Sunday, November 23, 2014

Google: sour Lollipops, sour grapes & other reports

Google has had a bad rap this last week with criticism coming from a hardcore of its otherwise loyal fans angry at bugs in the company's latest Android software. The technology giant has also been criticised by some European politicians who claim the company has become too big and needs to be broken up.

Sour Lollipops

There was an outpouring of anger from many tablet users over the last few days after an OTA [Over The Air] update severely affected the operation of their devices.

Early adopters of Google's latest Android operating system warned others of problems with the software on social networks and in a Google discussion thread which ran into more than 20 pages in a little over a week.

Many users of the Nexus 7 tablet, made my Asus and once a flagship product of the Chocolate Factory, said their device began to run slowly and repeatedly crash after the software update. Some complained their tablets had become "unusable".

While there were hundreds of comments related to the issue on the thread, Twitter, Google+ and other social networks, Google has been almost completely silent. Their silence has only compounded the anger felt by some Nexus 7 owners.

Some forum users were a little more pragmatic, believing that Google would likely come up with a fix, but nonetheless criticised their silence.

"I would be a lot happier - and a great deal more patient - if an official Google representative made an announcement," one forum user said.

Perhaps something to the effect of "We are aware that this update is causing serious problems for some, if not all, Nexus 7 users. We are working hard to find a fix to this, and we aim to send out a further update soon which will rectify these issues.  We apologise if these users have felt that we were ignoring their complaints, but we have been working very hard to find a solution, and appreciate your patience and forebearance [sic]."

The lack of any coherent message from the tech giant and frustration felt by users prompted some to suggest conspiracy theories. Some claimed that Google may have foisted the update on Nexus 7 tablets, rendering them useless such that people might upgrade to the new flagship Nexus 9 tablet.

However, such a move would likely be counter-productive given the vitriol coming from some forum members, some of whom said they were tempted to move to the Apple ecosphere and were unlikely to trust Google again.

Google had not been entirely quiet, and reportedly told The Register that it was looking into the matter.

"We're aware some Android users are facing issues and are looking into what might be the cause," a spokesperson for the advertising giant told the technology website.

Nonetheless, the message was not getting through to owners of Android devices and particularly Nexus owners who were beginning to feel the name may have been chosen for a reason.

Google's choosing the Nexus name was deemed by some as somewhat ironic given the demise of its branded products. "Why oh why did Google name its own special brand of devices after the replicants in Blade Runner which had artificially limited life spans?" ITWire's Alex Zaharov-Reutt wrote. "Was this a secret sign from Google all along, hidden in plain sight?"

He has a point given the rather quick cycle of Nexus products. The Nexus One was only released in 2010 yet its low memory and its inability to be upgraded beyond Android 2.3.6 Gingerbread has made the device redundant.

There are still those who still use the Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus, released in 2010 and 2011 respectively, but many owners experience performance issues after only three years of use and support has ended for both these phones which for most people remain on Android Ice Cream Sandwich 4.2.1.

Indeed, the latest Android slogan "be together, not the same" seems only to count for those with the latest Android devices [BBC / Independent / Daily Mail / PhonesReview / 9to5Google / The Register].

EU call for Google break-up

It wasn't just Nexus and other Android users that were berating Google this last week. Some MEPs have called on Google to be broken up to curb its dominance of the Internet. The European Parliament is reported to be calling for the firm to be split into separate components in the most audacious attempt yet to loosen its grip on the sector.

A draft motion backed by several MEPs and leaked to the Financial Times said investigators should look at "unbundling search engines from other commercial services".

This would mean separating Google's search functions from other features such as its YouTube video-sharing website, or its Internet maps service [Daily Mail].

But many users of the search giant have criticised such plans suggesting that it amounted to sour grapes. Google is successful because it is good at what it does, people posting in comments sections said. "What about the the big boys in their own back yard? such as Nestle," one person responded angrily.

"The fact is that everyone who uses Google does so by choice, most of the time because it is simply better. Only in the EU is success viewed as a crime," another person posted. "I've got an idea for the next Olympics, let's not give medals to the winners of events, it's obviously unfair that they're better than the others."

The proposed plans come after several months of criticism coming from certain parts of Europe, particularly Germany and France.

