Sunday, December 23, 2012

A raspberry blown

A British company is actually shipping a $35 computer.

It says it wants children all over the world to learn programming. I’m not sure that this device will make it happen.

Aside from its capabilities (512MB of RAM?), it’s both too expensive (when the cost of a screen is added) for the truly poor people in the Third World (24 of the world’s 191 countries have GDP per capita of less than $1k/year), and too cheap for everyone else.

Born hackers who cannot afford anything else will welcome it, although how they could realise what their destiny is under such conditions is unclear. Anyway, they are not many.

The rest of the proletariat and its offspring will have no patience for something like this just as they haven’t had for netbooks, Web-only computers, Web-via-TV, Windows CE devices, the netbooting version of the original soapdish iMac, and their ilk. The smallest of the netbooks got some sales on the cuteness factor but that wore off once it became clear that this was mere emptiness masquarading as a kitten.

Patience and perseverance is for pros. The great unwashed require luxury. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

It was all a misunderstanding

It was suggested tonight that Instagram may not have had any intention to sell users’ photos, and the new TOS language was to enable sales of metadata for ad targeting.

Ah, that would be much more Facebook-like and (relatively) reasonable than trying to run a stock photo service with users’ pics.

But it means that the lawyers drafted needlessly broad, alarming language—and no-one in management caught it. So it’s still reducible to what-were-they-thinking.

Update, 22 Dec.: Yesterday, Facebook launched a test that was immediately labeled  "spam-for-money": unrelated entities can send messages to non-friends’ main inboxes for a buck. This follows the existing sales of ”suggested posts”—unsolicited advertising on people’s walls that looks like legitimate posts. Unsurprisingly, NPR coverage of the new test repeated the earlier false allegation that Facebook permitted advertisers to use users’ photos without their consent (such use happened but without Facebook’s permission). Also unsurprisingly in view of recent events, the denial is ineffective. All this sets up a (surprisingly) novel situation in which mass insanity in an IPO was immediately followed by end-of-days demandingness from the very same shareholders; each of these behaviours is quite common but possibly never before seen in such close succession. Are Facebook’s new owners such crazed gamblers that, in an attempt to make themselves whole, they would jeopardise whatever legitimate value can be had from the company they just purchased?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Destroying the system from within

Facebook is again showing me an ad for a durable product I’ve just purchased. I didn’t expect to be pleased by exposure to irrelevant advertising. But in light of everyone’s pathetic attempts to guess what I want (YouTube is particularly funny—I can just hear its algorithm screaming “What is wrong with you?”), perhaps the better outcome is when they simply give up.

Especially when the data that Facebook, its partner sites and others collect have unforeseeable consequences in this catch-as-catch-can (privacy-wise) country. Orbitz has become notorious for doing this all by its lonesome self—offering substantially higher prices on a repeated search in the assumption that I’ve had no luck elsewhere—but the ham-fisted way it does this will simply lead someone who experiences this and is not totally insensate to abandon it (or to diversify his searches to different sites lest they all do this).

This by Facebook, however, will surely cause greater, yea, even institutional damage:

Followed a month later by this from Facebook’s Instagram division:

“Instagram’s suicide note” is not an understatement. The Facebook couples pages reward people who merely selected “In a relationship” or “Married” in their profiles and friended their SOs with views of their lives as seen through the lens of a divorce detective. But in the Instagram fiasco, anyone who has ever uploaded anything that he would not care to share with the public at large is immediately exposed to harm, in some cases even career- or life-threatening harm. And this is not even the first time that Facebook used an opt-out approach instead of an opt-in only to have to flee an immediate backlash.

Facebook has been successful at getting extensive personal data, session minutes (face time) and stickiness out of users by stealth—it’s all cosy social interaction and not the slightest reminder of its ultimate costs. But there are costs, and two of them, a month apart, have now slammed into many of these users at high speed. At a minimum, those of them who are not completely asleep will be careful before touching any Facebook controls anywhere. At a maximum, they will leave at once and never come back. Social networks are actually not new, and history shows that they should not take for granted even users driven to them by the network effects of also having many of their “friends” there. Prodigy, Delphi, AOL, anyone?

Which again leads one to wonder what the people who thought up these insanely risky and revenue-inconsequential features were thinking. The probable answer is that they weren’t. Perhaps decaffeinated drinks should be banned in the workplace. Perhaps, too, companies should stick to their knitting, especially when they’ve already successfully IPOed and all else is whatever the opposite of gravy is.

Facebook isn’t a bad idea (though you might not know it from the press coverage). I use it increasingly more. I’ve learned how to work around its shortcomings (the ads are helpfully on the right, where the window’s right boundary can be moved to hide them). But its real value to those of us without much disposable time (those gainfully employed) is in staying in touch, more or less intensively, with the relatively few people with whom we wish to have this kind of interaction. Leave us alone, we say, and nobody gets hurt (and you can even make some money on the side). Spectacular growth by chewing through the huge numbers of schoolchildren and getting people to “friend” everyone they know because it’s the cool thing to do (even if no words are ever exchanged afterwards) is, of course, unsustainable. Similarly, getting adults to immolate their privacy despite overt and objectionable results is unreliable (some will do it anyway but they have relatively little disposable income). Far better to have Facebook and its partners mine the same HTTP cookie and quietly adjust all their advertising, in compliance with vague TOS language and with almost no-one the wiser. No coolness factor but, with behavioural targeting being the main and sorely undersupplied justification for high Web advertising CPMs, all profit.

Had one drunk one’s coffee, one would not have needed to be hit by a plummeting share price to understand that.

When mammoths mate

Nielsen buys Arbitron.

Users (the smart ones, anyway) will remember that Nielsen rubbished the cooperation (compliance) rate Arbitron was getting with its wearable PPM devices when Nielsen withdrew from their cooperative development agreement. Now, in a display of natural justice, it will be selling that which it had rubbished.

Arbitron is now claiming a seriously improved cooperation rate of around 75% for individual sample members, up from around 45% eight years ago. However, there is a slight problem.

If accusations like this are no longer fair (i.e., if Arbitron has started requiring movement of yards rather than inches and comparing same-household PPM journeys to ensure that they are worn by different household members), Arbitron is awfully quiet about this.

As happened during Nielsen‘s introduction of people meters in U.S. local markets, ethnic associations are on the attack. However, then these were Astroturf-roots entities shilling for one major terrestrial network and perhaps some other players. Here, these are longstanding owner associations representing themselves who are, more importantly, quite right. If the ideal measurement device is one inserted into the respondent‘s body (as Nielsen reportedly posited long ago), there is one universal device that comes close to this in terms of cooperation, and it is the cellphone.

P.S.: This post would disappear from Facebook on the next reload until I abbreviated both the main subjects’ names. Fear of Nielsen’s NetRatings?

You and what army

Was recently involved in an App Store approval process. Found the description below to be charitable (and still accurate three years later). Quote: “add that to the iPhone Developer Guidelines: All requests for information must be submitted in writing from an organization with a standing army and the power to levy taxes.”

Footnote: The app in question was finally approved thanks to the intervention of someone from the problem resolution group, to whom I am grateful. But the process should not have required his intervention in the first place. The whole experience was indeed one “I didn’t know they could do that” after another. In the world’s most litigious society, no less.