Entrepreneurship, Leadership, Strategy

Opportunity hunting on the Internet

You have heard of so many things that the Internet has been promising to change for more than 15 years now. Whether it is the dream of online quality education, or finding dream job vacancies in Mumbai , or finding out amazing travel hotspots, Internet / companies doing online business has/have always tried to position themselves as ‘cutting edge’. I define this as ‘opportunity hunting’ – in essence Opportunity hunting is finding or discovering exactly what you want online!

Opportunity hunting has evolved –

One indicator of opportunity hunting online is the number of search visits on Google. How you may ask? Since the internet has evolved, there has been the phenomenon called the rise of platforms which unlock opportunities. Right at the start of Internet revolution in 1995, yahoo unlocked the opportunity of finding every important thing or ‘opportunity’ online on one single page. Then as the Internet started expanding and opportunities started getting created all over the place, there was the rise of the search engines, which can now be effectively put as the rise of Google circa 2002. Perhaps Google is the biggest ‘opportunity hunting ground’ on the Internet even now.

primary search engine interest graph

Number of searches of key search terms on Google since 2004

Then, in 2004 something happened. Internet started connecting people – first with the rise of Friendster, then orkut and then finally came Facebook. Facebook was a pioneer in what is called web 2.0 today and it unlocked a lot more and different ‘opportunities’ on the Internet. For one, it created social experiences – Check the Facebook widget on the right side of this page to know what I am talking about. Strat.in becomes a great place to hangout because of the people who read our posts, and that also excites authors to contact us!

Parallel to all of this, there was a rise of Wikipedia which unlocked Internet’s opportunity hunting from a knowledge perspective. Who would have imagined that the world’s most diverse encyclopaedia created is by a non-profit organisation? Or that Internet would crash the glass ceiling of knowledge which was till now reserved only for the privileged few who could attend universities? Similar examples of opportunity hunting include other such big platforms!

Right, so there are these opportunity hunting destinations – so how can you leverage them for your benefit ? Thats the moot question, isn’t it?

Here are my tips for opportunity hunting on the Internet

1. At least have a faint idea what you are looking for – That always helps! Even if you are looking for a date or an opportunity to work on a research paper with a professor from a top school in the world – knowing what you want always helps!

2. Start with Google & check out review sites – Typically, on the social web today, there are amazing review sites. Right from imdb or rottentomatoes for movies, to several book review / shopping sites for books – there are amazing ‘opportunities’ that have already been uncovered by people! Do not reinvent the wheel for opportunities such as these – to save time and even money!

3. Do not get overwhelmed with choices – Many a times, people get overwhelmed with choices. When you log on to a job site, do use filters well enough so that you can narrow down to a decent number of filters . Avoiding this situation helps when it comes to opportunity hunting!

4. If an opportunity is good enough, act on it – Indecision or not taking a decision is also a decision, remember that. Like in real life, opportunities do not knock everyday. If there is an opportunity you feel should be taken, then go for it! All great men/women have necessarily taken opportunities which others before them spurned !

What are your tips on opportunity hunting? Let us know in the comments section!

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Business, Leadership

Marissa Meyer can have it all!

Marissa Meyer’s helping prove you can have a successful career and family life at the same time. Mayer  disclosed her pregnancy to Yahoo when its headhunters contacted her about the CEO position. No one on the board expressed an issue with that. She even resumed work within a few days after delivery.

So what are the characteristics the tech leader Marissa Meyer?

Smartness: Marissa Mayer was always smart. She was accepted into every college she applied to — about 10 schools.Mayer finally did her Masters in Computer Science from Stanford.After Stanford, she had 14 offers to choose from. She chose an offer from Google and was Google’s 20th employee.

Passion for her job: Meyer is extremely passionate about her job. At Google she would work from 9:00 am to 8:00 pm. After gymming, she would answer emails till 11 pm. She was totally excited about the potential of technology and her products to change people’s lives.

Persuasive speaker: Mayer is an exceptional storyteller and presenter. Mayer believes pictures are more persuasive than bullet points. Mayer doesn’t deliver presentations. Her slides just complement her storytelling.

Great  motivator:  Mayer isn’t just a good listener. She actively invites her employees to help build the brand. Mayer used to hold office hours at Google where employees would get few minutes of her time.  These interactions were apart from the regularly scheduled  meetings. They were a great way to discuss new ideas. Many of Google’s most popular features got their start during office hours.

 

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Strategy, Technology, Web

The ‘Buzz’ about Product launches & the tradeoffs therein

On Feb 10, Google launched a new social networking product – Google Buzz, right inside Gmail. After that there have been scores of blog-posts regarding the privacy flaws in Google buzz. Clearly the transition from something as personal as Mail to another thing as public as buzz wasn’t going to be simple. The latest update on this issue is that Google has admitted that testing of Buzz was insufficient.

To quote the article,

The BBC understands that Buzz was only tested internally and bypassed more extensive trials with external testers – used for many other Google services. Google said that it was now working “extremely hard” to fix the problems.

PrivacyThis brings us to the controversial question – How much testing is good enough? The last week is indeed an ideal case study about Product launches in the internet world. The swiftness with which the firm has responded to the privacy concern of users is nothing short of legendary, I must say. They created a war room, changes were made live in days across all users and lots of privacy concerns have been addressed already. But could all this have been avoided in the first place?

A brief background about the case in point- The pressure to get this product live must have been immense, given the strategic nature of this product. Facebook, the world’s biggest social network recently got its 400 millionth user signed up. Orkut or friend connect on the other hand weren’t growing as fast. Also, there was a bit of a thinking shift here as well – something that is above routine testing -A friend on Google talk is a two-directional relation ( You have to give specific permission to another contact who wishes to chat with you) while a follower on Google Buzz is a one-way relation. This leads to complications, particularly in the email ecosystem. Hence, there must have been a trade-off between (a) time to go live (b) Testing (c) Philosophical shift from a friend to a follower.

