To Map Or Not To Map

For over a decade, Microsoft — the monopolist of its era — treated its customers on Macs as second-class. Its Office suite never achieved parity with its Windows sibling, even when the differences were not dictated by platform architectures. Whether it was document compatibility, font-metrics, macros, integration with other Microsoft software or myriad other gotchas, Mac versions were always lacking. Every new version of Office promised better compatibility but never really delivered it. Worse, Microsoft never quite integrated Apple-grown technologies into Office to better blend it into the Mac ecosystem, claiming it would break cross-platform compatibility with the Windows versions.

Wpxo

Sadly, this wasn’t an occasional inconvenience but a source of daily frustration for millions of paying customers, corporations and individuals alike. With business so dependent on Office, Microsoft’s message was loud and clear: if you want the real thing switch to Windows.

Sufficiently annoyed by all the trouble, some users did.

Most didn’t, and haven’t forgiven Microsoft ever since.

Therein lies a lesson for Google

Today, we know that the iOS version of Google Maps has been inferior to its Android sibling for sometime, turn-by-turn directions being the most obvious example. Clearly, Google and Apple have far better ability to integrate apps into their own respective mobile ecosystems, but we don’t really know the contractual, commercial and even technical considerations for the disparity in this particular case.

So far this has not been a major issue. In the future, it may be a different matter. In Apple’s Feud With Google Is Now Felt on iPhone, New York Times says:

But [Google] would not say whether it was building an iPhone app for users to download. Its only public statement on the matter has been vague: “Our goal is to make Google Maps available to everyone who wants to use it, regardless of device, browser, or operating system.”

Google could decide not to build an app, as a gamble that iPhone users depend on its maps so much that they might switch to Android. [Emp. added]

After outsmarting and outspending its then-chief rival MapQuest, Google has been dominating mobile maps on phones for half a decade. From a corporate rivalry standpoint, Google is in an enviable position at the moment, certainly amused by the current kerfuffle around the iOS 6 Maps app.

Museo

However, it would be monumentally myopic of Google management to “decide not to build an [iOS native map] app” or to think Apple Maps’s lack of polish will cause any meaningful migration of iOS users to Android or that Apple management would let that happen. In the end, Google management may be hypocritical but, unlike their loud amen corner in the Comments section, they’re likely not blind to obvious realities.

Samsung may have become the biggest smartphone seller by volume, but I’m sure even Andy Rubin realizes Samsung doesn’t have 400+ million users (each with a credit card account) who have proven themselves to be the world’s most lucrative online demographics. These users have invested billions in Apple’s media and app ecosystem. They are the happiest bunch whenever product satisfaction surveys are taken. They upgrade regularly. They are loyal. They frequent Apple Stores with alarming regularity. They wait in line, rain or shine. They are not going anywhere.

There’s, of course, the other side of the coin. Reports argue that Google makes much more from iOS than its own Android. Since I don’t believe any numbers coming out of Mountain View (not that Google ever officially discloses meaningful Android numbers anyway) no one really knows the footprint of Google Maps on Google’s balance sheet. I suspect not much. However, for Google that makes all its money from advertising, being able to harvest spatiotemporal user data to triangulate purchasing intent must be priceless.

Every time an iOS user interacts with Google Maps, directly or through other apps that use its API, Google gets extremely useful data that soothe its search and advertising pangs, tens of millions of times a day around the globe. For Google (and now Apple) maps are an input modality to discover user intent, perhaps only rivaled by command line search and social network affinity graphs.

But direct financial contribution is not the most important rationale for Google Maps on iOS. One of the key reasons why Google has better data than Apple is the fact that for many years users of Google Maps have been sending corrections to Google, which has improved its accuracy significantly. So by not submitting Google Maps to the App Store, Google would not only give up a very significant portion of its mobile revenue, but more importantly, it would self-induce a debilitating data-blindness on the world’s most lucrative mobile ecosystem.

