2013: Six Tech/Media Stories to Watch

In 2013, most tech consumers will be asking if it’s smart to buy a new computer, smartphone, or tablet device. As the structural shift from desktop to mobile computing races forward, hardware and software manufacturers are searching for an integrated solution. Apple and Google lead the pack on the software front — even as their surrogates engage in costly and time-consuming patent litigation around the world. Samsung (a key Google partner) is the global handset leader. Apple makes the best-designed consumer devices in the world. Here are six tech/media predictions for 2013. Google Will Settle Antitrust Probe With the Feds — It’s time for this nearly two-year investigation to end. As I wrote three months ago, the federal government’s probe of Internet search giant Google will most likely conclude with a settlement that averts a major lawsuit. The Federal Trade Commission has been exploring whether Google has used its search power — 70% market share — to harm rival companies unfairly. Google has offered a set of voluntary concessions addressing complaints about its search practices. But after European officials said that they were preparing even harsher sanctions for Google, the FTC punted the probe into this year (2013). If Google and the feds reach a deal, it would represent a huge victory for Google, and a major defeat for the companies that have accused it of acting unfairly. (MORE: Will Google Escape a Federal Antitrust Lawsuit Over Web Search?) Patent Progress Continues – Isn’t it just about time for the patent wars to end? Consumers want to see tech giants Apple, Google, and Samsung compete in the marketplace fair-and-square, not bicker in courtrooms around the world. The real winners of the patent wars are the $1,000-per-hour lawyers who represent these global behemoths around the world. For the first time, Apple and Google spent more last year on intellectual property than research and development. That’s not a good sign. Apple’s $1 billion victory over Google’s key Android partner Samsung in August was the most decisive victory in Apple’s patent proxy war against Google. Is patent peace possible? It’s worth noting that neither Apple CEO Tim Cook nor Google CEO

Will Google+ Ever Get A Full Read/Write API?

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Depending on who you ask, Google+ is either a thriving social network and the most important backbone of Google’s social efforts, or a deserted wasteland where a small clique of fans keeps the lights on. I tend to think it’s doing quite alright for Google, but I also know that I would use it far more if I could use a desktop client (and maybe one that combines Twitter, Facebook and Google+) to read and post updates. Google, however, has steadfastly refused to launch a full read/write API for Google+.

At I/O earlier this year, the company’s representatives said that they don’t want to “disrupt something very special” and “magical” by just letting third-party apps post to it. What Google wants to avoid, it seems, is auto-posting news updates, cross-posted tweets, and other updates it considers to be of low value to its users. Google also wants to keep full control over the Google+ user experience. While it has whitelisted a few tools like Hootsuite and Engage121 and now allows them to post to Google+, there are currently no consumer-oriented tools for directly interacting with Google+ without going to the site.

Sure, there are the Google+ buttons, a basic read API and the Hangouts API for those who want to run video chats and a few other tools, too, but unlike Twitter, which despite its recent kerfuffles with developers still enables lots of interesting third-party services, Google+ still feels very insular. If I want to post a picture to it from my phone, I have to use the Google+ app. If I want to post an update, I have to use the Google+ app. But while that app is actually quite good, I’m pretty sure we would see a lot more innovation and interesting use cases for Google+ if the company made it easier for developers to really start using it as a platform.

At I/O, Google quietly launched the Google+ History API for privately sharing updates to Google+ to your profile after the fact, but I’m not aware of any popular apps or web services that currently use this API. Throughout 2012, the Google+ team always said that it won’t release a full API until it is sure it gets everything right and won’t have to make changes later on that will upset developers the way Twitter did this year. It sure is taking its time to get things right, though, and as time passes, this argument continues to lose its power.

Maybe it’s telling then that the Google+ developer blog (the “official source of information about the Google+ platform”) has only been updated twice since the end of this year’s I/O. To be fair, the team regularly posts on Google+, but there have obviously not been many major updates to the platform in the second half of 2012. Google, it seems, really isn’t all that interested in turning Google+ into a platform. Instead, it wants it to remain as pristine and tightly managed as possible.

