Saturday, October 16, 2010

Google By The Borders

Gmail's logo
In my last post I speculated a bit about what Google might be doing with all that data they are gathering from Android phones.  Earlier this evening Rea and I were heading to Borders books to purchase the book that the movie Secretariat is based on.  Borders sends us coupons regularly in email and as we were getting close to the store I decided to search for the coupon in my GMail app so I'd have it handy.  Before I'd typed a single character the helpful search feature had put up three options.  I don't recall the other two, but one of them was Borders.  I touched that option and within seconds I had located the latest coupon in my saved mail.

On the one hand I loved the convenience and speed of the experience.  On the other, it was a little spooky.  Was it just a coincidence or did Google make a quick guess where we were going based on where we were and our previous destinations in that area?

Artificial Intelligence has been around as a field since at least the 1960's.  I have a set of books I bought used in a box somewhere.  They are from the early 70's and outline the state of the art and history of the field up until that time. It's interesting to contemplate the hubris of those early pioneers.  They thought that translating between human languages would be trivial.  Even today relatively simple translations between English & Spanish are imperfect and as the two languages being translated diverge errors tend to become more common and occasionally very amusing.  What Google has now isn't really AI but there are times when it sure seems that way.  Essentially Google's tools are very good at tracking and understanding context and making associations.  This isn't intelligence per say but it can sure look that way at times.

My mother was born before the first electronic computer was built.  I've sometimes wondered what it is like to have lived through that much change.  If I live another couple of decades I strongly suspect I'll get to see more change than she has over the course of her life.  I find that thought both a little scary and very exciting.

Image via Wikipedia
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Friday, October 15, 2010

Google/NVidia/Word of Mouth

The stop sign design currently used in English...

One of the things I really like about my Droid X phone is the navigation app. It's essentially eliminated the need for me to worry about having a navigation system in any car I buy or rent. I'm highly prone to making wrong turns, so having an electronic genie available at all times that can instruct me in minute detail on what to do is excellent. On thing that occurred to me earlier this week as I was driving home from a meeting about thirty miles from my home is that Google is getting all sorts of interesting information by providing that App. They can get a pretty good real time perspective on how slowly traffic is moving on a particular freeway. Over time they can get an idea of traffic flow on surface streets and where stop signs and traffic lights are. As Android based phones become more common they are going to have more and more data points to look at. I wonder what all those clever people at Google are planning on doing with this information? One thing they could do is reroute in real time based on traffic flows. That information is already available for most freeways and some major roads, at least hear in the SF Bay area, but coverage seems to be a lot less common for surface streets. You wouldn't even need to be in the navigation application. All it would take is the GPS being enabled. Even without the GPS they can make a pretty good guess based on cell tower triangulation and the maps of wireless hot spots that they've built.

Google started out with a fairly simple idea, to help organize the worlds information. Even a fairly simple idea can lead in an amazing number of directions.

The big news on the the NVidia front recently has been their decision to directly sell finished boards.  Historically NVidia has sold GPU's to partners who have then created boards that were in turn sold to customers.  It's nearly always the case that being closer to the final sale means higher margins, but undermining your partners in this way can be  a very bad thing as they tend to take such changes in the way the world works very negatively.  Several years ago NVidia acquired the assets of a competitor called 3Dfx for song after 3Dfx essentially did the same thing, thus alienating their partners and accelerating their demise.

So, is this an act of desperation or a change in business strategy with potential risks and rewards?  I've seen both theories advocated by various technology pundits.  I'm honestly not sure which side is right.  Having signed up Best Buy to sell their cards certainly wasn't a bad move.