If Apple does admit Google Maps into the App Store, iOS devices (where Apple makes its money) would be the only mobile platform that offers both Google and Apple map apps. Of course, Google could submit such an app and Apple could reject it. Then, as Jean-Louis Gassée would say, Damned If You Google, FTC‘ed If You Don’t.

Some dilemma.

Spirit of Siri at Apple 25 years ago

Siri

As a budding standup comedienne, Siri opened Apple’s WWDC 2012 Monday morning and concluded her act with the prophetic:

It’s really hard for me to get emotional, because as you can tell, my emotions haven’t been coded yet.

Clearly, Siri is a work in progress and she knows it. What others may not know, though, is that while Siri is a recent star in the iOS family, her genesis in the Apple constellation goes far back.

The Assistant and Assist

Nearly three decades ago, fluid access to linked data displayed in a friendly manner to mere mortals was an emerging area of research at Apple.

Samir Arora, a software engineer from India, was involved in R&D on application navigation and what was then called hypermedia. He wrote an important white paper entitled “Information Navigation: The Future of Computing.” In fact, working for Apple CEO John Sculley at the time, Arora had a hand in the making of the 1987 “Knowledge Navigator” video — Apple’s re-imagining of human-computer interaction into the future:

knowledge-navigator.jpg

Unmistakably, the notion of Siri was firmly planted at Apple 25 years ago. But “Knowledge Navigator” was only a concept prototype, Apple’s last one to date. Functional code shipped to users along the same lines had to evolve gradually over the next few years.

After the “Knowledge Navigator,” Arora worked on important projects at Apple and ran the applications tools group that created HyperCard and 4th Dimension (one of the earliest GUI-based desktop relational databases). The group invented a new proprietary programming language called SOLO (Structure of Linked Objects) to create APIs for data access and navigation mostly for mobile devices.

In 1992, Arora and the SOLO group spun off from Apple as Rae Technology, headquartered on the Apple campus. A year later, Rae Assist, one of the first Personal Information Managers (PIMs), was introduced. Based on 4th Dimension DB, Assist combined contact management, scheduling and note taking in an integrated package (automatically linking contact and company information or categorizing scheduled items, etc) for PowerBook users on the go. Although three versions of Assist were released in the following two years, Rae didn’t make any money in the PIM business. But as Rae also worked with large enterprise customers like Chevron and Wells Fargo in database-centric projects, the company realized the SOLO frameworks could also be used to design large-scale commercial websites:

SOLO is based on a concept that any pieces of data must accommodate the requirement of navigation and contextual inheritance in a database environment. In layman terms, it means that every piece of text, graphics and page is embedded with an implicit navigation framework based on the groupings or order in which the items are organized. In other words, a picture, which is a data object, placed in this programming environment will automatically know the concept of ‘next’ and ‘previous’ without having to write an explicit line of code. This simplifies the coding process. Since the information and business logic organization models were already completed for the client-software, converting this to a web application was simply a recompilation of the codes for a different delivery platform. The project was completed within four weeks and we were stunned as to how simple it was. This was an important validation point illustrating the portability of our technology for cross-platform development.

It wasn’t long before we realized that SOLO, a technology based on information organization models, could be adapted and modified for an application to build web sites. A prototype was developed immediately and soon after a business plan was developed to raise venture funding. NetObjects was founded.

Rae quickly applied for patents for website design software and transferred its technology IP to NetObjects. With seed money and the core team from Rae, NetObjects had a splashy entry into what later came to be known as Content Management Systems (CMS). Unfortunately, the rest was rough going for the fledging company. Not long after IBM invested about $100M for 80% of NetObjects, the company went public on NASDAQ in 1999. Heavily dependent on IBM, NetObjects never made a profit and it was delisted from NASDAQ. IBM sold it in 2001.

Outside Apple, SOLO traveled a meandering path into insignificance. Rae Technology became Venture Capital and NetObjects eventually atrophied.

