Google’s Nettlesome Search Gambit

Google has tuned up its search engine once again, but this time instead of shaving a couple of precious microseconds off its response time, it’s decided to adjust some back-end systems in a way that changes the kinds of results people get, depending on who they are.

Google users who are signed onto a Google account — that is, a Gmail account, a Google+ profile, etc. — will see search results culled not only from the Web at large, but also from information contained in their personal Google profiles, as well as info their friends on sites like Google+ have decided to make public. So for example, if you do a search for “Disneyland,” you’ll see Disneyland’s own site, as usual, but you might also see photos of Disneyland that your friend posted and tagged on Google+ a few weeks ago.

The service is called “Search Plus Your World,” and it’s rolling out to users over the next several days. If it sounds like it’s going to screw up the way you use Google and turn what once was a powerful, universal Web search tool into an engine that mostly delivers irrelevant chitchat from your friends as top-shelf results, you’re not alone. Some critics call this a big step backward for Google. If you don’t want any part of it, you can opt out — but doing that will be up to you.

That’s not the only thing critics aren’t happy about. As is usually the case when a search engine starts dipping into data contained on social networks, privacy advocates are giving the new system a very stern look. It’s not as though people can use Search Plus Your World to easily peek in at your innermost Google+ secrets. The only information people can get is stuff you’ve already agreed to share with them. But it does open up a new way for people to find out information about each other, and the fact that Google’s just going ahead and implementing it has triggered bad memories of its Buzz debacle in 2010.

In fact, user privacy is one topic that EPIC — the Electronic Privacy Information Centerhas focused on in its message to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission regarding Search Plus Your World. The other is the possible abuse of Google’s position in the market.

Although Google still draws up information from competing social networks like Twitter and Facebook, with Search Plus Your World, Google’s own social network properties are given a very clear advantage in search rankings. Google+ stuff comes up way ahead of similar relevant info from other companies.

That kind of allegation plays very nicely with a similar controversy in which Google’s already involved. Owners of everything from restaurant review sites to city mapping sites have claimed that Google gives its own properties unfair preferential treatment in search results — for example, putting Google Maps or Zagat at the top of search results for “maps” or “restaurant reviews,” respectively.

Back on the social networking side, Twitter seems especially concerned that its information will get shoved out of Google’s top results once Your World takes effect. In reply to that, though, Google reminded it that Twitter actually decided to discontinue its Realtime Search deal last summer, in which Google paid to have Twitter hand-feed it information.

Listen to the podcast (14:08 minutes).

Keeping the Television Vision Alive

Las Vegas has once again became a smoldering Dutch oven of technological debauchery with the arrival of the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show this week. Despite the departure of Microsoft — which has enjoyed top billing for years but recently announced the 2012 event will be its last for the foreseeable future — attendance at the show is apparently healthy this year, and it’s still looked upon as a reliable annual networking event.

As always, the future of television is a popular topic among a lot of the major vendors at the show. Last year, 3D seemed to be the No. 1 feature being flogged by companies like Sony and LG. But it’s still unclear whether buyers are really going to bite with that one. 3D content’s still nowhere near as easy to find as regular old 2D high-definition shows and movies, and the variety of 3D technologies out there is still a source of confusion. Active glasses, passive glasses, glasses free — can’t we just watch the movie?

So this year, TV makers seem to be turning back to ultra-vivid picture quality with technologies like crystal LEDs and extra-large AMOLED displays.

But as pretty as those new TVs are to look at, they don’t really do anything about the clumsiest part of home entertainment, which is content. A relatively inexpensive TV will show bright’n’shiny enough images, but the mass of shows and movies available for actual viewing is kind of a mess. Over-the-air, cable, premium cable, regional sports broadcasts, on-demand, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, iTunes, Vudu, a million and a half Web channels, and whatever happens to be saved on your DVR — we’re absolutely spoiled for choice, but could there be an easier way to access and manage it all?

That’s where Google hopes it can get a second chance. A little over a year ago, Google debuted its Google TV system with the Logitech Revue as one of the platform’s main products. CES 2011 was going to be its big coming-out party, but in its rookie season, Google TV has been treading water at best. In fact, the Revue lost Logitech so much money that it’s washed its hands of Google TV entirely.

But Google’s sticking with it. A few months ago, it launched a major update to what few Google TV products its partners have managed to sell. It deepened its ties with YouTube, gave it an interface makeover, and opened it up to the Android Market, meaning developers could start building apps with Google TV specifically in mind.

Now at CES, Google’s managed to convince some new hardware partners to join it for another shot. LG, Sony, Samsung and Vizio will soon offer devices with Google TV built in.

If Google can make its software easy to use and make sure it’s really an all-encompassing source of entertainment — rather than just another channel you have to figure out alongside everything else you have going on — then perhaps it’ll get a head start in the field. It’ll need to hurry, though. Right now, Apple TV is still just a hamburger-sized iTunes interface with an HDMI port, but rumors persist that someday soon, it’ll grow up into a full-sized television with much more interesting abilities.

The F Word

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt swung by CES this week to pump Android, and why wouldn’t he? Apple benches itself from the show, Microsoft’s Windows Phone is still grappling for traction, and RIM’s on the ropes. That leaves Android as the star mobile OS of the show — you can find a product running Android at the booth of just about any company that makes phones or tablets, barring those few that still brew their own platforms. And that reflects reality in the market — Android is dominant, at least in the U.S.