I often think of Google+ as a walled community with an overbearing homeowners association that wants to make sure your lawns are perfectly trimmed and the flags you hang outside your house aren’t offensive to anyone. It’s safe to let your kids play on the streets there, but it’s also a bit boring. That, it seems, is the community Google is striving for on Google+, but I can’t help but think that if it opened the gates a bit wider for third-party developers and let them innovate on top of the Google+ platform, the social network itself would quickly become far more interesting, too.

The Top 5 Tech Biz Stories of 2012

For the first time ever, smartphones outnumber basic mobile phones. Apple‘s iPhone and Google’s Android devices — which are more powerful than the top consumer PCs of just a decade ago — are changing our habits. Consumers are using smartphones to compare prices at brick-and-mortar retailers. Innovative startups are using these devices to make entrenched markets more efficient. And the “social networking” phenomenon continues forward, as people everywhere join Facebook and Twitter to connect and share content with friends, relatives, and strangers. In 2012, tech titans Apple and Google solidified their market power, even as questions percolated about how each company plans to remain on top of its respective market. (Google is currently staring down the barrel of a major federal antitrust investigation.) Meanwhile, relative upstarts Facebook, Zynga, and Groupon tested the public stock market and each encountered a harsh response from investors. Far from an apocalypse, 2012 was a year of ascension, as Apple CEO Tim Cook asserted his leadership following the passing of his mentor Steve Jobs, and Marissa Mayer became CEO of Yahoo, in an appointment that highlighted the lack of female CEOs at America’s most high-profile companies. (MORE: Lessons from Facebook’s Instagram Photo Flap) Apple vs. Google Tech War – In 2012, it become clear that the most high-profile battle in technology is between Apple and Google, two tech juggernauts that bring radically different visions to the marketplace. As the locus of computing shifts from the desktop to the mobile device, Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android have emerged as dominant platforms. This fight is bigger than just a commercial clash between two tech titans. It’s a war between two fundamentally different visions of technology, described in simplistic terms as closed vs. open. Apple’s model is end-to-end control over the iPhone process, from hardware to software, while Google’s strategy has been to distribute the Android system for free in order to leverage innovation from hardware makers and the software developer community. Each company has been wildly successful: Apple generates over $10 billion in profit annually on iPhone sales, while Google’s Android is now the top mobile operating system on the planet. Given the intensity

The top six business of technology stories of 2012 (Why six? Why not!)

Here at the Ministry of Innovation we’ve been bringing you loads of stories about all of the interesting and (hopefully useful!) changes that are coming out of Silicon Valley and elsewhere. Out of all of those stories, we’ve selected six that we feel not only had the most impact, but whose effects will continue to be felt into 2013 and beyond.

#6: Car-sharing services launch, fight the law

Back in June I heard about two San Francisco startups—Lyft and SideCar—that had similar business models. By the next month, I became a driver for both companies. Both companies allow individuals armed with smartphones to moonlight as not-quite-taxi drivers. Then, potential passengers can pop open their own app and request a pickup from whatever point in San Francisco they like. Payment is all handled within the app via credit card. It’s sort of like Uber, except for those of us that don’t need to travel by black car. However, state regulators (to say nothing of the incumbent taxi industry) haven’t taken too kindly to these companies.

We reported about how the California Public Utilities Commission (which deals with taxi regulation) hit the companies with a cease-and-desist in October. The following month, they were slapped with $20,000 in fines which naturally were appealed. But earlier this month, the CPUC seemed to have softened its tone and appeared willing to at least consider legitimizing these companies by changing the rules.

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How to side-load Google’s own apps onto your Kindle Fire HD

Whether Santa brought you a new Kindle Fire HD or your old one just needs the dust blown off, holiday down time is the perfect chance to side-load several of Google’s apps onto your Amazon tablet without rooting the device. As you may know, the Kindle Fire tablets do not come with the standard suite of Google applications made available to other Android tablets. That can be a bit of a bummer for users who are particularly attached to their Google apps.

