Edited screengrab of “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” via Zvents
Snapchat, the self-destructing photo and video messaging mobile app, has become the latest startup to go white hot.
Not only have users and the media latched onto Snapchat (50 million snaps shared a day), but Facebook may have further aided Snapchat's rise, giving it a ton more name recognition by launching its own self-destructing messaging app under the name Facebook Poke, which hasn't been nearly as well-received.
But Facebook Poke does have one thing that Snapchat does not: The ability to send text-only self-destructing messages.
While this is not likely to be of much consequence to Snapchat's primary userbase, who clearly value the service as it is, with the focus entirely on visual messages, the idea of a flexible content self-destructing messaging service that Facebook Poke has raised is a compelling one and ripe with future potential.
For example, imagine a service that allowed for users to send encrypted messages to other individuals and groups that could only be read by those selected usernames or devices. The messages would be encrypted even to the company transmitting them. This seems to be similar to how Snapchat itself functions already, with co-founder Evan Spiegel telling Business Insider that his team can't and doesn't view the content of the snaps sent over the service.
Such encrypted, short-lived messaging could be useful for a variety of groups outside of bored teens: Dissidents, criminals, drug dealers and clients, terrorists and virtually anyone else up to politically unfavorable, illicit, unlawful or questionable activities would likely find such a service to be a quite beneficial means to their ends.
A future encrypted self-destructing, flexible content or text-based messaging service could also attempt to avoid government surveillance and subpoena by simply pleading the courier defense: That is is merely a vessel for content transmission and as it has no way of obtaining or viewing messages, there would be little use in intelligence agencies or authorities seizing their servers, as viewing them would turn up nothing of value.
Such a service would prove even more useful to disenfranchised groups or those trying to operate “under the radar” if it allowed recipients of messages to selectively download and store messages on their own devices, but without the parent courier company knowing that this had occurred. Longer-term self-destructing messages – 1 month, 1 year, etc. – would also prove valuable in this context.
One web-based app, Cryptocat, already purports to offer such a service, but the messages are not anonymized, not self-destructing and an Android version whipped by The Guardian Project is an just an “experimental alpha release – not for use in high risk situations quite yet.”
It seems quite clear that a mobile-based, or flexible mobile and Web self-destructing encrypted messaging app, would be most successful in these types of cases. Some such mobile apps have emerged – Wickr, BurnNote and TigerText – but again, none of them have had quite as much success as Snapchat.
Many older Web users may be familiar with the self-destructing messages from “Mission Impossible,” a concept that's become associated with spies and espionage in general. For younger users, Snapchat seems to be the more familiar version of this concept, but hasn't clearly been linked to espionage yet. It seems only a matter of time before it, or something else, does. And then things will become really interesting for the idea and growing popularity of short-lived messages.
The 13th year of the third millennium AD is nearly upon us. Barring any Mayan apocalypse, it will be rung in as every year for the past hundred and eight, with a lighted disco ball dropping over Times Square and fireworks around the world.
The outlook for the tech and Web industries is much murkier. Who will emerge with a surprise hit? Who will stumble and fall? Will the Ouya actually be released?
Seriously, though, 2013 is poised to be an unusually active year, especially in mobile, with RIM BlackBerry 10 and Mozilla Firefox OS due out, and flagship smartphones from Amazon and Microsoft looking increasingly likely. For once Apple might not be the most exciting company*.
Here are some of my (completely speculative) predictions:
1. Microsoft launches Skype Video, a video-sharing website/social network to compete with YouTube and Google Hangouts under the Skype brand.
2. Google launches Audio Search for the Web, allowing users to record and upload or simply input live their own hummed or whistled recollections of songs and other types of audio, which Google will match to other similar audio clips via waveforms. Already Google in late 2012 has launched a song matching component for Google Now. Google is not just going to cede the space to SoundCloud. But maybe they'll team up. Maybe.
3. Google launches Image Alerts, a visual version of the feature often used by journalists, which instead of alerting users via email to every significant new mention of a specific string of text, now allows users to stay updated every time a new image similar to the one they upload or flag is published. Part of an expansion of Google Image Search (or Search By Image, if you prefer).
4. Facebook launches its own To-Do List/Tasks Management feature. Obvious move increasing data input to Facebook and giving people more ways to share their lives with their Friends.
5. Twitter launches Interactions pages, its version of Facebook's Friendship pages, allowing users to see all of their interactions with another user. Hey, a guy can dream.
6. The first Google Glass cat photos hit the Web (shortly after Google ships the first Google Glass Explorer Editions out to devs). Everyone immediately stops hating on Google Glass and understands its value.
We are, any of us who post photos online anyway, laying the groundwork for a fully navigable, virtual copy of the entire physical world.
The combination of vast, ever-updating databases of digital photography on social networks, along with increasingly accurate digital maps, has already resulted in a few prototypes of “Matrix”-like systems by large tech companies (read below for more of these).
But it's critical to keep in mind that amateur photographers are generating most of the photos these days (not pros or tech company employees or contractors), so the imagery is both more raw, random and revealing. Social media has become the dominant repository for those photos, meaning most new photos are readily publicly accessible. Now all we need is for someone to come along and develop the program that will scrape publicly posted photographic imagery on social networks and compile the imagery (and eventually video) into a continuously updating, comprehensive, fully interactive and navigable reproduction of Earth.
Perhaps even more interesting, older imagery will serve as a virtual reality record of the world, allowing users to effectively time travel back to the end of the first decade of the 21st century, when cameraphones first became cheap and massively popular (and further back than that in some cases, once older imagery has been updated and appropriately tagged and categorized, easier than it sounds, actually).