But as Schmidt was talking about his favorite topic during a panel discussion, one of the moderators, Cnet’s Molly Wood, dropped an F bomb on him: fragmentation. It’s a common gripe for Android users and developers. The OS is made available to any company that can manage to put a product together, whether it’s a piece of junk or state of the art. They’re allowed to fiddle with the interface, they don’t have to make any promises concerning an update schedule, and they can then pass the devices over to carriers who place their own apps and restrictions them.

That flexibility and willingness to cede control to others is one of the reasons Android has grown so fast, but it also results in a million and a half different little sub-species of Android running around out there. Developers want to make their apps compatible with as many varieties as possible, but keeping up with all of them is added work. And if you buy and download an app that isn’t quite optimized for your device, it might crash a lot or just not work at all.

Of course, all platforms experience this to some degree if they evolve beyond their very first version. For example, you can’t buy an iPhone app that requires a gyroscope and then expect it to work on a phone running an operating system from back when it was still called “iPhone OS.” But the path forward in a proprietary and more strictly controlled platform is a straighter line with fewer variables. If the app doesn’t work, it’s probably because your phone’s just too old, and differences in phone makers and interfaces and carriers don’t factor in as much.

Anyway, Schmidt took issue when the word “fragmentation” was brought up, and he contended that the correct word to use to describe Android is “differentiation,” which has a much more pleasant ring to it. They don’t call them “differentiation grenades.”

He also added that Google really wants to have all users up to date with the latest version of Android, Ice Cream Sandwich. But with the way Android is distributed, it doesn’t seem like Google has much say in the matter. Phone makers and carriers can sell you a nice, cutting-edge phone eight or nine months before the next version of Android is released, then really drag their feet in bringing that new version to your phone — or just decide not to let you upgrade at all because they don’t want to put in the time. Meanwhile, you’re still neck-deep in a contract, grabbing a new phone would be really expensive, and you’re stuck with an old version.

Besides, bickering about the differences between “fragmentation” and “differentiation” doesn’t change the reality at ground level. As Flurry Analytics CEO Simon Khalaf put it, if developers say Android is fragmented, then it is.

Mobilizing Mobile

The rise of smartphones and tablet computers has been going on mostly without the help of one of the biggest names in chips: Intel. It’s been asserting its usual market dominance in laptops and desktops, but the mobile game so far belongs to ARM-based chips.

Intel CEO Paul Otellini held court at CES this week to let the world know that’s about to change. Intel wants to kick down the door and get into some true mobile action, not just these little Atom-based netbooks.

This doesn’t really come as a shock. Intel’s been talking vaguely about it for years, and it was just last month that Intel was seen parading around a nice-looking prototype phone with its upcoming Medfield chip inside. So Intel’s general intentions have been on the radar for a while; what’s new here are its specific plans for its approach and how its partners will be joining in.

Those plans will include companies like Lenovo and Motorola. It starts in China, where Intel chips will arrive inside Lenovo smartphones in the first half of the year. Motorola’s agreed to a multi-year, multi-device deal that will include tablets and will start to show products later in 2012.

Both deals could prove to be very lucrative. China’s a huge market, and demand for smartphones there is growing fast. And linking up with Motorola makes Intel very cozy with Google, Android’s godfather, though it’s still unclear exactly how Google’s purchase of Motorola Mobility will affect its position among Android device makers.

Meanwhile, Dell’s chief commercial officer Steve Felice told Reuters that his company is ready to try tackling tablets again — this after burying early attempts like the Streak 5 and Streak 7. He said every tablet except the iPad so far has been a failure, though I wonder if someone at Amazon or Samsung might disagree with that. Anyway, it could be interesting to see what Dell has in mind for this, and it’s easy to think that Intel’s intention to get into tablets might be related.

Heavily Armed

There’s been big growth in portable gaming lately, thanks to smartphones and tablets. Touchscreen gadgets are perfect for short, relatively simple games that you might play for five or 10 minutes at a time — think of “Angry Birds” as a prime example. This kind of mobile gaming has also been a big money maker for certain developers who’ve figured out ways to take full advantage of the app store sales models these kinds of devices have brought about. Make a simple game, sell it for a few dollars — or even for free with advertising — and if you market it right, you’re all set.

But none of this has been very impressive to hardcore console and PC gamers — the ones who’ll happily spend US$60 on an intricately designed, complicated game. They’re not out for a few minutes of entertainment; they want hours of immersion on a dedicated console or a tricked-out, hand-built computer with a better cooling system than most motorcycles.

For these gamers, the closest they can get to mobile is maybe an ultra-expensive laptop the size of a pizza box. But Razer may change that later this year with what it calls “Project Fiona.”

Razer is perhaps best known for PC gaming peripherals, like specialized mice and keyboards. But it’s getting into more complex hardware, and one of its future plans is for a tablet computer that’s serious about gaming.

Project Fiona looks kind of like an iPad that grew a set of arms. There’s a 10.1-inch touchscreen that supports multitouch and the usual tablet features like gyro, accelerometer and WiFi, but it runs on an Intel Core i7 processor. It’s a full PC environment that plays PC games. And those arms are its controllers — on each side it has a handle with thumb-handy directional controls and buttons.

Project Fiona captured a lot of attention at CES, and Razer says it intends to start selling them sometime this year. But price is sketchy. Most guesses fall into the sub-$1,000 range, but even the high end of that could be too much for lots of gamers to bear. Portable consoles like Sony’s PlayStation Vita don’t cost nearly as much, and although it may be a full PC in a tablet, PC gamers do like customizable hardware, and it doesn’t look like you can swap out a new graphics card in Fiona.

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