Flying through WWW

Only three years after the SOLO group left Apple for Rae, Ramanathan V. Guha, a researcher in Apple’s Advanced Technology Group, started work on the interactive display of structured, linkable data, from file system hierarchy to sitemaps on the emerging WWW. Guha had earlier worked on CycL knowledge representation language and created a database schema mapping tool called Babelfish, before moving to Apple to work for Alan Kay in 1994.

His new work at Apple, Project X (HotSauce, as it was later called), was based on 3D representation of data that a user could “fly through” and Meta-Content Format (MFC), a “language for representing a wide range of information about content” that defined relationships among individual pieces of data. At an Apple event at the time, I remember an evangelist telling me that HotSauce will do for datasets what HTML did for text on the web.

Hotsauce

Apple submitted MCF to IETF as a standard for describing content and HotSauce (with browser plugins for Mac OS and Windows) found some early adopters. However, shortly after Steve Jobs’ return in 1997, it was a casualty of the grand house cleaning at Apple. Guha left Apple for Netscape, where he helped create an XML version of MCF, which later begot RDF (W3C’s Resource Description Framework) and the initial version of RSS standards.

It’s the metadata, stupid!

Even in its most dysfunctional years in the mid-199os, Apple had an abiding appreciation of the significance of metadata and the relationships among its constituent parts.

SOLO attempted to make sense of a user’s schedule by linking contacts and dates. HotSauce allowed users to navigate faceted metadata efficiently and with some measure of fun to find required information without having to become a data architect. The Assistant in the “Knowledge Navigator” had enough contextual data about its master to interpret temporal, geo-spatial, personal and other contextual bits of info to draw inferential conclusions to understand, recommend, guide, filter, alert, find or execute any number of actions automatically.

There is an app for that

A decade later, Apple was now in need of technology to counter Google’s dominance in search-driven ad revenue on its iOS platform. A frontal assault on Google Search would have been silly and suicidal, notwithstanding the fact that Apple had no relevant scalable search technology. But there was an app for that. And it was called Siri.

Siriold

Siri was a natural language abstraction layer accessed through voice recognition technology from Nuance to extract information from primarily four service partners: OpenTable, Google Maps, MovieTickets and TaxiMagic. Siri was on the iPhone first but it was headed to BlackBerry and Android. Apple bought Siri on April 28, 2010 and that original app was discontinued on October 15, 2011. Now Siri is a deeply embedded part of iOS.

Of course, the Siri code and the team came to Apple from an entirely different trunk of the semantic forest, from SRI International’s DARPA-funded Artificial Intelligence Center projects: Personalized Assistant that Learns (PAL) and Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes (CALO), with research also conducted at various universities.

What made Siri interesting to Apple wasn’t the speech recognition or the simple bypassing of browser-based search, but the semantic relationships in structured and linkable data accessed through natural language. It was SOLO redux at scale and HotSauce cloaked in speech. It wasn’t meant to compete with Google in search results but to provide something Google couldn’t: making contextual sense.

Unlike Google, Siri knows, for example, what “wife” or “son’s birthday” means and can thus provide, not a long list of departures for further clicks, but precise answers. Siri delivers on the wildest dreams of SOLO and HotSauce of an earlier generation. In two years, even as limited to just a few service partners, Siri progressed far more than the developers of SOLO or HotSauce could have imagined. It now speaks the vast majority of the world’s most prominent languages, with connections to local data providers around the globe.

Having intimate conversations with Samuel Jackson and John Malkovich, Siri has become a TV star. Most iOS users already think Siri has a personality, if not an attitude all together. Hard to say what will happen when she actually gets her “emotions coded.”

Mapping Google’s FUD

While first encountered in writing in the 1920s, FUD is said to have been formally defined by Gene Amdahl nearly four decades ago after he left IBM to set up his own company, Amdahl Corp:

FUD is the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that IBM sales people instill in the minds of potential customers who might be considering Amdahl products.

