“Ordered Information” is not a paint job

At Davos 2013, CEO Marissa Mayer unveiled her vision for Yahoo’s rebirth, affirming it wants to be:

a feed of information that is ordered, the Web is ordered for you and is also on your mobile phone.

It’s a laudable vision. With the decline of traditional gatekeepers of information, the original directory of the Information Superhighway could conceivably become again an “orderer” of the abundance of information we live in. Yahoo also has an abundance of mobiles apps, on iOS alone: Search, Flickr, Mail, Finance, News, IntoNow, Messenger, TimeTraveler, Axis, MarketDash, Sportacular, Fantasy Baseball, Basketball, Hockey, Cricket and Football, as well as feeds into Siri queries and built-in Weather and Stocks apps.

It would thus appear Yahoo both “has content” and “gets mobile.” Unfortunately, when dealing with information for the past 15 years, Yahoo has been confusing “ordered information” with “content aggregation” and “task completion.” While ordered information is presumably better than unordered information, simple aggregation — and that’s all Yahoo has, for the most part — is still quite low on the online food chain, both for Yahoo’s bottom line as well as utility to its users.

What then for a company like Yahoo — cyclically self-described as a search, media, technology, portal and advertising company — could go wrong in a rebirth process? Let’s take a page from Yahoo! Finance, a property that has long dominated its space against old (Microsoft, AOL) and relatively new (Morningstar, Google) competitors, for it neatly displays the degree of trouble Yahoo is in.

Yahoo! Finance

Is it “ordered”?

Scanning top-to-bottom a page of stock quote for AAPL, there are three disparately located Search departure points [1, 2, 3] all styled differently: [1] “Search Web” is the most emphasized one of the three. And yet it’s for generic search, even though I’m already at a highly specialized finance site.

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[2] “Get Quotes” is finance-specific, but then [3], not a button but a text-link, is named “Finance Search” and yet, inexplicably, takes you to another page with a completely different UI and a generic searchbox with text-links to images, video, shopping, etc., not unlike the giant generic “Search Web” [1] just above it. Baffling for a company that still harbors search aspirations.

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[4] Instead of a single banner ad, there are four small ad-buttons for competing trading tools right next to each other. I’m sure some people click on those, but what a waste of prime real estate for premium monetization.

[5] If you wanted to see the price of the stock you’re currently looking at in the context of Dow and Nasdaq as people would want to do, well, you’re out of luck. It’s to the left, on top the navigation column, above the ads.

[6] Why on earth is it necessary for Yahoo to display a Facebook Like button with running tally on an individual stock quote page? Believing Facebook Connect or Like can somehow be Yahoo’s friend in the long run is self-destructively naive.

[7] It’s a navigation column with a kitchen-sink attitude, one of half a dozen other section tabs on top of the page, likely bewildering for most casual users of the site and not quite comprehensive enough for professional traders.

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[8] You’d think “customize chart” (unlike other text-links, all lower-case) would allow you to customize the small chart in some meaningful way. Click it and you’re taken to, you guessed it, another page with a completely different, barren UI from the 1950s. It allows you to change nothing but the timespan of the chart to either 1 day, 5 days or 1 year. That’s customization for you, one which was available on the original chart itself to begin with, without having to navigate to another page under false pretenses.

[9] There comes the positively Amazon-ian “People viewing {current stock} also viewed:” inanity. People who love/hate AAPL apparently also love/hate/crave Chipotle and MasterCard. Seriously?

[10] I don’t have access to click rates on that “Trade Now” button, obviously, but I’m guessing those who do click are a small minority. Clearly this linkage to brokers is meant to generate significant origination revenue for Yahoo, but all those broker sites also provide roughly equal or better generic financial info. Somebody who trades at Schwab or Fidelity wouldn’t necessarily be wasting time at Yahoo, while trading.

[11] Also, don’t plan on having more than one broker to quickly go to, since you can only have one.

[12] I’m not entirely sure whether people actually compare brokers at Yahoo! Finance, but even if they do, they get to choose from only four pre-selected brokers, presumably paying Yahoo an origination fee.

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[13] Just two articles “featured”? What’s the logic behind featuring random articles here, other than cheap SEO linkage?

[14] One of the two articles “featured” is about RIM’s upcoming BlackBerry 10 phone. I know Eric Jackson has plenty of interesting things to say about AAPL, and does pretty much every single day, but this featured piece has absolutely nothing to do with Apple, the word doesn’t even appear anywhere in the linked article or the accompanying video. It is about RIM, as the title says, a company Apple hasn’t really been competing against for nearly two years now.