There would be manifold uses for such a “Matrix” system, especially to journalists, historians, lawyers and law enforcement. If even a rudimentary system were in place, a user would be able to visit any specific place and time (within the bounds of the system's chronology) and see what was occurring at that instant from multiple viewpoints. It may be scary to conceive, but all of us who take and upload photos are in some way participating to the most massive surveillance apparatus ever known to humanity.
In the beginning…
But let's back up: For those who haven't seen it (spoiler alert), “The Matrix” was a 1999 sci-fi action movie, the seminal film by the Wachowskis. It was the story of a cynical computer hacker and office drone named Neo (online), who stumbles across the ultimate of all mindfuck conspiracies: The world as we know it is actually a gigantic virtual reality simulation (the titular Matrix), constructed by an army of intelligent machines who long ago overthrew and enslaved humanity and now uses us as a source of unwitting battery power. A few bright and odd human computer hackers have managed to escape the Matrix and are fighting back as underdogs from the “real world” – a bombed-out, gray husk of civilization – using post-apocalyptic, almost steampunk technology. Neo joins up with this crew. Also, these rebels have come up with ways to hack back into the Matrix and bend it to their will, albeit slightly – summoning up racks of weapons and skills they never had – kung-fu, helicopter piloting, to name a few– to battle the virtual manifestations of the machine overlords back in the Matrix, a bunch of white guys who look like 1950s cold-war spies in dapper suits and sunglasses.
It's a gloriously fun and fantastical movie, an orgy of feel-good, take no prisoners violence against the perfectly despicable, politically correct evil: Artificial intelligence run amok and disguised as “The Man.” It's also in many ways the perfect cinematic embodiment of the discontented 1990s: A grungy, gothic nihilistic opera, an ode to the correctness of anarchism and black-helicopter, WTO paranoia that gives way to new-age spiritual optimism and revolutionary fervor, a paean to the self-righteous Gen Xer, set to “Rage Against the Machine,” and “Smashing Pumpkins.”
The Matrix we're all building in 2012 isn't much like the movie version, not yet at least. We're not in any danger of booting up a massive artificial intelligence network that could stab us in the back, “Et tu Brute?,” not from what I can tell.
But I do think that we are on the verge of getting enough accurate, reliable and consistently updating visual imagery from around the globe online so that a planetwide virtual reality simulation could be constructed within a few years – at the least a crude one.
The evidence for this is mounting steadily.
Google and the desert of the real
Recall in late 2011, a Dutch ad agency called “Pool Worldwide” released a modified version of Google Street View, the ground-level, 360-rotatable photography that Google has been adding to its maps since 2007, which turned Street View into a first-person shooter of sorts, adding a gun sight and bullet sound effects to the views of the world. Forget “The Matrix Online” and the console videogames of the movie – this free add-on was closer to the film than any of those.
Google, not amused, quickly blocked the app. In doing so, Google's message was clear: We want Google Maps to remain primarily a reliable resource for real, updated information about the world: A tool, not a toy. The desert of the real, if you will.
Or not. Maybe Google just wanted to control the game itself. After all, Google in early November 2012 just released an augmented reality game called “Ingress” for Android smartphones that relies heavily on Google Maps, having users visit real world structures and perform tasks on their smartphones to either aid or fight a fictional mind-warping energy force. The app doesn't rely on Street View very much yet, but that could and likely will change with future updates and games of this type.
It's not just Google that offers 360-degree, ground-level views of the world anymore, though: Nokia HERE Maps, which powers Microsoft's Bing Maps and Amazon's Maps, does too.
There are indications that MapBox, a D.C.-based mapping startup that uses OpenStreetMap, a free, crowdsourced alternative world map to Google Maps, may be preparing to release something like this in the near future as well.
Back in 2010, Google in an update added the ability for users of its acquired Picasa photo-sharing social network to geotag their photos, that is – assign them to a particular location on Google Maps, whether that is a city, a restaurant, a park, etc., – so now that when users search for these places in Google Maps and click to check the “Photos” filter in the upper-right hand corner (see screenshot below) they can see collections of millions of photos from users in any given area.
Google Maps also allows users to search for specific photo topics – art, architecture, nature, landscape, park, etc., narrowing and specifying the immense volume of photos users have taken and uploaded and assigned to a particular spot.
Before that, in 2009, Google took another one of its acquisitions, the geosocial photo sharing website Panoramio, and began adding photos by its users to Google Street Views of famous landmarks and locations around the world.
In practical terms, this means that those Panoramio photos are now visible to any Google Street View user. The photos appear as tiny thumbnails floating in the sky and in front of buildings and structures, when a user has Google Street View and the Photos filter turned on. Hovering over one of these thumbnails blows the photo up to full size and re-orients it in the proper position and proper angle corresponding to the scene, producing a trippy, ghostly, fractured view of that specific landmark or structure from the recent past.
While not exactly the most practical view of the world, such layers of historical imagery from the distant and recent past would undoubtedly make an incredible application for Google Glass, the upcoming computerized glasses that the search giant will begin shipping in 2013 (to selected developers).
Already, Google has previewed the ability in Google Glass to show on its tiny, glasses frame-mounted screen some immersive, 360-rotatable views of areas completely different from those the wearer is currently inhabiting and gazing at, such as a jungle scene that David Pogue was allowed to demo.
Google is clearly interested in providing users with location-based information, both historic and current, as indicated by the launch of Google's new local trivia app “Field Trip” (the app shows information from other websites and apps such as Atlas Obscura, Wikipedia and Zagat).
