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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Chinese behind computer hacking attacks at 'The New York Times'

Story first appeared on USA Today -

Chinese hackers repeatedly penetrated 'The New York Times' computer systems over the past four months, stealing reporters' passwords and hunting for files on an investigation into the wealth amassed by the family of a top Chinese leader, the newspaper reported.

Security experts hired to investigate and plug the breach found that the attacks used tactics similar to ones used in previous hacking incidents traced to China, the report said. It said the hackers routed the attacks through computers at U.S. universities, installed a strain of malicious software, or malware, associated with Chinese hackers and initiated the attacks from university computers previously used to attack U.S. military contractors.

The attacks, which began in mid-September, coincided with a Times investigation into how the relatives and family of Premier Wen Jiabao built a fortune worth over $2 billion. The report, which was posted online Oct. 25, embarrassed the Communist Party leadership, coming ahead of a fraught transition to new leaders and exposing deep-seated favoritism at a time when many Chinese are upset about a wealth gap.

Over the months of cyber-incursions, the hackers eventually lifted the computer passwords of all Times employees and used them to get into the personal computers of 53 employees.

The report said none of the Times' customer data was compromised and that information about the investigation into the Wen family remained protected.

"Computer security experts found no evidence that sensitive e-mails or files from the reporting of our articles about the Wen family were accessed, downloaded or copied," the report quoted executive editor Jill Abramson as saying.

The Chinese Defense Ministry asked for questions to be submitted in writing but initially declined comment. The Times, in its report, quoted the Defense Ministry as saying that Chinese law prohibits hacking and other acts that damage Internet security and that accusing it of "cyber-attacks without solid proof is unprofessional and baseless."

China has been accused by the U.S., other foreign governments and computer security experts of mounting a widespread, aggressive cyber-spying campaign for several years, trying to steal classified information and corporate secrets and to intimidate critics. Foreign reporters and news media, including The Associated Press, have been among the targets of attacks intended to uncover the identities of sources and to stanch critical reports about the Chinese government.

"Attacks on journalists based in China are increasingly aggressive, disruptive and sophisticated," said Greg Walton, a cyber-security researcher who has tracked Chinese hacking campaigns. China's cyber-spying efforts have excelled in part because of the government's "willingness to ignore international norms relating to civil society and media organizations," he said.

The Times reported that executives became concerned just before the publication of the Wen investigation after learning that Chinese officials had warned of unspecified consequences. Soon after the Oct. 25 publication, AT&T, which monitors the Times' computer networks, notified the company about activity consistent with a hacking attack, the report said.

After months of investigation by the computer security firm Mandiant, experts are still unsure how the hackers initially infiltrated the Times' computer systems

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

UK Suing Google for Safari Tracking

A British law firm says that about a dozen Apple customers are suing Internet search leader Google in the U.K. over its alleged secret tracking of their Internet browsing habits.

London-based law firm Olswang said that 12 Apple users were taking the Internet search leader to court over small pieces of tracking code — known as cookies — surreptitiously installed on computers and smartphones.

Google found itself in hot water last year after it emerged that the company had circumvented privacy features on Apple's Safari web browsers to deposit cookies on millions of users' computers. The issue has already cost Google $22.5 million, which it agreed to pay the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to settle the claims last year.

Google said it had no comment on the lawsuit.

Yahoo Profits On The Upswing

Story first appeared on USA Today -

Marissa Mayer has brought the yippee! back to Yahoo.

Under a company reboot, the Internet pioneer reported earnings that beat analyst forecasts after the close of markets Monday.

Shares of Yahoo initially jumped 4.5% to $21.22 in after-hours trading following the report.

Yahoo reported fourth-quarter profit of $272 million on revenue of $1.22 billion, compared with a profit of $295 million on revenue of $1.17 billion a year ago.

The revenue uptick marks a first year-over-year gain in four years as CEO Mayer has begun turnaround efforts at Yahoo.

Yahoo's adjusted earnings per share of 32 cents beat the 27 cent average of analyst estimates from Thomson Reuters.

"There's a lot of work to be done," Mayer said on a conference call with investors and analysts. "Mobile will be key to our business."

There's a huge exodus of consumers from PCs spending more time on mobile devices that's causing companies ranging from Google, Facebook, Zynga and Yahoo to scramble to meet new advertising needs.

Shares of Yahoo have shot up 30% since Mayer took the role in July on optimism that the former Google executive can turn around the company's fortune as it battles for advertising.

Yahoo reported a 14% increase in search revenue in the quarter compared with last year. "Theoretically, there's a lot of growth potential if they can boost search," says IDC analyst Karsten Weide, a former Yahoo employee.

Google holds 66.7% of the search market, trailed by Microsoft, with 16.3%, Yahoo's 12.2%,'s 3% and AOL's 1.8%, according to market researcher ComScore.

Despite gains, Yahoo saw a 5% decline in display advertising revenue from a year ago. Yahoo has been dogged by a need for better tools to serve advertisers. "Agencies are increasingly looking for more automation — Yahoo is kind of tepid in that regard," Weide says. I "think that's one of the ways that Yahoo can get out of a crisis."

Yahoo is the No. 2-most visited U.S. Internet destination behind Google, according to ComScore. Ranking after Yahoo comes Microsoft, Facebook, and AOL.

Yahoo said Flickr usage is up 25% since the company refreshed the online photo service in the quarter.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Mayer (Yahoo) Looking for Mobile Growth

Article first appeared on CNBC -

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is confident that her company will be able to capitalize on the explosion in mobile communication, saying Yahoo will focus on strong partnerships with Apple, Google and Facebook.

"The nice thing at Yahoo is we have all of the content that people want on their phones. We have these daily habits. Whenever you're dealing with a daily habit, and really providing a lot of value around it,there's an opportunity," Mayer said at the World Economic Forum in Davos,Switzerland on Friday.

"There's really an opportunity for strong partnerships. That's what we'll be focused on. So we work with for example Apple and Google in terms of the operating system. In terms of the social network we have a strong partnership with Facebook," she said.

She played down mobile privacy concerns, saying it would always be "something users should consider."

"But I also think that privacy is always a trade-off. When you give up some of your personal information, you get some functionality in return. It's really about making those trade-offs in a very informed way," she said.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Jeff Dean – Google’s Internet answer to Chuck Norris

Story first appeared on Mercury News

"The speed of light in a vacuum used to be about 35 mph. Then Jeff Dean spent a weekend optimizing physics." — Jeff Dean Facts

Jeff Dean facts aren't, well, true. But the fact that someone went to the trouble to make up Chuck Norris-esque exploits about Dean is remarkable. That's because Jeff Dean is a software engineer, and software engineers are not like Chuck Norris. For one thing, they're not lone rangers - software development is an inherently collaborative enterprise. For another, they rarely shoot cowboys with an Uzi.

Nevertheless, on April Fool's Day 2007, some admiring young Google engineers saw fit to bestow upon Jeff Dean the honor of a website extolling his programming achievements. For instance:

“Compilers don't warn Jeff Dean. Jeff Dean warns compilers.”

“Jeff Dean writes directly in binary. He then writes the source code as documentation for other developers.”

“When Jeff Dean has an ergonomic evaluation, it is for the protection of his keyboard.”

“Jeff Dean was forced to invent asynchronous APIs one day when he optimized a function so that it returned before it was invoked.”

Here's a true Jeff Dean fact: You have to be a computer whiz to understand most of the jokes that people tell about Jeff Dean. But if his fake accomplishments are hard to understand without a real computer-science background, his real accomplishments are even more abstruse. The programs that Dean was instrumental in building - MapReduce, BigTable, Spanner - are not the ones most Google users associate with the company. But they're the kind that made Google - and, consequently, much of the modern Web as we know it - possible. And the projects he's working on now have the potential to revolutionize information technology once again.