Roger Irwin illustrates how Microsoft grabbed the FUD baton from IBM:

Of course the PC story is perhaps more a tale of big name marketing rather than deliberate FUD mongering, but the PC also brought Microsoft to the forefront as the supplier of the basic-in-ROM cum disk operating system. Microsoft soon picked up the art of FUD from IBM, and throughout the 80′s used FUD as a primary marketing tool, much as IBM had in the previous decade. They ended up out FUD-ding IBM themselves during the OS2 vs Win3.1 years.

A good example of MS FUD, and its potential, was demonstrated when Digital Research launched their DR DOS against MS-DOS5. DR-DOS offered more features and cost less, and was widely acclaimed by all. Then the new MS windows 3.1 release flashed up a trivial error message when run under DR DOS, and all of a sudden everybody was saying DR DOS is great but you can have problems running Windows on it. At the same time Microsoft announced the ‘imminent’ release of MS DOS6 which would be far more feature packed than DR DOS. In reality they had nothing, they had only just started looking at a ‘DOS 6′ in response to the DR launch, and it is also questionable whether the MS product was better. This classic FUD pack occurred together with a dealer package designed to make it financially advantageous to offer MS DOS with windows, and the result is history. Many believe this was the making of the MS monopoly.

A former Microsoft program manager, Joel Spolsky explains how Microsoft made a habit of FUDding competitors:

Think of the history of data access strategies to come out of Microsoft. ODBC, RDO, DAO, ADO, OLEDB, now ADO.NET – All New! Are these technological imperatives? The result of an incompetent design group that needs to reinvent data access every goddamn year? (That’s probably it, actually.) But the end result is just cover fire. The competition has no choice but to spend all their time porting and keeping up, time that they can’t spend writing new features.

Pre-Internet, FUD was easier to pull off for Microsoft:

  • Hold a press conference to pre-announce products not even half-finished or entirely nonexistent except as clip art in a product manager’s PowerPoint deck.
  • Give “exclusive” interviews to friendly tech reporters to generate one-sided stories without any counterpoints.
  • Buy advertising in “friendly” publications and other media read by decision-makers-with-checkbooks to reinforce the central FUD message.
  • Go astroturfing on mail-lists, forums and letters-to-the-editor sections through stealthily paid endorsers.

Of course, a lot has happened since the golden age of IBM and Microsoft FUD, namely the Internet and the fact that nobody really cares what IBM or Microsoft says or does any longer, especially in the consumer markets. Today, neither company is a market maker or has enough technical or business clout to dictate industry direction.

Enter Google

For several years now, I’ve been writing about how Google recognized the incredible opportunity presented to it by the rapid decline of Microsoft’s monopoly and how Google began to use Microsoftian tactics, predominantly featuring FUD, to buttress its market dominance:

In fact, none other than Vic Gundotra, former Microsoft chief evangelist and current Google+ czar, told BusinessWeek how FUD plays a critical role at Google:

In Silicon Valley, that kind of evangelism usually involves firing insults at the competition. While that hasn’t typically been Google’s style, Gundotra hasn’t shied away. As he says, “It’s an art to create a sense of inevitability.” In a keynote speech at a Google event for developers last year, he even took aim at Steve Jobs and “a draconian future where one man, one company, and one device would be our only choice. … That’s a future we don’t want.”

