Search as a ‘Service’?

Rather than thinking about the England riots i’ve been pondering what Google’s search monopoly means for the ‘net. This piece, linked to from Daring Fireball, pretty much captures my view of the situation:

I’ve grown nervous about the vast scope Google has over the Internet. Users have virtually no place on the world wide web, no safe haven, no single moment, from Google’s reach.

They are a for-profit megacorp that holds more information about me, my family, and you and your family than any government — and they sell that information, every second of every day to the highest bidder.

They have typically between 75%-99% of the search market in countries around the world and doctor results to put selected results, typically the ones that most directly benefit Google, up at the top. While spending millions and millions of dollars lobbying governments around the world to shield them from monopoly laws, content and publishing laws, privacy laws, no-track regulations and more.

(Before heading off on a flaming screed on how companies in monopoly positions monopolise…)

As things stand, taking any other position than slavish acceptance to this state of affairs, is like raging at the weather. It felt similar back when Microsoft was making hay while the sun shined. Many in the industry felt that it was pointless to dissent, and a common business plan was to get bought up by MS. If you were lucky MS dropped a few million to buy your team, if you were unlucky they spent a few more and built their own…

Obviously MS is no longer setting the direction of the industry, but the industry is no longer ‘the computer industry’. Things have moved on. Now there is a much richer eco-system surrounding ‘information technology’. Also, despite its dominance in search / advertising, Google doesn’t feel entirely analogous to MS. It doesn’t seem to be able to dominate the entire field in quite the same way, this might be simply due to the field much larger and dynamic. Huge changes sweep through in relatively short periods of time. Apple in the consumer device space, for example, has created whole new markets literally over night.

Just as with the MS monopoly, my instinct to explore alternatives. Not just alternatives to Google’s platform, but alternative approaches to the default acceptance to walls of advertising, expectations of privacy. It has been an interesting experiment, there are alternatives in a lot areas, there some things that it no longer makes sense to do. It’s generally more work, even a pain in the arse, and raises a few hackles along the way… still, i’ve learned a lot, and it has given me new perspectives.

However, there is one area where there just don’t seem to be any viable alternatives, and it’s a big one: search. This seems odd to me. Search has obviously become ‘critical infrastructure’ for the internet, and yet it is de facto owned by a single player who appears to have few qualms about dictating the “quality” of results for profit / gain. There are probably a fair few players out there in internetland that are not happy with this state of affairs, indeed it’s already starting to creating silos / islands of data.

The reaction to MS and it’s dominance of the O/S, and consequently application, market was to go open. To start to share the burden of infrastructure development, to publish APIs, reduce barriers to interactions between systems. Back when the platform mattered, the platform was considered to important to closed, locked down, and subject to the whims of a monopolist. The end result, after over a decade, is that MS’s influence declined, and as alternative spawned, the rate of innovation appeared to pick up again.

My big question is: what will be the equivalent response be to Google’s dominance over search?

When the search was an empty-ish field, there was a lot of competition (Inktomi, Yahoo!, Altavista, etc) but over time it because obvious that a ‘winner takes all’ approach made more sense – having a single universal directory is better than either islands of search or aggregation of multiple islands into a single set of results. By ‘made more sense’ i mean, that it was the result that made most sense to the users, it’s what they chose. Whether having a single, almost canonical, central directory for search is the right solutions feels subjective. Maybe it depends on how much it’s possible to value / trust the system by which results are ranked? Tweaking rankings based on what pays best or what you’re algorithmically judged to be looking for… deep questions.

If we assume that users what a central directory, a single place to go to search, where does that leave us in breaking Google’s monopoly? Taking the same approach of opening up the critical infrastructure and distributing the effort would probably work. Projects like YaCY (no doubt there are many other similar projects out there, comment if you know of any…) look to be going in the right direction. Search data is distributed throughout a network of peers, and no one node in the network has complete control.

My prediction would therefore be that it’s unlikely that a single player will come up with a search platform, regardless of it’s merits, that will overcome Google’s monopoly (this reasoning, and perhaps it’s flawed, is also why i think that Google+ will fail to break Facebook’s hold on the SNS field – the network effects are just too big once a service gets past a certain scale). But, a consortium of the major content providers / ISP / tech companies, working out in the open, on a system that benefits all mutually, might just break things open again… or maybe you think that Google also has a monopoly on all the ideas related to utilising an index of the internet’s content?

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Mobile Imprints

Have to say that i agree with quite a bit of this post, especially this opening paragraph:

Google isn’t a web application company—they’re an advertising company. That’s what they do best, and that’s what drives their company. Of Google’s $23.6 billion of revenue in 2009, all but $760 million of it was derived from advertising, and nearly 70 percent of it was from Google’s own websites.

Everything Google does must be understood within this context.

Friends working there don’t seem to feel that they are working in advertising, and that makes perfect sense. One would imagine that the people that built printing presses didn’t feel like they were in the publishing business. (You really don’t want to know how many similar analogies i went through before finding one that was not, let us say, inflammatory.)