[15] (I’m not logged into Finance here but) I’m a proud resident of NYC without a car and yet this is a localized car service ad, from another state. Normally, I’d never see any of these ads, as I use an ad blocker.

[16] A river of news. Really, any text that seems to contain the words “Apple” or “AAPL” can end up here and does. No hierarchy or grouping. The “Filter Headlines” text-link on top takes you to another page with, yes, a completely different, barren UI from the 1950s that allows you to check/uncheck a uneditable list of third party news sources.

[17] Sector/Industry/Sub-Industry categorization of US stocks is an issue for nearly all finance services but, newsflash, Apple dropped “Computer” from its name over 5 years ago. Beyond semantics, this is completely nontrivial for a finance site. Readers shouldn’t be led to believe that nothing more than a small and declining percentage of Apple’s revenue comes from selling “Personal Computers.”

[18] As can be seen in the second column here, Apple’s market cap is 20 times Dell’s. They’re in different leagues and (except for desktops and notebooks) in totally different markets. Apple has stopped worrying about Dell many years ago. Since the title of the section reads “Comparison” (singular), of all Apple’s fierce competitors, Yahoo picked Dell? Furthermore, if you do click the text-link “More Competitors” (plural) you’re taken to another baffling page with random stuff thrown in, but with only a single competitor shown: you guessed it, Dell.

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[19] If the stock you’re investigating is an unfamiliar one, wouldn’t it be useful to see what the company does right on top? The “Business Summary” that describes what Apple does is way down. If you were in Wall Street looking for AAPL, it’d be across the river in Jersey City.

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[20] “Penny Stocks.” That cheesy ad pretty much says it all.

[21] Live by 3-column layouts, die by trailing, unbalanced empty space.

[22] “Sponsored Links”? Be respectful of the user, just call them “Ads,” especially if you are an advertising company. If you’re ashamed of carrying advertising detritus at the very bottom of your site, 50 feet below sea level, maybe it’s time to rethink the longer prospects of revenue generation at Yahoo! Finance beyond penny stocks and car mechanics?

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[23] The long list of data feeders to Yahoo is telling. Yahoo! Finance is obviously an aggregator and not a smart or a handsome one at that. Yahoo doesn’t generate all this stuff, you might say, companies that provide the data feeds to Yahoo do. For a company that wants to “order the information,” that is the problem, isn’t it?

A problem deeper than UI

In the latest quarter earnings call Marissa Mayer gave further indication of how this “ordered information” vision might be deployed:

Overall in search, it’s a key area of investment for us. We need to invest in a lot of interface improvements. All of the innovations in search are going to happen at the user interface level moving forward and we need to invest in those features both on the desktop and on mobile and I think both ultimately will be key plays for us.

If Yahoo wants simply to be the data provider to gatekeepers like Apple, Facebook and Google, it will be problematic since Yahoo is often not the originator of the data flow [23]. General-purpose feed business is not a high-margin opportunity in any case. As the simple analysis above shows when the underlying data layer is decoupled from the UX, especially at the hands of designers insufficiently enthused, the results are mediocre at best. In the long run, it’s difficult to “pretty up” data that you don’t control and derive meaningful profit/benefit from, ask Apple’s Maps team.

And yet, this is Finance, one of Yahoo’s strongest properties, not a minor beta product. It’s enough of an embarrassing UX debacle that I haven’t even mentioned any of the glaring visual design issues at all. No amount of interface pixel-dust will cover up the fundamentally broken opportunity to make financial information actually useful to consumers and semi-professionals, while making money doing it. For the user, it fails the first test: now that I’m presented with all this aggregated information, what do I do with it?

Product design starts right there: What Do I Do With It? Not at picking one of 41 shades of purple. Ordered information is great but hard…repainted information is cheap but insufficient. Here’s hoping Yahoo gets that this time around.

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P.S. I don’t mean to single out Yahoo here. All the other financial sites, like Bloomberg or Reuters, also suffer from similar misunderstandings of how to make financial information usable and useful. I picked Yahoo because Marissa Mayer appears to be actively revamping various properties, Yahoo! Finance desperately needs TLC and I’d like to see Yahoo come out of its funk if for no other reason than as a balance to Google’s growing dominance in online services. This is clearly a things-I-noticed in-20-minutes kind of a superficial treatment. I simply scanned one stock quote page of one of the myriad sections at Yahoo! Finance. The list of things-that-went-wrong around the entire site must be enormous. It’s also obvious that Yahoo! Finance wasn’t made with passion, focus and much attention to detail, like a lot of Yahoo properties. That said, providing product design analysis from outside a company, without knowledge of its business goals, is fraught with danger So I’ll have to refrain from offering gratuitous advice to Yahoo on how to fundamentally reformulate their web and mobile Finance presence.

