Aral Balkan asked me to “cut to the chase, Bruce: do you find anything wrong with the business models of Facebook & Google (monetising data)?”
It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about, but it needs more than 140 characters, so here goes. Note that these are my personal opinions. I work for Opera, which has business relationships with Google, Facebook, and its own advertising arm of the business.
But I also use Google and Facebook services privately so have my own views as a user; again, these are my opinions, not those of my employers.
I work on the web, but at home on my own, so I use Facebook and Twitter a lot. Not only is it useful for discussing work, but it’s my “watercooler”. I don’t mind that the personal stuff I write is publicly available, although I keep my location secret and no longer put the names of my kids online. (Facebook stuff isn’t public. I only really use it as it’s where non-geek real-life friends are.)
I don’t much mind that Google tracks my searching habits around the Web (although I would pay money not to have to watch Treehouse Woman again on YouTube, because she’s too shinyhappy, and puts her coffee down on a wooden surface without using a coaster).
The annoyance I find is offset by the fact that I understand why they do this; it’s how they make money to support the services I use for free, which are primarily Search, Gmail and YouTube. (I get no benefit from Google+.)
In short – I understand that “I am the product being sold”, and am OK with that. Similarly, I’m fine with getting tailored money-off vouchers for products that I use, sent to me by supermarkets who know what I use because they monitor it. I opt in, because I see value in that. You may not; that’s fine.
As long as the companys’ privacy settings are both clear, and honoured by the company, I don’t see this data gathering and data mining as inherently intrusive. I’m not sure that all companies privacy settings are sufficiently clear, however; I read a case study some years ago in which a good-sized sample of people were asked what privacy settings they had on their social networking, and it was compared with the actual setting – very few matched. The Facebook Android app permissions are certainly opaque.
Perhaps companies that do monetize data could make their privacy settings more transparent, and be even more obvious that the price of free is your data. But I think the latter is pretty obvious to those who give it a little thought; we can’t always handhold stupid people. There should certainly be a simple method to delete all one’s data and history from public view, and which will be removed from the company’s server/ archive within a defined period of time.
What annoys me most is when people or organisations use my data without my permission. For example, a few years ago, my wife had a minor car accident. Somewhere in the chain of insurance company, loss adjusters and repairs garage, our phone number was given to an unauthorised third party and occasionally I receive a phone call from a call centre trying to sell me “no win, no fee” ambulance-chasing legal services.
But beyond annoyance, what alarms me is secretive State intrusion into my life through my digital tracks. I assume that all companies – whether a supermarket loyalty scheme or a social network – regularly comply with warrants from law-enforcement agencies going about their legitimate work.
Let’s assume that the social networks and search engines, as they claim, don’t just hand over all their data to the governmental snoops. It then seems to me that, unless they’ve been fantastically lax with their security – which is certainly possible, but unlikely, given that it’s their core cash-generating asset – they can’t be blamed for the actions of the government.
We know from Edward Snowden that some companies’ data is just wholesale hacked by NSA, GCHQ and other state bodies. The legality of this is being debated in courts at the moment. The morality of this is clear (to me): it’s wrong. “If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear” is the refrain of the KGB, the Gestapo and every despot across the globe.
Government intrusion isn’t new. When I was a teenager, I joined a communist party. My letters from them were always opened (and no others). Presumably, this was done actually by the UK Post Office on police orders – that is, complete collusion, even thought there was no warrant or reason to fear an idealistic but naive 17 year old. It’s also long been rumoured that the voting slips of all UK communist voters were cross-referenced against their counterfoils and the names of communist voters given to Special Branch and MI5.
In short, to answer Aral’s question: I don’t feel that commercial organisations using data that I’ve opted to provide them, for the purposes they said they’ll use if for, is wrong. It’s part of modern capitalism, which contains plenty I have to hold my nose about, but that’s a much longer blog post which I can’t be bothered to write.
