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It’s much too early to start commenting on Google TV, with the little that is really known about the details. As such, it’s quite unwise to do so. Hence why I will.

The Good

There’s something great about Google TV, and that’s probably what’s garnering all the enthusiasm right now: convergence is finally coming. Come on, we’ve been talking about it for years, and this seems to be the first really exciting example of it (IP telephony is another example. Not exciting).

So basically, the idea of a web enabled TV sounds great of course. And that’s what everybody’s excited about. And rightly so might I add.

The Bad

But of course, as you know, I’m a grumpy old man, and as such, I always poop the party. In this case, several things bother me.

  • Once more, Google gets to know what you do. One more area where they know your every single move. Yay.
  • For all the coolness of “search for a video on the internet and watch it”, the reality of it is that much of what’s available out there will look just awful on a half decent TV. And websites aren’t optimized for TVs. I think there’s years ahead before the content a web enabled TV adds to a TV is quite as exciting as the content normally available on your TV. I do think there’s probably a discrepancy between US and Europe in that regard (penetration of Netflix etc.)
  • True convergence to me should go much deeper. One day your TV will basically be wirelessly connected to your PC, as an additional screen, and your PC’s OS will know the difference and translate (re-format the interface if you will) as needed. And everything will go through your PC, whether satellite TV or web. Of course, there’s many years ahead before we get that and it’s really usable, and that’s just my preferred vision of a not too close future. Might as well never happen. But I wanted to share…

 

The Ugly

Well Google getting to access another area of your life really is very ugly too, but ok, I’ve already been there and there’s something else.

Is this all Google has left? Are they running out of innovative ideas? A TV, really?

Of course it’s a cool product and whatnot (at least conceptually, in practice it remains to be seriously tested). But how obvious is it?

I see a few people who think it’s not obvious and aren’t following.

Google is an advertising company. Coming (back) to TV strikes me of a very conservative move (even though it does have a very innovative twist in this case). If all of a sudden all Google can think of to increase it’s revenue stream is to get more via television, then it seems to me it has run out of ideas on how to monetize ads (which I personally might be thankful for, but still…). It’s coming back to the best bread winner for ad companies there ever was.

If this is a sign of where Google’s heading, then it might be an indication that the time of intense web innovation at Google is over.

Whether this is true, or even whether that is a bad thing remains to be seen. I welcome your thoughts on both points.

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These days all the young kids love Google. All the older kids too actually. Heck, pretty much everybody loves Google. I don’t.

A little bit of (my own) history

Sure, I used Google for years. Started somewhere in 1999, after having been a happy AltaVista user. At the time, there were no doubts Google had made some major breakthroughs in search. So of course I switched to Google. And then, there was this other nice side to it: it was the new kid on the block, a nice little company, very far from any corporate behemoth.

Nowadays however, it is in my view the most dangerous corporation on the planet, and definitely much worse than any corporate behemoth I might have worried about in the late 90’s or early 2000’s. And it is absolutely adored by everyone, with the most vocal lovers being people who probably don’t even recall a time before Google.

What does Google do exactly?

Google does search, obviously. It also, and this is not an exhaustive list:

  • Provides hosted email (Gmail)
  • Provides maps & geolocalisation (Google maps)
  • Provides hosted RSS feed management (Google Reader)
  • Provides an operating system (Android)
  • Provides a web browser (Chrome)
  • Provides an office productivity suite (Google docs)

A comparison point

Now, the fact a company provides lots of services is not a bad thing of course. Rather the contrary. The issue is with what puts Google apart from most other players in the same markets. I’ll contrast with Microsoft here, but the argument holds when contrasting with many other companies.

You see, a universal fact about companies is that they want your money – and there’s certainly nothing objectionable to that. What makes companies different from one another, is how they seek to get your money.

