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 , do check our Write a Post section…

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Business, Technology, Web

What next -Social Search ?


We live in a world connected better than ever before – An era where   wireless and broadband have enabled seamless connectivity powering creating and sharing of information never experienced before.  Accessing or searching information no more continues to challenge people. It is the filtering mechanism that is drawing more attention. Thanks to the endless information created every second, information consumption and not information seeking is the new question

Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and other tools of mass content creating have been contributing to the web mountains of data at a rate more faster than they can understand / rank/ index them.  Amongst this information explosion what would be interesting to observe is the information seeking behavior and how the end user adapts or adepts to the millions of links thrown after every search made.

The year 2006 saw close to 2.7 billion searches on Google. By 2008 this number grew by over 1000% to cross 30 billion searches on Google.

The post Google era clearly had simplified information accessibility for the end user but the question that pops up is that during this time what were people using to search for information ?. In fact an interesting question to ponder over is how was information sought in B.G (before Google)era. Possible easily accessible resources to everybody were –

  1. Friends
  2. Family
  3. Extended Family and Friends

Referring to one’s network was something that everybody did as they sought answers to their queries – a trend that is starting to revive. People are exchanging information in real time and with tools like Twitter, Facebook, Friendfeed, Aardvark the idea of seeking knowledge from a person instead of a link in real time is gaining traction. And here is the reason why this this trend is here to stay –

  1. spaceballBetter Connectivity –   We live in an over connected world where people at one point of time are logged onto to multiple platforms- including IM, Twitter, Facebook . In fact as people are spending more and more time online , getting connected to a knowledge expert is simpler using tools like Getafixx, which allows users to interact with experts rather than surfing through static content.
  2. Easier Information Consumption – Since the core motive of social search is to connect people to experts, there is no  bombardment of information, no overflow of millions of links –Meaning lesser spam.  Simplified information seeking path ensures that only relevant and accurate information reaches the user.
  3. Everybody can share – The concept of wisdom of crowds distinctly states that everybody is an expert at something.  The most important part of social search is identification of knowledge experts – and as users identify their expertise,  the system would validate their expertise by taking into account their contribution as experts.

Loaded with most of the features mentioned above- Getafixx is our first attempt to introduce the concept of Social Search over their IM. A gtalk bot that allows you to connect to knowledge experts and share it with others.

While the mechanism of seeking information is changing, the concept of social search and getafixx adds value to the entire process as it keeps interaction as its core objective – a feature that Web Search compensated with spam information. The next version of web search would predominantly be dominated by Social Search, for people are searching for people.

Search – a feature of the web that has evolved on the lines of Darwin’s theory – nearing perfection all the time now needs to be redefined.  Or maybe it’s time again to search for the right people

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Strategy, Technology

Impact of Converging communications media

An avid cricket fan, say Swami was watching the India-Pakistan cricket match in Mumbai at his office. Since it was a long weekend, he had to catch a flight to reach his home in Bangalore. So, he left the the small TV sets in office albeit reluctantly. But, Swami was keen to stay in touch with the scores all through. So, while he was waiting for a cab, he sent an SMS to an cricket-SMS channel about latest scores. In the car, he asked the driver to put on the live radio (and cursed his luck for not getting the FM mobile connector with him) Then, at the airport he enjoyed the match on a flat screen plasma TV. In the plane, he enjoyed live satellite TV (note: he had booked a KF flight knowing that there would be a match on) . Next, after alighting at Bangalore, he called up his friends, for expert commentary on phone – who in turn advised him to go to this new cool website on internet for live commentary. So, he checked the mobile internet on GPRS for the match. So, finally he reached home, where he quickly put on his LCD tv and logged onto the internet for a detailed scorecard as well! Clearly, Swami had not missed a moment of the match!!

cellphone-TVNotice something here? The service offered was essentially the same – ‘Providing Cricket Match updates’! But check the communications media used. Sounds incredible right? Well, I haven’t even brought the social networking aspect yet into the above scenario. Clearly, communications is evolving and fast!

The moot question in all of this is – how will this impact the society? Well, the answer is simple – the effects are already seen. Due to so many communications media available, news gets around extremely quickly. People are becoming more aware. Example: the recent floods in northern Karnataka, AP and southern Maharashtra. The news spread like wildfire. I am sure, these communications media can help in more ways than one in such crises (its another matter whether they are used already or not, but thats not the question here) On a global context, the relevant issue was on the Iran elections and how twitter was used to post updates about happenings in Iran then.

Given all this, what is the future of communications as a service? I am of the opinion that it will evolve as a service which can effectively cover all of these media and provide real time updates. It is this critical success factor which is making people in the USA gaga over the internet industry- twitter and facebook in particular. The concept of real time updates is here, and is here to stay.

In the Indian context, however, the media convergence is a few steps away, but not far off. While internet on the ‘computer’ may not get as popular as in the USA, but one device has the potential to reach most of the 100 crore population – ‘the mobile phone’. Many believe the convergence of media would happen on the cell phone. And in that context the 3G auction is going to be critical since the 3G spectrum allocation can truly place power in the hands of the users’ pockets. We are getting closer to communication media convergence for sure.