This is just one of the many cases though. A startup can afford to correct such mistakes over time, since they start from ‘zero’ users. However, an established firm cannot afford that kind of luxury. The TTgL (time to go LIVE) v/s adequate testing tradeoff will always exist. How to get it just right is the question in my opinion – Put in your insights in the comments section …

Also, to have your own article on Strat.in , do check our Write a Post section…

Image credits: 1

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Business, Public Issues, Technology, Web

An Overview of Online Privacy and Security (With a Focus on Google)

Hrishikesh Thite is a second year management student at the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta. This unabridged article was originally written as a term paper for a course on Analysis of ICT Markets. It is fairly long, so consider yourself forewarned. There is a summary of sorts, at the end, for those who want to briefly visit the gist of the paper.


Introduction

It is said that the best security is provided by a system that has no access. At all. Unfortunately, such as system would hardly be usable by anyone. There has always been a trade-off between accessibility and security, and usability and privacy. With an increasing online presence and single large corporations owning or collaborating over multitude of services governing the always connected online lifestyle, individual and corporate users need to reevaluate the security and privacy angle. In this term paper, I will examine the policies of Google and its partners in the context of security, privacy and convenience.

There are broadly two areas to consider: The first is the service provider itself, which in this case is Google, and the second is the system that connects the service provider to the end-user, which would mean the Internet and the users’ local ISP etc. It could be argued that Google has no control over the network, but there are ways of securing the network, such as with the use of HTTPS, that needs to be adopted and implemented by the service provider. Yet another classification is to look at security from the perspective of raw data and physical access security, while the other involves looking at security from the logical or intellectual property perspective.

Google, Privacy & Security

Google states that[1]

  • It does not own any user data
  • It will not share it with any third-party
  • It will allow users to keep it as long as they want
  • It will allow users to extract data from its services

However, most of the above points raise follow-on questions. The first point is a no-brainer. Other providers, such as Facebook[2] and Flickr[3], have tried changing their policies on data ownership, which users vehemently opposed. Google, so far, has continued to use the saner ownership policy. But in a sense, Google does not require to “own” data for its business purposes (discussed in detail later). In the second point, Google refers to its privacy policy (examined later) when it says that it won’t share any data with third-parties. Plus, given the many services of Google itself across which data may be (automatically) shared, this author is not sure whether the term third-party even makes conventional sense. The third point about data-retention has an implicit meaning – Google will allow users to keep data on its services so long as: one, Google itself continues to exist, and two, Google finds it economically and financially appealing to allow users to use its service (for free, or almost free). Again, it could be argued that Google is sufficiently large and has deep enough pockets to survive almost anything thrown at it, or that the above would be true with any service provider, and has always been the most-debated point of software as a hosted service. The final point is an answer to the doubts posted above, in that Google promises that it will allows users to extract their data from its services at any point of time. It does not, however, explicitly state what happens once the data, or the account itself, is deleted. (It does say that the deletion will take five days, but not how and if they ensure complete and secure deletion.)

A typical Google account, combined with various Google services, is a wealthy data source for personal information including financial data such as stock portfolios and credit card details (for purchases via Froogle, for example), location and positioning information (via Latitude and Maps), users’ connections and social networks (via Gmail and Orkut), user passwords and login information (stored via Wand / AutoFill on the Google Toolbar) apart from the users’ clickstream and other behavioural data.

Employee Access, Abuse & Content Neutrality

Google goes on to say[4] that its employees cannot access user data unless explicit permission is granted, for purposes of troubleshooting, for example. It then also says that employees or automated systems may take down data that violates the terms of service. It is not clear to his author how they can do this without continuous monitoring. It appears that Google’s employees (or automated systems) monitor aggregate figures, such as spikes in bandwidth usage, or extreme changes in access patterns and then investigate those. They already share these statistics and trends with administrators and users of Google Analytics. The other scenario is the case where another user explicitly complains about another user or their data. In both the cases, their employees clearly access user data. Google claims[5] that it will contact the primary account administrator in the event content such as malware, pornography, child pornography, copyrighted or trademarked content is taken down. This is especially true on its online video sharing service, YouTube. Google is, thus, not content neutral.

Google encourages third parties to report abuse of its systems, as well as actively tries to detect violations. It will not ask users for an explanation, or inform them before deleting content, but as stated above, contact them after the deletion has taken place. This leaves the system open for abuse. It is not clear from the openly available data if a user can contest such deletion and / or termination.

Google Apps and its related services allow domain administrators (which should ideally belong to the same organization as the users) to access all end-user accounts and their associated data[6]. This author is not sure if corporate and other general-purpose users are aware of this, or if Google or the account administrator makes any effort to publicize this.

An interesting reverse case: A Google executive got sued[7] for a third-party posting of a video showing a disabled teen being harassed by peers. The exact charge is “defamation and failure to exercise control over personal data.” How is Google supposed to monitor its vast information repositories without violating its own privacy and security guidelines, and whether it is responsible for user generated content at all, are both debatable questions.

Google & the Law

While Google tries to function like a Swiss bank, untouchable and high-up-there, it also tries to play it safe and by the law (emphasis mine):

“Google does not share or reveal private user content such as email or personal information with third parties except as required by law, on request by a user or system administrator, or to protect our systems. These exceptions include requests by users that Google’s support staff access their email messages in order to diagnose problems; when Google is required by law to do so; and when we are compelled to disclose personal information because we reasonably believe it’s necessary in order to protect the rights, property or safety of Google, its users and the public.[8]

There are many issues with the above: Google reserves the right to determine if it is necessary to disclose personal information, without explicitly informing the user before such an incidence occurs. It puts this in its privacy policy, and because users have accepted the policy, they are deemed to have given away their right to protect their personal information. Google will give out any user information to a law enforcement agency or a government entity, leading to Big Brother scenarios common in the Western nations.

