Today is a good day to code

How Google Can Save Retail and Give Amazon a Black Eye in the Process

Posted: October 10th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Amazon, android, Apple, artificial intelligence, Companies, Google, iPhone, Lifestyle | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment »
Closed down retailer

Montgomery ward closed down

Looking at Google’s new maps inside view, it brings to mind a general problem with physical shopping vs online shopping.  With online shopping, I know exactly who has the item that I wish to buy, and I know what the price of that item is.  I can instantly perform comparison shopping without leaving the comfort of my home.  This convenience has a down side as well, when I do not know exactly what I want to buy and am just shopping for entertainment the online experience lacks substance.  It is much more fun to peruse best buy than it is to scroll down a page of picture of gadgets.  This is where Google can help.

One of the things that Google has done that has no clear immediate value to the company is to map the world in extreme detail, this has come to include the inside of stores.  Amazon does not have this capability.  In addition, Google has its hangout technology which, when leveraged with this inside indexing gives Google both a search index of the real world, and the ability to have a high-fidelity experience with an actual salesperson.

Imagine, Google indexes all of the shops in the world, coffee shops, hot dog stands, I mean everything along with real-time inventory of the items in search results.  Then they index those images using OpenCV or some other image recognition technology.  Alongside that, every retailer in the world assigns one or more salespeople inside of the shop to carry a tablet capable of performing a hangout.  Again this represents a giant biz-dev nightmare, but keep bearing with me.

Now comes the beautiful part, I, at home am surfing the web on my tablet when I get the itch to go shopping.  Instead of hopping into my car, I allow Google to suggest stuff that I might be interested in ( Amazon has a huge lead here, but Google will likely catch up due to their having more signals ).  While I’m looking through the suggestions, I see a watch that I am very interested in, so I click into it and it shows me a map of all of the places around me that have that watch.  I click again and ask for a horizontally swipable, inside view of the top 5 locations that have the watch.

I can actually browse the inside of the store, see the display with the watch in high resolution.  There will be a little place that I can click inside the store if I need help as in the watch is not on display, or the shop keeper will be notified that I am browsing.  At this point, the shop keeper can signal that they want to have a hangout with me in g+, or I can swipe to the next place at any time and browse that place.  If I do want to discuss the item in a hangout, I can either initiate or respond to an invitation from the shop keeper.  While on the hangout, the salesperson can express their craft, showing me alternate items, asking me to send data over, such as measurements, we could exchange documents, etc…

This future would be tremendous, and it is something that only Google can do.  But wait, there’s more!  Imagine that at this point with my Google Glasses, now I can have a full AR view with the details of each item coming up in my heads up display along with other shops’ more aggressive deals ( read ads ).  It would be ridiculously awesome!

Ultimately this will level the playing field with online as well as brick-and-mortar retailers, with the brick-and-mortar guys having a slight advantage until the online retailers start hiring sales reps for g+ hangouts or an equivalent technology.  I believe that this will bring a pretty large increase in the number of sales people employed and reverse the current employment drain that retail is experiencing.  It makes perfect sense as to why Amazon is trying to build out its mapping technology as quickly as possible.  It will be interesting to see who wins.


Display Advertising on the Internet Doesn’t Work

Posted: September 6th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Amazon, Apple, Companies, Facebook, Google | 1 Comment »
Online Pop-Up Advertising

Pop-Up Advertising ( Wikipedia )

Facebook’s stock price has been dropping like a rock.  Most pundits exclaim that the reason is because there is no “mobile strategy.”  Some attribute it to the weakness of the virtual goods market.  Rarely does someone come out and say that it is because by-and-large banner and link advertising doesn’t really work on the internet.

Facebook and Google both make their living off of display advertising.  Adam Curry had some insightful comments on TWiT the other day and I think he was pretty much dead-on.  There are, however a few points which I don’t think the show really got to cover.

Display advertising doesn’t work.  Let’s get that out of the way.  Earning money by trying to get people to click on banner, or link advertising will never work over the long haul.  The only case in which those ads create any sort of value is in brand recognition.  The only companies which are interested in brand recognition are the ones whose revenues are upwards of 20 million.  In other words, not most of the companies which are interested in advertising.  Definitely not the local companies like the cleaners or the barber shop.

For the majority of businesses, which are not VC rich internet businesses, or multi-billion dollar conglomerates, sponsoring a school basketball team is a better way to spend advertising dollars than ads on Google, Facebook, or anywhere else on the internet.

