Tag Archives: Microsoft

Sandy and the power of news maps

Click on image for full interactive map at BostonGlobe.com

We were lucky up here on the North Shore — we got lots of wind and plenty of rain from Sandy, but very little damage. We lost power for about a half-hour last night. When it came back, it seemed that the worst had passed.

But then we tuned in to CNN and saw the devastation that was taking place in New York and New Jersey. The aftermath will be with us for a long time.

As it turns out, it’s mapping week in my Reinventing the News class. Although classes at Northeastern were canceled on Monday, I’ve been sharing with my students some of the more interesting storm presentations being put together by news organizations.

Above is a map you’ll find at BostonGlobe.com plotting all kinds of Sandy-related reports — everything from photos and stories by Globe journalists to power-outage announcements and updates from other news organizations. It uses Leaflet, a tool I’m not familiar with, and OpenStreetMap, an open-source alternative to the increasingly commercialized offerings of Google, Apple and Microsoft.

I have not been able to puzzle out why some red dots are larger than others. I asked a source at the Globe, but he was too busy dealing with actual news to get back to me. I’d be curious to know the answer.

The New York Times is offering more of a meteorological tool — a map that tracks the path of Sandy and lets you call up a forecast for your community.

Also well worth a look is an interactive map put together by Google.org, the company’s nonprofit arm. Called “Superstorm Sandy,” the map lets you add and subtract various layers, including emergency shelters, YouTube videos and public alerts.

It’s part of an international effort called Google.org Crisis Response, which makes digital tools available wherever a disaster takes place.

Toward a better Gmail

It’s not Google’s fault. It’s the spammers’ fault. Nevertheless, I’ve got a pretty good idea of what Google’s top priority ought to be, and it’s not Google Buzz.

I truly love many things about Google. And its greatest gift to humankind is surely Gmail. But I have been frustrated over the past several years because I can’t use it as fully as I would like. I’ve written about this before. I think it’s important enough to all Gmail users that it’s worth writing about again.

Gmail lets you send outgoing e-mail using one of your other e-mail addresses. Within the past year, it also added a feature so that you can use a different SMTP server for outgoing mail as well. Theoretically, I should be able to have my Northeastern e-mail redirected to my Gmail account, and use Gmail to send e-mail from my NU address, officially stamped with the Northeastern SMTP server information.

The problem is that Gmail includes some code in a usually hidden part of the header that lets recipients know incoming messages aren’t “really” from NU. And some systems have been programmed to see such messages as spam, and either bounce them back (problem) or shoot them into the intended recipient’s spam folder, perhaps never to be seen again (bigger problem).

My solution in recent months has been to receive my NU mail and my personal Gmail messages via Apple Mail. Both are IMAP accounts, and I can move messages into Gmail folders within Apple Mail. It can be painfully slow, because even though it looks like I’m simply transferring messages into folders, I’m actually uploading them onto Google’s servers. (The advantage to this is that I can go to Gmail and use its superior search functions.)

There’s also no visual interface as good as Gmail’s, and I find that it’s easier to miss messages when I’m looking at them in Apple Mail or any other program — most definitely including Thunderbird, which is too kludgy for heavy use.

Over the past two weeks, I got brave and gingerly dipped my toe back into the Gmail waters. Then, today, a message was rejected by the Barracuda anti-spam system at WGBH. Like most of us, I just can’t take the chance that my e-mail won’t arrive. So it’s back to Apple Mail. (Or — shudder — Microsoft Entourage, whose interface looks remarkably like a Rube Goldberg flow chart.)

Now, I’m not suggesting that Google alter its header information. For all I know, it would be illegal. But surely there must be some way of working with the major security systems and coming up with a solution. Perhaps it would be possible to register with some sort of service stamping users as legitimate. I don’t know. But Google has a stake in getting this right.

As it stands, I’m working less efficiently than I’d like. And I’m costing Google money, because I’m not looking at its ads.