When you think of the people who built today's Web, you probably conjure founders and CEOs: Tim Berners-Lee, Marc Andreessen, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, maybe Mark Zuckerberg. That makes sense: Each of those people invented a product or framework that shaped how we use the Internet.

Meanwhile, in the shadows of these giants - all of whom have graduated from day-to-day grunt work - are legions of faceless developers who tap away at keyboards every day to build the products and systems we all use. In the tech world, more so than in most other industries, those employees are far from interchangeable. A great accountant might save you 5 percent on your taxes. A great baseball player will reach base just a bit more often than a mediocre baseball player. But a great software developer can do in a week what might take months for a team of 10 lesser developers - the difference is exponential rather than marginal. That's not a Jeff Dean fact; it's conventional wisdom in Silicon Valley, which is why the best companies go to such great lengths to attract top talent.

The Early Years:
Dean arrived at Google in mid-1999 having already earned a reputation as one of the country's top young computer scientists. Growing up when home computing power was just blossoming, Dean says he was always looking for ways to push the limits of what you could do on a given machine. As a high schooler, he wrote software for analyzing vast sets of epidemiological data that he says was "26 times faster" than what professionals were using at the time. The system, called Epi Info, has been adopted by the Centers for Disease Control and translated into 13 languages. And as a Ph.D. student in computer science, he worked on compilers, programs that translate source code into a language that a computer can readily execute. "I've always liked code that runs fast," he explains matter-of-factly.

But Dean has always been restless in his interests, and he didn't want to work on compilers his whole life. So he left academia and landed less than three years later at Google, which had only about 20 employees at the time. (According to Steven Levy's book "In the Plex," the search startup saw Dean as something like a prized draft pick.) After contributing some important early work to Google News and AdSense, the advertising product that would rewrite the rules of the Internet economy, he turned his attention to one of the company's core problems: scale.

Google's founding ideas came from Page and Brin, world-class developers in their own right. In the late 1990s they built PageRank, an algorithm for returning the most relevant results to a given search query. The focus on relevance put Google on a course to surpass Yahoo, AltaVista and the day's other leading search engines. But as the upstart grew in popularity, it faced a tremendous computing challenge. "We couldn't deploy machines fast enough" to keep up with demand, Dean recalls.

So Dean, working with fellow standout programmer Sanjay Ghemawat and others, did what he had done in high school with Epi Info: found software solutions to what seemed like hardware problems. Ghemawat helped lead a team that built the Google File System, which allowed for huge files to be efficiently distributed across thousands of cheap servers. Then Dean and Ghemawat developed a programming tool called MapReduce that allowed developers to efficiently process gargantuan data sets with those machines working in parallel. Much as a compiler allows a programmer to write code without worrying about the nitty-gritty of how the CPU will process it, MapReduce allowed Google's developers to tweak the search algorithm or add new computations without having to worry about how to parallelize the operation or handle equipment failures.

Dean and Ghemawat's approach was so powerful that, when they explained it to the public in a seminal 2004 research paper, it quickly became an industry standard. Today it underlies, among other things, Hadoop, the open-source framework that has helped make "big data" a buzz phrase in industries ranging from online travel to energy exploration. And while Google is beginning to move beyond MapReduce for some of its core operations, Dean says he still sees a big spike in usage when a new crop of summer interns arrives and begins working on new projects.

MapReduce is a good example of what Google co-founder Page is talking about when he talks about "10x" - doing things 10 times better, not 10 percent better than they've been done before. MapReduce didn't make one type of operation a little faster. It allowed every programmer at Google to do things they might never have attempted otherwise.

At this point, the real facts about Jeff Dean may be starting to sound a bit like fake Jeff Dean facts. Dean himself laughs at the phenomenon, calling it "a little embarrassing, but flattering too." The thing to keep in mind, he says, is that his real accomplishments are almost always the product of collaboration.

Almost every morning, he comes into work at the GooglePlex in Mountain View, Calif., and sits down for coffee with the same core group of people. "We've made 20,000 cappuccinos together" over the years, he estimates. These people don't all work together. In fact, as Google has grown, some have moved to different buildings on opposite sides of the campus. But when they get together to dish about what they're doing, their problems spark ideas in one another, Dean says. These coffee talks are what has enabled Dean to put his expertise in optimization, parallelization and software infrastructure to work on such a wide array of projects. That and healthy doses of ambition and confidence. "He's always very enthusiastic and optimistic about how much we can get done," says Ghemawat, his longtime collaborator. "It's hard to discourage him."

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Google Struggling with Mobile Demand

Story first appeared on New York Times

Although Google is scrambling to meet consumers as they flock to mobile devices, the question is whether it is moving fast enough.

Investors were comforted on Tuesday when Google announced strong fourth-quarter earnings, and the stock rebounded from a dip over the last week, climbing 5 percent in after-hours trading.

But a closer look at the results shows that while Google continues to be a moneymaking machine, its most lucrative business, search on desktop computers is slowing, while Google has not yet figured out how to make equivalent profits on mobile devices.

“You would expect Google to be a key player benefiting from mobile, but that hasn’t played out in the last year,” said Jordan Rohan, a Stifel Nicolaus analyst.

The price advertisers pay Google each time someone clicks on an ad, known as cost per click or C.P.C., decreased 6 percent from the fourth quarter a year ago, falling for the fifth consecutive quarter on a yearly basis, though not as much as some analysts had feared.

The cost per click has been declining largely because advertisers pay less for mobile ads, and more people are using Google on their mobile devices and fewer on their desktop computers.

Still, Google has been trying to improve its mobile products — from developing new kinds of mobile ad campaigns to building devices like the Nexus 4 smartphone — and its executives say it is a matter of time before the numbers improve. Already, in the fourth quarter, the cost per click rose 2 percent from the previous quarter.

“We’re in some uncharted territory because of the rapid rate of change in these things, but I’m very optimistic about it,” said Larry Page, Google’s chief executive, on a conference call with analysts after the earnings were announced. “I think the C.P.C.’s will improve as the devices improve, as well.”

Mr. Page, who has had health problems related to his voice, sounded unusually weak and breathy.

Google reported revenue that was lower than analysts had expected. Google warned last week that analysts’ expectations were off target because Google sold Motorola’s set-top box division during the quarter and so did not include it in the quarterly results. Still, even including that division of Motorola, Google’s revenue would have missed expectations.

The company reported fourth-quarter revenue of $14.42 billion, an increase of 36 percent over the year-ago quarter. Net revenue, which excludes payments to the company’s advertising partners, was $11.34 billion, up from $8.13 billion. Net income rose 7 percent to $2.89 billion, or $8.62 a share.

The fourth quarter is generally Google’s brightest because it makes much of its money on retail ads that run during the holiday shopping season. This holiday season was the first that Google charged e-commerce companies to be included in its comparison shopping engine, and these so-called product listing ads contributed to its bottom line.

“Despite talk about retail having a weak season, Google’s product listing ad program has taken off quite successfully,” said Sid Shah, director of business analytics at Adobe, which handles $2 billion in annual advertising spending.

Home Depot increased mobile commerce sales by four times after using Google mobile ads, said Patrick Pichette, Google’s chief financial officer. He also cited YouTube ad revenue, saying the “Gangnam Style” video, the most-watched on record, has earned $8 million in online advertising deals. Election ad spending on Google increased five times over the 2008 election, he said.

Nonetheless, Google’s mobile challenge overhung even its usual holiday shopping sparkle. Consumers are increasingly shopping on phones and tablets, yet Google and other companies have not yet figured out how best to profit from mobile users.