Microsoft = Morpheus
To give credit where it's due, Microsoft has actually blazed the trail on the kind of image synthesizing software that will be necessary to combine publicly posted photos into a “Matrix,” namely with a product known as Photosynth, which began as a project out of the University of Washington in 2006, using technology Microsoft acquired from a company called Seadragon in early 2006, founded by Blaise Aguera y Arcas, now a Microsoft Bing architect.
Photosynth is perhaps the singular product most like the simulation part of “The Matrix” yet, albeit a still-image version: An algorithm recognizes image similarities and continuity, and stitches them together into interactive panoramas – panoramas that jump from photo to photo as the viewer rotates, but which (unlike Google Maps) are entirely spatially free-form, permitting the viewer to rotate beyond the horizontal axis – over and around an object, zooming in on details with the appropriately-sized and angled user-generated photos automatically orienting themselves into place. Here's a demo video from 2007 that illustrates the capabilities:
A public version of Photosynth was released by Microsoft in 2008 and is still available for free online, but has failed to catch on in any broad sense, perhaps because the process to make and navigate “Synths” seems substantially more complicated than just snapping photos or panoramas. Microsoft itself admits that “synths” are “more complex to navigate than panoramas because you are moving from photo to photo.”
Microsoft has taken an important step forward into securing more mainstream adoption and use of Photosynth, releasing a mobile app for iOS in 2011 that has since gone on to see over 7 million downloads and received an extremely high rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars. Mobile, more so in photography and location-sharing than in any other user activity online, is clearly the path to future success.
Still, these are all pretty geeky, niche technologies and products. Their users are likely to be mostly amateur and pro photographers, mappers and developers.
I need cameras, lots of cameras
But this is rapidly changing. Photo-sharing, location-sharing and panoramic imagery – all the basic ingredients needed to create a virtual interactive copy of the world – are now going mainstream, thanks in part to the launch of successful products in the past few years, namely: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Apple's Panorama feature in iOS 6 and Google's Photo Sphere for Android.
It's no coincidence that all of these – with the exception of Facebook – were designed for mobile devices, smartphones in particular.
Indeed, it's hard to overstate the impact mobile has had on the popularity of photo- and location-sharing. The increasing availability of mobile phones, which now outnumber computers globally and many of which have GPS and cameras, means that much of Earth's population is now capable of adding geo-tagged imagery to the collective repository dispersed across various social networks online.
Of course, many people still live in jurisdictions where free expression and amateur photography aren't quite as accepted as they are in North America and many Western European democracies (and even in some cases in these regions we've seen lately a clampdown by police on press photography during politically contentious situations such as the Occupy Wall Streetdemonstrations in the fall of 2011). But the proliferation of cameraphones and the fact that, at present, citizens outnumber police, indicates that governments will never truly be able to stop photography they don't approve of from being taken and uploaded to the Web.
Photos have proven to be among the most popularly uploaded and viewed kinds of media online. Give everyone a camera and an Internet connection in their pocket and watch as they do the work of creating the most comprehensive image library ever assembled. Give them the ability to share their location and many of them will also do so.
But even those users who don't tag locations to their photos, even those who are uncomfortable with services like Foursquare that are entirely location-based, are sort of shit out of luck, because image recognition software, e.g. Google Image Search – which finds similar photos and photos based on search keywords, means that even those photos that don't have a location tagged to them can be fairly easily and quickly pinpointed to a particular spot (even a particular photographer in many cases, thanks to the metadata produced along with each digital photo).
So cameraphones are the most fundamental component necessary for creating a “Matrix,” but they alone aren't enough: What's further necessary is easy and attractive options for uploading, disseminating and finding photos online.
Instagram, Facebook and Twitter are the clear leaders in this space. Instagram and Facebook have now joined forces, a natural alliance in some sense given that Facebook overtook Flickr to become the dominant photo-storing website online a few years ago.
But Instagram, which was only released in 2010, has had a remarkably swift ascent, with over 100 million users before the end of 2012. Instagram has also become something of a journalistic darling lately, as in late October, users in the U.S. Northeast bombarded the social network with realtime photos of their situations during Hurricane Sandy.
The number of photos tagged to that disaster #Sandy, some 800,000, were then eclipsed just weeks later by the 10 million photos shared on Thanksgiving. Importantly in both cases, Instagram's geolocation feature played a major role. In Sandy, the role was obvious – showcasing the highly varying levels of damage around the Tri-State area. In Thanksgiving, users were able to communicate with location where they'd traveled to for the holiday, and Instagram, the company itself, highlighted one-located based event: The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in NYC and preceding balloon inflation.
New desktop Web profiles to show off and share Instagram users' photo collections will likely lead to further adoption and usage of the product. What Instagram, now just another division of Facebook, ends up doing with its ever-expanding library of geotagged imagery remains to be seen.
But a Google Maps-like photo product is not out of the question, especially after Instagram explicitly added a map view to user profiles with the release of Instagram 3.0 in August 2012 (Importantly for businesses, Instagram's point-of-interest (POI) database also showcases all of the public user imagery tagged to a particular place, so it's easy for users to see one of their friends' photos at a cool-looking restaurant, for example, click the name of the restaurant, then check through all the photos that have been posted there to see if they like the overall look/ambiance/food available at the place. Or see all of the cliched Instagram photos of people “Scream”-ing silently in front of Munch's seminal painting now at MoMA.)
Meanwhile, Instagram, praised for its simplicity the frictionlessness of its sharing options, for now lacks at least one built-in feature that is poised to become just about as commonplace as multicolored, faux-vintage filters: Panoramas.