“It’s an art to create a sense of inevitability”

So how would the new FUDster Google attempt to discount a rival’s product announcement three days prior to the event? Why, hold a press conference, pre-announce “potential” products without ship dates and essentially “create a sense of inevitability”:

  • We cover so much of the earth (Hey, we’re bringing Map Maker to South Africa and Egypt today, and did you know you can get Street View in Antarctica? )
  • We have everything the competition may have and, just wait, we’ll have even more (You can download parts of maps to your mobile device for offline use, sometime in the future.)
  • Nobody else can do it as well as we can, because this thing is really hard (We managed to miniaturize all the stuff needed to capture Street View data into a backpack called the Street View Trekker, and did you know plate tectonics can lead to misalignments between different data sets?)
  • It takes a lot of money, people and resources to do this (Street View cars have now driven 5 million miles and collected 20 petabytes worth of image data, and did you know we even use a snowmobile to collect data?)
  • Everybody uses our products, we’re the safe choice (“communities of over 300 million people” will be using this stuff sometime soon.)
  • We’re not evil (Halo Trust uses Google Maps to mark where land mines are around the world, also did you know we once helped a tribe in the Amazon?)

Now, I know the work of mapping related companies Apple bought in the last few years and wrote about it two years ago in Apple, Google and the map wars. But I have no idea whether Apple will in fact offer a map product next week or how good it may be. It looks like Google thinks Apple will and it may be good enough to resort to FUD. That’s good enough for me.

I’ve heard Steve Ballmer laugh heartily at iPhone’s prospects: “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.” I’ve seen Vic Gundotra tell us “One man. One phone…” is “Not the Future We Want.” I’ve been scared by Android czar Andy Rubin evoking North Korean nightmares under an Apple regime. So excuse me if I can smell FUD even 2,945 miles away as the 3D Google Maps flies, I’m well trained.

Store Wars: Opt out, opt in, sell out, capitulate?

Apple’s new App Store rules now mandate that users themselves must decide whether they want to give their own personal info to publishers when they subscribe. What would be the reaction of the publishing industry to this? Straight from a publisher, Forbes:

Pam Horan, publisher of the Online Publishers Association, says the trade organization’s members — a group that includes Time Inc., Hearst, Conde Nast, Bloomberg, National Geographic and, yes, Forbes — are worried the new regime doesn’t give them the flexibility they need to serve their customers.

The flexibility to serve their customers

What does Apple do to deny publishers that “flexibility” then? One click to opt in to data sharing. Pam Horan, again:

Anything that requires the consumer to take yet another step is always going to reduce the number of people that participate in the process. It limits the ability to gather audience insights to build the right products. With this inability to know who your consumers are, it really affects the ultimate product for the consumer.

Put simply, publishers don’t want readers to opt in, because they know readers will prefer to opt out. Transparency is not a friend of publishers who for decades made a mint by selling out readers to advertisers and list brokers. Most readers may not be aware of this, but those who are don’t like it. Publishers know that and hate Apple for calling their bluff. If personal info harvesting isn’t essential for publishers’ business model and it is in the interest of readers, then why would they be against an instant referendum in the form of the opt in button?

Beyond the smokescreen

This, of course, isn’t about the readers. It’s not even about Apple’s App Store. It’s about the clash of two different business models. One that sells the customer to the highest bidder through a product and the other that sells a product directly to the customer. For the former, the product is a vehicle, often an excuse, since it holds no value for the publisher. For the latter, the product is the source of value, it lives and dies by the utility and delight it brings to the customer.

Transitioning from one format or platform to a new one is often a long, arduous and financially disruptive process. Lately, however, we are seeing a time compression in these transitions. For example, moving from dial-up to broadband or from landlines to wireless took quite a bit of time. Transition from analog to digital music or from featurephones to smartphones have been much shorter. Shorter the transition, bloodier the financial impact on incumbents. Print economics have been around forever, virtually unchanged for decades. All of a sudden, though, there is an incredibly convenient format (iPad) and a platform (iTunes) for what used to live in the dead-tree zone. No wonder we have publishers up in arms about the freight train suddenly in front of them.

The grand opening

We can also look at the new App Store rules as a grand negotiation being conducted in public. Apple’s iTunes and iOS ecosystem make it abundantly clear that there’s now a platform ready for transition. Table stakes: 30% cut for the platform owner. Publishers have several choices:

1. Set up their own stores — If the most business savvy of all publishers, Rupert Murdoch, who never shied away from big and expensive bets, has come to the conclusion that News Corp alone can’t set up its own independent online store, what chance do other smaller, cash-strapped, technophobic publishers have?