What a Bing News deal might mean for journalism

cash_register_20091130I can’t remember the last time the media world was as excited about a business deal that may or may not be consummated as the one involving Microsoft and Rupert Murdoch. The reason, I think, is three-fold.

First, it potentially moves us beyond the tired old debate about pay walls (I say “potentially,” because we don’t know if Murdoch will give up on that misbegotten notion).

Second, it could provide an answer to the question of who should pay whom, and how.

Third, it could represent a monetary boost for paid journalism at a moment when the profession is in the midst of an existential crisis.

In simple terms, here’s how the deal might work. Microsoft is said to be offering to pay Murdoch and other newspaper publishers (and you’d need a lot of them; Rupe can’t do this alone) to make their sites invisible to Google, a simple matter that involves inserting a line of code. Thus if you wanted to search for a news story about, say, President Obama’s upcoming speech on Afghanistan, you would have use Microsoft’s Bing instead of Google.

Bing News would compete with Google’s automatically assembled Google News service. But, unlike Google, Microsoft would share advertising revenues from Bing News with the news organizations to which it is linking.

To be sure, Google News is the most benign of aggregators. It places no advertising on its home page. That’s important because it’s a customizable substitute front page. Most people read a news site by scanning headlines and ledes, and only occasionally clicking on a story. Thus, if Google were to try to make money from the Google News home page, it could rightly be accused of stealing the most valuable parts of newspaper stories and profiting from that theft. (And, as we know, there are aggregators that do precisely that. As I’ve argued before, Michael Wolff’s Newser may be the most blatant.)

If you search Google News, you will be shown ads related to what you’re looking for. But as Howard Owens has pointed out, if you are searching for a news story on a particular topic, then you are going to click through. Those are valuable readers whom Google is sending to news organizations. And, as Jeff Jarvis argues, it’s not Google’s fault if newspaper executives haven’t been able to figure out how to monetize the audience Google is sending to them.

With that bit of background out of the way, let’s turn this on its head. One of the things about Internet commerce that makes for such fascinating — and frustrating — debate is that it’s unclear which direction the money should be moving in. Even though Google has attempted to step lightly with its news service, Murdoch and some other news executives argue that Google should share ad revenues generated by Google News.

But imagine, if you will, an alternative universe in which newspaper sites were rolling in advertising revenues from readers Google sent their way, but in which Google itself couldn’t find a way to make any money. (Such a scenario requires you to believe a number of ridiculous things, but never mind.) Can you imagine what the debate would be? You’d hear demands that cash-fattened newspaper owners share some of their newly gotten wealth with Google. You’d hear threats that Google would exclude news sites that refused.

My point is that there isn’t really any underlying principle as to who ought to pay for what online. Rather, the debate is driven by who’s making money, who’s losing money and — here’s where we get back to Microsoft — the business model of any particular Internet company.

What is Microsoft’s business interest with respect to Bing? Simply this: to build market share, establishing Bing as a serious search alternative to Google. Bing has a long way to go, with 10 percent of the market to Google’s 65 percent. That said, Bing has received good reviews since its debut earlier this year. And it’s really the only search engine to emerge as any kind of rival to Google pretty much since Google slipped into view in the late 1990s.

Bing News, as a partner of news sites rather than a rival, would have some advantages over Google News. The biggest would be that it wouldn’t have to pussyfoot around with regard to advertising. Since it would be sharing revenue, it could assemble an ad-laden home page, and make its search results more advertising-driven than Google News’ are.

Since it would be sharing those revenues, the news organizations, rather than complain, would be cheering Microsoft on. And if users came to understand that they had to visit Bing in order to search, say, the world’s 100 or so biggest and best newspapers, then Bing would quickly gain market share at Google’s expense.

Sadly, this would represent a significant setback to Google’s vision of indexing all the world’s knowledge. But there has always been an inherent tension in leaving it to a private corporation to carry out such a utopian plan. Look at the ongoing battle over Google Books, which would benefit everyone, but none more than Google.

