Does Google Now Really Need All Your Data?

On June 17th, 2015, I discussed Google Now, Apple’s Proactive and their respective approaches to obtaining your data. My main thesis was that as far as I could tell, the predictive assistant functions that most people come up with seem to be perfectly possible even with Apple’s approach. In conclusion, I said the following;

Although I certainly need to dig into this in a bit more detail, I am skeptical that invading your privacy is essential for providing a better personal assistant service. I would welcome any examples where the personal assistant must absolutely send all knowledge of everything about you to servers in the cloud to be analysed.

Phil Schiller made some comments in an interview with John Gruber which indicate that Apple thinks the same;

If ever there’s a modern definition of a Faustian bargain, this is it, right? Which is, that if you want to get the features, give us all this information about your life that you’d really rather not.

And we’ve believed for a very long time that that doesn’t have to be the case. And so we’ve built systems and processes all around the idea that, in order to help users, you can do things that are surprising and delightful and magical—but we don’t know your data.

So now the fight is on. On one side, we have Google which suggests that they need all your data to provide you with wonderful predictive assistant services (actually I haven’t seen anybody from Google actually say that, but it seems to be what the pundits are collectively thinking). On the other, we have Apple which believes that they don’t need all this data. Essentially, Apple is saying that there is an upper limit to what they need to know, and that limit is actually very low. It would be interesting to watch how good Apple’s Proactive turns out to be versus Google Now.

Of course, Google and Apple have very different business models and hence the business requirements for their predictive assistants are different. Google’s business is advertising so they need enough information to target you with ads. That might require much more personal information than what is required for just providing a predictive service. For example, if you’re just thinking of going to town, all that a predictive assistant needs to do is to give you the directions, time, lunch suggestions, etc. This can all be done anonymously. However, if Google needs to send you ads on behalf of advertisers, then the more they know about you, the higher they can sell you to advertisers. Advertisers love targeting information and would pay for a detailed profile of whom they are targeting. For example, they would love to know if you are married or have kids. They would like to know what kind of food you eat regularly. They may even like to know if you are fit or overweight. None of this is relevant for the predictive assistant task itself, but it is relevant for the ads given through the assistant. And in Google’s case, these ads are what financially support the service. Essentially, Google Now needs more personal information because they need to finance the service through ads. Even if a predictive assistant didn’t need this data to give users advice, Google would still need to collect data on behalf of the advertisers in order to sustain the service financially.

How Useful Will Google Now Be?

With Google announcing Google Now on Tap at Google I/O 2015 and Apple announcing Proactive at WWDC 2015, there is now a lot of discussion on how useful these predictive personal assistants will be. In particular, there is a lot of discussion on how much data these personal assistants will need to collect about you, and whether these assistants need to send this data to be analysed in the cloud.

The problem I have with these arguments is that they do not go into specifics. Instead of say “everything is going to be cool”, we should be having a detailed discussion of how each predictive recommendation is actually made, and whether each recommendation could be performed easily on your local device, or whether it needs to be done in the cloud.

Here, I would like to dig into a pretty good article comparing Apple’s approach and Google’s approach, and look at the examples given there.

Exhibit 1

For instance, if it were possible for Google Photos to figure out that I have a Tesla, and Tesla wanted to alert me to a recall, that would be a service that we would consider offering, with appropriate controls and disclosure to the user.

It’s hard for me to think that Tesla would not have your email address or that they wouldn’t be able to contact you through their dealer network. In fact, in many cases, I imagine that instead of contacting you directly, the recall information would preferably be sent through dealerships due to the complex relationships that they may have. In this case, the benefit gained in exchange for giving up your privacy is extremely trivial.

Exhibit 2

If you’re texting a friend about dinner, Google will give you restaurant reviews and directions automatically. In the future, it might make a reservation and call a driverless car.