The only real protection in the light of the above scenarios is security by obscurity. If you are not an “interesting individual”, your data is safe. There are ways to secure your data and still continue to use Google services, such as using local encryption or an additional layer of password protection, but this will only protect the data itself. Meta-data from communications (to, from, time-data etc.) will still remain exposed. The meta-data is enough[9] for the agencies to sue you or arrest you and force you to provide them the access codes or passwords anyway.

Google is registered (via a $200 self-certification?) with the U.S. Safe Harbor whose privacy principles include Notice, Choice, Onward Transfer, Security, Data Integrity, Access and Enforcement[10]. But an organization must decide itself if Google is compatible with all the laws and regulations it may be subjected to. In other words, it passes the buck to the organization (or individual) using Google services.

Google’s abuse policy[11] goes on to state that:

•  As a provider of content creation tools and hosting services, Google is not in a position to mediate or adjudicate disputes between third parties. For matters involving trademarks or impersonation, we recommend that you raise your concerns directly with the creator of the content in question.

•  If you believe that someone is impersonating your identity for the purposes of fraud, we recommend that you contact law enforcement or consumer protection authorities.

•  If you choose to pursue legal action against the content owner, we are prepared to accept valid court orders concerning the content in question. To submit a valid court order, please contact us at apps-abuse-report@google.com.

The above shows that Google is trying to be content neutral, so long as the law allows it to be. This is contrary from what we saw in an earlier statement, where Google said that it can choose to delete user data.

Handling User Information

In its note about the way Google handles user information[12] (emphasis mine):

“We may combine the information you submit under your account with information from other Google services or third parties in order to provide you with a better experience and to improve the quality of our services. For certain services, we may give you the opportunity to opt out of combining such information.

We use cookies to improve the quality of our service, including for storing user preferences, improving search results and ad selection, and tracking user trends, such as how people search. Google also uses cookies in its advertising services to help advertisers and publishers serve and manage ads across the web.”

From another page: Data is scanned and indexed[13] for user’s own search, for spam filtering and virus detection and for displaying context sensitive ads. However, processes are automated, involve no human interaction, and data is not part of the general google.com index (unless information is explicitly published). In yet another case, a software issue resulted in some users’ documents in Google Docs being shared with their contacts without the users’ permission[14]. This may be unintentional, but is definitely possible.

The problem is compounded by combining information from various sources or “mashing”. Most online data is believed to exist in databases that by themselves do not contain full or meaningful information. However, in a bid to improve and integrate user experience and the quality of its services, Google routinely brings all of this information together and delivers it via its many offerings. It also actively tracks this information, though it claims it does this only at an aggregate level. However, some of its services such as the Web History and Search History delivered via the Google Toolbar will store the users’ click-stream in extreme detail with a Google Account. It does this with the users’ consent and it is generally understood that the user opted to provide these details, but does the user really comprehend the implications of this blatant and unrestricted information sharing?

Third Party Add-ons & Cross-Site Sharing

Google publishes an Application Programming Interface (API) that allows third party (external) developers to create applications that use Google services, and possibly user data, with the idea that this will further add value to the overall offering. Google does not have an explicit program for certifying these application developers. It does not guarantee that all of these add-ons, widgets or apps are free from malicious intent. Postini[15] is a reputed service that can be added to Google Apps in order to add email message security, discovery, archival and recovery. It allows companies to comply with regulations such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. However, it also exposes user data to a completely different entity, even though the end-user feels and for all practical purposes believes that she is interacting only with Google. Facebook and Orkut third-party applications, for example, get access to your entire social network once installed. Aggregators and API publishers such as Google make it extremely easy to install such add-ons. There is simply no control over what such an application can do; it is largely based on “good old trust” and “good faith efforts”, more so if it is closed source and unapproved.

Google does not use web beacons. However, they present an interesting case. Web beacons are small one-pixel wide images that allow sites to better understand the traffic patterns within their (and network-affiliated) domains and, subsequently, adjust their content to better respond to their visitors’ interests. By mining “conversations” between the web and ad servers and the users’ browser, advertisers can tune their marketing campaigns for optimal effectiveness. Google’s cookies and partner network’s web beacons are cross-site and cross-browser, some even work with rich-email clients and RSS feed readers. This means that Google’s partners and Google can collaborate to serve advertisements to users and collect an even larger chunk of user information, by observing user behavior over a much larger spectrum of users’ online life. The undesirable side-effect, of course, is that they also uniquely identify a user, and can easily link all online activity to an email or user account.

An even bigger point worth discussing is: Where do we draw the line? A user will receive the best possible service if everything about the user is known. This also means that everything about the user is known! And not necessarily known by a trustworthy entity. Google may be trusted as an entity (primarily because it hasn’t done something bad publicly, so far), but not everyone connected with Google can be trusted. Google has grown to such a size and has so many ways to gather information, be it the World Wide Web (Search), the computer (Google Desktop), cloud computing (Google Apps, Gmail) or the mobile[16] (Latitude, Maps), that is has become almost all pervasive. A single entity with this amount of information, concentrated and ready for use in any desired form, is an extremely useful but risky proposition.