Apple released a Panorama feature as a default camera option in iOS 6 in September, and Google a few weeks later released its own panorama Photo Sphere, in its Jelly Bean 4.2 update for Android smartphones.
Third-party panorama apps have been available for some time for both iOS and Android phones, but the inclusion of the feature as default going forward indicates just how Google and Apple think users want to be using and will be using there cameras, and where both companies think and want users to be spending their time. Panoramas, incidentally, are also a helpful component in assembling a fully rotatable, navigable, digital copy of the world – a Matrix.
Worlds within worlds
One key thing to keep in mind about Instagram, panoramas, and photo apps for smartphones in general is that many users of these products take photos of the indoors as much or more as they do of outdoor scenes.
This is another huge advantage to the public repositories of photos on social networks over commercial photography generated by Google's Street View Cars and photographers and their equivalents at Nokia and Microsoft. Whereas the big tech companies engaged in mapping projects must, in some jurisdictions, secure permission to photograph the outside of private residences, much less the interiors of businesses, users in most buildings in the West are at least free in practice to (and consistently do) capture imagery of their surrounds. Sure, there's been a bit of noise about the legality of user photos of interiors in some unique situations (namely during polling places in the U.S. Election 2012), but by and large, users have in practice been taking and sharing photos of wherever they are – inside a bar, restaurant, courthouse, bus, White House, etc. – with impunity over the past several years.
There may some legal and government pushback on using photos of private interiors in large-scale projects such as a Matrix simulation, but we haven't seen much yet in Western Democratic countries, and I bet that any strong pushback that arises will be toothless and quick to pass. The sheer amount of photography is a tidal wave that seems destined to smash through any such attempts to regulate or restrict it.
Google itself has begun actively courting interior panoramas and floor plans of businesses for use in public products, namely Google Maps and Google Plus.
As more businesses seek to embrace technology, social media and seem “with it” to their increasingly tech savvy customer bases, this trend of 360-degree panoramas of interiors and more detailed maps is only poised to accelerate. It'd also be easy to layer user photos snapped and uploaded to any of Google's products, but namely Google Plus, onto these views as well.
Now all we need is someone to begin stitching all of these sources of imagery together, combining user generated photos on social networks like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter with the Street View imagery captured by Google and its mapping competitors, and put a Microsoft Photosynth-like navigation layer around them all.
Google appears best positioned to do this at this time, but the increasing scrutiny of legal and government bodies around the world on Google's expanding reach across industries may have the effect of deterring or slowing such a project at the company.
Still, someone is going to create a Matrix at some point, either in the commercial or government sector. And I'd rather have it be publicly available and free for all to use and contribute to (or not, if they so choose).
After Apple unveiled the iPad Mini, the immediate discussion around the Web centered not around the device's 7.9-inch form factor or new features (or lack thereof) or look or feel or any of the chatter that usually accompanies an Apple product launch. Instead, the discussion was about price: $329 to start, 65 percent more than the most obvious competition, the Amazon Kindle Fire HD and the Google Nexus 7. Compared to these devices, many deemed the iPad Mini too expensive.
The disparity was in fact, so glaring, that Apple executives repeatedly defended the pricing during and following the product's announcement event on October 23.
“Others have tried to make tablets smaller than the iPad and they've failed miserably,” said Apple SVP of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller before comparing the iPad Mini onstage to Google's Nexus 7. “These are not great experiences.”
“The iPad is far and away the most successful product in its category. The most affordable product we've made so far was $399 and people were choosing that over those devices…And now you can get a device that's even more affordable at $329 in this great new form, and I think a lot of customers are going to be very excited about that.”
Even Apple CEO Tim Cook had to defend the iPad Mini's pricing in the company's 2012 Q4 earnings call, brushing aside a question about the lower-priced Android competition by stating that consumers would still be willing to pay more to get an “iPad experience.”
But with teardowns revealing that the iPad Mini cost around $188 to build in terms of its components, and with iPad Mini opening day sales lines noticeably trimmed from other Apple product debuts, and finally with the iPad unmistakably losing market share to Android tablets in the U.S. over the past year, it's worth asking just what Apple is trying to accomplish by pricing the iPad Mini so unusually. (Even the non-hundred denominational pricing, $329 as opposed to just $299, for example is curious.)
Apple is unlikely to ever satisfactorily answer this question head on, but I think the most logical answer is the one that's been glancingly addressed by the company and other analysts and writers: Internal cannibalization. That is, Apple is worried that priced any lower, the iPad Mini would completely cannibalize sales of its higher-margin and so-far more iconic big brother.
As Vineet Madan, SVP at McGraw Hill Education and an ardent iPad 2 fan put it recently about the iPad Mini:
“On the one hand, you look at $329 and you think that’s better for schools and college students who weren’t able to afford the previous versions,” Madan said. “But it’s only $70 cheaper than the full size version. I don’t know why you wouldn’t just pay the extra $70 to get the full size version, which is going to provide a better, richer experience.”
Madan was speaking about the iPad 2 there, not the $499 new iPad fourth-generation, but his point raises a great question: Why is Apple continuing to sell the full-size iPad 2 at $399, when the iPad Mini offers the same experience in a more portable, comfortable, convenient – and, let's face it, trendy– form factor? Gruber has a great explanation for this:
“I was confused by this at first. Why keep the iPad 2 around? Then the answer hit me: the iPad 2 must have continued to sell well over the last seven months. There can be no other explanation. If it weren’t selling well, Apple would have dropped it from the lineup. But because it is selling well, they’re keeping it in the lineup, because they don’t know why it’s selling well. If it’s only because of the lower price, the iPad Mini might obviate it. But perhaps it’s not that people want the least expensive iPad, but instead that they want the least expensive full-size iPad.”
