Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Let's say I am an oppressive regime with some pesky dissidents who are blogging about things I'd rather keep secret. Or maybe they're a semi religious organization that I suspect of having political ideas. Inside the country it's easy to make sure they won't find a host, but they'll just find a blogging platform elsewhere. Sure, you can build up a huge firewall to filter this content, but that's expensive, leaky and doesn't stop people from outside of your country to read the slander.
Intellectual Property to the rescue! The first step is to create a financial claim against your opponents. This is already a popular tool to stop opposition. Tax fraud or libel are popular tricks, but huge fines for political crimes would work too. Having made sure your opponents can't pay up, you seize the assets you're after: their trademark and copyrights.
Now you can legally shut them up. And not just in your own country: with damages up to 150 thousand dollar per copyright infringement it can even be quite profitable. Seizing the trademarks helps you stop the opposition of operating under their own name even in other countries.
It's not without precedent. Scientology has of course for a long time used copyright to shut up critics, but the state of Bavaria has been using copyright to keep Hitler's book Mein Kampf out of bookshops since forever and will presumably do that until the copyright expires in 2015.
Sunday, October 30, 2011
Tuesday, August 30, 2011
When I started at Google in 2004 this model was already outdated. I built the news bit of Google trends in 20% and this was subsequently launched on labs, but only in the context of a larger project; as a rule things launched on labs were built by fully staffed teams. More and more labs became a marketing thing; something to point at to prove continuous innovation at Google. Also since Google products typically remain in beta for a long time, the company needed a different label for products that might not be quite ready. Labs more and more became that label.
Not everybody agreed and there was a lot of grumbling about how hard it was to launch new stuff. As a reaction, individual products like GMail, Youtube, Maps and Search launched their own labs that allowed for the launching of experimental features . Soon another effort came under way to make it a lot easier to launch experiments on labs by using standard components like AppEngine. After Wave got canceled, me, pamela and tirsen got together and built Shared Spaces that way in our 20% time and launched in on Labs.
And now labs is going to die. No doubt this has to do with the founders desire to focus on Big Problems. Like I wrote elsewhere, I am skeptical you can get a grip on the Big Problems without starting small; Labs seemed like a good place to start small. Bits of Shared Spaces reappeared in the Hangouts of Google+. Last week Google announced also the closing of Slide, another bit of the empire meant to experiment. All signs point to that in Larrys new Google innovation is top-down rather than bottom-up.
Enough history. Google Labs might be gone, but I am happy to announce Triposo Labs. We collect data from all over the web and use clever algorithms to produce travel guides. Obviously before we get something working we play around a lot with that data. Quite often we hit upon something that is interesting, but maybe not immediately applicable, but if they make us go, ooh, that's cool, why not share it with the world?
The first experiment we're publishing, tracks the development of the wikipedia on a world map. Each geocoded article is plotted in order of appearance showing how the Wikipedia initially focussed on the US and partly on Europe and later spread to cover the world.
Sunday, August 7, 2011
The idea of techno nomads working on their laptops from whatever venue that will provide them with Internet in return for you ordering a steady supply of double espressos is romantic but in practice not yet a global reality. In San Francisco it works reasonably well, but in Sydney for example, not a lot of cafes offer free wifi or wifi at all. In Europe, you often get a code with a purchase of a drink that is only valid for 30 minutes. Two double espressos an hour will make you feel distinctly jittery.
Living like a local
Thursday, June 23, 2011
entrepreneurs and angels who are willing to invest in great ideas and great people. And I met up of course with a great number of great friends (the first group and the last group overlap considerably of course) - when it comes to the Google Zurich Office Oscar Wilde was certainly right when he said "It's an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco"
We had two weeks before we were expected in New York City so me and my wife did the honorable thing. We took the train. It was an amazing 3300 mile ride that took me from San Francisco, to Denver, to Chicago and from there to DC, Baltimore and finally New York. Amtrak is a lot better than most Americans think though that isn't saying much. The trains do usually run late, but if you book sleepers, the food is included and the food isn't too bad even.
Another great thing are the lounge cars where you sit and do a little coding on your laptop while enjoying the amazing scenery of the Rocky Mountains and the slightly less exciting Great Plains. And every time the train slowly rolled into the station of a city we'd like to visit, I would build a Triposo Travel Guide and put it on my phone.
A great opportunity to use the guides we are building in the wild, and see if they are actually any good. To be clear, we've done a lot of testing with our guides in the wild, but more often than not you end up testing the guide in a city that you know quite well. Which is good, because you immediately spot the errors. But what you do miss is that unique feeling you get when you get of the train in a city you have never set foot before. The feeling of not having the first clue where to go and nothing to rely on but your phone and Triposo.
The good news is: it works. Triposo tells you where to go, has all the background info on the sights, has a great selection of restaurants and the offline map even makes sense when you have roaming - in many places it's just quite a bit faster.
The real good news is of course, that this trip inspired me. Here are a few things I guess I always knew, but that become even more clear during the trip I took across the USA.