Much of the anti-Google stance emanating from Germany soon after the Snowden revelations which claimed Google were in collusion with the NSA and were spying on German politicians and ordinary citizens.

In the months that have followed Google has been accused of privacy violations [Techcrunch] and of exploiting the copyright of others by publishing news snippets fron German newspapers in its Google News portal.

The search giant eventually decided to stop publishing such snippets in October [WSJ]. But while Google certainly benefits from its news portal, so too do publisher since traffic is often directed to their site from the Google News page.

Indeed Germany's biggest news publisher Axel Springer has since scrapped a move to block Google from running snippets of articles from its newspapers, after finding that traffic to its sites had plunged.

A Google spokesman in Germany praised the turnaround and said, "The decision shows that Google is making a significant contribution to the economic success of news publishers." [Reuters]

Google is the target of a European antitrust investigation into the operations of its online search business. The US firm accounts for more than 80% of the European Internet search market and more than 90% of that in Germany.

The European Union's new digital commissioner Guenther Oettinger said in October that he was mulling a regional Internet copyright levy, taking aim at Google. However such plans are likely to fail in the long term.

Whilst Google last year agreed to pay 60 million euros [$75 million] into a special fund to help French media develop their presence on the Internet, search engines will not be required to pay publishers in France for displaying content.

Google, as a search engine, is merely trawling and displaying what is available on the Internet. Should publishers not wish results to be displayed they have of course two options. The first is not to publish publicly on the Internet. The second is to request that Google not index their site. Of course by doing so will drive down web traffic, as Germany's publisher Axel Springer has found.

Others have also had to backtrack on such decisions. Rupert Murdoch also found that traffic to The Times and other News International publications dropped significantly when he ordered the search giant to stop indexing its sites. Thus Murdoch eventually made a U-turn and allowed Google to once again show snippets of its publications.

Misunderstanding of modern web

There is not just a fear of Google that exists in Germany and elsewhere [NYT]. There is also a misunderstanding of the way the web works and how well a company performs. Google is only successful simply because it is good at what it does.

There are many other search engines but they often fall flat when compared to Google.

Google for example has indexed more than 40 billion webpages while Microsoft's Bing search engine has only indexed 13.5 billion pages. Russia's Yandex and China's Baidu do well on their own turf, however they are clearly not as powerful as either Google or Bing. Yandex is largest search engine in Russia with about 60% market share within the country, but beyond its borders Yandex has barely been heard of. It also falls flat on the number of pages indexed, reportedly numbered at less than 2 billion. China's Baidu also does well in its own territory and amongst Chinese nationals living abroad. However it has only indexed a reported 740 million web pages, the lowest of all the major search engines, and many are even according to its founder Robin Li mostly Chinese pages.

However Baidu has an advantage in China, not so much to do with how good it is as a search engine, but more to do with the political and business environment existing in China.

Li has been criticised for tolerating censorship, piracy, and lax advertising standards, but he argues that search is a different game in China. He may be right. Li cited Google, one of his major global competitors, as an example of a firm that stumbled after expanding to China.

The US company met significant resistance from the Chinese government, especially on the issue of censorship. After repeatedly running afoul of regulators, Google chose to exit mainland China in 2010 and redirect its web traffic through Hong Kong. And Baidu was the direct beneficiary of Google's woes with traffic soaring after Google left and censorship to Google domains increased.

Return to China

But four years on there are reports Google may be thinking of returning to China. According to the Wall Street Journal, Google is considering bringing a version of its Play mobile-app store to China, a tentative but important step back into the Middle Kingdom.

In Google's absence, there are multiple Android app stores in China, spawning piracy and prompting many developers to hire large teams just to manage relations with the stores. In the US and across much of Europe just two app stores dominate; Apple's App Store for iPhones and iPads and Google's Play Store for Android mobile devices.

To bring order to the app chaos in China, and of course boost revenue, Google wants to open a version of its Play Store there. It may prove an uphill struggle. At present most Android phones sold in China are stripped of Google apps and its flagship Play Store which often cannot even be installed on the device.

The company will also face a battle with authorities and legislators if it wishes to play in China once again. Google has declined to comment on these reports, just as it has been rather silent on Lollipop issues.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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