What Google Would Do

Is Google’s OS the end of the OS – the long-predicted moment when Google and the web take over the PC? Or is it merely the disruptive OS throwing marbles on the floor for Microsoft and to some extent Apple and the software industry? Or will it be a platform and boon for app developers and PC makers and cloud companies? Or all of the above? Yes.

One may try to parse the motives and implications of the move like Latin haiku, but I think it’s simple; it usually is with Google: It saw an opportunity to serve the end user and took it. The more such opportunities it grabs, the more benefit it brings to more people, the more money it makes. Maps, Docs, Reader, Android, book search, translation tools, GoogleNews are all that. Some attempts don’t stick to the wall; some frontiers remain (it has not won in the social web, the live web, the deep web, and the local web); some things Google has to buy; some still don’t have a clear business model. All have competitors; none is a monopoly, though search and advertising appear that way to some.

How does Google win? Its products are generally but not always better and cheaper (read: free) because Google’s real secret is that it understands the economics of the internet and competed aggressively not against technology and internet companies but instead it competed for advertisers, selling performance over scarcity. The more Google serves end users – and the more it learns about them – the more opportunities it has. These are the economics of free.

I know the question of whether Google is too big will be raised when I appear on Brian Lehrer’s show today (at 11a ET) with Siva Vaidhyanathan. That’s the question Lehrer asked Eric Schmidt at the Aspen Ideas Festival:

“You’ll be surprised that my answer is no,” Schmidt responded. “Would you prefer the government running innovative companies?” No surprise that I agree with Schmidt. Lehrer’s point is that banks needed regulation and that information is becoming as important as money (well, he didn’t go that far). But I say government did regulate banks and AIG and did a horrid job of it. And look at the storm to regulate and break up Microsoft, which is no longer a threat but suddenly a victim. Heh. For that matter, look at what the market did to the oligopoly of Detroit and what Detroit did to itself. Clear Channel, Tribune Company, McClatchy – those are examples in media alone. Big has a way of tumbling of its own weight.

In any case, who’s to say what’s too big? We have a cultural problem of admiring big and then hating big; we want you to grow and then we want to cut you down to size. But this notion of being too big is arbitrary, ultimately meaningless if externally defined.

In this new economy, it may be that Google isn’t yet big enough, that it hasn’t brought its services and innovation – and goad to others to innovate – to enough corners of the internet. We will benefit from there being another operating system that opens up the applications and services to invention, breaking the Microsoft (and Apple) duopoly. We will end up getting cheaper applications and more choice among them. We will end up being able to use cheaper machines because our stuff will be in the cloud.

Yes, Google still has room to grow.

: ALSO: Mashable’s questions about the Chrome OS.

5 Ideas to Transform Newspaper Sites

I sometimes wonder whether we are held captive by old school thinking. At our newspapers at Mediafin, we are in the process of integrating web operations with the print publication, a move which I fully endorse. There’s one major risk to this: that we might end up seeing the web as just another way to distribute newspaper articles rather than a radically new opportunity.

People who have spent years writing for print newspapers could easily fall victim to the horseless carriage syndrome — the belief that they can continue to apply the same thinking that they applied to an old technology to a new, fundamentally different one. At the turn of the century, many saw the automobile as a new variation on the horse-and-carriage, not realizing that the car was in many ways very different. Just as cars are fundamentally different from horseless carriages, or cinema is fundamentally different from theater, the web is fundamentally different from newspapers.

We have only begun to perceive those fundamental differences, like the streaming and social character of the web. Thus, many newspapers are still looking at the web in old print terms — and not using their websites as anything more than a place to post the exact same material that they put in print. We should at least try to think out of the newspaper box and imagine how our presence on the web could be completely different from what it is today.

Five Suggestions for Change

Let me suggest some possibilities for how a newspaper’s web presence could be radically different from the way it’s been so far:

1. Create micro-sites.
Instead of having a single website divided in sections which often replicate the sections in the print newspaper, we could have many different sites each focusing on a specific topic of interest to our communities. For example, at Mediafin, we know our community has various interests — financial services, markets, technology for consumers, technology for enterprises, etc. Why not have a separate website for each to better target community members’ interests?

2. Streams of content.
The news on each of those more specialized sites or networks would be like a stream of blog posts or microblog posts. In other words, it would look more like Twitter, Facebook or FriendFeed rather than a collection of newspaper articles. Of course, posts could be longer than the famous 140 characters of Twitter, but overall the look would be far more stream-like. There could be a special section for link journalism, using a tool such as Publish2.

3. Use wikis for context.
Instead of only posting static articles, newspapers could use wikis to help provide background and context. A wiki format would allow both the newsroom and the community to contribute their expertise. Of course, the comments would enable the community members to post links, see members’ profiles, and maybe even rate articles and comments.

4. Boost audience interactions.
Forums would enhance both synchronous and asynchronous interaction. One could imagine using some embeddable virtual 2.5-D environment such as Metaplace to enhance the interactive experience. Metaplace is a platform that enables you to make your own virtual environment and connect through hyperlinks or simply embed it on your site. A newspaper could easily transform one of Metaplace’s stock “worlds” to match the look and feel of the newspaper and organize chat sessions there.