It begs the question: If advertisements can be tailored and made better (at least in theory), is this not a good idea? Imagine advertisements that you really want to see. This is exactly the premise that Google works on. And the problem with this is that there is no guarantee that all the information collected and mined for the advertising platform will not be used for other purposes, possibly leading to discrimination, or abuse. It is widely known that yield and revenue management systems such as airline reservations result in discrimination or unintended results.

Opting-Out & Other Initiatives

Google provides mechanisms for users to opt-out of this information collection and allows users to provide consent (or opt-in) wherever possible – not exactly the best of policies. It is a member of the Network Advertising Initiative[17] (NAI) which provides an effective way for users to opt-out of behavioural advertising[18]. Unfortunately, the way this works is that NAI puts out a special cookie on your machine that tells other advertisers that “this user would prefer not to be tracked. Please abide by the rules!” It does nothing to impose the rules, and advertising members are expected to follow the honour code.

The Fair Information Practice and NAI’s guidelines on notice and choice for Web Beacons state that:

  1. Any use of Web Beacons, whether through a website or email, requires notice.
  2. Notice must include a disclosure that Web Beacons are being used; the purpose for which the Web Beacons are being used; and, if applicable, a disclosure of any transfer of data to third parties.
  3. Organizations that use Web Beacons to transfer Personally Identifiable Information to a Third Party, for purposes unrelated to the reason for which the Personally Identifiable Information was initially collected, must provide choice for such transfers.
  4. Organizations that use Web Beacons to transfer sensitive information associated with Personally Identifiable Information to a Third Party must obtain explicit consent (opt-in) for such transfers.

The above can be generalized for any of the various tracking mechanisms used online.

Initiatives such as the Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P) define sensitive information as forms of data that would normally be private – including certain types of health, financial, sexual and political data. They define how to collect Personally Identifiable Information (PII), how to inform users that such information is being collected, and how to provide them with a choice. However, the issue with this choice is that it often is provided in binary: Give us all the information we want, or don’t use the service. This is not the right way to proceed. Unless organizations are able to justify why they absolutely need information to provide the service they are providing, and the user accepts that the need is genuine, there should be no obligation on the user to provide the data. Then again, aggregation services that are based on crowd-sourcing or implicit information gathering systems will fail if the users don’t understand or consent to provide these services the required data. In the end, user communities will have to decide if they value their privacy more than the usability.

The World Privacy Forum[19] (WPF) expressed its concerns and questions over the possible shift of City governments of Washington D.C. and Los Angeles in the US to cloud-computing services offered by Google. The letter concludes with the very valid concern:

“Our concern is that the transfer of so many City records to a cloud computing provider may threaten the privacy rights of City residents, undermine the security of other sensitive information, violate both state and federal laws, and potentially damage vital City legal and other interests.”

An article[20] titled “Google Apps: Are privacy and security concerns being misplaced by the media?” provides excellent commentary. There is a valid argument that in most cases, a service provider such as Google is far more capable of handling security and addressing privacy concerns than an ill-funded or wrongly-administered local project. However, local projects ensure separation of data and systems. Centralized cloud-computing services will logically concentrate data from many such “local” projects – a cause for concern.

Handling Changes

Worldwide, organizations are increasingly being acquired and merged with other entities, more so in the technology business. This means that users and service providers need to handle changes to privacy policies and practices. Google, to its credit, has a reasonably strong “changes to privacy policy”[21] clause:

  • No reduction in privacy without explicit consent
  • More prominent notice in case of significant changes
  • Comparison and review of prior versions possible

This provides reasonable assurance to end-users’ that Google’s unwritten policy of “Do-No-Evil” is still high up on the priority list. Except that if Google does indeed change to a more restrictive privacy policy, and people want to opt-out, which in this case could mean stop using Google’s services, then will Google be able to guarantee that all user data and related information will be deleted from not only its data warehouses, but also that of its partners and affiliates? A lot of organizations, including Google let this question slide; “we’ll tackle this problem when it presents itself, if it ever does.”

The Last Mile

Google itself undergoes SAS70 Type II audits[22] covering the following for its own IT infrastructure.

  • Logical security
  • Privacy
  • Data center physical security
  • Incident management and availability
  • Change management
  • Organization and administration

While audits by themselves are not the best ways of guaranteeing security, it is hoped that they are performed in the right spirit and Google therefore has reasonable secure physical server farms, and that no random entity can easily compromise the system with or without malicious intent.

However, there is little, if any, awareness in the last mile of connectivity between the service provider and the end-user[23] and the end-users’ computer and communication systems. Google, by default, uses the Hyper Text Transfer Protocol (HTTP) instead of HTTP-S (secure) for all its services by default (except when logging in). This makes it extremely easy for a packet sniffer, even a freely available out-in-the-wild variety, to access and compromise user data. The use of cross-site cookies that authenticate all Google services via a single login can also be easily hacked. Users don’t realize that they need to explicitly sign-out of services in order to end their session. Google does not make it easy and obvious for them to realize this either.

Because Google is the largest cloud-service provider (and also the largest beneficiary), it should educate the users about security options and make these options explicitly available in easy-to-find places. Google should further refrain from misleading marketing practices, such as issuing statements like “most secure and safe email” without educating users about the risks and loss of rights in using a hosted email service. Google should default to highest security (such as always using encrypted sessions) and allow people to explicitly opt-out of these measures in case they understand the risks and choose so themselves; some extremists go to the extent of saying that Google should refuse access to compromised systems or systems with low security.

To its defense, Google says that the performance impact and the costs of additional security and privacy are not justified. This is, of course, largely contested. Google also states that it uses special purpose technology as opposed to general-purpose software, which exposes only the required and necessary services while switching others off, making it more resilient to general internet hacking and most virus attacks that comparable service providers. It also claims to have a team monitoring its servers round-the-clock, developing and deploying patches in case a vulnerability is detected.