The worrisome aspect is states illegally stealing our data from those companies, and putting us under constant surveillance, justified by keeping us safe from this year’s bogeymen.
But those same social networks and web companies allow us to share information on what they’re doing and organise in order to protest against it. The tension between individual liberty (I believe privacy is an integral part of liberty) and state control is not new. The threat may be greater because of technology, but the platform to fight it from is greater, too.
The South By South West conference has published its First Timer’s Guide with such nuggets as advising readers to drink water and “Be sure you know the name of your hotel”. In my customary mode of unceasing public service, I offer some more tips:
Wipe your bottom after every poo. Wipe from front to back.
Do not put a sharpened pencil into your ear, then smack the side of your head against a wall. This may drive the pencil through your Eustachian tube and into your brain.
If any panellist mentions Postel’s law, Fitt’s law or Moore’s law, loudly applaud their effortless erudition. However, if a food retail operative mentions “Cole’s Law”, they are referring to salad consisting primarily of shredded raw cabbage.
If a tiger escapes from Austin Zoo and, maddened with fear and hunger, races into a conference session that you’re attending, don’t embarrass yourself by falling victim to the tiger-petting anti-pattern.
If a stranger asks you if (s)he can see your genitals, say “no” in a friendly but firm voice. (Video tutorial)
Even though this is your first time, tell everyone you meet that “it was much better back in ’07″. Everyone will love you.
(It was much better in ’02 when I was hanging with Cory Doctorwho and David Byrne at the Jackalope. Of course, nobody went to the Jackalope, then.)
I got a call last night over dinner from “Charlotte” at “PC support”. As usual, I like to record them keep them talking for as long as possible, to waste their time and in the hope that they’ll blacklist me. I got Charlotte so grumpy that she hung up on me after 5 minutes.
I’ve been doing a lot of flying lately, and can’t use the lappy on a plane so decided to read computer books (so the boss can’t berate me for enjoying myself on company time) and review them, actually on a blog rather than simply tweeting “Awesome!” or “EPIC FAIL”.
Presumably because I have incriminating photos of Zeldman, the A Book Apart people send me free copies of their publications, but they haven’t asked me to review them, let alone required me to be nice.
This book accompanied me to Bulgaria and I was, I confess, pretty sceptical. I’ve seen a lot of hand-wavy “design and inspiration” talks at conferences (“Look at the lovely Flickr images, I’ve got an iPad, aren’t we all awesome“). I’ve also seen lots of scarily aggressive Americans talk about how they went from start-up to millionaire in less time that it takes me to get around to scratching my balls in the morning, and disliked those talks even more because they displayed a very un-British lack of taboo about money.
Therefore, I was worried that a book about design and money would be some ghastly hybrid of this: “Hey, we’re all children of the universe which is awesome and like, totally full of, like, emptiness. So make all your websites full of whitespace, then grab that mofo and leverage it into the dollar domain!”
My fears were unfounded. Firstly, there is precisely zero designer handwaving in this book. The author explicitly rejects that:
A designer requires honest feedback and real criticism, and that’s not going to happen in a realm where colleagues or clients are worried bout crushing the spirit of a magical being. The sparkly fog of affirmation gets in the way…A designer solves problems within a set of contraints…a designer understands goals…
There is money talk, as there has to be in a book called “Design is a Job”. But there was even a section entitled “Your ethical responsibility” in which Monteiro writes
You have a responsibility to the community at large to make sure that what you’re signing up to design is worth being designed…So before you take on a client, ask yourself whether the problem the client is asking you to solve is one that you feel good about attaching your name to…There is absolutely nothing wrong with making money…but making it to some else’s detrimnent makes you complicit in that persons’s downfall. If a product you design does harm, then you have done harm.
The author (who I’ve never met and know nothing about) comes across to me as a craftsman – someone who takes pride in the job he does, and the wider craft, but who wants to make an honest living doing it. Whether it be design, or branding, or coding doesn’t really matter. Monteiro writes about design because that’sd what he knows best, rather than because the points made in the book are only relevant to product or web design.