(Word of Mouth)
Recently my wife and I have been shopping for an alarm company.   Some friends of ours have a more immediate need and have thus been a bit more aggressive in pursuing a solution.  We've been sharing information during the search and one thing that struck me is how common this is and how positive or negative information about a particular company is magnified.  Our friend got a big time hard sell and bad attitude from one of the major national players in this space.  Instantly I removed that company from our list of prospects.  Another company that I heard about while having lunch with some coworkers faired much better when our friend contacted them by being professional and customer focused.  Rather than trying to sell our friend as much equipment as they could they made suggestions on how to get the best possible coverage without spending too much up front.  It's probably not a surprise that this second company is currently the odds on favorite to get both our friends business and ours.

Word of mouth is hard to measure, but it is likely a significant factor, particularly in situations where a company is trying to acquire new customers.  It's kind of amazing to me how many businesses drop the ball in this area.  Bad interactions multiply.  Customer facing employees are extremely important to the long term health of any enterprise.  This concept is often ignored by companies that are looking for a short term improvement in their bottom line by outsourcing.  I suspect that most of us have had sub par experiences as a result of such efforts.

Really though, outsourcing isn't the problem here.  The problem is the fact that some companies don't seem to value the contribution that customer facing portions of their business provide to their bottom line.  Bad customer experiences can come just as easily from employees who are some combination of badly trained, badly treated or badly paid.

In general it seems to me that companies don't always have a very good idea of where value is created.

Image via Wikipedia

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Sunday, October 3, 2010

Droid X + Android 2.2 + Kindle

Android robot logo.
The Droid X update to Android 2.2 (Froyo) finally came out just before the last minute of summer had expired on the west coast of the US so technically Verizon met their promise of a late summer release, albeit barely. I waited a week or so to do the install so I don't have a lot of mileage on this release. So far however it certainly seems like an improvement overall. My phone is more responsive and the built in on-screen keyboard is a big improvement over the previous one as I don't commit anywhere near as many typos.  It just looks nicer as well.  The built-in market place app is also improved with the ability to do batched updates of installed applications.  One nice feature related to this is the fact that it won't batch update applications that have had changes in their access permissions since the previous install/update.  This means you have to go in and look at the changes and be sure you're happy with them.  The number of things some applications want access to has caused me to abort installs before so this is a nice and useful thing.

Overall I'm still very happy with this phone, though I have had one hard lock since the update which is something that I don't recall having happen with the 2.1 release.

One of my favorite activities on the X is using the Kindle app.  There has been a saying going around for a couple of years now in relation to photography that goes "The best camera is the one you have with you" and that is certainly true of books as well.  The screen of the Droid X is big enough that I don't have to page constantly and the text is very readable.  Much like a real book, after awhile I don't even notice that I'm "turning the pages".

My wife bought one of the current generation Kindle 3G's right when it came out and I really like it.  For $189 with free 3G wireless it is hard to complain about the value.  The screen is great, and being able to do casual web surfing via the built in web browser is a nice bonus.  There are also some games available which makes it an even better value.   The battery life is good, but not as good as the ads imply.  I'm not saying they lie, but as is generally the case the maximum numbers are probably based on a very unrealistic usage scenario.

I love the IPad, but given the fact that you have to subscribe to a monthly service if you want to use the 3G model I'm just not seeing the value, at least for me.  The 3G model is three times plus the price of the Kindle up front.  It's a much more capable product, but I'm not willing to pay that kind of money.   The IPod Touch on the other hand is on my radar.  The 8G version of the latest touch is $229.  I don't plan on having any music on it, so 8G is more than enough for any applications I'm likely to install.  It isn't quite the same, but I think of it as a "IPad Mini", and that will be just fine for me.

If Apple comes out with an IPad 3G with 16G of storage and no monthly 3G I'll be very interested.  Particularly if it's the next generation of the product.  With all the Android based pads coming out it will be interesting to see what Apple does.  I think they'll come down a bit in terms of pricing, but they don't generally have a lot of interest in competing on price.  They are a premium brand and they can and do charge based on that.  Even so, I really feel that the IPad prices as of today are not sustainable in the longer term.  They've been doing great with the early adopters but I don't see that lasting.

Image via Wikipedia

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