Even in releasing the iPad Mini, Apple harped upon the fact that what it thinks consumers want isn't just a tablet or a smaller tablet at that: They want the App Store and Apple's ecosystem. That's why the iPad Mini has the same 4:3 aspect ratio as its full-figured forebear, as Apple's openly advertised, so it can run all of the same apps without much degradation in the quality and performance of the experience.
But because Apple's entire tablet ecosystem has been built upon the full-size iPad's 9.7-inch screen, the company feels it can't and shouldn't let it's own new product make that platform obsolete. It's an especially unlikely position for Apple to be in: The king of disruptive, post-PC innovation at the same time acting as the vanguard for one of its older products. Apple, which has no problem cutting out individual developers when it feels like it, still wants developers overall to build apps for the full-size iPad, and wants consumers to keep buying the full-size, more expensive device.
At the same time, Apple recognizes that the 7-to-8 inch form factor is definitely a threat to its market dominance, and wants to play in that field as well. They just want to make sure that when people think about purchasing an iPad Mini, they're at least torn between that and a full-size iPad. The thought is that if you're even thinking about buying an iPad Mini, you've already committed to Apple – the brand and the ecosystem – and so the only competition that Apple wants you to face is between one Apple product and another more authentically “Apple” one (given that Apple pioneered the tablet but is playing catchup in the 1-handed tablet market).
If Apple can convince even a sliver of iPad Mini buyers to trade up to the full-size iPad, the company has done itself a favor.
But the strategy is predicated on somewhat short-term thinking: The iPad Mini is already going to be cannibalizing some full-size iPad sales, Apple should just put it's full muscle behind the new smaller product and make it truly price competitive with the Android 7-inchers. Only then could the iPad line as a whole – heck, iOS in general – stave off the Android invasion.
There's been a few comparisons between the iPad Mini and the iPod Nano lately, but let's be honest: There are huge differences between the mp3 player market of the early aughts and the tablet market of the millenium's second decade. The Nexus 7 and the Kindle Fire are strong rivals. Even the Surface is no Zune. Apple has it's work cut out for it to stay atop the tablet mountain. And launching its latest product without the full-force of a truly competitive price seems to be a minor mistake. But small errors add up.
TL;DR = Why the iPad Mini is $329, not cheaper: To limit full-size iPad cannibalization.
I wasn't following him on Instagram, but when clicked through to his photo on the Instagram desktop website, I noticed I could begin following him on Instagram directly from there, as opposed to having to go into the iPhone app and search for his username.
It works for other users too.
The Instagram website, which used to be little more than a blog for the company and a mirror to the iPhone app, has steadily improved over the course of 2012, especially over the last few months.
It looks like Instagram added this follow-from-Web and other features – the ability to “Like” a post from the desktop site and comment (both when signed in) – in late June.
The Instagram mobile site has also gotten some of these changes, but still prominently tries to direct uses to the mobile app with an “Open in App” button on the upper-right hand corner of the site.
Really, all that's left in order to complete the replication of the app on desktop web browsers is the ability to access one's full account and scroll through a river of followed users' photos.
My question is: Why is Instagram making all of these improvements lately?
Coming as they do in the wake of Facebook's acquisition (finalized in September), the Instagram desktop web improvements seem to be going in the opposite direction that Facebook needs to go – i.e., improving its mobile apps, experiences and monetizations.
The whole point to Facebook buying Instagram was that Instagram understood and had succeeded in mobile in a way Facebook only dreamed of.
So again: Why would Facebook be using, or rather, greenlighting Instagram's mobile engineering talent to improve the Instagram desktop experience when Facebook really needs to get its own mobile shit together?
I can think of a few plausible reasons:
1. Instagram is playing catch up
Instagram always (or for a while, anyway) meant to bolster its desktop website and just never got around to it until now.
In order to improve the integration between the two disparate social networks, someone thinks it's necessary to improve Instagram's desktop interface. Maybe a full fusion is coming, maybe not.
3. Instagram is practicing/getting ready to release a tablet experience
Instagram's iOS app works on the iPad, but it isn't formatted for tablets yet. As Instagram notes on its website: “We are currently working on making the iPhone and Android experiences as solid as possible. Only then will we consider other platforms, but currently we have nothing to announce.”
If you're gearing up to release a tablet app or tablet-optimized website, there are worse ways to go than building by building a nice, full-feature HTML5 desktop Web version. (Although, as Zuckerberg recently conceded, HTML5 is still no match for native apps, at least where Facebook is concerned).
This would be particularly timely with the iPad Mini supposedly right around the corner. And with more and more 7-inch tablets hitting the market, a tablet Instagram app would seem more important than ever.
4. Instagram is getting ready to release another product.
A separate website, app or social network of some kind. Maybe a video-sharing one. Although in this case, we'd probably see no movement on the desktop website.
Either way, with Facebook's one billion users and Instagram's 100 million, how the two networks will play together and to what extent they unify will be defining for the social web in general. Look alive.
The short of it is that Facebook users (American ones only for now) can now click on a tiny giftwrapped present icon in their Friends' birthday alerts or on above a Friend's wall posts and pick from a list of stuff, mostly Valentine-y type stuff including cupcakes, chocolates, flowers, teddy bears and stuffed Angry Birds toys and also clothing and pay for it directly on the site with their credit cards. The Friend-cum-recipient of the gift then gets an alert saying they've been Gifted and have to enter in their shipping address and then someone mails them the gift.