Standout chapters for me were the ones that deal with sticking to your own process and the importance of having lawyers. If I were ever in business by myself – regardless of what type of business – I’d keep those chapters close by me.
To conclude: I’m surprising myself to be recommending this book, even though I expected to hate it. Lots of practical advice, written without bullshit in a voice that seems Monteiro’s own rather than that of his editor or publisher, and which can be read on a couple of European flights.
I had tickets and meant to go to the Apple developer conference yesterday, but took the wrong train and ended up at the Acme wooFone Worldwide Developers Conference instead. As I was already here, I decided to stay and, for posterity, here are my tweets.
10:00 am: Music stops. Audience members begin moistening. Some consumer electronics are about to be shown!
10:02 am: Not-Steve looks sharp as hell, bluejeans and black button up shirt, sou-wester and novelty Hello Kitty aqualungs. Crikey, he’s good looking. I mean, phew. Oh wow! I’m sure he just looked at me!! Hi, Not-Steve!! I love you, Not-Steve!!!!
10:07 am: “Our goal has always been to do great work, and in doing so, make shitloads of money.”
10:15 am: Holy Crap! Acme vacuum cleaners: instruction manuals in 4 new languages, including Aramaic!
10:20 am: Ask-the-Acme AnswerTastic™ any question about root vegetables or Nicaraguan pogostick champions! 24/ FUCKING 7 !!!!!!!!
10:25 am: Ask-the-Acme AnswerTastic™ has 2 different voices – John Inman from Are You Being Served, or comedy Latvian! Awesome!
10:26 am: Lady next to me has full rectal prolapse due to excitement.
10:29 am: Also, Acme Nut-o-lump ScanFabulous™! Rest testicles on screen and it instantly detects any change in density, shape or volume!!!!
10:31 am: Acme Laydee-Bump ScanFabulous™ Companion model for ladies nestles between breasts and performs similar function.
10:38 am: All devices to be 10% smaller due to government of Somewhere Poor agreeing to reduce legal of age of the children mining raw materials. Crowd goes Wild!
10:42 am: Wow! The Acme Upload-a-Foto™ feature brings NATIVE #HTML5 UPLOAD STUFF OFF PHONE TO THE FUCKING CLOUD !!!!!!!!!!! A Miracle!!! Now, you can TAKE A PHOTO on your device AND UPLOAD IT TO A WEBSITE. Competitors must be trembling now!!!!!!!!
10:44 am: entire front row hyperventilate and are stretchered out.
11:00 am: Acme Hipsta-Helpa™ brings turn-by-turn navigation to guide hipsters to the nearest wanky bar for microbrewery beer and obscure music!
11:07 am: Man in front of me with elaborate facial hair and a skateboard spontaneously human combusts. It’s what he would have wanted.
11:10 am: Acme wooFone now with HDMI !!!!!! HDM – FUCKING – I !!!!!!! Which stands for “Handover Da Money, Idiot”. Cloud-based! always-on! Social! HDMI!!!!!
11:12 am: The exclamation mark key on my keyboard falls off.
11:15 am: Ushers issue umbrellas (with “I love Not-Steve” slogan) as there is a tsunami of body fluids squirting from the press gallery.
11:18 am: Two minutes hate start. Android phones ceremonially burned.
11:20 am Keynote ends. Without a doubt, the most important day in human history. He has gone, but His legacy is with us. Not a dry seat in the house.
I needn’t have been too scared. The first talk was on CoffeeScript which seemed to me quite intriguing as it (seems to) encourage you to continue thinking of JS as JS (rather than turning it into Java or some such horror) but smooths away some of the syntactical gotchas that get on my moobs. (See Mike Davis’ write-up.) However, I’m a great believer in not cheating until you know the rules properly, so I’ll be delaying CoffeeScript until I’m more confident in my JS.