Microsoft is interested in your workflow (I see raised eyebrows). The way Microsoft wants to make itself valuable to you, and hence entice you into giving them money, is by defining how you work. What they want, is to make sure that every time you have a task to carry out, you will use (and hopefully pay for) a Microsoft product. Want to use a computer? Here’s Windows for you. Want to write a document or make some calculations? Here’s Office. Email? Outlook/Exchange. Build internal collaboration in your company? SharePoint. Find something? Bing. Play a video game? Xbox.

What matters to Microsoft is what you do. Not exactly the specifics of what you do – they couldn’t care less whether you’re writing internal memos or the next great American novel in MS Word – but how you do it, what tasks are involved.

And then it will monetize those tasks. This can be done directly by making you pay for software, or indirectly. In the indirect method, you get something free, say, internet search. Well, it just so happens that the tight integration of the whole suite of free applications with other paying applications makes said paying applications more attractive.

Never said this monetization of free apps was so effective mind you, but that’s their strategy. They’re interested in your tasks, your workflow.

Back to Google

Now Google provides pretty much the same products and services as Microsoft. So their model is pretty similar, right?

Wrong. Couldn’t be more different.

Google’s revenue comes, nearly exclusively, from advertisement. For all analytical purposes, Google can be seen as an advertisement firm. And ever since the sector came into existence, advertisers have only ever been interested in one thing.

Your data.

Who you are. What you do. Why you do it. How much money that brings you. What books you read. What you like. What you don’t like.

They want to know everything about you.

For those who aren’t following, the reason they want this is to be able to target their ads to you in the most efficient way possible, in order to maximize clicks on the ads, and thus maximize advertising revenue.

It just so happens that Google has all that information on you. After all:

  • It can read you email (Gmail)
  • It knows where you are and where you like to go (Google maps)
  • It knows what you like and are interested in (Google search and Reader)
  • It knows what you do and what data you generate (Google apps)
  • It could know how much relative time you spend on any task (Android)

 

This is an advertisement’s agency ultimate goal.

It just so happens that this also any totalitarian state’s wet dream come true.

Don’t be evil!

Ah yes, the famous unofficial motto of Google is “don’t be evil”. That should be reassuring, right?

Well, I don’t know about you, but that motto, if anything, makes me worry even more. That somebody in a corporate environment could even consider that a motto speaks volumes. Let me give you an example.

What would you think about one of your kid’s teachers telling you his main goal in his work is “don’t rape the kids”? Would you be reassured? Or very much worried that somebody needs to state the obvious like that to exorcise some inner compulsion?

I feel the same about Google.

The track record

The good news is, as far as I’m aware, Google hasn’t yet launched into massive scale exploitation of the data it has at it’s disposal, nor has it transformed into some evil big brother.

Yet.

There are some worrying trends, and not only based on the sheer amount of data Google has at it’s disposal.

Google has already been actively seeking collaboration with government for years. And not just for nice stuff, either, for war. Yup, all that nifty Google earth technology has already been purposefully adapted for warfare. That means killing people. It doesn’t get much more evil than that in my book.

Google is also keen on collaborating with the NSA. Oh sure, in this case the aim is that the NSA help Google secure it’s network and work against cybercrime, and not that NSA access Google’s data. But as arguably the organisation with the largest wealth of information on people, Google collaborating with a spying agency makes me nervous.

Oh yeah, and by the way, isn’t it just a tad worrying that Google’s data repositories apparently need securing? So these guys have all your data, but can’t protect it? Because, in case you haven’t been paying attention, that’s what triggered the whole China debacle recently. Actually, China deserves a section of it’s own.

The China thing

People are so busy lauding Google’s courage for pulling out of China these days, that they tend to forget what really happened.

In 2006, Google readily complied with Chinese requests to self-censor it’s contents. They did it in a heartbeat.

Now don’t get me wrong, I definitely think it’s better for oppressed people to get some access to information rather than none at all, so in the long run, I believe Google’s move there was for the best. But what I found worrying was Google’s eagerness to go and adapt their “don’t be evil” motto to fit it’s actions. Far from demonstrating they were a principled company, Google showed it’s principles were highly negotiable based on what they felt was needed at a precise moment in time.