How many iDownloaders does it take to screw an App Store?

Search results for “iDownloader” at Apple App Store:

IDownloaders

Yes, it’s a big operation. Yes, there’ll be a million apps soon. Yes, many apps will inevitably be similar. Yes, shady developers steal other developers’ IP. Yes, all sorts of people try to game it. Yes, the power law may apply to revenues. Yes, you can’t please everyone all the time. Yes, other app stores may be worse. Yes, the App Store was once the crown jewel of Apple’s mobile empire.

Yes, there are many ways to spin this… None fits the bill as much as the notion that Apple’s inability or unwillingness to fundamentally improve categorization, discovery, navigation, display, promotion, fraud, pricing and reviews at the App Store has been most glaring.

Chomp change, indeed.

Can Siri go deaf, mute and blind?

Earlier in “Is Siri really Apple’s future?” I outlined Siri’s strategic promise as a transition from procedural search to task completion and transactions. This time, I’ll explore that future in the context of two emerging trends:

  • Internet of Things is about objects as simple as RFID chips slapped on shipping containers and as vital as artificial organs sending and receiving signals to operate properly inside our bodies. It’s about the connectivity of computing objects without direct human intervention.
  • The best interface is no interface is about objects and tools that we interact with that no longer require elaborate or even minimal user interfaces to get things done. Like self-opening doors, it’s about giving form to objects so that their user interface is hidden in their user experience.

Apple’s strength has always been the hardware and software it creates that we love to carry, touch, interact with and talk about lovingly — above their mere utility — like jewelry, as Jony Ive calls it. So, at first, it seems these two trends — objects talking to each other and objects without discernible UIs — constitute a potential danger for Apple, which thrives on design of human touch and attention. What happens to Apple’s design advantage in an age of objects performing simple discreet tasks or “intuiting” and brokering our next command among themselves without the need for our touch or gaze? Indeed, what happens to UI design, in general, in an ocean of “interface-less” objects inter-networked ubiquitously?

Looks good, sounds better

Fortunately, though a star in her own right, Siri isn’t wedded to the screen. Even though she speaks in many tongues, Siri doesn’t need to speak (or listen, for that matter) to go about her business, either. Yes, Siri uses interface props like fancy cards, torn printouts, maps and a personable voice, but what makes Siri different is neither visuals nor voice.

Despite the knee-jerk reaction to Siri as “voice recognition for search,” Siri isn’t really about voice. In fact, I’d venture to guess Siri initially didn’t even have a voice. Siri’s more significant promise is about correlation, decisioning, task completion and transaction. The fact that Siri has a sassy “voice” (unlike her competitors) is just endearing “attitude”.

Siri2

Those who are enthusiastic about Siri see her eventually infiltrating many gadgets around us. Often seen liaising with celebrities on TV, Siri is thought to be a shoo-in for the Apple TV interface Oscars, maybe even licensed to other TV manufacturers, for example. And yet the question remains, is Siri too high maintenance? When the most expensive BOM item in an iPhone 5 is the touchscreen at $44, nearly 1/4 costlier than the next item, can Siri afford to live outside of an iPhone without her audio-visual appeal?

Well, she already has. Siri Eyes Free integration is coming to nine automakers early this year, allowing drivers to interact with Siri without having to use the connected iPhone screen.

Sirieyesfree

Given Siri Eyes Free, it’s not that difficult to imagine Siri Touch Free (see and talk but not touch), Siri Talk Free (see and touch but not talk) and so on. People who are impatient with Apple’s often lethargic roll out plans have already imagined Siri in all sorts of places, from aircraft cockpits to smart wristwatches to its rightful place next to an Apple TV.

Over the last decade, enterprise has spent billions to get their “business intelligence” infrastructure to answer analysts’ questions against massive databases from months to weeks to days to hours and even minutes. Now imagine an analyst querying that data by having a “natural” conversation with Siri, orchestrating some future Hadoop setup, continuously relaying nested, iterative questions funneled towards an answer, in real time. Imagine a doctor or a lawyer querying case histories by “conversing” with Siri. Forget voice, imagine Siri’s semantic layer responding to 3D gestures or touches on glass or any sensitized surface. Set aside active participation of a “user” and imagine a monitor with Siri reading microexpressions of a sleeping or crying baby and automatically vocalizing appropriate responses or simply rocking the cradle faster.