Summary

Online security and privacy is (or should be, given the lack of user awareness) an important issue for any user. Service providers, and especially Google, given its size and all-pervasive offerings, are pushing users to increasingly depend on their services, so much so, that it is often not possible to not use a service such as Google Search. These providers are collecting user information in many ways in order to legitimately improve their service offerings, and provide more customized and personalized content, including advertisements. However, the ease of data sharing, the ease of overlaying and the monopolies are resulting in concerns over the security of the data and privacy of personal information.

There is no simple answer over whether service providers such as Google can be trusted (“Yes”), or completely ignored (“No”). Users by themselves are not capable of making the choice. Consumer watchdogs and monitoring agencies are overwhelmed and often subverted in subtle means, more so as technology evolves and matures. In the end, it appears that the vision and strategy of the service provider is what keeps it from being drawn into the black hole of privacy and security violation. Of course, the concern of a third-party using data aggregated by a service provider without its (and its users’) permission and knowledge is a very valid one. The provider itself may have its users’ best interests at heart, but the same cannot be said of its employees or its partners; ultimately everyone has a price, and the provider is only as “clean” as its employees.

Is there a way out for the average user? This author does not believe that a simple straight-forward way exists, at least for now.


[1] http://www.google.com/support/a/bin/answer.py?answer=106876 – Most of the Google statements are taken from their Privacy Policy, Terms and Conditions or from their Help. Where possible, the URL will be quoted.

[2] http://www.brandrepublic.com/News/881894/Facebook-rethinks-data-ownership-change-users-revolt/ – Facebook claimed ownership of uploaded content even after user profiles had been deleted. This granted Facebook lifelong ownership rights to user photos, videos, written content and music.

[3] http://www.wired.com/techbiz/media/news/2005/08/68654 – Flickr required users to create a Yahoo! id and forced them to accept changed terms after it was acquired for an undisclosed sum by Yahoo!

[4] http://www.google.com/support/a/bin/answer.py?answer=106887

[5] http://www.google.com/support/a/bin/answer.py?answer=112448

[6] http://www.google.com/support/a/bin/answer.py?answer=112441

[7] http://www.infoworld.com/d/security-central/google-privacy-exec-faces-criminal-charges-in-italy-345

[8] http://www.google.com/support/a/bin/answer.py?answer=107807

[9] In fact the Patriot Act in the United States specifically grants this right to government and law-enforcing agencies.

[10] http://www.google.com/support/a/bin/answer.py?answer=107819

[11] http://www.google.com/support/a/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=134413

[12] http://www.google.com/privacypolicy.html

[13] http://www.google.com/support/a/bin/answer.py?answer=107810

[14] http://www.techcrunch.com/2009/03/07/huge-google-privacy-blunder-shares-your-docs-without-permission/

[15] http://www.google.com/support/a/bin/answer.py?answer=112445

[16] http://www.privacyinternational.org/article.shtml?cmd[347]=x-347-563567 – has an excellent review of the privacy and security flaws with the Google Latitude offering

[17] NAI’s mission:

•  To provide information and a mechanism for consumers to monitor and control their online experience.

•   To provide a platform for the development of standards and policies that reward responsible marketing and the responsible use of data, as well as promote the long-term growth and viability of the Internet as a vibrant marketing channel.

[18] http://www.networkadvertising.org/managing/opt_out.asp

[19] http://clkrep.lacity.org/onlinedocs/2009/09-1714_misc_7-16-09.pdf

[20] http://www.thetechherald.com/article.php/200933/4215/Google-Apps-Are-privacy-and-security-concerns-being-misplaced-by-the-media

[21] http://www.google.com/privacypolicy.html

[22] http://www.google.com/support/a/bin/answer.py?answer=138340

[23] http://www.wired.com/images_blogs/threatlevel/2009/06/google-letter-final2.pdf – Adopted from the “Six Page Letter to Google’s CEO”, signed by academicians

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Technology, Web

Google Guruji

There was a time when the professor’s word was the final claim. There was no point in refuting it. It had to be accepted, unchallenged and unbiased. Information was concentrated in a few heads and it was held there steadfastly.

But slowly came in a wave that shook the ground beneath the professors. It was a silent competitor, but a friendly guide, a genie that answered all questions put forth. It was unbiased, truthful and it never forgot once the piece of information that was stored between the HTML tags. It simply knew just about everything. It was omniscient. The wave was the tsunami of data that Google unleashed at the click of the button.

Google is the new Guruji in town. The bar of education has subtly been raised. As a teacher, one cannot bluff, nor can one just beat around the bush. There is easy access to all information. There is a bias for precise, updated information. Just type the word and the Pandora’s box opens up with a gamut of information. One has to be extra careful when dealing with information now. Actually, there is a flood of information and all of it can be verified and validated from a host of sources.

The game has changed now. No more is it about data or even information. It is all about knowledge, abstraction, concepts. One better know the why and how of a thing, since Google more often than not will throw what, when and where of that thing.

What it means for Academia?

For academia, this has meant a paradigm shift. When a student asks a question, more often than not, he already has read the basics and understood the working. His quest is for a deeper knowledge as simple data and information can be sought instantly. It has also accelerated the process of learning. Basics can be googled or wikied ( if I may call it so) and the foundation laid for higher or deeper learning. The academician need not waste time in starting from scratch. The average level of learning has risen and will continue to push the ceiling.

Change in interpretation of Knowledge?

What one knows is now a commodity. Anyone can get access to it at a click of a button. The value has moved onto knowledge and application. The leverage lies in linking discrete, disparate sets of data and then applying the concepts to reach a solution.