What Adam Curry said about supply and demand was true, but he missed one aspect.  The reason that the advertising on The Verge works for them ( for now ) is that the brands advertising on the site just want to be associated with cool and hip, which is The Verge.  It is more aspiration on the part of the advertiser than real value for value.

Cost-Per-Impression ( CPM ); or the original billing metric for display advertising was based on how many times a given ad was displayed, later revised to be whenever an actual person, not a bot, saw the ad.  Relatively quickly, after things settled with the innovation that Google brought to the marketplace, advertisers realized that an impression was truly worth near zero, and clicks were the thing.  Google then changed to Cost-Per-Click ( CPC ) as the billing metric and things got marginally better.  The problem now is that clicks can’t really be trusted for a myriad of reasons.  The primary reason is gaming and fraud.  One can pay huge numbers of people peanuts in western currencies to click on a given ad.  No matter how clever the algorithms get, they were still designed by people and other people will be able to figure out how they work.  Until algorithms in a completely unrelated area can be devised entirely by machines can they be truly opaque to humans.  Even then, there is still the chance that they can be reverse engineered since they would have to be governed by logic.

Let’s get back to Facebook and Google and why Facebook’s stock is in the toilet.  Assuming that impressions are worth near zero and clicks are worth next to zero one would claim that volume would drive revenue.  This is true in the case of Google.  Google keeps their operating costs at next to nothing given their size and they have an absurd number of people using the product.  Google can then make some money based on impressions and clicks.  This is not the same amount of money as they would be making if the same number of people were actually buying some product at a fixed margin from them, but a decent amount of money given their investment.

Google has an impending problem, which is that CPM near zero is rapidly becoming zero and the CPC next to zero is dropping to zero as well.  Google can shuffle costs and can produce hardware and other products ( Google Play, Q, Drive, etc… ) to earn more money.  In other words, Google is trying to figure out something else to do to earn profit.  Facebook on the other hand has no other prospects, and they are not nearly as thrifty as Google.  The next big thing, that people in the ad game are suggesting, will be social advertising, or that you will buy the same things that your friends.  I don’t buy that, it is too easy to game, and the basic hypothesis is flawed, I think that there is a kernel of value there, but not enough to support multiple billions of dollars in revenue over 20 years.

I can not write Facebook or Yahoo completely off, however and here is why: Apple.

If you care to remember, Apple competed in two “dying” markets where there was “no more money to be earned” and the “barriers to entry were too high.”  Those two markets were personal computers and portable music players.  If we look at those two markets, we see that IBM, Dell, Compaq, HP and others were enjoying decent margins while Apple was slowly dying.  When Steve Jobs came back to Apple, he focused relentlessly on improving the product and charging for it (AKA value for value ).  He produced PCs and laptops that were outwardly the same as their competitors more or less with the exception of a few design flourishes.  They produced a PMP that was competitive at first blush, but certainly not generations ahead of its competitors.

The reason that Apple later trounced them all was that in the race to the bottom, the focus was on what corners to cut.  If someone was using resistors that had 5% tolerance, a competitor would drop it to 2% tolerance to save money and reduce the price to the customer.  If someone was using hard-drives that had 36,000 hours MTBF ( Mean-Time Between Failures ) they would find someone to charge them less for drives that had 32,000 hours MTBF.

In this number-crunching mutually-assured destruction competition, everyone took their eyes off of the simple fact that what they were producing was shit, and it was becoming shittier by the generation.  I can’t even say the word Compaq without thinking about burnt out toaster.  They were the worst PCs ever.

Apple, at the time, kept making the best computers they possibly could, in every dimension.  The software was top-notch, the hardware was top-notch.  The Apple computer or iPod would look good, be easy to use, last forever, and if it didn’t they would replace it immediately.  That has been changing a bit recently, but it was true for their PMPs and computers in the very early 21st century.  As such, Apple could easily charge 20% to 40% more for a comparable item than their erstwhile foes.  HP, IBM, Dell, and Compaq, however couldn’t understand how they were doing it, or why their customers were defecting to Macs.  It didn’t make sense to them, why would someone want to pay so much more for a similar product.  Most of them thought it was an anomalous blip, that there must just be more artsy people than they had originally thought.