Scenarios abound, but can Siri really afford to go fully “embedded”?

There is some precedence. Apple has already created relatively successful devices by eliminating major UI affordances, perhaps best exemplified by the iPod nano ($149) that can become an iPod shuffle ($49) by losing its multitouch screen, made possible by the software magic of Genius, multi-lingual VoiceOver, shuffle, etc. In fact, the iPod shuffle wouldn’t need any buttons whatsoever, save for on/off, if Siri were embedded in it. Any audio functionality it currently has, and much more, could be controlled bi-directionally with ease, in all instances where Siri were functional and socially acceptable. 3G radio plus embedded Siri could also turn that tiny gadget into so many people’s dream of a sub-$100 iPhone.

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Grounding Siri

Unfortunately, embedding Siri in devices that look like they may be great targets for Siri functionality isn’t without issues:

  • Offline — Although Siri requires a certain minimum horsepower to do its magic, much of that is spent ingesting and prepping audio to be transmitted to Apple’s servers which do the heavy lifting. Bringing that processing down to an embedded device that doesn’t require a constant connection to Apple maybe computationally feasible. However, Apple’s ability to advance Siri’s voice input decoding accuracy and pattern recognition depend on constant sampling of and adjusting input from tens of millions of Siri users. This would rule out Siri embedded into offline devices and create significant storage and syncing problems with seldom-connected devices.
  • Sensors — One of the key reasons why Siri is such a good fit for smartphones is the number of on-device sensors and the virtually unlimited range of apps it’s surrounded with. Siri is capable of “knowing” not only that you’re walking, but that you’ve also been walking wobbly, for 35 minutes, late at night, in a dark alley, around a dangerous part of a city, alone… and send a pre-designated alert silently on your behalf. While we haven’t seen examples of such deep integration from Apple yet, Siri embedded into devices that lack multiple sensors and apps would severely limit its potential utility.
  • Data — Siri’s utility is directly indexed to her access to data sources and, at this stage, third parties’ search (Yelp), computation (WolframAlpha) and transaction (OpenTable) facilities. Apple does and is expected to continue to add such partners in different domains on a regular basis. Siri embedded in radio-lacking devices that don’t have access to such data and processing, therefore, may be too crippled to be of interest.
  • Fragmentation — People expect to see Siri pop up in all sorts of places and Apple has taken the first step with Siri Eyes Free where Siri gives up her screen to capture the automotive industry. If Siri can drive in a car, does that also mean she can fly on an airplane, sail on a boat or ride on a train? Can she control a TV? Fit inside a wristwatch? Or a refrigerator? While Siri — being software — can technically inhabit anything with a CPU in it, the radio in a device is far more important to Siri than its CPU, for without connecting to Apple (and third party) servers, her utility is severely diminished.
  • Branding — Siri Eyes Free won’t light up the iPhone screen or respond to commands that would require displaying a webpage as an answer. What look like reasonable restrictions on Siri’s capabilities in this context shouldn’t, however, necessarily signal that Apple would create “subsets” of Siri for different domains. More people will use and become accustomed to Siri’s capabilities in iPhones than any other context. Degrading that familiarity significantly just to capture smaller markets wouldn’t be in Apple’s playbook. Instead of trying to embed Siri in everything in sight and thus diluting its brand equity, Apple would likely pair Siri with potential NFC or Bluetooth interfaces to devices in proximity.

What’s Act II for Siri?

In Siri’s debut, Apple has harvested the lowest hanging fruit and teamed up with just a handful of already available data services like Yelp and WolframAlpha, but has not really taken full advantage of on-device data, sensor input or other novel information.

As seen from outside, Siri’s progress at Apple has been slow, especially compared to Google that has had to play catch up. But Google must recognize a strategically indispensable weapon in Google Now (a Siri-for-Android, for all practical purposes) as a hook to those Android device manufacturers that would prefer to bypass Google’s ecosystem. None of them can do anything like it for some time to come, Samsung’s subpar attempts aside.

If you thought Maps was hard, injecting relationship metadata into Siri — fact by fact, domain by domain — is likely an order of magnitude more laborious, so Apple’s got her work cut out for Siri. It’d be prudent not to expect Apple to rush into embedding Siri in its non-signature devices just yet.