One problem is that advertisers pay about half as much for an ad on a mobile device, in part because they are not yet sure how effective mobile ads can be. Another challenge is that consumers increasingly use apps, like Yelp or Kayak, to search on mobile devices instead of using Google.

And even when consumers use Google for mobile searches, they are often doing so on Apple devices like iPhones, for which Google has to pay Apple a fee. Those types of fees are large — equivalent to 25 percent of Google’s revenue in the quarter.

The shift to mobile is happening as Google’s biggest, most lucrative business — desktop search — is slowing. The share of clicks on Google results that happen on desktop computers has fallen to 73 percent from 77 percent in the last six months, while the share of clicks on tablets and smartphones has increased to 27 percent from 23 percent, according to data from Adobe.

The problem is that clicks on retail ads on tablets, for instance, cost about 16 percent less than they do on the desktop, according to Adobe. The price of clicks on retail ads on tablets rose 16 percent over the last year, but on smartphones they fell 11 percent.

As the desktop search sector slows, Google has a new search competitor to contend with: Facebook, which last week introduced a new form of personalized social search on the site.

Google has also recently become a maker of mobile devices, both by acquiring money-losing Motorola and by producing the line of Nexus devices with manufacturer partners.

In the fourth quarter, Google sold about 1.5 million Nexus phones and tablets, not including those sold by other retailers, according to estimates from JPMorgan, and has had trouble keeping supply up with demand.

Eventually, Google hopes, these various businesses will help it solve the mobile revenue riddle, but analysts say they do not expect it to happen in the near term. “You have your Motorola Android phone, get offered a local deal, go into the merchant, use Google Checkout to pay and get rewards,” said Colin Gillis, an analyst at BGC Partners. “That’s the grand vision and it’s a nice vision, but it’s not happening in March.”

Monday, January 21, 2013 – Do they have the answer for a strong comeback?

Story first appeared on USA

Doug Leeds wants the folks who work for him to get "really silly."

The CEO of dot-com pioneer, he's quietly helped bring the company back from the brink by focusing on its original intention — answering questions — and allowing his employees to throw out crazy ideas during weekly improv sessions.

"One of the things that inhibited innovation was that folks wanted everything to be perfect first," he says. "We just want to get people to talk, to get every idea out, to get really silly."

One nutty idea was paying $300 million for a company that was dragging down the New York Times Co.'s earnings — About was purchased by Ask parent IAC, and is a separate unit.

Leeds believed About — which offers a place for in-depth information on everything from parenting and baby tips to how to change oil on a car — could be integrated with Ask's questions-and-answer format.

"Ask is a place to ask questions," Leeds says. "Think of it like a library. About is a great set of books the librarian shows you for more information. It's the best source of reference material on the Web, and it wasn't being utilized fully by the New York Times."

That it dragged down the Times company doesn't matter. About on Ask is the "right place for the right user mindset," he says.

Ask began in 1996 as Ask Jeeves, a different form of search engine that responded to questions. The company dropped the Jeeves part of the name in 2005. The question and answers also got ditched, but returned in 2010.

Ask is now consistently a top 10 website, according to ComScore Media Metrix. It averaged 104 million visitors in December, and was the eighth most visited site. It began 2012 with 95.7 million visitors.

Financials are growing, too. It is a part of IAC's search division, which reported revenue of $370 million in the third quarter. That's up from $258.9 million in the year-ago quarter. The search unit also includes IAC also owns, Vimeo and The Daily Beast.

Ask's share of search is a small 3%, according to ComScore, compared with 66% for market leader Google.

However, even at 3%, the search market is so large "that even a sliver is a significant business," says Greg Sterling, a senior analyst with Opus Research. "Search is still 50% of all online advertising."

Ask has thrived by sticking around. "They have a loyal core following," Sterling says. "Ask also benefits from being used as a secondary search engine."

Interviewed at Ask's towering Oakland headquarters, which dominates the skyline here, Leeds says Ask's original mission was derailed by Google, which became really popular, really fast. Ask decided to shift gears to search, too. But after some lean years, it found that consumers still preferred the question-and-answer format from Ask.

"So we went back to the basics, and it's been very successful," Leeds says.

Questions are answered by tapping into sites such as Wikipedia and, internally via its own staff, and asking users to chime in and answer as well. "We're using every method the Internet has."

It's also looking to showcase more content from A question about this year's crop of American Idol judges, for instance, pops up articles about next week's premiere from People and the New York Daily News, an backgrounder on all the judges from the last 11 seasons of the show, and links to other Idol related questions.

For 2013, Leeds wants to see more use of About on Ask, as well as another new acquisition, nRelate, a company that offers suggested links to queries.

"Our users want to go deeper," Leeds says. "Right now, they ask a question, we answer it, and we move on to the next question. We want to have them explore their interests further. It's about content discovery."

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

What will Facebook's big news be? Some contenders

originally appeared in USA Today:

Silicon Valley's latest parlor game this week is what Facebook is up to on Tuesday, when it announces news at its headquarters in nearby Menlo Park.

Anticipation of the first big news from Facebook in months has prompted investors to snap up shares and push them above $30 — though still shy of the company's IPO price of $38 in May. Facebook closed at $30.95 Monday.

The early money is on search engine-related news, given its high financial stakes. Google's share of the overall U.S. mobile ad market — 57%, compared with Facebook's 9% — is largely because of its search business.

Facebook might also make a more aggressive push into gaming or leverage its $1 billion acquisition of photo-sharing site Instagram.

Other possibilities include new ad formats, mobile ad advancements and an external ad network, according to the CEO of Didit.

Facebook raked in about $4.2 billion from advertising last year — 84% of its estimated $5 billion in total revenue, according to eMarketer. Leading the charge were mobile display sales. Facebook took home about 18% of the U.S. market last year — or $339 million — besting Google's 17%.

Google took home 15% of the nearly $15 billion U.S. display ad market, with Facebook close behind.

Payments accounted for Facebook's remaining $800 million in 2012 revenue, eMarketer estimates.

Long odds are on a long-rumored smartphone announcement coming Tuesday despite mild protestations from CEO Mark Zuckerberg at a September public interview.

The mobile space is a particularly bedeviling proposition for Facebook, which has been late to the market even as Americans continue to eschew PCs for smartphones and tablets.

EMarketer estimates 70 million people in the USA regularly access Facebook from a phone — about half of Facebook's active domestic audience.

The marketplace has room for a Facebook phone, according to a telecommunications analyst that follows Facebook said in a note last week. Today, only Apple and Google are heavy hitters.

Monday, January 14, 2013

With more than 5m visitors so far, Google’s London Web Lab experiments are still going strong

originally appeared on

In July last year, London’s Science Museum announced Web Lab, an interesting-sounding collaborative project with Google, featuring a range of interactive Chrome experiments designed to bring the inner workings of the Web to life.

Six months into the year-long experiment, The Next Web ventured forth to get the lowdown on how things have gone so far, and what will likely become of it when the final curtain call arrives this July. And if truth be told, it was actually a good opportunity to experience the exhibition first-hand for ourselves.

But first…what exactly is Web Lab?
Web Lab: Showcasing modern browser tech

Visitors to the free exhibition have five separate experiments to get involved with. Simultaneously, online participants can also “visit” from around the world to interact with the very same installations. It’s about as close as you’ll get to a truly global exhibition. Each Web Lab experiment taps a modern Web technology to explore a specific idea that’s relevant to computer science.

But even if you can’t tell a WebSocket from HTML5 Canvas, Web Lab still demonstrates the power – and potential – of the Internet to in-museum and online visitors.

The five experiments are as follows:

Universal Orchestra

This is an Internet-powered eight-piece robotic orchestra creating harmonious music. Say wha’?