Reddit user InnerManRaptor came forward to save the day, posting a step-by-step account on how to side-load Google apps onto the Kindle Fire HD. It includes fiddling with the Kindle’s settings to make side-loading possible, then downloading the APK (Android Package File) files onto your desktop and carefully transferring them over to the device. The APK includes Currents, Maps, Street View, Google Talk, YouTube, and Gmail, though not all the apps work perfectly. While YouTube, Gmail, and Currents work well, Google Maps cannot pinpoint the Kindle Fire HD’s location from Wi-Fi as it would on a standard Android device. Additionally, these apps are not the same versions featured with the latest iterations of Android Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean. Still, if you ache for the ability to access your Google accounts on your Kindle tablet device, this is a worthy middle-ground without having to trade in the tablet for a Nexus device.

More information about side-loading Google applications on to a Kindle Fire HD is available in the intrepid XDA Developers forums. If you’re also interested in Google Play functionality on your Kindle Fire HD, the folks at Android Authority have a helpful how-to on tweaking the System folder in order to get the Play store working on the 7-inch Fire.

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Google Extends Free Gmail Voice Calls In The U.S. And Canada Through 2013

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In what is becoming somewhat of a holiday tradition for Google, the company just announced that it is extending free domestic calls from Gmail in the U.S. and Canada for yet another year. Just like at the end of 2011 and 2010, Google today said that Gmail users will once again get one more year of free voice calls from the Gmail chat widget.

It’s interesting that Google continues to extend this service year after year. The company introduced voice calls from Gmail in August 2010 after introducing Gmail’s the voice and video chat feature in 2008. When it first launched this calling feature, it said that it would make it free for the first year. Since then, of course, it has always extended this offer, despite the company’s recent trend toward closing some of its less popular or money-losing services.

Google Voice, which forms the basis of the Gmail calling service and also offers free domestic calls, didn’t see too many updates in 2012, by the way. Besides some Google+ contacts integration and the launch of an updated Android app, it’s actually been extremely quiet around Google Voice this year.

Here is the full (and very brief) announcement from Google:

Many of you call phones from Gmail to easily connect with friends and family. If you’re in the US and Canada, you’ll continue to be able to make free domestic calls through 2013. Plus, in most countries, you can still call the rest of the world from Gmail at insanely low rates.

Google’s Mobile Future Is Now

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Google Now may be one of Google’s most underrated new products of 2012, but I think it will turn out to be Google’s killer mobile product in the long run. It’s the one tool that brings together virtually everything Google knows about you and where you are and then turns all of this information into a useful dashboard on your phone. No other Google product (with the possible exception of some of its advertising services) draws up such a wealth of data about you.

Chances are, you are already familiar with what Google Now looks like from a user’s perspective, but here’s a quick primer for those who are not: Google Now is a standard feature of Android Jelly Bean and up. It’s an easily accessible screen that shows you information about your daily commute (because it learns where you go every day and makes an educated guess as to where ‘home’ and ‘work’ are for you), appointments, local weather, upcoming flight and hotel reservations (assuming you give it access to scan your Gmail account) and how your favorite team did last night (it learns that from your search behavior). It also notices when you are not at home and shows you how long it’ll take you to get back to your house, or, if you are travelling, presents you with a list of nearby attractions you may be interested in, the value of the local currency, the time back home and easy access to Google Translate.

Google added a bit of functionality to Now over the last few months, but this is really just the beginning. In the long run, I think, Google Now has the potential to become the central hub for almost everything you do on an Android device (and it looks like Google is bringing Now to the browser, too). Nowhere else does Google bring all of its knowledge about you and the world around you together as concisely as with Google Now. The idea here, Google said when it introduced Now, is to search on your behalf before you even know what you want and to show you relevant information about the world around you that would otherwise take quite a while to find and would usually mean using a number of different apps or searches to find.

All of that is pretty interesting – or very creepy, depending on how you look at it – but it only scratches the surface of Google’s vision of what mobile computing could look like in the coming years. With Project Glass, the company has laid this vision out at the beginning of the year and if all goes well, the first “Explorer” editions of Google Glass should find their way to third-party developers in early 2013.