Another phenomenon uncovered is that mostly what one intends to do, there is a solution available somewhere in the world similar to it. It may not be same, but there is a high probability of it being similar. One has to have the knack to mine it, tweak it and fit it to the current problem. It has become simpler, if not easier. The path to success has been made accessible, but one still has to find the right path and walk it.

Concerns

Google Guruji has however raised a few concerns too. The ease of access has made minds idler. Students are cutting corners in assignments. Any challenge thrown to students eventually becomes a Google Query. There is always a solution available. At one hand, as diligence loses its sheen, mining is gaining momentum. How to get answers from Google for what we want is fast becoming a skill. There are articles, research papers and even books that are fast gaining traction for the tips and tricks to unlock Google’s vast information mine. In a way, Google has quenched the curiosity but throttled the exploratory attitude.

Besides, this ease of access has subconsciously bred superficial understanding. This leads to hollowness in thinking and shallowness in understanding. There is complacency creeping in students’ minds about learning. The on-the-platter access to information is in some ways blinding us to the actual truths of life.

Proprietary information also is leaking to the search pages and this has caused severe anguish in businesses and deep fear amongst governments. Access to information is a noble cause, but respect to privacy and confidentiality are being trampled upon in this pursuit. One man’s query is another’s man privacy. Who decides what is noble? Is there a universal law? Is there a universal moral?

Google certainly made information sharing a universal right – not only among users but also among businesses. So much so, that Google is more a verb than a number or a name. It has changed the way we think about problems, act on solutions. It no doubt has quietly impacted our lives in more than ways than one. Now, Semantic Web concept is fast gaining traction in the Web Space. It is expected to be smarter than the current search and hence closer to the actual answer sought in a search query. Researchers await with nervous excitement as the virtual world closes in on the real one with scorching pace.

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Strategy, Web

Synergies arising from Facebook – Friendfeed deal

In my earlier post, I wrote about the Bing-Yahoo search deal and how it was beneficial to both parties, with Microsoft potentially reaping bigger benefits over a longer term. Today another important deal happened. Friendfeed, a popular real time microblogging tool – similar, much more advanced in functionality, but much less popular than Twitter, was taken over by Facebook. According to the official friendfeed blog, FriendFeed accepted Facebook’s friend request!

friendfeed-facebookTwitter has taken a step towards making real time search its prime focus with the recent redesign of its homepage. At my first read, it seemed as a move against allowing twitter to run away with the real-time search. Real time search is a big area where a lot of biggies, including top internet VCs are placing their bets on. However, this could even be a long term strategic decision – particularly with Google entering this arena with Wave and a whole community of developers already creating new applications using its APIs. Facebook has anticipated the development that may take place once Wave goes live and has taken steps to strengthen its position – which is a thoughtful management step in my opinion.

Potential mutual benefits of this deal include:

1. Facebook can integrate brilliant friendfeed features like Real time comments. Note that some of the very popular friendfeed features were included later in facebook, but thats another matter altogether.

2. Friendfeed community can benefit due to superior user profiles, facebook apps, friend connect and multimedia features on facebook.

3. Also, the userbase of facebook would imply that friendfeed’s cool features can now reach a wider audience all over the globe.

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4. Where facebook can benefit is the perhaps the search functionality as well. I was a semi-active friendfeed user (I have a friendfeed widget on my personal blog even now) , and loved the functionality it offered. Facebook today launched a real time search which promises to change the fundamentals of this upcoming field as well.

Finally, there are already many articles online saying Facebook + friendfeed is a potential twitter killer etc. I don’t quite buy that argument. Facebook offers something unique to its users – an unparalleled social network experience where the unit of social interaction is a ‘friend’, while twitter is a pure implementation of the ‘follow’ model of social interaction. A place where facebook has implemented the Follow model brilliantly is Facebook pages– a topic i covered earlier as well. In my opinion, both services- friendfeed & facebook are amazing and I am sure, the deal will be great for both companies.

One thing for sure, the deal promises a lot and will bring greater pace in the development of the real time search aspect of the web industry.

What do you think of this deal, put in your comments about it right below!

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Technology

The WHY of BingHoo! – Bing – Yahoo deal

July 29 was truly a momentous day. First, we saw this huge re-positioning of twitter. Twitter has moved away from the social networking focus on homepage (where facebook is dominant anyways) to a people powered search engine focus– where it is clearly dominant. While that is quite significant, nothing could beat the importance of the announcement coming from Yahoo HQ & Microsoft HQ about the Search deal.

Firstly, a report about the Search Engine Market shares- US for May/June 2009- table republished here:

search_engine_rankings

Some quotes from the official Microsoft press release and what they imply:

Microsoft will now power Yahoo! search while Yahoo! will become the exclusive worldwide relationship sales force for both companies’ premium search advertisers.

Microsoft would now sit on the most popular web portal in the world as its default search engine, even when Yahoo! search had a greater marketshare than Bing. This would imply that Yahoo would henceforth not benefit from any advances in the search engine industry. Note that Search engine monetization is a huge business in itself. It is a  step-back for Yahoo in search, thats for sure . Yahoo has pushed itself back from a leader role to a marketer/ sales-person role in this space. It can be considered as a de-facto admission from Yahoo! that they could do nothing to stop Google’s superiority in the search engine market.On the other hand, it is even a free license for Microsoft to launch a full scale attack on Google’s hitherto unquestioned Search engine supermacy. On his recent visit to India, Bill Gates had said

Google’s in this kind of honeymoon…actually, their honeymoon is slowly but surely coming to an end. And, that’s fine. Our honeymoon came to an end and theirs has to come to end, too. And then, they will be just a normal company.