Universal Orchestra encourages people from around the world (including visitors to the museum) to play music together, using real instruments live in the museum or virtual incarnations online. You can choose from a selection of drums, temple blocks, vibraphones, marimbas and more.

The purpose of this experiment is to illustrate the power of WebSockets to enable real-time collaboration. The browser intervenes by taking the streams of notes played by everyone to transform them into pleasant music. So you don’t have to try and stay in-time with others all on your own.


This was perhaps my favorite, and it certainly the most instantly awe-inspiring of all the experiments.

Sketchbots are custom-built robots that snap a photo of you, and then sketch them in sand. This image is one taken of me, and it does look reasonably accurate.

Until fairly recently, drawing images in a standard Web browser wasn’t easy to achieve without additional software. But Sketchbot helps illustrate the latest version of HTML, which includes Canvas. In a nutshell, it means you can draw whatever you like, including dynamically-rendered 3D graphics as you may see in computer games.

Data Tracer

Data Tracer is essentially a map that traces where all the world’s online information is physically stored.

You search for an item in Google, say, an image. Then you’ll see lines and dots across the map, as the search query tries to locate the closest matching item(s) and the servers they’re stored on.

This demonstrates WebGL, an advanced Web-based graphics library that’s present in many modern browsers. It enables complex online environments, and taps extra processing power on your machine’s graphics card.


Teleporter is a series of Web-enabled periscopes, through which you can see random scenes from around the world, including a 24-hour bakery in the US.

HTML5 and WebGL join forces here to demonstrate how far online video has come in recent times – no additional software is needed for many modern browsers.

In addition to a round-the-clock bakery in North Carolina, you also have a window into the world’s largest miniature model airport in Hamburg, and the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town.

Lab Tag Explorer

Lab Tag Explorer is a real-time visualisation of all Web Lab visitors from around the world, grouping and categorizing participants accordingly. For example, it can tell you that there are 39 online visitors based in Asia just now.

This experiment showcases V8, an open source JavaScript engine developed by Google, and which is built in to Chrome.

Every visitor to Web Lab receives a Lab Tag (see below) which represents them virtually. This Lab Tag lets visitors store and retrieve everything they create in Web Lab.

The Lab Tag Explorer visualizes all this information, transforming large swathes of data relating to Web  traffic, into pretty attractive Lab Tags that amble across a giant screen.
Lab Tag

It’s also worth mentioning the physical Lab Tags, which each visitor to the museum receives when they arrive.

Each Lab Tag has a unique pictogram, which is optically readable by any webcam and gives you access to your Lab creations and artefacts when you go home.
What’s next?

Google first approached the Science Museum about a year before it actually opened, and this is the first time such a project has been attempted. “It is quite a conceptually groundbreaking proposition, we’ve had people all over the world visit us, and people from other museums, and from Google in California and New York,” explains Dave Patten, Head of New Media at the Science Museum.

“We’ve learned lots of stuff from Google having worked with them so closely on this,” he continues. “And I hope they learned a few things from us too, given this is the first time it has put together such an exhibition.”

As for what the future holds for Web Lab, well, this hasn’t been decided yet, but it definitely won’t be continuing in London.

“We’re beginning to talk to Google about what they want to do with it at the end of the year-long phase,” says Patten. “It won’t stay here, as we have something else lined up to replace it. It may go somewhere else, possibly in a modified form, or it might become something completely different. Or, it could be a one-off, and you’ll never get a chance to see this again. I’m not averse to that happening, there’s something quite nice about an exhibition that doesn’t go past its sell-by date, and either you got to see it or you didn’t. There’s some additional value sometimes if you can do that.”

In recent months, Google has continued to push HTML5 with a series of sweet online experiments, such as Jam with Chrome, an experimental Web app that lets you play virtual instruments with friends online. So while the fate of this cool exhibition is yet to be determined, I have a funny feeling it will find a new home somewhere else, probably in the US, and possibly in New York.

With more than 5 million participants so far, including almost 200,000 visitors to the physical exhibits, Google will see this as the perfect opportunity to promote Chrome to the masses. Here’s hoping Web Lab will be coming to a museum near you in the not-too-distant future.

Google sinks $200 million into Texas wind farm

originally appeared on CNN:

You may remember Google's plot to take over the world in the coolest manner possible (with driverless cars and augmented reality glasses and the rest of the future). Well, the company apparently plans to take care of the world its taking over, since it invested $200 million in a Texas wind farm.

The Spinning Spur Wind Project in Oldham County, Texas generates the power needed for more than 60,000 homes with 70 turbines. The $200 million Google sunk into the project wasn't just to help out, though.

"We look for projects like Spinning Spur because, in addition to creating more renewable energy and strengthening the local economy, they also make for smart investments," Kojo Ako-Asare, Google's senior manager of corporate finance, wrote.

It makes a lot of sense, especially when you begin considering how much energy Google itself uses. Greenpeace estimates Google's eight current and planned serve farms use about 476 megawatts of electricity when operating at full capacity. That's the amount it would take to power every house in San Diego. Though Google claims it never works at full capacity, this number is kind of insane.

So Spinning Spur might have implications beyond being green. It's the tenth green energy investment Google's made since 2010. The company's sunk about $1 billion into green energy.

The New Google Contacts Integrates Voice And Brings In Voice SMS And Calls

originally appeared on

Google is giving Contacts a makeover. Google Voice Contacts is being integrated into Contacts for a more seamless user experience. Very soon you will be able to use Google Contacts alone to place calls and send voice SMS. The thought behind the new layout appears to be an attempt at unification of the multiple points for managing your Google Contacts.

Google has many different products and some like Gmail, Google Chat, Google Voice, and Google+ can be used to add and remove contacts. A common interface for managing all of that makes sense.

Google says that the feature is being rolled out gradually, but you can try out it out at The Google Support page also lists the simple steps to access the Call and SMS buttons for the person you want to get through to. For a particular contact, simply hover over the phone number field on their contact card and then select either the phone icon or the SMS icon.

China Google Earth Mystery Solved, As Expert Explains Xinjiang 'Structures' Are Actually Factories

originally appeared in The Huffington Post from LiveScience:

Buildings captured in a mysterious set of satellite images in the Chinese desert are probably just factories or commercial warehouses, not secret military facilities, experts say.

The images created a stir when an ex-CIA analyst told that he had found mysterious structures in the desert around Kashgar, a city in China's remote Western desert that is part of the Xinjiang province. The site includes several large buildings, including a large U-shaped building. Some of the buildings at the site are nearly 350 feet (106 meters) long. In the wake of China's recent anti-satellite tests, it's not surprising that speculation exploded.

But the area is probably part of an initiative to develop the region into a major manufacturing or economic center, not a secret military base, said Stefan Geens, a technologist and geospatial blogger who has spent months in that area of China documenting its development.

"Kashgar was chosen as a special economic zone," Geens told LiveScience. "That means Shenzen-style development," he said, referring to the major industrial city in China that builds much of the world's products.

Armchair analysts

In general, more and more amateurs have taken to Google Earth to uncover mysterious structures, said Susan Wolfinbarger, an image analyst for the Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Earlier this year, a physicist used satellite imagery to identify geological mining activity in the desert in China. Other researchers have used such images to reveal the mysteries of Angkor Wat and even track the course of Guantanamo Bay over time, Wolfinbarger said.

To understand what's going on in an image, analysts look for rail, road or power lines, look at the footprint of the building, and they may even analyze the shadows cast by the buildings to infer their height, said Stuart Hamilton, the GIS program director at the Center for Geospatial Analysis at the College of William and Mary.

But figuring out what people are using those buildings for is trickier than just understanding the infrastructure.