So what’s the connection with Google Now? Project Glass is essentially Google Now plus augmented reality and wearable computing. Out of all of the Google Glass features you see in the video above, the only really important one that isn’t implemented in Google Now yet is location sharing with your friends. That’s obviously not a major technical problem anymore, but my feeling is Google is holding back from adding something like this to Now for the time being to avoid making users feel queasy about the privacy implications of the service.

Beyond Google Now, the company also recently launched projects like Field Trip and the conspiracy-themed augmented-reality game Ingress. Both of these projects came out of the company’s Niantic Labs and would, of course, work great on Google Glass, too.

Of course, the only feature of Glass we’ve really seen in action so far is its ability to take videos and photos, but the vision is clearly larger than this – and the key features of Google’s goggles will surely resemble Google Now in some form or another.

The Google Of The App Search Era Just Might Be Google

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Only a few years in, and already the mobile application ecosystem has become an unfathomable jungle of applications – some 700,000-plus in the two top mobile app stores, Apple’s App Store and Google Play. And yet, we’re still waiting for the Google of the mobile app era to come in and save us from the mess that is today’s app market. A search engine that uses not just dozens of signals, but thousands, to help the everyday user connect with the apps they are searching for.

It’s possible, though, that the Google we’re still waiting for is actually Google itself.

There are independent app search companies already working on the app discovery challenge, of course. There are app-finding apps and search engines like AppFlowKinetikCrosswalkDiscovr AppsAppsFireXyoAppolicious and Hubbl, to name a few. Quixey also this month signed a deal to power the app searches on Ask.com. And yes, Google, too, has quietly been offering its own “applications” search vertical, still tucked away underneath the “more” menu beneath the search box on the results page.

But users aren’t searching for most of their apps on the web – they’re searching for apps on mobile. And when they’re searching on mobile, they tend to use the default app store apps on their device. In fact, 63% of users find app through app store search, according to Nielsen.

Apple vs. Google: The Fight To Be The King Of App Search

Because of the way the mobile ecosystems themselves have been created, it’s not going to be as easy for a third-party mobile app search/discovery company to come in, the way Google arrived to index the exponentially growing web, and extract the signals from the noise in today’s app stores. There is some proprietary data third-parties just don’t have access to. Google and Apple know downloads, uninstalls, and they could also know how often an app is opened, or how often it notifies users.

Besides, even if a company was to make headway there – there’s a good chance that something like this would happen (i.e., the Apple/Chomp deal). Apple or Google snatches up the innovative company, and integrates its technology into their own stores.

On mobile, the battle will eventually play out between the two giants – Apple and Google – for the better app search offering. Google, for what’s it worth, is already ahead of the game here. Its app store search algorithms today index app descriptions, while Apple’s looks at keywords and titles. Google has also stated that it now uses the amount and quality of links to an app’s Google Play page as an indicator, explains MobileDevHQ CEO Ian Sefferman, whose company helps developers improve their app store presence. “It’s smart, and it’s something that Apple can’t do easily,” he says.

He likens app search today to the earliest days of web search. ”I often make the analogy that we’re now sort of in 1997-ish when you compare app search to web search,” Sefferman says. “That is, the industry recognizes that app search is going to be incredibly important, and many folks are thinking about it (just like Alta Vista, Lycos, etc. in 1997-ish), but we have yet to find a good model for how to make it work, like Google did.”

Plus, that above-mentioned Google app search vertical? Another great place to build up data about app-related searches.

Of course, it’s not surprising that Google is ahead in app search. It’s Google. This is their bag.

With Millions Of Apps, Search May Matter More Than Who Got It First

But today’s focus in covering the app market isn’t about who is indexing better – it’s about who’s making the money, who has more market share, which developers are more successful, and so on. Perfecting app store search is a forward-thinkers’ game – it’s one that will matter more when app stores grow to web-scale. (If such a day ever arrives). Meanwhile, Google has been slow to perfect its app platform for developer financial success. Instead, Google’s mobile strategy has so far focused on market share domination. Mobile developers generate more revenue on iOS. Or even on Amazon’s Appstore, for that matter.