Maps are crucial
I've loved maps all my life, but when you travel a map is a dire necessity. You want a fast map. You want to see where you are and what way you are looking. You want to be able to zoom in so deep you can see the cracks in the pavement. And you want all of that offline. Our
maps do work offline, but on the other points they need some extra attentions. So we're going to invest in this. To make our maps better, faster and more complete.
Less is more
Talking about complete: in Chicago Triposo had so much information, I had trouble finding out where to go. Every other tall building in the windy city had a nice description, but when you have under 48 hours, you're not that interested in all that. You want to know where to go -
and leave the rest.
The hard nut to crack is that the background information on every single skyscraper (and a bio on the architect) needs to be in there, but only when you need it. A nice UX challenge of course. If you have specific ideas, send us an email - we could do with a talented designer to help us out.
Sightseeing is not about the sights
The best way to enjoy Denver, especially when you have limited time is just to walk around the parks and streets and look at things from the outside. Maybe take in one museum, but other than that, just explore.
It would be great if you could just ask your guide book, I have 6 hours, I am here, tell me in which direction to walk so I get to see some cool stuff. Right now Triposo has the sights, but you still need to do too much planning yourself.
We will never be done
The world is such an amazing place and there's something to be seen in every nook and cranny. We'll give it our best shot to present all that information to you in a way that helps you decide where to go. But we'll never be done. We will keep having new ideas on how to improve.
Friday, May 13, 2011
- We think information is something to be organized, not owned. So our travel guides are built automatically out of content that is available under an open license. Once we get to the point where our users can correct our data, we'll make every attempt to share those corrections back with the community.
- We think that computers are better at ranking than humans even if they're editors. Like a friend remarked: Triposo tries to do to Lonely Planet what Google did to Yahoo.
- Free lunch! Well, we haven't really established that, but I like it. In fact we had free lunches at Oberon in Amsterdam before Google was founded.
- Google's products are web services that might work on mobile devices. Our travel guides are mobile apps that work even better if there is an internet connection.
- We fear overengineering as a thread to agility, while Google tends to think that real solutions come with many layers.
- Google doesn't talk about products that haven't launched yet. We believe that talking to outsiders about a good idea can make it great.
Sunday, May 8, 2011
- If my phone knows it'll be sunny today, but rainy tomorrow, why can't it tell me to go to the park now, and leave the museum for the next day? When I look at the museum page on Monday, why can't it list the museums that are closed on Monday last?
- If I tell my guide what I like in Barcelona, shouldn't it be able to tell me what I would probably like in Prague?
- I like a coffee around 11AM. My guide should be able to learn that and when I take it out of my pocket around that time show me a little message saying "there's a great coffee place just 200 meters from here".
Saturday, May 7, 2011
This is the second post in a three post series about me leaving Google. If you missed it, the first part was Why not to leave Google. This post is about good reasons to leave Google anyway. The final instalment will be about what I am doing next.
Google thinks Big
If you pitch an idea or a project to Larry and Sergey, their feedback is quite easy to anticipate. They'll tell you you have to solve the problem in a more generic way. I tried to sell them on data communities, a place where like minded people could collaborate on structured data around topics they're interested in. The feedback was predictable: why restrict yourself to communities? And why to structured data? Come up with something that solves everything!
Thinking big sounds great, but most big ideas start small and go from there. Google itself started from the notion that it would be interesting to look at back links for pages. Twitter started out as hardly more than a group SMS product that also works online. Facebook explicitly restricted themselves at first to one university.
Wave is a case in point. Wave started with some fairly easy to understand ideas about online collaboration and communication. But in order to make it more general and universal, more ideas were added until the entire thing could only be explained in a 90 minute mind blowing demo that left people speechless but a little later wondering what the hell this was for.
At triposo.com, we use Wave extensively for taking notes and developing ideas and it works great (yes, Wave isn't dead yet). But as a product pitch, that on its own wouldn't have made it in Google. The problem with this for an individual engineer like me is that you can't work with a small team on a medium sized idea, get users and expand from there anymore. You either have to pitch something as the third coming of Steve or your idea will be relegated to being a feature of something else.
Google has a Plan
In building 43 in Mountain View, there used to be a white board with the Google Master Plan, a huge flow chart that started with hiring smart engineers and led ultimately to user happiness by way of steps like flying robots and GoogleOS. All in good fun of course, but I guess many people did suppose there was such a plan. There wasn't. Any resemblance to later Google execution was purely coincidental (though it did talk about a GoogleOS).
Google's mode of operation used to be best characterised as strictly opportunistic. There were certain principles and leading ideas, but any project that met those and where Google thought it could do better than what was out there, would be taken on.
No longer. Google now has strategies. Once you offer an online spreadsheet and an online word processor, strategy demands that you also offer an online solution for presentations, even if it isn't actually much better. And you start seeing presentations with product road maps and competitive landscapes and unique selling points.