"This is really a classic example of you have two things going on. You can see quite clearly what the land cover is, but land use is a much more difficult problem," Hamilton told LiveScience.

No big secret

China announced its plans to build a special economic zone in Kashgar a few years ago, and has taken on a number of projects — from creating high-speed rail lines to the razing of the ancient Islamic buildings in the heart of the city — in order to achieve that goal, Geens said.

In fact, the region in question is located next to the rail lines and the airports, making it even more likely that the structures are industrial factories, Geens said.

In addition, some of the roads are partially covered in sand, and construction-related vehicles can be seen in some of the satellite images, suggesting the area is still being built, Hamilton said.

It's also unlikely to be a secret site because it's quite close to a major population area, and there are no barriers, towers or enclosures that would indicate a Chinese military operation, Hamilton said. While one structure in the complex somewhat resembles a helicopter testing area, there's no reason it would necessarily be related to military activities, he added.

What's more interesting is how quickly people decided these sites were mysterious in the first place, Geens said.

"People are so fascinated by the amount of the data in Google Earth and the transparency it affords them," he said. "I think it sometimes just goes to people's heads."

Kim Jong Un's Thank-You Note to Google's Eric Schmidt (spoof)

originally appeared on Forbes:

Following the Google Chairman’s visit to North Korea, which concluded last Thursday.

Dearest Kindred Overlord,

Such a pleasure! Never in Righteous History was there a more considerate houseguest. (Americans do have a rep for being sorta rude, especially when indefinitely detained.)

I admit it. Before you arrived in Pyongyang, I was feeling kind of lonely. Like a member of Google Plus. But oh, Supreme Commander of the Search Monopoly, the minute you arrived I Felt Lucky. Granted, I was holding three royal flushes at the time. But truly you are like a Big Brother to me. Heck, you launch products; we launch rockets; but we both piss off governments. And hate Facebook.

And how similar our rational world views! Be sure to spread word of my 19 holes-in-one, as I will about the “Skype-crushing potential” of Google Hangout.

Alright, as with most houseguests, your visit started out a tad awkward. Really, I had planned to take down the Death-to-Sworn-Enemy-U.S.A. banners. But how kind you were to break the tension with your favorite joke. “Privacy.” A classic! (And my buddies are still reeling from “don’t be evil,” with your adorable air quotes gesture.)

Thanks for folding the hand towels. And for your guidance re: monitoring every act of millions of civilians, while building a global rep for anti-trust. But remind me: where/when can I get my paws on them cool Google glasses thingies?

Oh, before I forget, I’d like to place an order for two million self-driving cars. They’d be perfect for my fake city without people! (Related thought: what’s scarier, the DMZ or the DMV?)

And the Android house gift—love it! Still, I’m starting to think a mobile network might work better with multiple phones. Must be the wine talking. (Note to Committee: investigate what it’s saying.)

Only one gripe: now that you’ve shown me YouTube, I can’t get that damn song out of my head. “Da da da…Gangnam Style,” lolz. But c’mon, a Korean racking up a billion hits? I could just introduce you to my chief of secret police!

His name is Todd.

Finally, thanks for reassuring me I’m not too young to run a regime. I hadn’t realized the Glorious Founding Overlords of half the world’s technology are still in puberty.

Let’s cut to the chase. You’re right. It’s time for economic change. How urgently our Proud Courageous Citizens need advanced broadband infrastructure for widespread Internet access. That, and perhaps rice.

And so I declare: from now on, all North Koreans shall have Internet! And forever they shall enjoy the same right as all Westerners, to obsessively Google themselves—or in this case, me. (Which is healthier?)

Oh, and don’t listen to the press, who call your visit a reckless stunt. We both know the truth: the press is dead. Only in your country, they’re dying a slower death.

Long Live Technology! Long Live the Doodle! Long Live the Cult of Personality!


Kim Jong Un

Sent from my iPhone. Excuse any typos or atrocities.

Google unveils Zavers, a new digital coupon based on your phone number

originally appeared in VentureBeat:

Google will be showing off a new digital coupon product tomorrow that lets you more easily redeem coupons targeted to your interests.

Google announced the product, called Zavers by Google on Friday, but said it will be showing off the product first-hand to visitors of Google’s booth at the annual National Retail Federation (NFR) Convention & Expo in New York, which starts tomorrow and runs through Tuesday.
Google is investing a lot of resources into e-commerce, and so it’s easy get confused by the various projects it is working on. Google has already launched something called Google Wallet, but that is a virtual wallet that lets you pay with your mobile phone from an account that is linked to a major credit card company. It uses NFC technology, which lets you scan your phone next to an in-store reader to pay for something.

Zavers is quite different. It lets you visit your favorite retailer websites, and save digital coupons to your accounts, according to the announcement. You can then shop for those products and check out as usual. Redemption occurs in real time, Google says, with savings automatically deducted at checkout when shoppers provide their rewards cards or phone numbers. Manufacturers only pay when a product is moved off the shelf.
Since transactions are stored in the cloud, it give manufacturers a real-time look at the pace of redemptions, and easier ways to target and plan coupon policies to maximize profits, according to Google.

According to the statement:
Unlike traditional media, Zavers’ real-time data gives manufacturers new ways to measure coupon redemptions and analyze consumer preferences so they can manage distribution, tailor campaigns, and optimize budgets for maximum ROI. Zavers also offers access to an extensive network of manufacturer coupons, opening up new retail revenue streams.…Zavers by Google is growing fast. This month we are thrilled to welcome New York’s Original Grocer, D’Agostino, as the latest partner in our retail network. In the coming months, we will be announcing partnerships with a number of other major retailers.

Manufacturers or retailers searching for more information can find it at
The Zavers product follows the acquisition by Google of digital coupon company Zave Networks in 2011.

Google: Dominance, Growth and Cheap Valuation

originally appeared on The Motley Fool on NBC News:

Google has been one of the tech industry’s incredible growth stories.  Since going public in 2004 for $85, shares have increased in value by an outstanding 770%, and many analysts and investors (myself included) think there are even more gains ahead.  When the company reports earnings on Jan. 22, the market will be looking for signs that signal just that.

Google has grown to be the world’s largest Internet company, and their mission is to organize all of the world’s information and make it accessible and useful to everyone.  The next two largest competitors in the search segment are Yahoo with a market cap about one-ninth of Google’s, and Microsoft, whose Bing search engine is gaining popularity. These two companies made a deal in 2009 with the goal of challenging Google’s dominance.

Under the deal, the companies will maintain their own branding, however Yahoo search results say “powered by Bing.”  Microsoft then pays Yahoo 88% of the revenue it gains from Yahoo searches.  According to comScore, the results of their partnership have been mixed, with Bing up but Yahoo down.  For the month of November 2012, the latest month with data available, Google took a record 67% of all U.S. search traffic, followed by Bing’s 16.2% and Yahoo’s 12.1%.  Look for Google to address their rising market share and possibly for plans to reach their 70% market share goal during the earnings call.

Google has grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade, branching out from being just an online search company by entering several other segments.  For instance, in recent years they have launched an email service (Gmail), mapping services (Google Maps and Google Earth), a finance site (Google Finance), a mobile software platform (Android), its own web browser (Chrome), a social network (Google +), and a tablet computer (Nexus).  These ventures have added to one another in the same way that Apple’s products have.  I certainly know more people with a MacBook, iPad, iPhone, and iPod than I do with just any one of those.

By the same method, many people who use Gmail also use Google’s search engine, Google Finance to check stock quotes, and Google Maps to get directions. The company also has partnership deals with such companies as eBay, which makes Google the exclusive provider of text-based ads for eBay outside of the U.S., and with Dell, which pre-loads Dell’s PC’s with the Google toolbar as well as a co-branded homepage.

