a snippy post about being called a "British blogger" – which I was – and admonishing him for not using the site's trackback facility. Jeff responded with a comment that I've always taken as infused with (entirely appropriate) bemused frustration. Ever since, I've worried that my post might have pissed him off.

I can't explain why I wrote what I wrote. I don't know why my response to praise was criticism. I can only put it down to a certain teenage immaturity and egotism.

You talk in Public Parts about some of the jerks that lurk online. You probably won't remember the incident, but I do, and I think, on this occasion, that I was a bit of a jerk towards you. And I'm truly sorry.

With all of that said publicly, I hope that I can get on and review Public Parts with everything on the table. Which I will do tomorrow.

This 2,218th post was filed under: Headliner, .

Review: Gutenberg the Geek by Jeff Jarvis

Amazon recently boasted of the success of it’s Kindle Singles, novella-length ebooks by notable authors sold at low prices. I understand that Amazon has sold over five million ‘singles’ since it launched the programme a little over two years ago, and they have reasonably recently been gifted their own reserved location in the Kindle store.

Having never read a ‘single’, I felt a little like I was missing out, so I logged on and bought Gutenberg the Geek by one of my favourite media writers (and one-time reader of this blog) Jeff Jarvis.

Given that this is my first ‘single’, I feel I have to spent some time writing about the format. I understand that Gutenberg the Geek is about average in terms of ‘single’ length. Essentially, it seems short enough to read in one sitting, yet long enough to explore topics and ideas in some depth. It seemed much the same length as the longform feature articles in news magazines. Of course, this is a much-lamented length that has become something of a cause du jour, with all sorts of outlets from Matter to NSFWCorp to Longform doing their best to “protect this style of journalism” which they believe is dying, while all the while The New Yorker, Wired and Time continue to publish longform articles. I wonder, really, what Kindle Singles can offer than all of these other “solutions” cannot.

I should, perhaps, backtrack a little here and point out that I really like and admire Matter (which I helped to fund), NSFWCorp (to which I subscribe) and Longform (which I read daily). I don’t mean to sound critical of them. But, while I like longform journalism, it’s a rare morning where I awake from my slumber and think “I must read something long today”. Obsessing about longform journalism makes little more sense than obsessing over making articles shorter and punchier. The important thing is that the right content is in the right form.

I guess the upshot of this is that I feel a bit short-changed by the Kindle Singles format. It feels like a length that should be in a magazine, and that doesn’t quite stand comfortably in isolation. But perhaps that’s down to the novelty more than the form itself.

And so to Gutenberg the Geek. This is a fine, brief biography of Gutenberg which presents him as “the original technology entrepreneur”. As I’d expect from Jeff Jarvis, he gives a convincing account and argument for shining Gutenberg’s achievement through this prism, and uses the light it casts to illuminate modern-day questions around everything from internet freedom to start-up investment. Handled with Jarvis’s typically deft touch, the comparison feels neither strained nor awkward, and never as though the life of Gutenberg is being manipulated to fit.

This sort of thing, I suspect, answers the question about what Kindle Singles can offer. This ‘single’ wouldn’t fit comfortably as a passage in a bigger book, as it’s a self-contained idea. The idea wouldn’t survive stretching to fill an entire standard-length book, without detrimental deviation from the central thrust. And as much as the length may be appropriate for magazine publication, I think it would be difficult to convince an editor to carry what amounts to a mildly esoteric thought-experiment with little new content. Publishing it as a standalone actually works rather well.

So I guess I’ve reached the somewhat circular conclusion that I like the writing of a writer whose writing I like. Gutenberg the Geek presents the life of Gutenberg in a fairly novel way, and left me with much food for thought. What more could I ask for 99p?

Gutenberg the Geek is available now from amazon.co.uk, exclusively on Kindle.

This 2,052nd post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

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