It would also represent business as usual for Microsoft, which dominated the 1980s and ’90s not by offering more to its customers but by crippling its competitors. This is a company that, as legend would have it, built market share for its spreadsheet, Excel, by rewriting MS-DOS — its Windows precursor — so that the leading program, Lotus 1-2-3, wouldn’t run properly. “The job’s not done till Lotus won’t run” is one variation of the supposed battle cry heard in Redmond. Paying newspapers to pull out of Google is just the latest iteration of that theme.

But will it work? Is there any way a Bing News service could generate the sort of advertising revenue that would make up for a significant chunk of what the traditional media have lost? Somehow it seems doubtful. Still, it strikes me as a far more worthy experiment than whatever Steven Brill has been cooking up with his paid-content scheme for lo these many months. I hope we’ll get a chance to see how this all plays out.

More on Murdoch and Microsoft

In my latest for the Guardian, I take a closer look at Rupert Murdoch’s dalliance with Microsoft, whose search engine, Bing, is emerging as the main competitor to Google.

The Murdoch-Microsoft story, which I first wrote about last week, got a huge boost yesterday in the Financial Times. Today the New York Times follows up.

Rupe to Google: Bing this, mate

Murdoch_on_BingTwo things are clear about Rupert Murdoch’s pronouncements that he will build a pay wall around his sites, and that he’ll make them invisible to Google’s search engine.

First, he’ll fail utterly if that’s all there is. (How much would you pay for NYPost.com? Yeah, I thought so.) Second, given his track record as a media visionary, we should be cautious not to assume that’s all there is. As I told Chris Lefkow of Agence France Presse a few days ago, Rupe has a history of being two or three steps ahead of everyone else.

Now, it’s unclear what Murdoch may have in mind, and it’s likely that’s because he doesn’t know yet, either. But a media-savvy Media Nation reader has been feeding me stories suggesting that newspaper publishers — including Murdoch — may be inching toward an embrace with Microsoft, whose well-regarded search engine, Bing, has quickly established itself as the number-two competitor to Google.

Imagine some of the ways that this might work. Let’s start with the fact that all any Web publisher has to do is insert some code into its site in order to stop Google News from including it in its search results. No one dares do that, because Google drives lots of traffic to those sites. But publishers have long chafed at Google’s refusal to share any of its ad revenue with them.

But if you had to use Bing rather than Google in order to find content from a number of Big Media players, then you’d have to broaden your searches to two engines. Murdoch and his fellow media moguls might keep their sites open (smart) in return for Microsoft sharing the revenue it earns from selling ads tied to news content.

Or Microsoft might devise a more fine-tuned digital-rights-management system so that content-providers could offer a variety of open, closed and semi-open options (not so smart). There might even be a way for Google to include such content in its own searches as long as it didn’t upset Bing’s infrastructure.

At TechCrunch, Mike Butcher describes meetings that Microsoft is already having with European publishers. According to Butcher, Microsoft is prepared to invest nearly $170,000 in research and development. (I realize this sounds a bit like Lorne Michaels’ offering the Beatles $3,000 to reunite on “Saturday Night Live.”)

Jason Calacanis imagines Microsoft making a pitch that goes something like this:

Want to search the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today and 3,894 other newspapers and magazine?

Well, then don’t go to Google because they don’t have them!

Go to Bing, home of quality content you can trust!

At Slate, Jack Shafer has more, with links from others hypothesizing what may be happening.

What’s clear is that Murdoch is going to try something dramatic, and that he’ll most likely have some major players on his side. What he’s saying right now may bear little resemblance to the strategy that ultimately emerges.

More: Poynter’s Rick Edmonds is thinking similar thoughts.

Earlier: Rupe prepares to take the plunge.