The second talk was Phil Hawksworth “Excessive Enhancement – Are we taking proper care of the Web?”, which wittily harangued developers to ensure there is proper semantics underneath the JS shizzle and CSS bling – a subject dear to my heart recently. (And he even quoted me, which is nice!)
The talk on Cloud9 IDE by Rik Arends was a bit of a product pitch, but interesting. I wonder if it works across all browsers?
Glenn Jones’ “Beyond the Page” talk discussed – and demoed – techniques and emerging standards/ idioms to make Web sites less separated from other apps. We saw Drag and Drop, Web Intents etc. Some evil hackery, too!
Brendan Dawes always scrubs up nice and today was no exception. Although he’s a quivering Flash-lovin’ aesthete (albeit with a Northern accent), he had the techy crowd warming to him and then in stitches with a stream-of-consciousness talk about creativity, new interfaces and expensive pencils.
Last on was Marcin Wichary from Google, who talked of Google Doodles. Who knews that they user-test them? It was a fascinating talk and the good news is that he’ll be blogging about them in the future.
FullFrontal was a super day. The after party had lavish quantities of free grog. The venue was quirky and fun, with free coffee all day. Each talk was handpicked – in fact, everything about the event was curated by Remy and Julie. I’ll be going next year (although not staying in the Travelodge, Preston Road, which was a dump, and nothing to do with the event).
There have been a few stories lately for investors rather than techies that have a few inaccuracies, probably because they’re written by finance/ business journalists rather than tech journalists. (Nothing wrong in that; I know my HTML5 from my CSS but couldn’t tell a gilt-edged bond from a derivative.)
Here a few notes for analysts and journalists that might chance upon this blog.
By 2016, more than 2.1 billion mobile devices will have HTML5 browsers, up from just 109 million in 2010.
Before the expansion from “just” 109 million to “more than” 2.1 billion makes you rush out and leverage your portfolio, we need to know what our anonymous author means by the term “HTML5 browser”.
If you define an “HTML5 browser” as one that supports all features of HTML5 then there are precisely zero in existence. (You’d need to define “HTML5″, of course, but that’s anotherstory.)
If you define an “HTML5 browser” as one that can consume some HTML5 features, then all browsers are “HTML5 compliant”.
Please, dear analyst/ journalist friend, define what you’re talking about before giving precise figures and talking about accelerating adoption. (I’m always up for being contacted – email bruce at this domain – if you need to check something out, by the way.)
Our anonymous author quotes a Mark Beccue saying “I believe that Apple will be the key driver of HTML5″. Mr Beccue is, of course, at liberty to believe what he wants. Until my nephew was three, he believed that there was a creature that lived in the toilet called The Poozilla (I’d like to apologise to him publicly here). Believing it doesn’t make it true.
There are many claims to be the “driver” of HTML5. Opera began it, of course; Ian Hickson edits the spec and works for Google so you could argue that Google is a driver. As you like, and whatever gets you a better headline.
The truth is that browser manufacturers are driving it collaboratively because if browsers don’t render HTML interoperably, developers will use some proprietary technology instead. (This doesn’t have to be a prosaic truth: the fact that all browsers are working together on HTM5, if not on other technology, is quite a story.)
Consumers benefit from interoperable webpages: most people use multiple devices and browsers; it’s stupid if you can use your bank website on your work machine, but not your Linux netbook or phone. There are significant advantages to HTML5 over HTML 4 for developers.
Mr Beccue (or the anonymous author channelling Mr Beccue, as we are denied any link to Mr Beccue’s full analysis) believes that Flash will imminently disappear:
One important HTML5 feature, video, is making a play to challenge the popular Adobe Flash Player plugin software…“I think the disappearance of Flash is closer than people think”
There are numerous reasons why Flash may be a more appropriate way to deliver your video content. Perhaps you need DRM, or adaptive bitrate streaming, for example.