Then, recently, their Chinese infrastructure got hacked into. Fearing for their interests, they pulled out of China. If you bought into Google’s spin that this was because they had a change of heart about Chinese censorship, you’re a fool.

This last event is telling in two ways. First, it confirms that Google really doesn’t care about what is evil or not. If providing censored content was less evil than providing none in 2006, this remains so in 2010. So clearly, it’s all about their own interest, and not whatever is evil.

Second, it shows Google is not all that good at securing it’s data. And that’s downright terrifying. Because even if Google doesn’t do anything bad it has with the data it has collected, if this falls into the wrong hands (especially governmental ones), we’re in for some very bad trouble. Think 1984.

In a nutshell

Google has exactly the kind of data necessary to make an Orwellian hell come true. It has proven that it’s corporate culture is anything but principled, and more than willing to cooperate with governments, including for nefarious purposes such as killing people. On top of that, it has proven unable to secure the very sensitive data it has access to.

If despite all this you are still entrusting your data to Google, I guess you really love Big Brother.

So, web 3.0 huh. What’s that going to be? Lots of speculation, most of it is worthless, so might as well add my own (just as worthless) speculation.

My view of Web 3.0 is really the web as an API. Nothing really all that new, and yet potential new uses may abound.

Background

Many people nowadays seem to forget that the web is only a small portion of the internet. A specific subset of the functionality offered by a global network supporting multiple protocols on top of a basic transportation layer (TCP/IP, in case you were sleeping, or are not that technical in which case you are forgiven).

The thing is, when you come to think of it, the web is a very basic application: it’s not that much more than just a huge document repository, shared across many, many, many servers. It obviously has some very nifty features, which made it the formidable powerhouse it is today. Nothing even comes close to hyperlinks in this regard. Without those, the web would be an irrelevant piece of computing history and nobody would bother anymore.

However, the one feature that enabled the web 2.0 revolution is extensibility. Being able to build lots of nice stuff on top of the web is what allowed stuff like Ajax, RSS & the like to be added on to enable more powerful applications than just simply a static document you can read and which contains links to other potentially interesting documents.

Interestingly, as illustrated by the yesteryear trend of mashups, one of the key functionalities enabled by these extensions to the web, is the access and edition of data away from the original web pages. You can have your tweets appearing on your blogs. You can use twitter to update your facebook status via twitter. You can embed YouTube videos just about anywhere.

Consequences

For a while, the main consequence of this was web 2.0. In many ways, web 2.0 was a way of making much of networked computing browser-centric. Long gone are the days of using a text editor (or any specialized application) to edit a webpage. Wikis and other frameworks have done away with that, at least for casual users. Even for corporations, portal solutions have made lots of editing more browser-centric. Web apps à la Gmail, Google docs and the like have made even tasks like email or document edition browser-centric. That was in my view a funny move. At the end of the day, the whole web app play is about painstakingly replicating the advanced features of desktop applications in a browser. All those who cried genius about Gmail apparently never used Outlook, or Thunderbird for that matter. Both applications kick Gmail’s ass big time as far as amount and depth of functionality are concerned. But web 2.0 enthusiasts never seemed to notice.

Web 3.0, in my view, will illustrate the opposite move. For highly connected people making the most of what the web has to offer these days – and that’s a lot – the browser doesn’t really cut it anymore. A few illustrations of this:

  • Twitter is probably the best example of this. Typically, Twitter is a tool with a low signal to noise ratio. Any even half serious twitter user will follow at least dozens of people, with only a fraction of the exchanged messages being useful to him. To handle this, many Twitter users have started using Twitter clients, whether lightweight or full blown applications with powerful features.
  • Facebook is likely going the same way, if application availability is any indication.
  • Even pure webmail operators have offered, for already quite some time, the possibility to use standalone mail clients.
  • Serious RSS users have been using RSS readers for years.