Aside from the fact that this puts Facebook squarely into e-commerce and nearer to all-out competition with Amazon and eBay, and aside from the fact that Facebook now has a potentially lucrative new revenue stream (though it's worth pointing out that Facebook Gifts could become a new form of spam ala Event invites and Game invites that us casual and lite Facebookers ignore or delete without regard), there are two other advantages Facebook seeks to gain from this effort:
1. Credit Card Numbers
Apple has been widelylauded by tech and business writers for the ingenious way it captured 100s of millions of credit card numbers through iTunes accounts.
If Facebook even gets a small percentage of users to give it their credit card numbers, the result is yet another piece of data the company has about millions – not just any piece of banal or easily faked data either, but arguably one of the most important numbers that will ever be used to identify and interact with people, a bit of crucial commercial data.
Even better than that, the credit card data can be combined with all of the other data users have already entered into Facebook, resulting in, theoretically improved ad targeting. Perhaps even more importantly, if Facebook ever follows in Amazon's footsteps and enables 1-click purchasing of items other than gifts, that too could unlock a powerful new revenue stream and further increase engagement (read: time spent on Facebook) among users.
2. Shipping Addresses
Facebook is asking users to gift recipients to provide their shipping addresses. This is a powerful method of verifying the authenticity of user's other profile information (does your current town match your shipping address?) and yet another point of real world data that Facebook can add to the rest of the profile to create a more accurate picture of its users.
I think the idea of a Facebook ID card is still pretty far fetched, but at the same time, it's hard not to think of something like that being at least being technically possible if and once millions of users begin adding their shipping addresses to the website.
Most importantly for both users and the website, there's no indication that Facebook would ever make such information public without a user's consent. (duh!)
Perhaps most interestingly, though, is the fact that Facebook could also combine that data with its own Facebook Maps data (Facebook Maps rely on mapping data sourced from Microsoft Bing and Nokia), which shows where users have traveled and lived, if they decide to enter that information or not delete it from their profiles.
Imagine if Facebook's nearly 1 billion users (over 1 billion counting Instagram but that's not really fair since they're still distinct networks, for now) all used maps and all entered in their shipping addresses. Even if just a fraction do, Facebook still instantly becomes one of the premiere sources of personal geolocation data in the world, far and away exceeding Foursquare, Instagram and the like.
Facebook could use shipping addresses to offer even more targeted, localized advertising and deals, including mobile, (“Offers”) to consumers, again treading on Amazon's turf as well as Groupon's.
So yeah, once again, maps are important. Good maps, that is. Especially when combined with e-commerce data and local deals. Google knows this. Facebook must know this. That's what Facebook Gifts is really about. Good luck, Apple.
MySpace isn't going quietly into the night. The most popular social network of the early-to-mid 2000s, now down a few million users and newly commandeered by Justin Timberlake and a company called Specific Media, dropped a video preview of its eye-catching redesign on Monday, causing people to actually talk about MySpace again (though notably on MySpace's usurpers Facebook and Twitter).
While some of these comparisons are more accurate than others from a design standpoint (Tumblr and Pinterest, namely), the truth is, all that matters in the new video is that it showed MySpace's renewed focus on being a platform for music discovery, a move that the site first truly embraced in 2005 soon after its acquisition by News Corp.
Nearly two-thirds of U.S. teenagers under the age of 18 say they use Google Inc.'s video-sharing site to listen to music, more than any other medium, according to a new consumer survey from Nielsen Co., one of many challenges facing record companies as they transition into the digital world.
So yeah, MySpace 2.0 (or 12.0, whatever it's on now) can make all the moves it wants to ape Pinterest and the rest of the new social Web, but YouTube is really the music social network to beat moving forward.
Apple made a dumb move. What could be its dumbest yet.
Yes, the initial furor over the inaccuracy and sloppiness of Apple Maps has arguably more to do with how uncharacteristic it is for Apple, a company that's done seemingly everything right in computing over the past 10 years, to mess up. It's as though the bright, beautiful, popular, all “A+” prom queen suddenly and spectacularly bombed an important test. Or at least received a “C minus.”
Google Android fanboys (Fandroids) are also looking pretty smug these days, and why shouldn't they? There's of course a certain amount of schadenfreude behind the repeated nitpicking over just how many failings Apple Maps has evidenced so far in its short time since being publicly foisted upon all Apple device users that upgrade to iOS 6.
There's also little doubt that Apple Maps will get better. Even cutting through the unusually high degree of corporate spin bullshit that Apple offered in the immediate wake of the mapocalypse, it's clear that the company – slammed now by the media and power users alike for the shoddy quality of its maps offering – is busting its balls to get Apple Maps into at least a semi-functional state. How long this will take is anyone's guess, but the people that have experience in digital mapping aren't optimistic there will be a quick fix.
Acknowledging these points and further, even giving Apple the benefit of the doubt, I fear that the true extent of wound the company has inflicted upon itself and users with Apple Maps has yet to be fully realized.
This is because it is impossible to overstate how fundamental maps are to consumers' expectations of a mobile device these days.
Given those trends, and given the increasing competition between Google and Apple in mobile (and therefore, computing in general), it arguably actually made sense for Apple to attempt a mobile map offering of its own.
In fact, Apple had a ripe opportunity to begin steering its fanatically loyal and increasing pool of users toward an in-house service, where it could control the experience and collect more usage data and benefit financially from the mass, forced switchover to maps of its own making, had it been done correctly, or at least not completely backasswardly.
