About Jean-Louis Gassée

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Posts by Jean-Louis Gassée:

Privacy: You Have Nothing To Fear

 

Pervasive sensors and IP connections, coupled with the “infinite” storage and computing power in the Cloud, threaten our privacy. We need to defend ourselves and get control of our personal data amassed by private companies and government agencies.

Optimists and pessimists may inhabit opposing camps, but they do have one thing in common: Their inclinations lead to behaviors that verify their prophecies. I’ve chosen my side: I’m an optimist and have been rewarded accordingly. As a reminder of my attitude, to make sure that the occasional frustrations don’t derail my determination, I keep a little figurine from the Provençal Crèche (Nativity Scene) on my desk. He’s called Lou Ravi, the Enraptured One:

The traditional characterization is that of a gent who wanders the world, innocently marveling at the simplest of miracles. (At times, I wonder if he isn’t just a polite version of the village idiot.)

Recently, a seemingly trivial incident cast a shadow over my life-long optimism, an event that awakened dark thoughts about technology’s impact on our privacy.

As I’m driving on the A10 not-so-freeway towards the Loire châteaux, I see my license plate displayed on a sign that tells me that I’m exceeding the speed limit (130kph, about 80mph). This is novel… where we used to have an anonymous flashing nag, now we’re individually fingered. On the one hand, it’s certainly more helpful than a broad, impersonal warning; on the other, it’s now personal.

Stirred from my enraptured stupor, I start counting other ways in which we’re targeted.

Staying within the realm of license plates, we have an official, Wikipedia-sanctioned acronym: ALPR, the Automatic License Plate Reader, a device that’s used (or mis-used) by municipalities to scan every vehicle that enters the city’s limits. An ALPR system is already operational in ritzy Tiburon just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, and it’s being considered in ritzier Piedmont, an island of wealth surrounded by Oakland. The NYPD has used mobile license plate readers to build a “database of 16 million license plates, along with locations where the car was spotted”. (A Google search for Automatic License Plate Reader yields more than 1M hits.)

We also have various flavors of “event data recorders” in our cars. Similar to a plane’s black box, an EDR can regurgitate the sequence of events that preceded a crash. According to the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), 96% of all 2013 vehicles carry such a device and there is a proposal to make them mandatory in 2015 models.

Insurance companies see the EDR as an opportunity to better evaluate risk so they can offer lower premiums to good drivers. Privacy advocates are concerned that the data could be used for less benevolent purposes:

Though the information is being collected with the best of intentions – safer cars or to provide drivers with more services and conveniences – there is always the danger it can end up in lawsuits, or in the hands of the government or with marketers looking to drum up business from passing motorists.

Again, if you Google “car black box recorder”, you get about 6M hits and a wide range of third-party devices. Some come with a dashboard camera such as we see in American patrol cars (and that have been adopted by a huge number of Russian drivers); others plug into the OBD-II (On-Board Diagnostic) connector that’s present on all modern cars. Combined with accelerometers and precision GPS recording, these draw a very accurate picture of everything we do at the wheel, where, when and how.

It’s not all sinister: With appropriate software, weekend track drivers can visualize and analyze their braking, acceleration, and effective use of apexes. Still, the overall picture is one of omnipresent surveillance. And I’m certainly not encouraged when I read that “anyone with a handheld scanner and access to the port under your steering column can download a wealth of information about your vehicle.”

The regard for privacy that’s demonstrated by the public sector — the government agencies that can have an enormous impact on our lives — is also less than encouraging. We now realize that the IRS reads our email without requiring any authorization or judicial supervision; the DEA complains about iMessage encryption; we have National Security Letters that confer broad and little-supervised snooping powers to US government agencies.

On the private side, Google, Facebook, and cellular carriers amass and trade on our personal data, again, with little or no practical oversight. Try asking any of these companies what sort of information they have on you, to whom they sell it, and if you can have a peek at it.

The litany goes on: Escalating healthcare expenditures give insurers equally escalating incentives to acquire personal behavior data in order to improve their risk calculation (and reject claims). We’re photographed, videoed, and, now, face-recognized everywhere. Try counting the cameras that see you on the street, in stores, elevators, offices.

When we worry about such practices, we get the sort of rote retort infelicitously typified by Eric Schmidt: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

Sure, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. All you need to do is lead a pristine life. Drive carefully; wait for the green light before you cross the street; eat a balanced diet; don’t take, view, or exchange the wrong pictures; don’t consort with undesirable people; don’t say or write bad words; don’t inhale the wrong smoke…

This is unrealistic.

If there is nowhere to hide, how can disagreements safely ferment in political life, at work, in relationships? By definition, change disturbs something or annoys someone. And, moving to paranoia, or full awareness, the age-old question arises: Who will guard us from the guardians?