The first step here is for the AI to understand that you are texting about dinner. The algorithm could look at keywords (like “dinner” or “eat”), the time, and maybe some other things. It should be pretty simple for the AI to understand that you are thinking about dinner. Next, it needs to give you some reviews which can easily be done through an anonymous connection to Yelp’s services. Reserving a car can also be done through an Uber app installed on your local device, without telling anything on the cloud that you are going to have dinner with a certain person. What I’m saying here is that in this example, there is no need to give each service any more information than is absolutely necessary. Nobody except your device needs to have a comprehensive understanding of who you are texting, when you are going to have dinner and where you are. Each cloud service just needs to know a small portion of this information.

The only place in this article where they detail what Apple can and cannot do is here.

Apple is giving you recommendations based on the phone in your pocket; Google is giving you recommendations based on everything you’ve done that it has recorded.

The assumption is that your phone will no know what you did on your Mac and that will degrade the service that Apple can provide. Well first, there is Bluetooth and WiFi. Apple could use Bluetooth/WiFi to sync your personal information on your Mac with your iPhone. It is easy for Apple to have your devices in sync without ever storing information in the cloud. Also Apple could even sync your information to the cloud in a encrypted format that would be very difficult to decipher. Therefore, the fact that Apple respects privacy does not mean that your information cannot be shared between your devices. This can easily be done.
Second, there is the question of whether any information that stays only on your PC is important at all. Your email, your calendar, your reminders are already synced between your Mac and your iPhone. There is very little relevant information that only stays on your PC.

Although I certainly need to dig into this in a bit more detail, I am skeptical that invading your privacy is essential for providing a better personal assistant service. I would welcome any examples where the personal assistant must absolutely send all knowledge of everything about you to servers in the cloud to be analysed.

Google’s Slow Adoption Of Mobile First

I have recently commented (1, 2) on how I suspect groupthink to be creeping in at Google. Another area where I think we can find evidence of this is Google’s slow adoption of “mobile first”.

While my assertion that Google has been slow to “mobile first” may seem very odd given that Google developed the most popular smartphone operating system, I see that as a whole, Google has maintained a PC-centric view. That is to say, although the Android group is very mobile focused, it seems that not every division shares this view and this includes many of the strategically important ones. In many key areas, Google has failed to embrace the priorities and mentalities that are required to succeed in mobile.

One very evident example is the lack of focus on power efficiency. In a recent post by Google software engineer, Peter Kasting, Google mentions its commitment to make its Chrome browser more energy efficient. Kasting in particular mentions Chrome’s power efficiency on the Mac, but that is only because Safari on the Mac is extremely well optimised for battery life. Google’s lack of attention to power efficiency has also been evident on Windows.

This is very much in contrast to Apple which has been making power consumption a huge priority ever since 2005 when Steve Jobs announced their switch to Intel processors. Recent MacOS X and Safari updates have also frequently focused on improvements in energy efficiency. It is very obvious that the synergy with iOS development and the iPod before that has been a major factor in driving the Mac to power efficiency. In this sense, one can argue that the whole company, including the Mac division, shares the same mentality towards energy efficient design and optimizations. This apparently has not been the case with Google.

I suspect that inside Google, the groups that develop software for servers, the groups that develop for desktop application or web applications, and the groups that develop for Android are not talking to each other. The power-saving techniques developed for Android are not being transferred to their desktop applications. In fact, one observation that stands out in Android app development is how long it took for Chrome to be ported to Android in a version that did not suck (discussed here for example, among numerous other places, and also in my personal experience), which clearly shows that they had trouble developing Chrome for less powerful devices.

If this truly is the case, then Google can only be as strong as the sum of its parts. Synergy between Google’s divisions can only happen at the product level (lock-in etc.) and not at the development level.

Maybe given that Google’s real strength lies in its cloud business, this doesn’t really matter. If Google wishes to keep all the intelligence in the cloud and to keep computing on the client-side to a minimum, then all they have to do is keep improving their browser (which interestingly they haven’t been very successful at on mobile). They don’t really have to invest in creating the very best client software because their cloud services can make up for it (or at least that’s their plan).

If however the tides change and for some reason, computing on the client side becomes important (maybe due to increased awareness of privacy issues for example), I would be rather pessimistic of the transfer of knowledge between Google’s AI experts and their mobile development experts. I don’t think they would be able to create very good client software (maybe Chrome for Android quality).