 

These are only a few examples, and as such are not yet indicative of any web 3.0 trend. Web 3.0 kicks in when re-centralizing of these features occurs in a desktop client. The best example of this is the Sobees (lite or desktop) software, but I’m sure there are other examples out there.

What Sobees does (very well, I might add), is centralize your use of social networks, and further, of most Web 2.0 applications. Within one application specifically designed for this purpose (unlike the web browser or even the web page), you can access and update your Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn accounts – soon your RSS feeds.

Thanks to the fact the application is dedicated and custom-tailored to the purpose it is built for, it is extremely powerful and flexible, allowing you to manage all of this web-related information in exactly the way you want. You are no longer constrained by some web application designer’s view of what is a good way to access/update your data. All usability aspects such as font sizes, panel location etc. are configurable, as are themes and connectivity options. Of course, if you’re afraid of tweaking, it comes with a sane default configuration, so don’t fret.

I see this kind of application as being a big trend of the future, and a big part of web 3.0. Powerful centralization of data, tailored to a user’s needs, and, significantly, disconnected from a browser.

I think this will all become even more interesting when the disconnect from browsers becomes greater. I could typically imagine this kind of application including a simple web rendering engine in order to be able to consult links and the like directly in the application. Add email to boot, and you suddenly have a nearly central place to consult all of the most important things you could want to consult on the web. Why would you even bother directly opening a web browser?

So, amusingly enough, the future of the web may reduce the importance of the web (browser). Got to love the irony.

Dreaming of clouds?

Does this mean the browser is destined for the trash pile of history? Hardly. While I do believe it’s importance will wane in the long term, the browser is here to stay – if only because display in a simple web browser will likely always remain an internet lingua franca, and a good way to easily consult anything you want. Amusingly enough, while twitter or facebook desktop client popularity is almost certainly due to the fact people got used to clients on smartphones, I see the smartphone being a long hold-out for web browsers. In a small device, a simple barebones web browser will always remain the most efficient way of consulting a lot websites, even if that becomes less true in the desktop world.

Likewise, I believe there is a case for web-centric computing and maybe even web-centric operating systems. While I hold anyone seriously believing that Chrome OS will be massively adopted and spell out the future of operating systems to be a crackpot, I think that kind of approach will definitely have it’s uses. Think highly mobile sales people. Medical professionals. Waiters in restaurants. Policemen. The list goes on. The key here is extreme portability (in the physical sense), cases where hardware is a hindrance. But as a rule? Hardware gets more powerful and cheaper everyday, what would I really gain in giving mine up to entrust all my data and applications to some service provider? The cloud will be used – it already is – but it will be far from being the only place actual computing takes place. By a long shot.

In a nutshell

Web 3.0 will not be about the browser anymore. The browser is becoming an antiquated access method to the amount and variety of data available to us today. The browser will continue to exist of course, but only as one among several other more appealing ways of consuming the internet. Timeframe? Three to five years. The bets are on.

[UPDATE]

@spyrosm pointed out I should at least reference other existing views of web 3.0, so here are a few:

  • Semantic web. A popular view, but technical feasibility has been brought into question. My own experience leads me to believe it will never happen.
  • Web services & Software as a service. Very close to what I suggest, much more realistic in my view.
  • Virtual web/3D web. Basically a GUI overhaul with some functionality added on top. I question the business model and actual benefits. Still, there could be useful applications.
  • Cloud computing. Whatever the strengths or weaknesses of the cloud, I see the cloud addressing larger issues than just web experience.
  • The growing up of web 2.0. Basically the idea of web 2.0, with it’s growing pains taken away. A realistic view, probably, largely due to the fact that it is not overly ambitious – which is a good thing in my opinion.

 

The most interesting thing is probably the existence of many differing views, which reminds us that labels are only that, labels. In other words, don’t get too excited about buzzwords such as web 3.0, they’re only shorthand for complex phenomena, and only capture a part of the reality. Just like language itself.