The point is, whether the end consumer accept this change? And are the telecom operators willing to see this as an opportunity? Even in the USA, Google voice as an application ran into trouble. How will the telecom industry as a whole react to this inevitable change? That would truly decide the pace of media convergence in India….

Comments, thoughts invited…

Right, so this Friday – 6 October, 9 pm to 1030 pm – Strat. In is hosting its first live chat. The subject is going to be CAT 2009. There will be 4-5 from among us at the chatroom –  . This group includes CAT 100 percentilers as well. Please let your friends know about this event on . Details about the same follow tonight.


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Business, Entrepreneurship, Marketing, Technology, Web

Phones and Location Based Services!

The idea is not new, the concept is also not really new but the execution is new! Location based services are now capturing the world at an amazing pace!

Picture 3To think of it a mobile phone was a location based service. It provided a moving point of contact for a person. Now with the launch of iPhone apps and similar adaptation into other phones, the location based services are becoming more and more popular. In the iPhone you have AroundMe, Yelp!, Google Maps, Twitter, and UrbanSpoon using your current location. Moreover the latest service by Google called Latitude is an amazing addition.

With people fond of trying new places such location based services have become really popular. Just go to any part of the city and launch these applications, find new restaurants and shops, read reviews and pick one of your choice.

In urban cities like Bombay, Delhi, London, NY where traveling from one place to another can take a lot of time, a service like Google Latitude is quite amazing. As soon as you get free you can just switch on the service and see who all amongst your friends are nearby and then perhaps join the nearest ones.

To think of it, this is not the first time such an idea is being floated. A couple of years ago another idea was floated in India by mobile service providers which would provide you with location based service. The idea was to send you text messages / sms based on your location about the offers / deals / interesting shops near your current location. This service never really picked up! Let us try and analyze why

  • User Choice to Switch On or Off the Service: The most important feature required is to make the user feel that he is in control. With the current services the information about his location is passed on to the applications only when he asks for the service and not by default. In the sms case the user was not given an option.
  • User Interface: Sms although very popular, has a very limited power of communication and thus also led to the concept failing. With the current screens, internet based phones the User Interface can be made really smooth and friendly.
  • Privacy: The phones and applications always ask whether to send your location info or not! What if someone is spying on you and gets an application switched on once which always tracks your position! The current apps take care of privacy.
  • Increase and comfort in User Knowledge: Over the past few years users have become more comfortable with sharing information and also got used to such devices. I guess we can say that the sms idea was a bit ahead of its time.
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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.


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

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 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.


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] – 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] – 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] – 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!






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







[16][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.






[23] – Adopted from the “Six Page Letter to Google’s CEO”, signed by academicians

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Business, Entertainment, Marketing, Web

Business of Movie Trailers

As much as I like watching movies, I like to watch movie trailers too. Sometimes, unfortunately, the best part about a movie is the trailers that run before it. The main aim of the trailer is to raise the viewer’s interest in the movie. If the trailer is successful in garnering the viewer’s interest and pulling him towards watching the movie, its purpose is served. Teaser trailers which run for like 15-20 seconds generally pique the viewer’s interest. However the longer trailers, which usually run for 2-2 ½ minutes, tell much more about the movie. These should not give away too much lest it might ruin all the fun. Nor should it be so ordinary that it completely bores the person and he/she loses any interest in the movie.

A screenshot of the yahoo movies webpage

A screenshot of the yahoo movies webpage

Now-a-days movie makers exploit every way to market the trailers. In addition to them being shown in theaters, they are up on television as well as on internet. Recently YouTube launched a new channel just for movie trailers. Yahoo already has had one for a long time. So has Apple.

But the most effective place for trailers is the movie theater. That is where a trailer is first released. These trailers are sometimes released four five months before the actual movie. And there is a lot of background work gone behind showing these trailers. Which trailers are to be shown with which movie, when should they be shown before the movie starts…all is a part of a strategy.

Generally movie studios decide to release a movie trailer with their latest movies. But the final decision rests with the theater chains. In India, there are still large numbers of single screen theaters. But the multiplex culture has developed considerably in the cities. Most of the movie followers are well aware about the recent dispute between the movie makers and the multiplex owners about the share of profits. Aamir Khan and SRK came together on that issue to resolve the dispute. The clout that the theater owners and movie chains hold over the movie industry is quite evident from this. Mostly they also have control over what trailers will be shown in the theaters.

In Hollywood, with large number of movies and big studios backing them up, there is generally a very tough competition before it is decided which trailers will be shown. The theaters cant just show trailers for all the movies that the studios want advertised. Generally there is a deal between the studio and the theater chain about the trailers. Before a movie begins, different trailers are shown for at least around 10 minutes. The deals decide which trailers will be shown and when. Efforts are made to put the trailer just before the movie starts because that is the best time when it can reach maximum audience members. The trailers that run first probably aren’t seen that much as every viewer is still not in his seat.