Returning to my now slightly-strained optimism, I hope we’ll support the people and organizations, such as the ACLU and many others, who work for our privacy, and that we’ll use our votes to unseat those who sell us out to private and state encroachers. We can start with demanding a handle on who has what data on us. Playing on Habeas Corpus, it’s already called Habeas Data.

I’m curious to see what Google, Verizon, Orange, Facebook, Amazon and many others know about me. Insights await…

JLG@mondaynote.com

Facebook Home: Another Android Lock Pick

 

Facebook’s new Home on Android smartphone is an audacious attempt to demote the OS to a utility role, to keep to itself user data Android was supposed to feed into Google’s advertising business. Google’s reaction will be worth watching.

Amazon’s Kindle Fire, announced late September 2011, is viewed as a clever “Android lock pick“. Notwithstanding the term’s illicit flavor, Amazon’s burglary is entirely legal, an intended consequence of Google’s decision to Open Source their Android mobile operating system. Download the Android source code here, modify it to your heart’s — or business needs’ — content, load it onto a device and sell as many as you’d like.

Because it doesn’t fully meet the terms of the Android Compatibility Program, Amazon’s proprietary version isn’t allowed to use the Android trademark and the company had to open its own App Store. In industry argot, Amazon “forked” Android; they spawned an incompatible branch in the Android Source Tree.

The result of this heretic version of Android is a platform that’s tuned to Amazon’s own needs: Promoting its e-commerce without feeding Google’s advertising money pump.

And that brings us to Facebook’s new Home.

(The company’s slick presentation is here. Business Insider’s also provides a helpful gallery.)

Zuckerberg’s new creation is the latest instance of the noble pursuit of making the user’s life easier by wrapping a shell around existing software. Creating a shell isn’t a shallow endeavor; Windows started its life as a GUI shell wrapped around MS-DOS.  Even venerable Unix command line interfaces such as C shell, Bourne, and Bash (which can be found inside OS X) are user-friendly — or “somewhat friendlier” — wrappers around the Unix kernel. (Sometimes this noble pursuit is taken too far — remember Microsoft’s Bob? It was the source of many jokes.)

Facebook Home is a shell wrapped around Android; it’s a software layer that sits on top of everything else on your smartphone. Your Facebook friends, your timeline, conversations, everything is in one place. It also gives you a simple, clean way to get to other applications should you feel the need to leave the Facebook corral… but the intent is clear: Why would you ever want to leave Home?

This is audacious and clever, everything we’ve come to expect from the company’s founder.

To start with, and contrary to the speculation leading up to the announcement, Facebook didn’t unveil a piece of hardware. Why bother with design, manufacture, distribution and support, only to sell a few million devices — a tiny fraction of your one billion users — when you can sneak in and take over a much larger number of Android smartphones at a much smaller cost?

Second, Home is not only well-aligned with Facebook’s real business, advertising revenue, it’s even more aligned with an important part of the company’s business strategy: keeping that revenue out of Google’s hands. Android’s only raison d’être is to attract a captive audience, to offer free services (search, email, maps…) in order to gain access to the users’ actions and data, which Google then cashes in by selling eyeballs to advertisers. By “floating” above Android, Home can keep these actions and data to itself, out of Google’s reach.

Facebook, like Amazon, wants to keep control of its core business. But unlike Amazon, Facebook didn’t “fork” Android, it merely demoted it to an OS layer that sits underneath the Home shell.

On paper and in the demos, it sounds like Zuckerberg has run the table… but moving from concept to reality complicates matters.

First, Facebook Home isn’t the only Android shell. An important example is Samsung, the leading Android player: it provides its own TouchWiz UI. Given that the Korean giant is obviously determined to stay in control of its own core business, one wonders how the company will welcome Facebook Home into the family of Galaxy phones and phablets. Will it be a warm embrace, or will Samsung continually modify its software in order to keep Home one step behind?

More generally, Facebook has admitted that differences in Android implementations prevent the first release of Home from working on all Android phones. In order to achieve the coverage they’ll need to keep Google (and its Google+ social networking effort) at bay, Facebook could be sucked into a quagmire of development and support.

Last but not least, there’s Google’s reaction.

So far, we’ve heard little but mellifluous pablum from Google in response to Home. (Microsoft, on the other hand, quickly attempted to point out that they were first with an all-your-activities-friends-communications shell in Windows Phone but, in this game, Android is the new Windows and Microsoft is the Apple of the early 90’s.)

Google has shown that it can play nice with its competitors — as long as they aren’t actually competing on the same turf. The Mountain View company doesn’t mind making substantial ($1B or more) Traffic Acquisition payments to Apple because the two don’t compete in the Search and Advertising business. Facebook taking over an Android smartphone is another matter entirely. Google and Facebook are in the same game; they both crave access to user data.