No doubt this approach suits a bigger company better. But the engineer in me wants to go back to that whiteboard; hire smart people that exploit new opportunities that become available as technology develops to build new products and services, which in turn leads to user happiness. Having a plan easily gets in the way of doing the right thing there.
Google has a Way
There is a strong and specific culture at Google. A culture that entails that you take nothing for granted. That the fact that the world has been doing something in a certain way is no argument not to do it in a totally different way. And this has led to many innovations - from the search first homepage, to the NoSql movement, powering webmail by Ajax and many improvements when it comes to running datacenters energy efficient. And these are only the things that have been published!
But that's the thing. Being secretive is part of that culture. Google hardly ever talks about things that haven't launched yet. This allows Google internally to be really open. There are very few internal secrets and that works because the rule is that you don't talk about anything to outsiders. Living as an engineer in this peculiar world with its own technology stack and ideas about technology is very exciting especially in the beginning. There is so much to learn, so many ideas to explore.
Google has done its bit to keep the web open and to fight anybody trying to turn it into a so called walled garden. But being inside is a bit like being in a walled garden. You can't discuss interesting developments inside with people on the outside of course, but it is even hard to partake in discussions outside. And so after a few years what you learn and what you talk about seems less relevant for the real world. Over time this starts to outweigh the advantages of being on the inside.
The first two points make it harder to build exciting stuff in a smaller team than it used to be. The last point makes it less interesting to stick around. So then when the next idea comes along, it's time to jump.
In the final episode in this trio I'll explain what this next thing is!
Monday, May 2, 2011
I am leaving Google and thought it would be useful to put the answer to the question I often get as a reaction to this “what’s wrong with you?” in a triplet of blog posts. That and to promote my next endeavour. This is the first part, why not leave Google.
As a hugely successful company in an rapidly changing industry it is no wonder that Google is the continuing target of media attention. In the 7 years that I have been employed there, the way Google has been depicted has rather changed a lot though. In the first years, Google was this company of whiz kids who just tried things because they seemed like a good idea and surprised the world and themselves by creating wonderful products. A couple of years later, business analysts started writing about the Google Way and how by taking the long view and doing the smart thing Google succeeded where short term profit driven approaches failed.
Lately however, the meme of Google being the new Microsoft, being the new evil empire seems to be gaining traction. Of course if “don’t be evil” is your informal motto, you can be expected to be held against that standard, too. But it annoyed me to no end how the press was generally ignoring Heinlein's Razor, assuming malice where at most stupidity could be found.
So before answering the questions why I am leaving Google and what am I going to do next, I wanted to first rectify some common misconceptions about Google, implicitly answering the question why not to leave Google.
Google has gone Evil
Search for [google evil] and mostly you’ll find posts about how Google has gone evil. No doubt Google has become rather big and involved in many products and markets. This does lead to complications and difficult decisions. Either way you go on a decision, somebody will call evil. Google being secretive doesn’t help - the idea here is that information can be freely shared inside of Google as long as nobody brings anything outisde - it means that mistakes easily seem like conspiracies.
Meanwhile, it is still the case that any plan at Google can be tackled by pointing out that it would in fact be evil. Even if said plan would make a lot of money.
All the good engineers are leaving for Facebook
Well, that’s clearly not the case; I am starting my own thing for example. :)
Facebook and Google do employ of course the same sort of people. A drive between their headquarters takes less than 15 minutes. Of course, you’re going to see employees switch companies. And Google employs 25 thousand people, so in absolute numbers, this can be a significant number. But like the man said, leaving Google for Facebook is like divorcing your wife for her sister (Luuk added, younger sister) and I do think more people leave Google for startups than for Facebook. And so it should be.
20% time is a myth
Back when the business analysts were talking about the Google Way of innovation, a lot was written about how Google engineers could spend 20% of their time on whatever they wanted to work. Recently, there are more articles about how this is just a myth. At Google, you’re expected to do work 5 days a week, just like anywhere else. You can’t just learn how to play the harp or whatever.
Well, yes, of course. The myth might have been that you basically get a day off a week to do whatever. It is still work. And you’re still held responsible for what you do. So yeah, you can do whatever you want to, but you have to actually want it and it is still for Google. Which means it isn’t for everybody. Also, it isn’t always the next big product. Hundreds of engineers at Google spend their 20% time on mundane things like promoting test driven coding, cleaning up old code, mentoring new engineers or just helping out on another project that needs helping.
You can’t get anything done at Google anymore
There is some truth to this one. As an individual engineer you are going to have less of an impact on an organization if there’s 25 thousand people working there than on an organization with 25. But there is of course a flip side to that argument. Having a huge impact on a small organization can still leave you pretty much invisible. And as Chrome and Android have shown, if a project at Google does succeed, it can shift the (tech) world.
As an individual engineer you can still get your pet project out of the door on Google Labs. The world or even most of Google might not notice, but that’s the same as in your 25 person company. Anybody check out sharedspaces.googlelabs.com?
And they pay well, let me work where I want and Googlers in general make for excellent co-workers. So why quit? I’ll leave the Google bashing for the next installment in this series.