Microsoft’s Yahoo bet

The headline at Wired.com says it all: “Microsoft Bids for Yahoo: Do Two Losers Make a Winner?” And if you read Betsy Schiffman’s article, the answer would appear to be “no.”

Microsoft’s proposed $44.6 billion acquisition of Yahoo is the biggest media story of the still-new year. Yet news organizations seem to be straining to imbue this with the excitement they think it deserves. When it comes to the “what does it mean?” graf, everyone is coming up short. In fact, it may not mean all that much.

Carolyn Johnson writes in the Boston Globe today that this may be all about the coming cell-phone wars, where Google doesn’t have anywhere near the head start that it does on the desktop. Even here, though, Google’s efforts to develop cell-phone software — the so-called Google phone, a.k.a. the “Android” — is the subject of much excitement. Everyone wants to know if Android-enabled phones will be cooler/ cheaper/ faster than the Apple iPhone. So even if Google’s cell-phone efforts are not that far along, they’re still considerably ahead of where Microsoft and Yahoo are.

I’m hard-pressed to say how this could affect the financially struggling news business except to note that this is all about online advertising. If competition between Google and Microsoft/Yahoo somehow helps the pie grow, then that can only be good. At the Online Journalism Review, Robert Niles is asking whether Microsoft should buy Yahoo. Only 19 people had responded by this morning, and they were evenly split.

Microsoft has not been an interesting company for many years. Its success is built almost entirely on two monopoly products, Windows and Office, which have their roots in the 1980s and which came to full fruition in the mid-’90s. The company has done a nice job in recent years with its Xbox video-game systems, but that’s essentially a side project. Contrast that with the iPod, which Apple used to rekindle interest in its Macintosh computers.

Yahoo? Enormous numbers of people go there, so I guess the company is doing something worth saving. But it’s fallen way, way behind Google in online advertising, and I don’t find what it offers to be particularly innovative or compelling. (I do like Flickr, the social network for photography that Yahoo bought a couple of years ago. But Flickr users are already protesting the Microsoft takeover, which could provide a shot in the arm to Picasa, Google’s own underdeveloped photo service.) I don’t use Yahoo Mail for anything more than diverting stuff I don’t want to a mailbox I never check. By contrast, I like Google’s Gmail so much that I now use it for everything. I also use Google Calendar, Google Documents, Blogger (of course), Google Earth and several other Google services. The company’s “cloud computing” concept is taking over my life.

As Robert Guth emphasizes (sub. req.) in the Wall Street Journal, Microsoft has not been Bill Gates’ company for some time. Steve Ballmer is firmly in charge, and that will become clearer later this year, when Gates retires. Ballmer is fiercely competitive, but if he shares Gates’ vision for how to shape technology markets, he’s never really demonstrated it. (Even Gates never had much vision regarding how good software should work, a shortcoming with which tens of millions of us must contend every day.)

Let’s not forget, too, that though Yahoo and Google have both been criticized for helping the Chinese government with its efforts to censor the Internet, Yahoo went quite a bit farther — actually providing information that helped the government arrest dissidents. Its fierce competitive culture aside, Microsoft has a reputation for being socially conscious. So maybe Microsoft will curb Yahoo’s excesses. But that has nothing to do with catching up to Google, either.

This John Markoff piece in the New York Times seems to get it directionally right. Google isn’t perfect by any means. Someday, someone will come along and knock it off its pedestal. But that challenge is not likely to come from two of yesterday’s giants. Microsoft still makes a ton of money, and will for years to come. That should keep Yahoo afloat.

Still, when Google one day feels the heat, in all likelihood it’s going to come from people who today are still in college or even high school. At the Guardian, Jack Schofield offers some sound advice to Microsoft, arguing that the deal might make sense if Ballmer and company transform Yahoo into their consumer division. His conclusion: “But is Microsoft ready to take that step? I think not.”

Photo (cc) by Erwin Boogert. Some rights reserved.