Google could sit back and observe for a while, quantify Facebook’s actual takeover of Android phones, keep tabs on users’ reactions. Perhaps Home will be perceived as yet another walled garden with a massive handover of private data to Facebook.

But Google already sees trouble for its Android strategy.

Many Asian handset makers now adopt Android without including services such as Google Search, Gmail, and Google Maps, the all-important user data pumps. Samsung still uses many of these services but, having gained a leading role on the Android platform, it might demand more money for the user data it feeds to Google, or even fork the code.

In this context, Facebook Home could be perceived as yet another threat to the Android business model.

A number of possible responses come to mind.

In the computer industry, being annoyed or worse by “compatible” hardware or software isn’t new. As a result, the responses are well honed. You can keep changing the interface, thus making it difficult for the parasitic product to bite into its host and suck its blood (data, in this case), or you change the licensing terms.

Google could change or hide its APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) in order to limit Home’s functionality, or even prevent it from running at all (at least until a particularly nasty “bug” is fixed). Worse, Google could makes changes that cause the Facebook shell to still run, but poorly.

I’ll hasten to say that I doubt Google would do any of this deliberately — it would violate the company’s Don’t Be Evil ethos. But… accidents could happen, such as when a hapless Google engineer mistakenly captured Wifi data.

Seriously, FaceBook Home is yet another pick of the Android lock, a threat against Google’s core strategy that will have to be addressed, either with specific countermeasures or with more global changes in the platform’s monetization.

JLG@mondaynote.com

Yahoo: The Marissa Mayer Turnaround

 

Critics spew well-meaning generalities when criticizing Marissa Mayer’s first moves at Yahoo! They fail to see the urgency of the company’s turnaround situation, the need to refocus the workforce and spruce up the management.

Last July, Yahoo! elected a new CEO, their seventh or eight, I’ve lost count. Marissa Mayer is an ex-Google exec with a BS in symbolics systems and an MS in Computer Science from Stanford, just like Scott Forstall. After a 13-year career at the biggest Cloud company on Earth, Mayer brings relevant experience to the CEO position of the once-great Web company. She also happens to be female but, unlike a predecessor of the same gender, Mayer doesn’t appear to feel the need to assert power by swearing like a sailor.

Power she asserts nonetheless. Barely pausing to deliver her first child, Mayer set to work: Yahoo! apps were too many, she vowed to cut them from 60 to the dozen or so that support our “digital daily habit“. Hiring standards have been seriously upgraded, the CEO wants to review every candidate to weed out “C-list slackers“. People were shown the door, starting in the executive suite. Some were replaced by ex-Google comrades such as her newly-appointed COO, Henrique De Castro.

The changes have been met with intramural criticism, from charges of Google cronyism to moaning over her meddling with the hiring process (“Yahoo’s Mayer gets internal flak for more rigorous hiring“). The complainers might as well get used to it: Mayer knows who she’s competing against, she wants to win, and that means Yahoo! needs to attract Valley-class talent. If she can pull them from Google, even better. The insiders who complain to the media only advertise their fear — a bad idea — and unwittingly make the case for Mayer’s higher standards.

The new sheriff is a high-intensity person. Friends tell me she also reviews new apps in great detail, down to color choices. (Didn’t another successful leader so annoy people?)

The protests over Mayer’s hiring practices and (supposed) micromanagement are nothing compared to the howls of pain over Mayer’s most controversial decision: No more Working From Home.

The prohibition is an affront to accepted beliefs about white-collar productivity, work/life balance, working mothers, sending less CO2 into the atmosphere. Does Mayer oppose a balanced life and a greener planet?

No, presumably — but reality intrudes. Once the king of the Web, Yahoo! stood by and watched as Google and Facebook seduced their users and advertisers. In 2008, in an effort to bolster its flagging on-line fortunes, Microsoft offered more than $44B to acquire Yahoo. The Board nixed the deal and Yahoo! kept sinking. Right before Mayer took the helm in July 2012, Yahoo’s market cap hovered around $16B, a decline of more than 60%.

The niceties of peacetime prosperity had to go. Unlike her “explicit” predecessor, Mayer doesn’t stoop to lash out at the protesters but one can imagine what she thinks: “Shut up, you whiners. This is a turnaround, not a Baja California cruise!”

In the Valley, WFH has long been controversial. In spite of its undeniable benefits, too-frequent abuses led to WFH becoming a euphemism for goofing off, or for starting a software business on one’s employer’s dime, an honored tradition.

Telecommuting requires a secure VPN (Virtual Private Network) connection from your computer at home to the company’s servers. These systems keep a traffic log, a record of who connects, from what IP address, when, for how long, how much data, and so on. Now, picture a CEO from the Google tradition of data analysis. She looks at the VPN logs and sees too much “comfort”, to be polite.