Google has grown its earnings tremendously (see chart below), and analysts seem to think this will continue.  The consensus calls for $39.84 per share when the company reports next week, so Google currently trades for 18.6 times 2012 earnings, which is a bargain considering two things: cash and growth.  First the cash: Google has a stockpile of $44.6 billion in cash.  So, excluding cash the market values Google’s business alone at $198.6 billion.  In other words, of Google’s share price ($739.99 as of this writing), only $604.38 of that represents Google’s business and future growth, and the rest represents cash in Google’s bank accounts.  So, the business itself trades at only 15.2 times earnings, which sounds much cheaper.

Additionally, Google’s earnings are forecast to grow to $46.31 and $54.84 per share in 2013 and 2014, respectively.  This implies annual earnings growth of 16.2% and 18.4% for the next two years.  I would anticipate a jump in share price if the company’s numbers and future outlook reflect similar numbers when they report.  A P/E ratio of 15.2 is far too low for a company that is still growing like this!

To sum it up, Google has a lot going for it that should translate into earnings growth in the year ahead.  In addition to being absolutely dominant in the online search segment, they are gaining market share in the tablet PC, operating system, smartphone, and social networking segments.  More importantly than the 2012 earnings numbers themselves, investors should pay close attention to any updates given by the company on these new frontiers of Google’s business, as they will be key drivers of growth over the next several years and beyond.

Google Gains From Creating Apps for the Opposition

originally appeared in The New York Times:

For many people, smartphone shopping comes down to a choice of Apple’s iPhone or one powered by Google’s Android software.

But now consumers can get an iPhone and fill it with Google.

Google has become one of the most prolific and popular developers of apps for the iPhone, in effect helping its competitor make more appealing products — even as relations between the companies have deteriorated.

While some of its Internet services were built into the iPhone from the start, Google has stepped up its presence in the last eight months, pumping out major new iPhone apps or improving old ones. It also has expanded efforts to hire developers to make more such apps.

A maps app Google released in December has been the most downloaded program for the iPhone for much of the last month. The company has cranked out a YouTube app, an iPhone version of its Chrome Web browser and better software for gaining access to its Gmail service. Two dozen iPhone apps from Google are available on Apple’s App Store, with variations for the iPad.

Google’s strategy may look self-defeating at first. But analysts and technology executives say it is simply acknowledging the obvious: that there is an enormous market of avid iPhone users it wants to reach, an audience that is a target for ads and that can yield a bonanza of data that will allow Google to improve the online products that produce much of its profits.

Google’s support for the iPhone also looks like a win for Apple, which, after all, makes money when it sells an iPhone that is used to gain access to Google services.

But potential risks lie in Google’s growing presence on Apple’s devices, especially when it comes to apps that replace basic functions like Web browsing, maps and e-mail.

IPhone users who spend much of their time in Google apps could deprive Apple of valuable data it needs to improve its own online services like maps. And those apps could help Google build a deeper connection with users that makes them more likely to switch entirely to Android smartphones later.

“The best way to recruit users to those devices is to get them using the services,” said Chris Silva, a mobile analyst at Altimeter Group, a tech industry research business. “Find them where they are, get them using the services and ramp them up so when they have devices equivalent to the iPhone, they are already in the market.”

Stephen Stetelman, a real estate agent in Hattiesburg, Miss., is a prime example of an iPhone user whose loyalties are divided between Apple and Google. The first thing Mr. Stetelman, 25, said he did when he got a new iPhone two weeks ago was to download all of Google’s major apps, including Gmail, Chrome and Google Maps — all of which he said he considered better than the comparable Apple apps that came with the phone.

“It’s a little ironic,” Mr. Stetelman said. “But I think honestly the grace of Apple is in their design and in their hardware. As far as online services and applications and stuff, I think Google is still top of the line.”

People like Mr. Stetelman make executives at Apple nervous. Early in the iPhone era, Steven P. Jobs, the company’s former chief executive, who died in October 2011, did not want Apple to approve any apps for the device that replaced its core functions, one former senior Apple employee said.

Apple executives have long believed that they would need to build up many of the same services that Google offers to compete long-term in the mobile market, according to this person, who did not want to be named to avoid jeopardizing relationships.

Eventually, under scrutiny from federal regulators, Apple softened its stance and began allowing apps for the iPhone, like Web browsers, that competed with important built-in apps.

Natalie Kerris, a spokeswoman for Apple, declined to comment for this article.

Apple has moved to reduce the presence of Google services in apps that come installed on its phones. Last year it removed the YouTube app — one that Apple created for the earliest iPhones so they would have access to YouTube videos. It also stopped using Google data to power its mapping application.

Instead, Apple began using its own maps service, which has been widely criticized for mistakes, including misplaced landmarks and inaccurate addresses. Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, issued a rare apology last September for its maps product and later shook up the company’s management ranks, in part because of the problems.

Apple’s decision to stop including Google’s services on its devices forced Google to quickly ramp up its own software development for Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS.

While Google had engineers devoted to iOS projects, it had to hire outsiders to help quickly design a Google Maps app for the iPhone.

That app appears to be a huge hit. Widely praised by technology reviewers, Google Maps for the iPhone was downloaded more than 10 million times in the 48 hours after its release last December, Jeff Huber, a Google senior vice president, said in an online post at the time.

Other Google apps are among the most commonly used on the iPhone. Last November there were 11.8 million unique users of a new Google-created YouTube app for the iPhone in the United States, and 6.4 million users of its Google Search app, placing them both in the top 20 list of iPhone apps with the biggest audience, according to Nielsen.

In October, Google updated its search application for the iPhone with voice capabilities that more closely resembled those of Siri, the often-maligned virtual assistant included in the iPhone.

Google also bolstered its efforts last year to hire more iOS developers, many of whom might be unlikely to consider working for the company because of its focus on promoting the Android operating system on mobile devices.

Last July, Google bought Sparrow, a Paris-based start-up that made a popular app for using Gmail on the iPhone, and moved some of its engineers to Silicon Valley.

Last December, it began posting Web ads to recruit iOS developers, providing a link to a Q.&A. on the subject with the headline, “Wait, Google has iOS mobile apps teams?”

Chris Hulbert, a freelance programmer who spent three months working for Google in Australia last year, wrote a blog post in which he compared working on iOS apps there to “working behind enemy lines.”

Google said it had not changed its strategy on Apple devices, but rather was continuing to build apps for all devices.

“Our goal is to make a simple, easy-to-use Google experience available to as many people as possible,” said Christopher Katsaros, a Google spokesman. “We’ve developed apps for iOS for some time now, and we’re delighted to see the recent enthusiasm for them.”

Unlike Apple, Google makes its money not from selling phones but from selling ads that appear on those phones. So it cares less about which phone a consumer uses and more about whether that consumer uses Google apps — and shares data with Google and sees Google ads.

When a consumer uses Chrome on the desktop at work, for instance, then opens the same tabs and continues using Chrome on phones elsewhere, Google knows much more about that consumer’s behavior, including the consumer’s location and the searches. The company’s hunger for such data has, of course, raised privacy concerns.

Chetan Sharma, an independent mobile analyst, says Google’s focus on iOS should concern Apple. “It just pushes Apple to up their game in software,” he said. “They’re kind of behind.”

Google's ultrafast Internet draws start-ups to K.C.

originally appeared in USA Today from The Associated Press:

Inside a small bungalow on the street separating Kansas City, Kan., from its sister city in Missouri, a small group of entrepreneurs are working on their ideas for the next high-tech start-up, tapping Google Inc.'s new superfast Internet connection that has turned the neighborhood into an unlikely settlement dubbed the "Silicon Prairie."