Hollywood executives are reported to have paid a theater chain as much as $100,000 to make sure that a particular trailer runs just before a hit movie. Also if not done explicitly, there are other ways to make deals with theaters. Some include diverting the marketing costs which are listed under print ads. Or giving the chain a bigger share of the ticket sales.

However there is always some amount of distrust between the theater owners and the movie makers. Studios even hire private companies to check on whether they are getting their money’s worth. These companies send their reps to theaters and check on whether the trailer promised to be shown in the theater is actually running. The amount spent per month on this is at least about $10K. If found that a particular chain is not running the promised trailer, results may be dire. If the studio decides against showing any of its movies in that chain, instead opting for the competition, it can mean a loss of lot of money.

Another new strategy adapted by studios is exclusive screening of trailers in theaters. Recently James Cameron showed a peek at his new movie “Avatar”. As you all know, James Cameron is the maker of the highest grossing movie ever, The Titanic, and Avatar, his next venture, is eagerly awaited. So when 20th Century Fox and James Cameron showed 15 minutes of “Avatar” at a specially ticketed event in August, more than 100,000 viewers attended the screenings. Also while marketing “The Dark Knight,” Warner Brothers had showed a few minutes of its opening sequence in theaters with paid tickets.

It is obvious though that such tactics will work when the big studios or at least big directors are behind that movie. With more and more different means to advertise and market a movie, now it just remains to be seen what new and interesting ideas the marketing guys will come up with next.

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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.


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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Public Issues

Opinion 2.0 !

This is written by Shantanu Gangal. Read his first post here)

• All leading newspapers, on Monday 17th, carried advertisements on their very first page questioning the Reliance Industries (RIL) – Petroleum Ministry nexus. When the ADA group realized that the three way conflict might degenerate to the other 2 parties ganging up, it decided to go public – with a difference.
Another ad was released today (18th) on similar lines. The quarter page advertisement ends by asking the reader to send back comments using email or SMS.
• Earlier this year, Idea mobile carried a campaign with Abhishek Bachchan as a civil servant who involves the junta in decision-making – regarding bridges, SEZ and so on. Taking a lesson from this, the BMC sent out SMSes asking parents whether schools should be shut as a precautionary measure against swine-flu.

While it isn’t clear how the public’s response to either of the above was / will be used, it has definitely heralded a new paradigm in seeking to build / inveigle / gather opinion from the masses. The reaching across worlds will change advertising / marketing significantly.

Information (and hence, propaganda) flowed in a single direction, till recently. Channels through which opinions could flow against the above mentioned current were few and expensive. This led to movie after movie mouthing the “humari kaun sunega?” (Hindi for: Who will hear us out?). This gap is decidedly getting bridged.

Due to infrastructural developments of the last decade, communication between people separated by geographies and opportunities became feasible. As Tom Friedman put it, The world is now flat! It was possible for everyone to voice their opinions about any topic they wished.
With the advent of interactive media and social networking, not only are people saying things but also people who matter are hearing them. While I won’t dare to go as far as saying that the worlds of the rich and the not-rich, the worlds of those who do and those to whom things get done are real-ly meeting, it can be said that the virtual worlds are nearing. There is an increased possibility that someone who was earlier ‘outta my league’ might end up talking to me. Some reasons for this shift can be:
1. Ever since the internet became a storehouse of information and knowledge, the physical separation between the expert and his area of expertise increased. It is possible that good and damaging criticism of RIL may come from someone outside ADAG and if it does, (I think) Anil Ambani will not only read it, he will also quote it in public as a genuine national grievance.
The possibility that the best knowledge / analysis might be found in some remote town has increased and is now well accepted.
2. The web is also an interactive media. And its big business. Hence people need online personas. As Sean Diddy Combs put it,
“Before, it was just at live shows, now you have to be able to do a great live show, you have to be able to do a great online interview, you need to have a great Facebook page”.
Federer needs to show his twins off on Facebook. In the Indian context, Gul Panag, Priyanka Chopra etc. all are in virtual connect with their fans. So are Ministers like Shashi Tharoor and S M Krishna. If your tweet hits the right note, it echoes in the places that matter.

If recent trends are anything to go by, opportunities to express your opinion (biased or otherwise) at the highest level are here to stay. It’s a good age to be highly opinionated. 🙂 .

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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, Strategy, Web

Leveraging social media for profits

Web 2.0, particularly the social aspect of it has lead the gross changes in the way the world uses the internet. In the coming years, this serengeti called the social media would become a very important determinant of profitability for the organization. However, how will the corporate world react to this new avenue of understanding the pulse of its consumers is the big question. I try to address that particular issue using the presentation attached below.

Almost every avenue of interaction on the web today has a social component to it – so the scope of social media defined here is

  • Blogs
  • Comments
  • Discussion forum
  • Micro Blogging
  • Instant Messaging
  • News

Essentially if you want the answer to the question – how can the corporate world leverage the power of facebook or twitter, this presentation is exactly what you are looking for!

Please post your comments about the views presented herewith in the presentation:

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