2. Collude to set up a BigPublishers-only store — This would be standard operating procedure…that has repeatedly failed. Disparate corporations banding together against a successful market leader nearly always fails. Witness myriad roadkill behind iTunes.

3. Negotiate with Apple directly — Murdoch did negotiate with Apple separately, but may not have received much in return other than some technical help and launch presence. Companies like Amazon and Netflix may try to negotiate with Apple directly to leverage their popularity to wring some concessions on rules or rates.

4. Wage guerilla warfare against Apple in the press — Adobe, Part Deux. This is inevitable since many of those who produce the anti-Apple hysteria write for the publications that would financially benefit from a change in App Store policies.

5. Ask for government help — Publishers will likely ask the government to intervene and conduct a threatening investigation of App Store policies to browbeat Apple into changing its policies. Also, as the last refuge of scoundrels, they will appeal to the Congress for tax payer support under the guise of saving jobs.

6. Give up subscriptions — Google would love publishers to just give up the notion of subscriptions and go ads-only, either as free apps supported by AdMob on mobiles or browser based apps supported by AdSense. Sadly, content providers aren’t immune to making monumentally stupid mistakes and…imploding.

7. Accept Apple’s terms — We heard similar, if not identical, complaints about the size of Apple’s cut or its intermediary position between content owners and customers at the onset of iTunes and later App Store. Nobody’s complaining much about those anymore, mostly because there have been no credible alternatives.

8. Create alternatives to iTunes/iOS — This is the perennial Plan B, if Apple doesn’t budge. The usual suspects are those with a store and the will to spend money liberally to undermine Apple, namely Google, Microsoft and Amazon. Google recently transferred its upcoming music store to Andy Rubin’s Android division and is now negotiating with publishers. Microsoft rolled Nokia’s Ovi into its own store and would be happy to bankroll publishers to attract Windows Phone users. Amazon has already tangled with Apple last year after the introduction of iBooks over the agency model Apple offered to publishers. These are all big competitive players with plenty of cash to render as absurd any notion that Apple somehow has a monopoly over digital stores. It is, however, a reminder that all such previous attempts to cut down Apple by direct competition has failed.

Rock and a hard place

Apple, the one company that makes bet-the-company type moves all the time, has done it again: they have decided to cull parasitic middlemen and aggregators from the ecosystem. What choice do publishers have then? They first have to ask themselves two fundamental questions:

1. What business are we in? — Are we in the business of creating scarcity in news and media to leverage it against eyeballs for advertisers? Can our current model survive the transition to digital? Are we capable of setting up our own stores? If not, do we understand we must change our revenue streams radically? What sorts of structural and financial remodeling do we have to undergo internally to adjust to giving up 30% to Apple?

2. Quo vadis? — If our current distribution has to change, on whose digital platform will we move? Is there, in other words, an alternative to Apple App Store?

Whatever conclusions the publishing industry may arrive at, there’s one undeniable fact staring them in the face:

By next year, Apple iTunes/iOS ecosystem will have over 200 million of the most lucrative online demographics ever assembled by a company.

Apple didn’t become the world’s most valued tech company by being naive. The fact that Apple’s longstanding discipline of selling products direct to customers aligns nicely with customers’ interests of accessing a well curated, efficient, price-competitive, easy-to-use store is just the icing on the cake. Nobody else comes close. You can’t do business by ignoring the App Store.

UPDATE: In case there was any doubt that Google would step in to exploit the situation, the company introduced in less than a day after Apple’s announcement its own One Pass subscription payment plan, with a 10% cut. Google CEO Eric Schmidt: “We aren’t in this to make money, Google makes money in other ways.”