The home on State Line Road is one of several start-up-friendly locations that have sprouted up in Kansas City in recent months. The catalyst is Google Fiber, the search-engine giant's fiber-optic network being tested in the Kansas City area that advertises speeds of up to a gigabyte per second — a rate that massively exceeds the average Internet speeds at homes hooked up with cable modems.

The advantage here for start-ups is simple: A fast Internet pipe makes it easier to handle large files and eliminates buffering problems that plague online video, live conferencing or other network-intensive tasks. Though the Kansas City location presents challenges for start-ups, including the ability to raise money outside the traditional Silicon Valley venture capital scene, entrepreneurs like Synthia Payne believe it's the place to be right now for up-and-coming tech companies.

Payne is one of those entrepreneurs hoping to launch her start-up dream — an Internet subscription service for musicians who want to collaborate online — on the cheap. She shares the State Line Road house, known as the "Home for Hackers," with other start-ups under a deal that allows them to live rent-free while they develop their business plans.
Google's network was attractive, Payne said, because her business plan "is dependent upon really good, really fast Internet."

"Without this on-ramp here I probably would have found it very difficult to come here," said Payne, who in December moved from Denver to develop CyberJammer.
Residents here were thrilled when Google announced last year that Kansas City, Kan., and neighboring Kansas City, Mo., would be its test bed for Google Fiber. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company spent months and unknown sums installing optical fiber around the area. Google provides the full gigabit service for $70 a month and its own cable-TV like service for another $50. A slower Internet connection is free on a monthly basis after a $300 installation fee.

The first homes were installed with fiber optics in the fall, with more "fiberhoods" planned in stages over the next several months. Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan., remain Google's only fiber market, though the company has said it plans additional roll-outs. Many in the tech industry believe Google's move could ultimately force broadband providers to accelerate their networks to compete. Making Internet access faster would give the company more opportunities to attract traffic and sell more advertising — the main way Google makes money.

The "Home for Hackers" and its unique business pitch is the brainchild of local web developer Ben Barreth, whose property was among the first wave of houses to be fiber-wired and is a block away from the Google Fiber offices. "Hackers" who pass Barreth's application process and show a real intention to work on a viable project can live there rent-free for three months. Since starting the home in October after cashing in his Roth IRA and putting a down payment on the $48,000 home, Barreth has gotten applications from nearly 60 people seeking a spot in the home.

"The whole start-up thing in Kansas City is like this huge growing beast," he said. "It's got this crazy momentum."
The house has been full since mid-December with Payne and two others. One of the rooms also is reserved for fiber tourists who want a place for a day or two where they can download anything faster than they could elsewhere.

"The hope is that these start-ups will move their operations to Kansas City and this will really bless Kansas City, bring jobs and taxes and we'll build a really cool tech scene," Barreth said.

A few homes away from the "Home for Hackers" is the headquarters of the Kansas City Startup Village, which was started by local entrepreneur Matthew Marcus and where Mike Farmer, founder of mobile search app, has his offices. Farmer said Google Fiber brought attention to Kansas City's start-up culture, "because it sort of ignites the imagination about what you can do with that sort of bandwidth capability."
"Most every week I meet one or two or three people that are looking to come in from out of town," he said.

Despite the growth, it remains a challenge for startups to raise money from Kansas City, Farmer said. Silicon Valley venture capital groups in particular want startup entrepreneurs to be nearby in California, he said.

"I've had some really incredible conversations with some big name VCs, and their first statement is that when you're in this early stage you have to be here, right next to us," he said. "That is a hurdle."

Andy Kallenbach recently launched, an online forms management site, and also has offices near the "Home for Hackers." He said Kansas City has no aspirations to be the next Silicon Valley and may never have a "Facebook or a giant consumer-level company that takes over the world."

He said it may also be "better for us" that it's more difficult to raise money in Kansas City.
"The hardest thing about a start-up is execution, OK? A lot of people can go out and raise money and get money for an idea or for some product or they can come up with some awesome presentation. But it doesn't matter if you can't build something that people will use," Kallenbach said. "I think here in Kansas City you have to at some point put your money where your mouth is. You have to 'do.'"

Aaron Swartz, Internet Activist, Dies at 26

originally appeared in The New York Times:

Aaron Swartz, a wizardly programmer who as a teenager helped develop code that delivered ever-changing Web content to users and who later became a steadfast crusader to make that information freely available, was found dead on Friday in his New York apartment.

His uncle said that Mr. Swartz, 26, had apparently hanged himself, and that a friend of Mr. Swartz’s had discovered the body.

At 14, Mr. Swartz helped create RSS, the nearly ubiquitous tool that allows users to subscribe to online information. He later became an Internet folk hero, pushing to make many Web files free and open to the public. But in July 2011, he was indicted on federal charges of gaining illegal access to JSTOR, a subscription-only service for distributing scientific and literary journals, and downloading 4.8 million articles and documents, nearly the entire library.

Charges in the case, including wire fraud and computer fraud, were pending at the time of Mr. Swartz’s death, carrying potential penalties of up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.

Aaron built surprising new things that changed the flow of information around the world, accruing to a professor at the Cardozo School of Law in New York who served in the Obama administration as a technology adviser. She called Mr. Swartz a complicated prodigy and said [the] graybeards approached him with awe.

Mr. Swartz' uncle said he would remember his nephew, who had written in the past about battling depression and suicidal thoughts, as a young man who looked at the world, and had a certain logic in his brain, and the world didn’t necessarily fit in with that logic, and that was sometimes difficult.

The Tech, a newspaper of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reported Mr. Swartz’s death early Saturday.

Mr. Swartz led an often itinerant life that included dropping out of Stanford, forming companies and organizations, and becoming a fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.

He formed a company that merged with Reddit, the popular news and information site. He also co-founded Demand Progress, a group that promotes online campaigns on social justice issues — including a successful effort, with other groups, to oppose a Hollywood-backed Internet piracy bill.

But he also found trouble when he took part in efforts to release information to the public that he felt should be freely available. In 2008, he took on PACER, or Public Access to Court Electronic Records, the repository for federal judicial documents.

The database charges 10 cents a page for documents; activists like the founder of, have long argued that such documents should be free because they are produced at public expense. Joining that founder’s efforts to make the documents public by posting legally obtained files to the Internet for free access, Mr. Swartz wrote an elegant little program to download 20 million pages of documents from free library accounts, or roughly 20 percent of the enormous database.

The government shut down the free library program, and the founder feared that legal trouble might follow even though he felt they had violated no laws. As he recalled in a newspaper account, I immediately saw the potential for overreaction by the courts. He recalled telling Mr. Swartz: You need to talk to a lawyer. I need to talk to a lawyer.

Mr. Swartz recalled in a 2009 interview, I had this vision of the feds crashing down the door, taking everything away. He said he locked the deadbolt on his door, lay down on the bed for a while and then called his mother.

The federal government investigated but did not prosecute.

In 2011, however, Mr. Swartz went beyond that, according to a federal indictment. In an effort to provide free public access to JSTOR, he broke into computer networks at M.I.T. by means that included gaining entry to a utility closet on campus and leaving a laptop that signed into the university network under a false account, federal officials said.

Mr. Swartz turned over his hard drives with 4.8 million documents, and JSTOR declined to pursue the case. But a United States attorney, pressed on, saying that stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.

Founded in 1995, JSTOR, or Journal Storage, is nonprofit, but institutions can pay tens of thousands of dollars for a subscription that bundles scholarly publications online. JSTOR says it needs the money to collect and to distribute the material and, in some cases, subsidize institutions that cannot afford it. On Wednesday, JSTOR announced that it would open its archives for 1,200 journals to free reading by the public on a limited basis.