But because of Android’s market share, developers who launch and succeed on iOS, have no choice but to address the Android market at some point. “Android’s scale is too big to ignore, and 2013 is about Android, for many we talk to,” says SearchMan CEO Niren Hiro, whose company competes with MobileDevHQ. SearchMan recently started to index Android search results as well, to address the growing number of developers who need to target the Android market now that they’re expanding beyond iOS.

For those developers, Android is the second most important app market. That means Google’s app store may be behind in terms of newest, quality apps at any point in time, but eventually, those apps arrive. For Android users, it’s just a waiting game. In a market where there are already 700,000+ apps to choose from – and more every day – the question of “where did it launch first?” will not be as meaningful or as important where there are millions of apps to choose from. If the next Instagram-sized hit hasn’t yet arrived on Android, users will still be able to fill their time. (Anecdotally, I’d also add that a good many people buying the low-end Android phones aren’t asking “does it have the newest, most popular, most original apps?” but rather, “can I run apps?”)

That’s where the value of search comes in: getting those people to connect with the apps they care about. Surfacing the best apps for a given user will become critical, and even more so for Google where it might not have the latest and greatest immediately. Google will have to offer users something relevant to distract them while they wait.

Apple is still able to claim “it came to iOS first,” or “it’s iOS-only,” and that can’t be discounted. But it could struggle and innovate slower on search, having no extensive history in the business, as compared with Google. It may suggest the wrong things, and reward the wrong actions. App developers may figure out how to use ASO to their advantage, before Apple figures out how to discount the erroneous signals of those attempting to throw the game. (For those unfamiliar: ASO is app store optimization – the manipulations that help apps get found the way SEO helps websites improve their own ranks. Services like AppniqueMobileDevHQSearchMan and others look at keywords, titles, descriptions and then make recommendations as to what the developer should change in order to stay competitive.)

The bottom line here, is that getting app search wrong is a huge detriment to user experience, and search gets harder as more apps arrive.

When hundreds of thousands of app developers are playing at ASO, Google, and its search engineers steeped with years of experience in dealing with the SEO crowd, will have the advantage of knowing best how to keep the quality results at the top, and the cruft below. Apple, via its Chomp acquisition, is far from out of the game, of course. But it’s got a tougher road ahead, especially since it already transitioned its iOS 6 App Store away from list-based search results, forcing users to swiping through cards. This very interface requires that Apple gets search right (and fast), and so far, that hasn’t consistently been the case.

Could A Third-Party Still Win App Search?

There’s still room for a third-party, like Facebook or even a startup that offers an impartial, data-driven “Yelp/Zagat for Apps,” Hiro tells me. But only because Apple and Google are currently lacking in transparency about how their app search algorithms work. “In the web SEO world, Google Analytics and Google’s very-public explanation of page-rank and subsequent algorithm updates, were instrumental in helping millions of web-site owners figure out how to grow and instrument their sites for Google,” he explains. “But with the app stores, neither company has been transparent, perhaps for competitive reasons, historical secretiveness, or because of recent regulatory risk related to privacy. Lack of transparency and difficult distribution can have negative results.”

Facebook, Hiro adds, doesn’t have a good track record here. ”We’ve seen developers leave in droves from Facebook when the rules of distribution were vague and startups lost hope of ever achieving Zynga-like scale.”

The more worrisome thing, at least for Apple? At some point, it may no longer matter that “good” apps are reaching Apple’s ecosystem first, because there will be good apps everywhere. And really, how many “good” apps can a user install, anyway? 25? 50? 100? 300? More?

Google knows how to do “good enough,” too. (See also: Google Apps, Chromebook, and, well, Android’s early days). What will matter the most, in the long run, is that when a user goes looking for an app for X, they find the best app for X at the top of the app store search results, and it’s a good one. Google knows this business well, and Apple still has far to go.

Image credits: Flickr user LAI Ryanne; Instagram user vlogwithsid