Also, dear journalist/ analyst, it’s fair to point out that there are numerous problems with multimedia on Apple’s iOS:
However, he gives a list of “facts” asserting “These are not interpretations or opinions. These are facts.”
As it’s just possible that another journalist or analyst might be impressed by Forbes’ vehemence and quote these “facts” without question, let’s give them some critical examination.
You do not build a web site in Flash. The only way to build a website is to use HTML pages, and then to embed Flash elements in them.
This supports the author’s thesis that talk of all-Flash websites is an impossibility. Well, yes, technically. But Flash can be embedded using two lines of HTML, neither of which has any visual manifestation (see Blankety-Blank example) so this doesn’t mean much.
Less than half of installed browsers are HTML5 compliant, with different levels of compliance.
As our wikipedia chums would say “Citation needed”. And, please dear Analyst, see above for the absolute necessity to define “HTML5 browser” or “HTML5-compliant”.
The video element in HTML5 is perfect for basic video players, but Flash and Silverlight are much more suitable for advanced video feature (streaming, caption, interactive features and miscellaneous video effects)
Really? I very much like the text-based synchronised subtitles available on things like Playr or mediaelement.js, which are HTML5.
Streaming is also completely possible with HTML5 video. “Miscelleaneous video effects” needs definition before you can claim that HTML5 can’t do them. (It’s been possible to do things like edge-detection, blend, greyscaling for a couple of years with SVG + native video – see http://www.dahlström.net/svg/filters/video/video-filter.svg in Opera, for example).
The iPony Club
Finally, Business Insider has a video in which “Facebook Investor” Roger McNamee exhibits the kind of breathless anticipation about “HTML5″ that is more commonly found in the minds of the prepubescent heroines of a specific genre of children’s fiction as they describe the prospect of riding Misty Mane, their new pony, for the first time. (From 8’58″ onwards.)
I address the paraphrases, as they’re what get quoted and picked up:
HTML5 is going to change everything. “In HTML5, an ad is an app, a tweet is an app, everything is an app.” “It’s a blank sheet of paper, and creativity rules again.”
I’m not sure how “a tweet is an app” makes any kind of technical sense. And, much as I like HTML5, this isn’t the Renaissance – we’re not seeing some massive resurgence of human creativity because of a new DOCTYPE.
In HTML5, you don’t need to have display ads: Amazon can have a section of its store as an ad. So if you’re reading a book review, you can buy the book right from the page.
As you’ve been able to do for 10 years.
Because HTML5 can make sites rich and interactive, engagement on a site can go from seconds to minutes.
Flash can make sites rich and interactive. So can HTML 4. The key here is “rich and interactive”, not a particular DOCTYPE.
The iPad is the training wheels for HTML5.
Seriously, have a lie down.
(Added January 2012: the offending video by McNamee:)
ParentPay is, according to its Twitter profile “the market leading online payment & dinner money management solution for schools and caterers, used by hundreds of thousands of parents each week.”
It’s quite a good idea – I load up the account by credit card and, as my daughter buys lunch, the account reduces and I get an itemised bill so I can ensure she’s getting her five a day.
The school are supposed to tell her when her account drops below £5, and she’s supposed to inform me. Somewhere in this chain that involves a computer system, harassed dinnerladies and the legendary communication skills of a twelve year old girl, the system breaks down. Therefore, I rarely find out that funds are low until I receive an accusing text at 8.30 am, or on her arrival home when she tasmanian-devils through the family food supplies because she couldn’t afford lunch.
This morning I had just such an SOS text so went to the website. As usual, I’d forgotten my login details (I really want to use my email address instead of choose a username so it’s less to remember). The password reset showed me a splendidly helpful error message:
Showing techy error messages saying “server errors in ‘/AUTH’ application” and a handy snippet of XML is unlikely to assist a user. However, showing error messages that can identify a specific server technology is of tremendous use to hackers – they know which server and potentially which version number to target.