The founder of said that while he did not approve of Mr. Swartz’s actions at M.I.T., access to knowledge and access to justice have become all about access to money, and Aaron tried to change that. That should never have been considered a criminal activity.

Mr. Swartz did not talk much about his impending trial, a close friend, said on Saturday, but when he did, it was clear that it pushed him to exhaustion. It pushed him beyond.

Recent years had been hard for Mr. Swartz, she said, and she characterized him in turns tough and delicate. He had struggled with chronic, painful illness as well as depression, she said, without specifying the illness, but he was still hopeful at least about the world.

Cory Doctorow, a science fiction author and online activist, posted a tribute to Mr. Swartz on, a blog he co-edits. In an e-mail, he called Mr. Swartz uncompromising, principled, smart, flawed, loving, caring, and brilliant.

 The world was a better place with him in it, he said.

Mr. Swartz, he noted, had a habit of turning on those closest to him: Aaron held the world, his friends, and his mentors to an impossibly high standard — the same standard he set for himself. Mr. Doctorow added, however, It’s a testament to his friendship that no one ever seemed to hold it against him (except, maybe, himself).

In a talk in 2007, Mr. Swartz described having had suicidal thoughts during a low period in his career. He also wrote about his struggle with depression, distinguishing it from sadness.

Go outside and get some fresh air or cuddle with a loved one and you don’t feel any better, only more upset at being unable to feel the joy that everyone else seems to feel. Everything gets colored by the sadness.

When the condition gets worse, he wrote, you feel as if streaks of pain are running through your head, you thrash your body, you search for some escape but find none. And this is one of the more moderate forms.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Details of Eric Schmidt’s North Korea trip revealed

originally appeared on SlashGear via The Washington Post

We’ve reported over the week about the North Korea trip currently under way by Google‘s Eric Schmidt and former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. Today, some information about the trip has been revealed detailing urges for less restrictive Internet and cell phone policies in the nation. Richardson will be holding a conference at the Beijing airport tomorrow.

The delegation is composed of nine individuals and does not include any press. The group is reported to have appealed for humane treatment of a detained tourist who was arrested last year. Likewise, they are encouraging the nation to implement a moratorium on rocket launches, which have caused tension and sanctions.

The trip itself is a private humanitarian effort, with Schmidt joining it of his own volition, not on behalf of Google, as is usually the case. He’s reported to have joined the delegation out of curiosity about various issues with North Korea, but has not personally stated his reasons for going. Richardson is a frequent visitor to the nation.

The U.S. government has been fairly critical of the trip, stating that it is taking place during a period of tension following North Korea’s last rocket launch in the past weeks. The US State Department’s spokeswoman offered this statement. Frankly, we don’t think the timing of this is particularly helpful, but they are private citizens and they are making their own decisions. They are not carrying any messages from us.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Critics of Google Antitrust Ruling Fault the Focus

originally appeared in The New York Times:

One of the more surprising conclusions drawn by the Federal Trade Commission when it dropped its nearly two-year antitrust investigation into Google last week was that Google, far from harming consumers, had actually helped them.

But some critics of the inquiry now contend that the commission found no harm in Google’s actions because it was looking at the wrong thing.

Instead of considering harm to people who come to Google to search for information, Google’s competitors and their supporters say that the government should have been looking at whether Google’s actions harmed its real customers — the companies that pay billions of dollars each year to advertise on Google’s site.

In its reports, the F.T.C. did not detail how it defined harm or what quantitative measures it had used to determine that Google users were better off.

But interviews with people on all sides of the investigation — government officials, Google supporters, advocates for Microsoft and other competitors, and antitrust experts and economists — show that many of the yardsticks the commission used to measure its outcomes were remarkably similar to Google’s own. Not surprisingly, they cast Google in a favorable light.

At issue were changes that Google made in recent years to its popular search page. Google makes frequent adjustments to the formulas that determine what results are generated when a user enters a search. Currently, it makes more than 500 changes a year, or more than one each day.

Users rarely notice the changes in the formulas, or algorithms, that generate search results, but businesses do. If a change in the formulas causes a business to rank lower in the order of results generated by a search, it is likely to miss potential customers.

What customers are now seeing reflects changes in the format of Google results. For certain categories of searches — travel information, shopping comparisons and financial data, for example — Google has begun presenting links to its own related services.

People close to the investigation said that Google had presented the F.T.C. with the results of tests with focus groups hired by an outside firm to review different versions of a Google search results page. After Google acquired ITA, a travel search business, in 2011, it began testing a new way to display flight results.

The company asked test users to compare side-by-side examples of a results page with just the familiar 10 blue links to specialty travel sites with a page that had at the top a box containing direct links to airlines and fares.

People who reviewed the Google data said tests with hundreds of people showed that fewer than one in five users preferred the page with links only. Users said they liked the box of flight results, so Google reasoned that making the change was better for the consumer.

There is a deep science to search evaluation, according to a senior vice president who oversees Google’s search operation, said in an interview on Friday. A lot of work goes into every change we make.

But the changes were not better for companies or alternative travel sites that were pushed off the first page of results by Google’s flight box and associated links. By pushing links to competing sites lower, Google might be making things easier for people who come to it for free search. But it also is having a negative effect on competitors, shutting off traffic for those sites.

Drawing fewer customers as a result of Google’s free links, those competitors are forced to advertise more to draw traffic. And advertisers who aren’t competitors have fewer places to go to reach consumers, meaning Google can use its market power to raise advertising prices.

There might be no consumer harm if Google eliminates Yelp, said one Microsoft advocate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the likelihood of further interactions with the F.T.C. But advertisers certainly are harmed.

Google’s suggestion that the correct way to measure the benefit of a design change was through user appreciation seemed to strike a chord with the commission. In its statement explaining why it took no action against Google on search bias, the F.T.C. said that the documents, testimony and qualitative evidence the commission examined are largely consistent with the conclusion that Google likely benefited consumers by prominently displaying its vertical content on its search results page.

F.T.C. officials said they considered data from a wide range of sources — those with interests aligned with Google as well as against it. The officials also bought quantitative data about Internet usage and conducted interviews with experts who were independent of all sides.

None of the data was taken strictly at face value, according to the director of the F.T.C.’s Bureau of Economics, said in an interview. We kick the tires hard on all of the data we receive.

While some of Google’s competitors might have suffered when Google made changes to the way it generated and displayed search results, the F.T.C. said, the totality of the evidence showed that any negative impact on actual or potential competitors was incidental.

The five commissioners at the F.T.C. voted unanimously not to pursue a case accusing Google of using unfair competition to enhance its search business. One of those commissioners, however, warned that there was little to prevent Google from misrepresenting the value of the changes it made to its search methods.

That commissioner, a Republican who criticized the F.T.C.’s decision not to seek a court order preventing Google from certain actions, said, Nothing in this ‘settlement’ prevents Google from telling ‘half truths’ — for example, that its gathering of information about the characteristics of a consumer is done solely for the consumer’s benefit, instead of also to maintain a monopoly or near monopoly position.

Google’s interest in maintaining its market dominance — it accounts for about 70 percent of all searches in the United States — goes beyond its dedication to improving the experience for users, of course.

The F.T.C. chairman, said that while some evidence suggested that Google was trying to eliminate competition, that was not necessarily illegal. Some may believe the commission should have done more in this case, because they are locked in hand-to-hand combat with Google around the world and have the mistaken belief that criticizing us will influence the outcome in other jurisdictions, he said.

The commissioners also appeared to view Google’s changes to its results pages as a design issue as much as an antitrust one. Product design is an important dimension of competition, the commission wrote, and condemning legitimate product improvements risks harming consumers.