To the extent that that Google is planning a scorched earth policy for the mobile market, it would be my feeling that this piece ‘over rotates’. What is described is obviously the extreme position, it would be more likely that the truth (and consequences) lie somewhere in the middle. There probably are people making these kinds of plans within the management / marketing functions of Google, but at the same time, down where the developer meet the keyboard, it seems unlikely that such a direction would, or could, be tolerated.

A lot of Google employees (engineers?) seem to be heavily invested in the ‘do no evil’ mantra, to the point that regardless of what outsiders might believe, it is their corporate culture. No doubt there are also many individuals who in it for other reasons, completely uncaring about the overall direction (just “for the opportunity to work on cool stuff” is one i’ve heard a lot…) but i doubt that’s the majority – even geeks have a conscience!

The other section that i’d take issue with is:

As Android spreads, and the differences between different devices decrease as a result, there will be less competitive differentiation between manufacturers—consumers will, like they do in the PC market, shop based more on price than on who makes the device. At that point, hardware will be commoditized, and building a mobile device business based on a different OS than Android will be incredibly difficult.

This certainly isn’t what has happened in other attempts to standardise in the marketplace (or even by open agreement in standards bodies). The more likely outcome is that the tension between platform vendor, the handset OEM, and the carrier leads to fragmentation. There isn’t really much indication that anything different will happen this time, which isn’t to say that the market won’t end up with commoditised hardware, just that platform will be fragmented and weak.

Perhaps the reason that Apple isn’t being torn apart in the same way is that they are holding two of the pieces–they are the platform and the OEM. If Google is serious about succeeding as a platform then that might be the route that they need to follow. That they backed off from doing this perhaps gives some credence to the underlying tone of this post…

The Chilling Effect?

The ripples from the Wikileaks cable releases are still spreading out into the internet. My initial reaction to the behavior of the likes of Mastercard, Visa, Back of America, PayPal, Facebook, Google, was, rather predictably, anger.

That corporations such as Mastercard and Visa should so easily bend to the unexpressed will of the US administration (resisting the urge to call it a regime…) isn’t all that surprising. Given the obvious connections between management at corporations and their “regulators” it would be easy to imagine an informal word being had, through the usual network of contacts. Contact would of course be unofficial, but the expression of displeasure would make it clear enough that action was expected. Which is not to say that all of the actors need to be similarly motivated – BofA probably feels intimidated enough to strike out on it’s own.

PayPal, being rather new new to game, made a mess of initial statements. First saying that it had been under pressure from the state department, then retracting, and claiming it had acted on it’s own, that there was no intervention from the government. This somewhat let the cat out of bag…

It seems to me that the actions of these financial institutions is worrying, in so much that they are de facto gatekeepers to the will of people to fund causes (causes which haven’t violated laws, but have certainly challenged the power of governments..), but it is not altogether surprising. They are operating in an environment in which punitive actions can be taken against them. Given their prodigious unpopularity, it seems unlikely that public sentiment would move to help them if stepped out of line.

Far more worrying are the quiet actions of the likes of Amazon (denying hosting), Facebook (blacklisting links, locking pages), Google (taking down YouTube videos), Twitter (controversial, but a trend algorithm that can ignore a hashtag as hot as #wikileaks / #cablegate is broken), wikipedia (removing a list of wikileaks mirrors), various ISP, and service providers, etc. Although i’m willing to believe that the US government has high level connections at some of these internet companies, the more reasonable conclusion is that they are actually self-consoring.

It is worthwhile considering why this might be happening. The obvious reason who be that they fear the imposition of genuine censorship, and the resulting public backlash. If they don’t act first and regulate themselves, they can expect to find zealous congressmen / senators (yes Lieberman, i’m talking about you) encumbering them with ill considered (and unenforcible?) legislation, and attacks from the (government directed) press. Another possibility is that they consider their users to be significantly sympathetic to the official message (ie, stupid and brainwashed enough to believe that not knowing is better for them…) that action will lose them less users than inaction.

There is, in my not particularly humble opinion, a worrying trend of commercialization among the internet digerati. This is nothing particularly new, and in fact has been the goal of many internet entrepreneurs for many years; “monetize the web”. However, this has always been balanced by an idealistic (yes, i know it’s a dirty word in a capitalist world) element fighting to hold onto the initial vision of the web as a democratizing / unifying platform for the free and open sharing of information.

If anything positive is going to come out of the current situation surrounding Wikileaks / Bradley Manning it has to be that more people are willing to take a stand against the increasing centralization of information under corporate / commercial control. It seems likely that the battle for the mass-market has already been lost, but the initial skirmishes of a resistance movement are already visible in projects like Tor, YaCy, Diaspora.

Whether it’s still possible to carve channels of free communication through the grey goo of the commercial ‘net probably depends on the actions and support of people like, dear reader, you and i.