Perhaps, he gave us clues about this tieup with this statement itself. The question is, will the combined efforts of Microsoft and Yahoo have a tangible impact on Google’s marketshare?

2. The Yahoo perspective:

“This agreement comes with boatloads of value for Yahoo!, our users, and the industry. And I believe it establishes the foundation for a new era of Internet innovation and development,” said Yahoo! Chief Executive Officer Carol Bartz. “Users will continue to experience search as a vital part of their Yahoo! experiences and will enjoy increased innovation thanks to the scale and resources this deal provides. Advertisers will also benefit from scale and enjoy greater ease of use and efficiencies working with a single platform and sales team for premium advertisers. Finally, this deal will help us increase our investments in priority areas in winning audience properties, display advertising capabilities and mobile experiences.”

This statement talks big, but what are they aiming at? While I agree that Search is just one aspect of Yahoo’s product offering, its an extremely important aspect in my opinion. This deal would give Microsoft’s Bing a huge promotional push through all Yahoo’s products, most notably Yahoo! Mail. It is even a change of focus- as a Media company– for Yahoo as well, in continuation with recent changes on Yahoo homepage.

3. Clear attack on search monopoly of Google:

Providing a viable alternative to advertisers, this deal will combine Yahoo! and Microsoft search marketplaces so that advertisers no longer have to rely on one company that dominates more than 70 percent of all search. With the addition of Yahoo!’s search volume, Microsoft will achieve the size and scale required to unleash competition and innovation in the market, for consumers as well as advertisers.

This aspect of the statement is the most visionary. It shows the ambition of both Yahoo! and Bing to stake their claim on the search engine pie. Advertisers will now truly have an alternative to Google AdWords and AdSense. Once the regulatory approvals are done and this deal is in action, we could see some serious competition between the two Ad-Platforms.

4. Benefits for Bing have been clearly highlighted by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer in this statement:

“Through this agreement with Yahoo!, we will create more innovation in search, better value for advertisers and real consumer choice in a market currently dominated by a single company,” said Ballmer. “Success in search requires both innovation and scale.  With our new Bing search platform, we’ve created breakthrough innovation and features.  This agreement with Yahoo! will provide the scale we need to deliver even more rapid advances in relevancy and usefulness.  Microsoft and Yahoo! know there’s so much more that search could be.  This agreement gives us the scale and resources to create the future of search.”

Opinion: Is this deal ‘only bad’ for Yahoo? Not at all! On July 29, we read tweets about how Yahoo has gone down fighting etc, but I feel these were extremely myopic. Yahoo has determined that its core competency is ‘the World’s leading online Media company’ and its a huge area in itself. They are unquestionably the world’s most active portal. Yahoo may have identified its core competency perfectly here. They determined that investing resources into areas they were dominant in would provide greater returns for them, instead of fighting (perhaps a losing battle) with powerhouses like Google and Microsoft. It may turn out to be a great step after all.

But, history and market reactions point otherwise. Yahoo stock price plummeted close to 12% as a reaction to this release (Source) Also, on the web, dependency on some other site for a function like search may prove to be a death-knell. Again, by history,the reference is to the blunder Yahoo did sometime back because of which Google became the undisputed leader.

The future: Subject to regulatory approvals, Google will have a competitor to reckon with – a 28% combined market share is pretty significant. As Ballmer rightly pointed out, the more the people search, more you(the service provider) learn. A full scale search engine war awaits us, thats for sure!

PS: I have tried to be as objective as possible. Yet, I am a self confessed fan of both firms, so pardon me if I went overboard with imposing my opinions.

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Business, Entrepreneurship, Finance, Planning, Strategy, Web

Google v/s Microsoft: The Showdown Continues…….

Ding Ding Ding:

Round 1:
Microsoft and Google enter the ring. Microsoft has been the reigning heavyweight champ for years. But Google has grown in size and strength rapidly and has become one of the top rivals to Microsoft.
Microsoft needs to make a move. It tries to beat Google by taking over Yahoo’s search engine, but fails badly. Now it jabs at Google with its own search engine: Bing. Microsoft scores some points with that one, but the young and strong Google parries the blow and seems unaffected. Instead some competitors in the search engine business to both MS and Google are affected. Microsoft manages to gain some respect in this round but things largely remain unchanged.

images2 boxing_ring2 imagesms4

Round 2:
Google decides to get back. And boy it does. It lands a strong punch by declaring its intention to launch its own Operating System: Chrome OS. Microsoft has ruled the OS arena for years with Windows. Millions use it and prefer it to other Operating Systems, even to the free ones like Linux. But things are changing. Google, the king of the internet, is trying to lure the customers into its domain. Chrome OS is internet based, not desktop based. Why would you need desktop based applications when we provide you with everything online? Just open the browser (Chrome of course) and we provide all you need: email service, search engine, Google apps with Google Docs, photos with Picasa, music on YouTube, Google maps, you name it we have it and for free!!! Google wins round 2 hands down. Microsoft is shaken but tries to regroup.