Mayer did what leaders do: She made a decision that made some people unhappy in order to achieve success for the whole enterprise (toned-up employees and shareholders). After seeing Yahoo! lose altitude year after year, the criticism leveled at Mayer makes me optimistic about the company’s future: Mayer’s treatment hurts where it needs to.

Among the many critics of Mayer’s no-WHF decision, the one I find most puzzling — or is it embarrassing? — emanates from the prestigious Wharton School of Business (at the University of Pennsylvania). In a Knowledge@Wharton article, scholars make sage but irrelevant comments such as:

Wharton faculty members who specialize in issues pertaining to employee productivity and work/life balance were similarly surprised by Mayer’s all-encompassing policy change. “Our experience in this field is that one-size-fits-all policies just don’t work,” notes Stewart Friedman, Wharton practice professor of management and director of the school’s Work/Life Integration Project. “You want to have as many tools as possible available to you as an executive to be able to tailor the work to the demands of the task. The fewer tools you have available, the harder it is to solve the problem.”

Nowhere in the article do the Wharton scholars consider the urgency of Yahoo’s situation, nor do they speculate that perhaps Mayer didn’t like what she found in the VPN logs. And, speaking of numbers, the Wharton experts provide no numbers, no sample size, no control group to buttress their statements. Our well-meaning academics might want to take a look at a recent blog post by Scott Adams, the prolific creator of corpocrat-skewering Dilbert cartoons. Titled Management/Success/Leadership: Mostly Bullshit, the post vigorously delivers what the title promises, as in this paragraph:

The fields of management/success/leadership are a lot like the finance industry in the sense that much of it is based on confusing correlation and chance with causation. We humans like to feel as if we understand and control our environments. We don’t like to think of ourselves as helpless leaves blowing in the wind of chance. So we clutch at any ridiculous explanation of how things work. 

Or this one, closer to today’s topic [emphasis mine]:

I first noticed the questionable claims of management experts back in the nineties, when it was fashionable to explain a company’s success by its generous employee benefits. The quaint idea of the time was that treating employees like kings and queens would free their creative energies to create massive profits. The boring reality is that companies that are successful have the resources to be generous to employees and so they do. The best way a CEO can justify an obscene pay package is by treating employees generously. To put this in another way, have you ever seen a corporate turnaround that was caused primarily by improving employee benefits?

Tony Hsieh, the founder and CEO of on-line shoe store Zappos, isn’t a blogger, cartoonist, or academic theoretician; he leads a very successful company that’s admired for its customer-oriented practices (culture, if you will). In this Business Insider piece, titled Here’s Why I Don’t Want My Employees To Work From Home, Hsieh is unequivocal about the value of Working From Work [emphasis mine]:

Research has shown that companies with strong cultures outperform those without in the long-term financially. So we’re big, big believers in building strong company cultures. And I think that’s hard to do remotely.

We don’t really telecommute at Zappos. We want employees to be interacting with each other, building those personal relationships and relationships outside of work as well.

What we found is when they have those personal connections that productivity increases because there’s higher levels of trust. Employees are willing to do favors for each other because they’re not just co-workers, but also friends, and communication is better. So we’re big believers in in-person interactions.

Who in good conscience believes that Mayer’s edict is absolute and permanent? You have a sick child at home, will you be granted the permission to work from home for a few days? Of course. Or, you’re an asocial but genius coder, will you be allowed to code at home from 10 pm to 7 am? Again, yes. Mayer saw it done, with good results, at her previous company.

With Mayer’s guidance, the patient has been stabilized and is on the road to recovery. But where does that road lead to? What does Yahoo! want to be now that it’s starting to act like a grownup? A better portal, a place to which we gravitate because, as an insider says, we’ll find more relevant fodder — without relying on “friends”? This would be a return to Yahoo’s original mission, one of cataloguing the Web, only with better technology and taste than Facebook, Google, AOL or even Microsoft’s Bing (Yahoo’s supplier of search data).

This leads to the $$ question, to Yahoo’s business model: advertising or services? With Google and now Facebook dominating the advertising space, how much room is left?

We hear Mayer is focusing Yahoo! on mobile applications. This sounds reasonable… but isn’t everyone?

In the search for a renewed identity (and profits), the question of alliances comes up. Who’s my enemy, my enemy’s enemy, irreplaceable partner/supplier, natural complement? In this regard, the Microsoft question will undoubtedly pop up again. I doubt Mayer has the utmost regard for Microsoft or for its CEO’s bullying style, but can she live without Bing? Is there an alternative? Also, what, if anything, could a healthier Yahoo! offer to Facebook or Apple?

The fun is just starting.

JLG@mondaynote.com