Of course, in Apple’s case, it is the other way around right now. Apple is strongest when the device teams and the software and services teams work together and create synergies. It all depends on how technology and customer expectations evolve.

How Twitter is Used In Japan

One thing that I feel is often overlooked by the analysts that discuss social media, is that they think the attributes of the product dictate how it is used, how it can be monetised, etc. However, in reality, the product is only a small part of the appeal of a social media. What is much more important is who is using it, and what they are doing on it. The activity of the users is at least as important as the features of the product itself, and in fact, it is likely to be much more important.

To illustrate my point, I would like to introduce a recent report that looked into how Twitter is being used in Japan. Read it and understand how the different social norms and pressures that people experience in Japan uniquely shape how it is used. Understand that what makes Twitter popular in Japan is totally different from that in the US or other countries.

Also understand that social services, when they enter other countries, are not exporting the same product. When a US-born social media product comes into Japan, at that moment, it is transformed. It is transformed because a social media product is about who is using it and how, and this will change when you enter a new market. Hence a product is not actively localised. Instead it is transformed by the region.

So enough with the introduction; let’s dive into the report. The report in question is from Dentsu Communication Institute Inc. (株式会社 電通総研) and titled “Understanding the Youth, 2015” (若者まるわかり調査 2015).

The first chart that I want to share shows how popular each social network service is. We can see that LINE is very popular among teenagers with about 90% penetration, but Twitter is not very far behind. In particular, Twitter is more popular among teenage girls. Facebook is not very popular among teenagers, but gains in popularity in college/universities and gains as they go into their twenties whereas Twitter popularity decreases.

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The popularity of Twitter over Facebook is in marked contrast to the US where 87% of the 18-29 age group use Facebook as opposed to 37% for Twitter. What is more interesting however is why. This is what we will get into in the next chart.

The next chart illustrates how many Twitter accounts Japanese youth have. As you can clearly see, they have close to 3 on average. The reason is because the Japanese tend to possess different personalities depending on the community they are participating in at a certain time, and Twitter allows you to have separate accounts for each.

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This article gives us an example of a 11th grader girl who has four Twitter accounts, which I have summarised below.

  1. A real name, front-facing account : For classmates and normal friends. She tries hard to be cheerful and funny on this account because that is the personality that she is showing in class.
  2. An anonymous account that only best friends know about :
  3. An account to collect information on hobbies (anime) : Friends who share the same hobbies may know about this account.
  4. An account to rant on when frustrated : An account that nobody knows about.

This girl also has a LINE account but she uses her Twitter accounts when she isn’t really asking for anybody to reply and doesn’t want to pressure her friends into doing so.

Another 10th grader girl who uses multiple Twitter accounts in a similar way. For her “Twitter is the only place where I can say what I am really thinking.”

With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why Facebook cannot satisfy the needs of Japanese teenage girls. We can also understand why services like Snapchat aren’t really the solution, although a Whisper like solution might work for a subset of their needs. It’s also very interesting to see how there is a definite need to have different services with various characteristics, and that Twitter is flexible enough to serve multiple needs.

However, by far the most important takeaway is how different social media usage can be depending on country and culture, even when the underlying product is exactly the same. Localisation of services is not always something that the service providers have to explicitly provide. Sometimes localisation just happens.

Did Google Expect Apple to Focus This Much On Privacy?

In relation to my previous post where I raised the possibility that groupthink might be happening within Google’s top management, I would like to bring attention to the possibility that Google might have totally failed to predict Apple’s very strong focus on privacy.

In the WWDC keynote, Craig Federighi repeatedly mentioned Apple’s focus on privacy. Proactive Assistant has privacy, Photos has privacy, and the News app has privacy. Furthermore, in addition to focusing on privacy on its own apps, Apple has build in what one could call an adblocker API into Safari so that users can install adblocker extensions that would also protect them from the user tracking activities that ad networks often conduct behind the scenes. Apple has also added many capabilities to the Spotlight feature so that you don’t have to visit Google and help them create a ad targeting profile of you nearly as often.