Unfortunately, as Apple and users have discovered, digital mapping is a core competency, a service that's widely used and, when it works, undoubtedly contributes to a consumer's benefit, but which cannot be easily imitated and which is wielded as a competitive advantage by those businesses that possess established, fully developed versions – in the mobile maps world, namely Google and Nokia.
And as maps become more and more a central part of smartphone apps (see Instagram's move to introduce a visual Photo Map, Apple's own integration of maps in iPhoto and Amazon's new Nokia-powered Amazon Maps API), the reliability and accuracy of said maps become all the more critical.
5 million time bombs
The final ingredient that indicates Apple Maps is a tempest in a teapot is time. Stir all of the above and leave to boil.
Because while power users and tech bloggers were gleefully pointing out and linking to all of the myriad inaccuracies found in Apple Maps around the globe, consumers were still lining up in record numbers to purchase the iPhone 5, which ships with iOS 6 and Apple Maps by default, and which very few consumers are going to have the technical knowhow or time or want to switch back to iOS 5, or even pin Google Maps to their front screens as a stopgap. Few are going to even know that these are options for mitigating the Apple Maps disaster.
Even if they do, there's still no way to make Google Maps, Bing Maps or any other maps app the default option on an Apple mobile device running iOS 6, unless the owner is up for jailbreaking their iPhone (or iPad). What this means on a practical level is that every link to a physical address that an iPhone user opens on their phone – be it an address that was sent to them via email, through an invitation, even within a popular app like Yelp or OpenTable or Fandango or Foursquare – will now automatically launch and appear within dreaded Apple Maps. There's no escaping it.
To be clear, that auto-opening feature and inability to reset the default maps app was always the case before on Apple devices, except that Apple always used Google Maps, which worked so well most users didn't even question it.
Put another way, Apple's notoriously strict, top-down control and inflexibility of its consumers' user experience is fine, as long as that experience actually works decently (or better).
Now, Apple has placed in each of those consumers' hands a ticking time bomb. Apple Maps may work most of the time for most of those users. Maybe a few will luck out and have no problems with the service whatsoever, or Apple will be able to miraculously fix all of the major problems in time to prevent a few of those users from ever encountering them in any significant way.
But for the majority of these new iPhone 5 users – a significant portion of whom are likely to be first time iPhone and perhaps even Apple users whatsoever – they will eventually run into a serious and frustrating Apple Maps glitch that will hinder, or even prevent them from doing something they wanted or needed to do; from getting to somewhere they needed to go in the time that they needed to be there.
So although the cries that Apple maps is a danger to public health and safety may be a bit overstated, the actual impact on Apple's business has only been underestimated.
Consumers, especially first time Apple users, will now have cemented in their brains the impression that Apple Maps – and by extension the company and its products themselves – are unreliable and not to be fully trusted. Or, at the very least, that Apple now produces questionable products and services. The company's once seemingly iron-clad reputation for excellence has cracked ever so slightly, and the crack will only widen as competitors – Microsoft Windows Phone and Google Android – step up their game in the mobile hardware and software markets and offer consumers more enticing options to switch. Oh yeah, and those guys tend to have maps that work, too, which they have only been too keen to pointout amid the Apple Maps mess.
Worse for Apple, those consumers, powered by the very technology that Apple has given them, can easily go online and vent with others who have experienced similar or analogous trouble with Apple Maps, amplifying and exacerbating the extent of the problems that have been reported, as well as the idea that Apple sucks when it comes to geolocational services. (This is a double edged sword in a sense, though, as recurring problems will quickly emerge and Apple will be able to better pinpoint and address them thanks to crowdsourcing.)
It's the ecosystem, stupid!
Some third-party iOS developers have shrugged off the Apple Maps complaints and negative coverage as a temporary phenomena. But I think they should be more concerned. Users are just as likely to complain to a developer about a crappy app experience caused by Apple Maps as they are to Apple.
More importantly, Apple should be concerned about the impact the maps will have on its ecosystem. With the launch of Windows Phone 8 imminent and Amazon only stepping up its own mobile device line (and reportedly gearing up to launch a smartphone of its own soon), apps developers, especially those of apps that rely heavily on geolocation experiences, will now have other platforms with more accurate maps to consider building for instead of Apple. Apple is rightly proud of its ecosystem, but when it cut out Google Maps to spite Google, the company did more than cut off its nose to spite its face: It's also saddled developers with the same inferior maps experience that it's dumped upon users.
All of this goes to say that Apple has really hurt itself the most here and left the door open for competitors to gain ground, and for consumers and developers to ditch the company's products and platform.
AOL could easily license MapQuest out to Apple for a hefty fee to help it improve its own maps service, but Apple would still be left with the extremely difficult task of merging that data with all of the other pricey packages it already bought from TomTom. That is, if Apple remains dedicated to building its own maps service.
More sensibly, MapQuest could also work with Apple's competitors to improve their maps.
Meanwhile, Google doesn't seem to be in any big hurry to launch its own standalone iPhone app, and people in the digital mapping space I've talked with recently believe that its highly likely Google will actually withhold a native Google Maps app for iPhone and iPad for quite some time in order to spur Android sales.
Furthermore, if Facebook wanted to launch its own phone or mobile device of another sort, doing so while Apple Maps remains a “work in progress” would be a better time than most. Imagine Facebook partnering with Microsoft to launch a phone using Bing Maps, for example. As Facebook more aggressively pursues its mobile user experience, mobile advertising and mobile deals, accurate, reliable local data will become increasingly important to the company. And if Apple Maps isn't up to the task of providing that, perhaps a Facebook phone will become a more appealing, maybe even imperative, route for the company to take.