After 20 minutes trying different username and password combos, I got into the system and made my payment – puzzlingly, to an organisation called “Alliance in Partnership”, on a website called “ParentPay”. Eh? Alliance in Partnership sounds like some barking rightwing thinktank. But I persevere.
I want to like ParentPay. I think it’s a good idea and I hope they succeed. But they need to think more about their customers’ experience. Here’s one tip that would make my life slightly easier.
I know that such a thing is currently beyond human ingenuity and no technology exists that could power such a marvel, but perhaps ParentPay may consider a system that emails me automatically when the account drops below a certain threshold, thereby guaranteeing an uninterrupted supply of bratfuel?
Someone from ParentPay contacted me and said, with admirable politeness, that there actually is such an alert facility but only available at some schools and, once checking that my daughter’s school does offer such a facility, showed me how to set it up.
It’s not easy to find (on the page that tells your balance there is the opportunity to sign up for paid SMS alerts, but no option for emails so I assumed it doesn’t exist), but after verifying my email address I am now signed up.
So I beg ParentPay’s pardon is assuming there isn’t such a system, but suggest that they make it more obvious – I think I’m pretty web savvy and couldn’t find it.
And, in answer to other queries I’ve received, once topped up with money, their system has been flawless over the last 10 months.
My friends think I’m a geek and have stopped reading this blog because of its boring techy content. My family don’t understand how I earn my money.
But I’m not a geek. I didn’t see Tron or the Lord of The Rings. I never play computer games. I’m scared of Git and Subversion. I can’t compile a kernel. In fact, I hate computers—I just love what you can do with them.
When I first started professionally in computers in 1988, I was writing COBOL, FORTRAN, 6502 assembler. There were no GUI tools; everything was command line. That was then. Now, I see no reason why I should need to learn some weird syntax to achieve a simple task. (Exhibit A: I was amused yesterday to read the webP converter instructions for converting imageA.png to imageA.webP. Unless you specify the string “-o”, the converter doesn’t convert: “If omitted, cwebp will perform compression but only report statistics.” What’s the bloody point of an extra switch to make it fulfil its sole function?)
I think of non-GUI programs in the same way as I do about going camping. Some people love sleeping in a tent and getting up in the night to walk in the rain to poo in a hole they’ve dug behind a tree. Not me. I spend a considerable portion of my income on a house with a central heating system and three flushing toilets, so there’s no bloody way I’m going camping. You may think it a badge of honour that you can do “sudo dpkg -i –force-all cupswrapperHL2270DW-2.0.4-2a.i386.deb” from memory. I think you’re burying your turds with a trowel in a thunderstorm.
Operating systems are the same. Despite the fervent wishes and protestations of adherents of operating system X (or Y), each demand that you learn a special way of working to accommodate its own idiosyncrasies. Where the operating systems (or browsers, or Word Processors) agree on a method, it’s not because it’s natural, it’s just a thoroughly-entrenched convention. The Firefox UX blogpost Joe’s First Computer Encounter shows that there are very few “natural” interactions with computers.
So by now you’re wondering why I do this job. “Why, Grandad”, you are shouting in my ear trumpet, “Why do you accept a salary from the geekiest browser out there when you’re clearly 200 years past your sell-by date?”
Because, I reply while drooling onto my cardigan, I love what you can do with a computer. I can use VoIP to call someone anywhere in the world for buttons. I can discuss Shakespeare, furry culture or even HTML5 with someone I’ve never met (and will probably never meet), for free. I can do research, download books, read the thoughts of someone in Iran, or Iraq or Peru or Burma. I can listen to music that would never be commercially released, and I can see photos of anywhere I could ever fancy going, read reviews of hotels and book holidays in an environment which is as close to the micro-economic theory of Perfect Competition as we’ll ever see. Because, at the moment, a computer is my best way to access the Web, which connects me to a third of humanity and, when made properly (accessible HTML isn’t that hard, really), is the most democratic, inclusive mode of communication we’ve ever had.
I hate computers. But I love what you can do with them.