“The Creepy Line”

When asked in 2010 about the possibility of a Google “implant,” Google’s then-CEO Eric Schmidt famously said:

“Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.

With your permission you give us more information about you, about your friends, and we can improve the quality of our searches. We don’t need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”

Since that reassuring depiction of what awaits us in the future, Google has danced energetically around “the creepy line” many times, from subverting users’ privacy preferences in Safari and paying the largest FTC fine in history to introducing the omniscient Google Glass that gets as close to human trafficking as possible without drilling into the brain.

When the internet behemoth raises the bar, others rush to conquer and some manage to surpass it. Buried in the minutiae of CES 2013, in a booth not much smaller than a 10,000-inch Samsung UHD TV, was Affectiva, showcasing its primary product Affdex:

“Affdex tracks facial and head gestures in real-time using key points on viewers’ face to recognize a rich array of emotional and cognitive states, such as enjoyment, attention and confusion.”

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Deciphering concealed emotions by “reading” facial microexpressions, popularized by Paul Ekman and the hit TV series Lie To Me, is nothing new, of course. What’s lifting us over the creepy line is the imminent ubiquity of this technology, all packaged into a web browser and a notebook with a webcam, no installation required.

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Eyes Wide Shut

Today, Affectiva asks viewers’ permission to record, as they watch TV commercials. What happens tomorrow? After all, DNA evidence in courts was first used in the late 1980s and has been controversial ever since. It’s been used to exonerate incarcerated people as well as abused and misused to convict innocent ones. Like DNA analysis, facial expression reading technology will advance and may attain similar stature in law and in other fields…Some day.

Currently, however, along with its twin brother face recognition technology, microexpression reading isn’t yet firmly grounded in law. This uncertainty gives it the necessary space to evolve technologically but also also opens the door to significant privacy and security abuse.

Janus-faced

The technology, when packaged into a smartphone, for example, can be used to help some of those with Asperger’s syndrome to read facial expressions. But it can also be used in a videotelephony app as a surreptitious “lie detector.” It could be a great tool during remote diagnosis and counseling in the hands of trained professionals. But it could also be used to record, analyze and track people’s emotional state in public venues: in front of advertising panels, as well as courtrooms or even job interviews. It can help overloaded elementary school teachers better decipher the emotional state of at-risk children. But it can also lead focus-group obsessed movie studios to further mechanize character and plot development.

The GPU in our computers is the ideal matrix-vector processing tool to decode facial expressions in real-time in the very near future. It would be highly conceivable, for instance, for a presidential candidate to be peering into his teleprompter to see a rolling score of a million viewers’ reactions, passively recorded and decoded in real-time, allowing him to modulate his speech in synchronicity with that real time feedback. Would that be truly “representative” democracy or abdication of leadership?

And if these are possible or even likely scenarios, why wouldn’t we have the technology embedded in a Google Glass-like device or an iPhone 7, available all the time and everywhere. If we can use these gadgets to decode other people’s emotional state, why can’t these gadgets use the same to decode our own and display them back to us? What happens when, for the first time in homo sapiens history, we have constant (presumably unbiased) feedback on our own emotions? The distance from detecting emotional state by machines to suggesting (and even administering) emotion altering medicine can’t be that far, can it? How do we learn to live with that?

The technology is out there. From Apple’s Siri, Google already has the blueprint to advance Google Now from searching to transactions. One would think the recent hiring of Singularity promoter Ray Kurzweil as director of engineering points to much higher ambitions. Ambitions we’re not remotely prepared to parse yet. Much closer to that creepy line.

What’s broken, patents or the legal system?

Referring to the America Invents Act (AIA), aimed to cull low-quality software, the head of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, David Kappos says:

“Give it a rest already. Give the AIA a chance to work. Give it a chance to even get started.”

He’s mostly reacting to studies that claim patent trolls enabled by USPTO cost the economy upwards of $29 billion annually. While awards vary, what’s constant is the exorbitant cost of litigating patent cases. Large scale cases can easily run into tens of millions, taking months and years.

One way to make sense of this situation is to declare the very notion of (software) patents archaic and indefensible in the 21st century. But what if the problem isn’t the fundamental notion or the general utility of patents, rather the inefficiencies in our legal system?

If the legal costs associated with getting and defending patents were 10X cheaper and the process of adjudication much faster, professional and predictable, would we feel differently about patent claims?