What could prove to be the worst aspect of Apple's timing with its spectacular maps failing is the rise of specialized third-party, consumer and business facing digital maps publishing outfits like MapBox, which are now poised to coordinate in an effort to improve the OpenStreetMap data set and user experience, then turn around and use it to build their own stand-alone apps – HTML5-based apps in many cases, which will allow them to bypass the Apple App Store. If other apps companies and businesses that formerly relied on Apple Maps instead route their geo-needs through these outfits and through OpenStreetMap in general, Apple's investment in maps will have been for naught, an immense waste of money, time and resources.
It's been clear for some time, especially to those in the geolocation space, that having good map data is crucial to future success and development of mobile devices and their ecosystems. Maybe it seemed clear to Apple, too, which is why it tried to free itself of a dependency on Google for map data.
But good map data isn't something you can fake. Rather, bad map data isn't something that you can gloss over with platitudes and 3D map effects.
The bottom line is, Apple Maps seems likely to continue to lead users astray for the foreseeable future. Whatever happens, Apple is now going to be known as the company that willingly made its smartphones dumber, which can't be a good thing for the company, users, or anyone really, except Apple's rivals.
Facebook is in trouble. The company has seen its stock price sink by over half since its initial public offering in May. Important early investors and co-founders are selling off huge chunks of their shares and all but leaving. Top executives are also heading for the exits.
What's wrong with Facebook? In a word: ads.
Facebook is still trying to convince advertisers, its main source of revenue, that its ads work better than competitors (Google, Twitter) and other formats. It's also trying to crack the code of mobile advertising.
Revenue projections though, are down, and Facebook's founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has openly stated that mobile is his company's greatest challenge going forward.
Facebook has changed the Internet and the way we communicate since its launch in 2004. But now Facebook faces a watershed moment. How can the company transition from Silicon Valley wunderkid into viable, world class business? How can it ensure investors, current and potential employees and business customers that it is built for the long run – that it won't just become another fallen social networking giant a la MySpace, Digg and Friendster before it? Most important: How can it continue to capture user attention and interest in an environment as ephemeral as the Web?
These are questions that won't be solved by introducing new ad units.
Facebook's reliance on advertising isn't so surprising, given that the approach has been the path of many Web companies (see Google and Twitter, again). But it is unimaginative.
One of the defining quotes of the current tech boom comes from early Facebook employee Jeff Hammerbacher, who told Bloomberg Businessweek's Ashlee Vance in an awesome article: “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.”
That does suck. But it's also reflective of the extremely difficult quandary Facebook now finds itself in, accountable as it is to shareholders and the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Put another way: If you had data on nearly 1 billion people in the world – not only that, but fresh data and nearly guaranteed new data coming in – how would you use that to make money?
It's a tough question to answer. Facebook could begin charging some users, but that would certainly drive some away, maybe even more than charging those users would be worth in the long run.
Facebook could sell user data to large third-parties – other companies and government agencies, for example – turning itself into a kind of data broker similar to Acxiom Corp. But again, it would risk alienating many users, not to mention raising the ire of governmental data privacy agencies around the world, which are already on Facebook's case for practices such as facial recognition and unclear privacy controls. Besides, Facebook already has to hand over some user data as required by law.
Facebook could also begin making its own hardware. That's a much higher margin business for some, like Apple, than software alone. But it's also extremely difficult to penetrate in any lucrative fashion. Facebook may or may not be doing this, depending on how one parses the company's answers to questions about reports of a Facebook phone or other device.
By far, the safest bet for Facebook is to keep doing what it's been doing and offer new ways to advertise and new ways for advertisers to measure the success of those ads (ideally ways that can be compared to other types of ads, online and off, ways that indicate Facebook ads are more effective). Other writers have noted as much.
But “safest bet” is far from “successful.” In fact, there's a good argument to be made that even if Facebook continues to rely on advertising, it will still soon tumble from its spot as the world's most popular social network.
There's one final clear path forward for Facebook, which the company has been tip-toeing around: Encourage people to use Facebook for e-commerce and charge them for every transaction that occurs on the website. Right now, that commerce is mainly concentrated in Facebook's App Center and through Facebook Apps and Games in the form of in-game purchases, specifically. But there have been some recent indications – Facebook's switch from Facebook credits to real world currencies, Facebook's test of a new online banking app – that Facebook recognizes the profound potential of this model.
A riskier idea, but no riskier than developing hardware or charging some users in tiered freemium model, is for Facebook to transform itself into the eBay of personal data. That is, set up a safe space online for people to auction-off their own Facebook profiles, or select parts of them, to various third-party companies and services that would pay handsomely for the privilege. Then Facebook could take a cut of these sales – charging both the individual data seller for their profits and the purchaser for the right to use Facebook's auction platform.
Perhaps users could even enroll, by their choosing, into a Facebook Profile and Page ad sales program, allowing users to sell off spaces on their profile pages to advertisers of their choosing. Again, Facebook could take a cut both of the ad sales by users and the budget of advertising companies, charging ad companies fees to use the service in the first place.
It's clear that Facebook holds a wealth of personal data about its 955 million monthly active users, data that everyone from other companies to political candidates to governments would like to get their hands on. It's also clear that in general, people, and the media especially, have major problems with Facebook itself selling that data or giving it away, with or without informing users that it's doing so.
But if Facebook turned over the power, allowing users to be able to not only access their data, but make money off it, such a platform could be an enormous boon for the company and for users as well. Not only that, but it would fundamentally change the social Web once again. Such a business model would instantly transform Facebook from an improved version of MySpace and AOL into something wholly new. It's already almost there. Now's the time to start thinking outside of the profile boxes.