Although it is still unclear whether for example Proactive Assistant will work as well as Google Now, or whether normal users will install and adblocker extension, it is evident that the features that Apple introduced are potentially very damaging to Google if users embrace them. It would result in significantly reduced traffic to Google search, which is Google’s sole monetisation engine.

My question is, are there any clues that Google predicted these features from Apple? Do they have a plan already in place to counter any negative publicity on privacy (other than the heavy lobbing that they are doing in Washington), especially outside of the US? What was their contingency plan in the event that Apple would embrace adblockers? What Apple introduced was not completely unexpected given their previous comments on privacy and Tim Cook’s emphasis on human rights, and if Google’s management had been paying attention, they could easily have predicted them. If we actually end up seeing clues that Google completely missed these cues, then it reinforces my argument that Google management might be in groupthink.

I will be keeping an close eye on how Google executives react.

Groupthink at Google?

Just a short note. I am worried that we might be seeing symptoms of groupthink coming out of Google.

First Sundar Pichai on making money.

As ever, Google makes such a killing on advertising—including, now, on YouTube—that it just doesn’t have to consider commerce when it doesn’t want to. “The model emerges later,” said Sundar Pichai, Google’s powerful senior vice-president of products and the master of its Android and Chrome software platforms.

“I’ve always been comfortable building in two directions,” he added in an interview following a two-hour-plus keynote presentation to thousands of developers. “First, if we help users get information, a lot of which is inherently commercial, monetization opportunities arise. Second, history always shows that if you build something millions or billions of people end up using, that builds a lot value too.”

Next Google’s Chief Business Officer, Omid Kordestani.

Q: How would Google monetize a self-driving cars?

A: The lesson I’ve learned over these years, you have to build it first. If the users come, you can monetize it later.

These comments may not have mattered too much 5 years ago when desktop PCs were still going strong, and the issue of declining cost-per-click on mobile was still not an issue. However, now in 2015, Google is facing serious questions on maintaining its financial growth. There is the issue that Google is not as profitable on mobile as it is on the desktop. There is the issue that mobile users don’t even use the Web as much. There is the issue that Apple may distance itself from Google. There is the issue that AOSP may unbundle Android from Google’s money earning services. There is the issue that Google still generates most of its revenue from search advertising and the “moonshot” projects aren’t predicted to remedy that situation any time soon. There is the issue that the EU is having an issue with the way Google is driving money generating traffic to its own sites. That is why Google’s stock price has been performing very badly for the last two years.

You would expect Google to understand the concerns that investors have, and at least make some comments that would sooth their anxiety. However, to the contrary, we hear even the Chief Business Officer tell us that he basically has no concrete idea yet on how to make money, but it will be fine.

I wonder if somehow Google’s management has lost track of what is happening in the real world. Maybe it has lost a member who used to tell them that they have to at least give a casual thought about earning money. That is the groupthink that I am worried about.

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Android Wear OEMs Are Copying Apple Watch And That Is A Sound Strategy

When you consider that Android Wear reportedly only sold 720,000 watches in 2014 and Apple Watch had a million pre-orders on the first day, it is plainly obvious that the best strategy for Android Wear is to copy Apple Wear. Unless you have a very good reason to believe in your own original strategy and your ability to implement it, it is always better to go with the flow.

Therefore the report that the Asus ZenWatch 2 is copying Apple Watch in both design and marketing material is totally expected and makes complete sense. In fact what is more disturbing is this interview with Google’s product manager of Android Wear, Jeff Chang. Chang stubbornly reiterates Google’s almost ideological emphasis on openness and flexibility, and also on the always-on display. This is fine if Moore’s law allows Google to make the smartwatches that they want in say a year’s time, and maybe Chang has knowledge of future products that can achieve his goals. If not, Google should also be copying Apple Watch.

Incidentally, I’m very sure that ASUS should be putting a bit more effort with the back case. That is not how the back cases of watches should look.