Round 3:

Microsoft gets back at Google with a hook. To counter the free online applications like Google Docs and other software, it declares that the other weapon in its profit making arsenal, MS Office, will be free as part of Microsoft’s Windows Live service, which has more than 400 million users, when the new Office 2010 is launched next year. The public is not exactly sure whether Microsoft deserves any points for this. After all, it’s giving away its major revenue earner for free! Yes, there have been other free equivalents to Word, Excel and PowerPoint like Google apps, Zoho and SlideShare. But they have not created any dents to Microsoft’s market share. But Microsoft knows that there are an increasing number of users who are opting for these free online applications. Adobe and Cisco are also planning to provide online equivalents to MS Office. If MS does not act now, it will lose the edge. MS also makes it clear: Only the online Office 2010 versions will be free. You can use Word, Excel, PowerPoint and One-Note free online but to use it on the desktop, you need to buy it. And of course not all features will be available in the online version. These include ability to broadcast PowerPoint presentations over the web, edit video in PowerPoint and manipulate images in Word to name a few. Also in addition to revenue that will be earned through the sales of the full Office 2010 packages, MS will earn considerable money through advertising on its online applications. MS makes a good comeback. Its stocks go up. Round 3 goes to Microsoft. And the showdown continues……

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Business, Planning, Strategy, Web

From Yahoo! Messenger to Gtalk

yahoo-messenger-9A long long time ago there was a service called Yahoo! Messenger. Even I used to be a very loyal customer of Yahoo! Messenger, such a loyal customer that even when I went to a cyber cafe for a public computer I user to always sign into Yahoo! Messenger first. Yahoo! Messenger was the lifeline of campuses, for communication with friends, gf/bf, random chat and everything else. But that was ofcourse a long time ago!

Soon there was the entry of another IM system and it just blew Yahoo! messenger away.  Google does have this habit of turning the tables around for its competitors and with Yahoo! messenger it did the same. Today most of my friends don’t even login for Yahoo! messenger and many will even have problems remembering their ids. But the important question to address is that why did a successful system like Yahoo! lose to a new system gtalk? and to top it all gtalk did not have a lot of features which Yahoo! messenger had (no emoticons, no sound etc etc)

  • gtalkIM is for Contacts: When you have an instant messenger, it is to connect with people and to be able to talk to them instantly. Gtalk was able to gain a significant advantage over Yahoo! messenger because of Orkut and Gmail. If a person used Orkut he could instantly add all his orkut friends on gtalk with just one click. Moreover with gmail it meant that any person you email a couple of times will also get added to your contacts in Gtalk. No more trouble of adding people which Yahoo! Messenger had.
  • Ease of loading: Google provided multiple ways to use gtalk, as a desktop application and in the browser. Being able to chat through a browser became a boon for gtalk as now anyone could sit on any public computer, just login into gmail and chat with everyone. The need for installing a software which Yahoo! Messenger had was gone!
  • Ever Increasing Features: Although gtalk started very small but the additions to its list of features has been amazing! From emoticons to voice and then even video chat. I did not even think that using just a browser people can video chat but gtalk made it possible. Thus gtalk even gained further marketshare by launching explosive new applications while Yahoo! messenger development almost remained idle.

I guess a lot of people will say that Instant Messengers are fads. Earlier there were AOL, MiRC and other IMs. Next came Yahoo! messenger and captured the market and now it is Gtalk. Maybe they are correct and maybe Facebook or something else can even replace Gtalk but it will require a lot of significant improvements. Gtalk has set the bar higher and for any service to beat it is a really big challenge.

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Business, Strategy, Web

Microsoft back with a BING?

Is Microsoft back in internet search with the new web search service BING?

The biggest buzz in the search/web/internet domains from the past couple of days has been Microsoft Bing! It has been deemed by some as better than Google, by others as comparable to google and by a few the engine which will dethrone Google. I will give such big claims a rest and in this post I will emphasize on how BING can create a bang in the search market space and bring Microsoft live again in the market!

Search, as you know, is a big upsurging industry (yes, even today it is) and the giants like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo have been fighting to improve their share in the market. Microsoft has been eyeing opportunities to improve the user percentage since more than a year now. It started with huge investments in the MS Live search engine. Lets us step back and see what Google has done to the definition of information retrival over the internet! Google created a path breaking search engine which fractured the market space completely and turned it around to its favor. If we divide according to user space, roughly 70% people use Google, 20% people use Yahoo and around 10% use the Live Search. Google changed the whole scene, much to the jitters of Yahoo and Microsoft. Let us now see what Microsoft Bing can do?

Bing has received positive response from critics and a lot of attention from experts. Coveted to be a “decision engine”, Bing is no less than Google infact some would go ahead and suggest that it better than Google. Such claims are subjective to people. But I would like to point that even if Bing is better than Google it will need a lot of visibility, campaign and effort to beat the giant Google. It will be a long time for Bing to beat Google.

If you think so Microsoft has launched Bing to beat Google, you are WRONG! Bing is a harbinger of change for Microsoft and the search market will shake & shuffle but for now, Bing is contesting for the second spot (Yahoo) and not the first (Google). Let me remind you, in the March of 2008, Microsoft flexed its muscles to buy Yahoo and merge it with Live search in a bid to compete with Google. It failed miserably much to respite of Google! But now, what I see is at the end of an year, Microsoft has developed a fantastic service which will surely eat up share from both Google and Yahoo. I feel Bing will quickly be the second player in the search market, and a tough competition to beat.

Search Engine experts state that Yahoo has always been the “alternative” to queries for which Google did not produce relevant/satisfying results. Rarely, do people use Yahoo as their first choice of search engine. Bing, can easily be the next Yahoo, i.e. the next “alternative”. But I doubt it can beat Google so easily. Why? It has nothing to do with what Google/Bing can or cannot do. Its about behavioural psychology; its just that, Google is now a habit. It will be difficult for so many people to migrate from Google to Bing which although is great but not path breakingly different from Google!

Nonetheless, it is a win-win situation for Microsoft as they gain market space. I think counterparts at Google and Yahoo can feel the BING even now. Who knows BING might get Microsoft a bargain from Yahoo for a buyout in the coming time!! Personally I feel, Bing will surely BANG. Please post you comments below.

Disclaimer: All the views presented are personal (I hope I have been rational as well) and Microsoft does not endorse views presented above. (I am an employee of Microsoft you see!)

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