5. Give participants more control.
It would pretty much be up to the user how all these components of the newspaper site(s) would be organized. Community members would also have the option to either participate in synchronous discussions using avatars in the 2.5-D space or participate in that same discussion using a text-only environment. The idea is to make the participation experience more user-centric: let the users decide how to experience the information, news and discussion flows.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Implementing any of these out-of-the-newspaper-box ideas would require that both journalists and community members adapt to something rather new. This could be a disadvantage for journalists accustomed to old-school print thinking; it could actually be more problematic for them to adapt than for the community.

Another possible objection might be the reaction of the advertisers. Would they appreciate the possibility offered by some of these ideas — like creating separate websites for each topic — to better target very specific segments of the community? Or would they instead deplore the fact that the community has been split up, making it harder to reach a broad range of readers?

I think the real benefit of separate environments/sites for advertisers is that they can focus on the relevant audience. The audience’s behavior — reading, commenting, participating in chat discussions, etc. — will offer insights that are relevant for advertisers planning their campaigns. The only thing is: advertisers will need to be convinced of these new possibilities. Journalists are not the only ones who tend to be conservative in regards to online innovation.

metaplace.png

A clear advantage would be that such a model makes it possible to react very fast on the news, with Twitter-like speed. Adopting a blog-stream style of posting would allow newspapers to update much more quickly than if they continued to shovel articles online in the old “online print newspaper” style.

At the same time, wikis would provide in-depth analysis and context. The whole operation would be very much community driven, using sophisticated comments, forum and wiki systems. People would have the choice to refer to existing online networks for their profiles, to create a new profile on the site or they could stay anonymous.

Some sites have already adopted some of these ideas. I was inspired to list some of the above elements by the Columbia Tomorrow site. I especially like that site’s combination of a blog-like news stream with in-depth overview pages, and that it offered the possibility for community members to start their own discussions on news posts. The site features a video explaining how this project organizes the interaction and the news.

If you have other such examples or ideas for other components of the news site/network of the future, let us know!

Roland Legrand is in charge of Internet and new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L’Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife Liesbeth.

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Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia all Over 100 Million Strong – What Now for Online Communities?

Guest post by Alan Haburchak

The morning of day two here at the Personal Democracy Forum conference was all about online communities, what they mean, how they can be used and what they say about culture and global culture and society today. Randi Zuckerberg (the other Zuckerberg), Facebook's head of marketing was up first and talked a little bit about how communities have arisen on on Facebook that have lead to real-life movements like the anti-farc protests that occurred in Colombia last year. But other than pointing that that that group had used social media to organize, she didn't have much more to say.

Next up was Alec Ross, who serves as Senior Advisor for Innovation in the Office of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Ross explained how Sec. Clinton is re-imagining the idea of diplomacy to not just be able "white guys in white shirts with red ties" talking to each other, but rather a citizen-to-citizen approach. As an example he touted the State Department's SMS-based Pakistani-relief initiative that they pioneered earlier this year.

The really amazing highlight of the morning however was Michael Wesch, a cultural anthropologist exploring the impact of new media on society and culture. Wesch gave a shortened version of a presentation about YouTube as a cultural phenomenon, which he and 200 students at Kansas State University created. There is video of Wesch's talk at PDF09, though the quality is not ideal. The amazing thing was the collective joy in the room as everyone felt the hope that Wesch expressed for what online communities like YouTube might be able to create in the face of the pessemistic attitude that according to Wesch, had been cultivated among a lot of young people since the 1990s. Highlights from Wesch's presentation were his clips from the Free Hugs and MadV - The Message memes.

Finally the morning closed with Mark Pesce, know as a digital futurist, who talked about the inherrent potenital danger of what he called "ad-hocracies" on the web. As evidence, he pointed to the fight between Wikipedia and the Church of Scientology. Pesce's talk was intersting, discussing how because of their size, the members of the church were able to break the social contract of Wikipedia, ultimately leading to Wikipedia banning them from editing the site. Speaking after Wesch's emotionally charged YouTube presentation, Pesce's point came across as too academic, although important as internet communities reach critical mass.

Ultimately what I and I think most people will take away from this look at web communities is the sense of hope in was Ross and Wesch had to say. Diplomacy can be as simple and effective as sending $5 to someone in Pakistan who needs it from your cell phone, and while YouTube comments may be the worst thing on the internet, the ability of that community to be incredibly personal AND to inspire positive action en masse is amazing.

‘No longer the province of elites’

In a Guardian interview, UK PM Gordon Brown says that the internet changes foreign affairs forever:

He described the internet era as “more tumultuous than any previous economic or social revolution”. “For centuries, individuals have been learning how to live with their next-door neighbours,” he added.

“Now, uniquely, we’re having to learn to live with people who we don’t know.

“People have now got the ability to speak to each other across continents, to join with each other in communities that are not based simply on territory, streets, but networks; and you’ve got the possibility of people building alliances right across the world.”

This, he said, has huge implications. “That flow of information means that foreign policy can never be the same again.

“You cannot have Rwanda again because information would come out far more quickly about what is actually going on and the public opinion would grow to the point where action would need to be taken.

“Foreign policy can no longer be the province of just a few elites.”

Neither government nor business nor education.