What they didn’t understand was that many people just got sick of taking computers back, dealing with stonewalling customer service, etc…  They just wanted something that worked.  After the 3rd or 4th failure, they probably were complaining about it to a friend who said, well I have a Mac, and if something is wrong I just take it in and they take care of it ( social advertising for you ).  That is all it takes for most people when they are completely ready to buy something else that really solves their need or want.  In other words, value for value.  In fact, probably because the others set a floor so low for the products, it helped with the image of Apple as high-end, cementing the enhanced value of what Apple was offering in their minds.

I digress.  I would argue that Facebook has an opportunity to not enter this awful battle to the bottom for online advertising.  They could try to do something that provides real, true value for people.  I have no idea what this looks like, probably being right there when someone decides to buy something, to help them find the exact right product, similar to Amazon, who I view more as an advocate for me, helping me find just the right thing when I want it, not before or after.  Or maybe they could go the sinister way and try to make me buy crap that I don’t need through Psycho-analysis and data mining.  Either way would make them truckloads of money, but it has to be high quality.

There is still one point of caution for anyone involved in mobile or online advertising, or anyone thinking about investing in that space.  Apple, that great beacon that refused to battle to the bottom, tried to do something new and fresh with advertising – iAd.  It failed.  If they can’t do it, perhaps no one can.


The Biggest Trick that Jeff Bezos Ever Pulled

Posted: April 19th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Amazon, Apple, Companies, Facebook, Google | Tags: , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Boa Constrictor

For reasons unknown, it seems that the tech media completely fails to give Jeff Bezos and Amazon the recognition that they deserve.  I believe that this is due to a deliberate strategy executed by Amazon to quietly grab as much mind and market share as they can.  If they continue on their trajectory, they may become unassailable, in fact, they may be already.

There are blogs and podcasts called things like Apple Insider, This Week In Google, Mac Break Weekly, etc… I have yet to hear about any blogs or podcasts about what Amazon is doing week-in and week-out, but in many ways it is much more interesting.  Amazon now handles 1% of consumer internet traffic, pushing all of through its near ubiquitous compute cloud infrastructure.  They are rapidly and efficiently dismantling existing retail.  Amazon is probably on their way to completely owning web commerce.  Amazon has mass amounts of data on what people have, want, and will want based on what they own and buy.  Through their mobile applications they are gathering pricing signals from competitors so that they can use their own cluster computing prowess to spot change pricing.

What is shocking about this is, despite their proficiency, no one discusses how absurdly dominant Amazon has become.  Everyone just treats Amazon running all internet commerce and large swaths of its infrastructure as “the way it is.”  Amazon is more a force of nature at this point than a company.

It isn’t just the tech media that doesn’t give them the credit they deserve, major tech companies aren’t either.  Google and Apple seem ready to laugh off the Kindle Fire while Amazon soaks up more signals.  Microsoft doesn’t even try to match them.  Google’s commerce efforts look half-baked compared to what Amazon does, and they show no signs of trying to do better.

It is absurd to think that with the bitter rivalries we constantly hear about between Apple and Google, Microsoft and Google, Microsoft and Apple, etc… that someone would start a podcast about Amazon.  Fifty years from now technology changes will have toppled Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, but I’d bet that Amazon would still be around.

Jeff Bezos and his company wield algorithms and data more effectively than anyone else in the industry, despite all the credit we give Google for search.  Their suggestion and comment filtering algorithms are bar none, the best around.  Amazon is integrated into the fabric of our lives and that is something that no other tech company has done to that level.

Amazon will keep doing what Amazon does best, being ruthless, being efficient, executing better than anyone else, and staying ahead of the curve.  As long as we keep ignoring them they are doing their job.  The greatest trick Amazon ever pulled was convincing the world that they didn’t exist.  They have convinced the world that they are just retail.


Script to Bundle Running EC2 Instance

Posted: October 1st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Amazon, Companies | Tags: , , , , , , | No Comments »

For the past few hours I have been battling with trying to create a script to bundle a running EC2 instance.  After many, S3 access denied, errors,  “Error talking to S3: Server.OperationAborted(409): A conflicting conditional operation is currently in progress against this resource. Please try again.” errors, and “you are trying to upload to a different region than you are bundling in errors, I think I finally have it.

The key is to just allow the script to create the bucket.  I used s3fox to create the bucket, and it built it for no region.  Performing a manifest migration solved one problem, but after that one was solved, I still kept getting the error.  After I deleted the bucket, and changed the name of the bucket in the script, it was still giving me the “OperationAborted” issue.  After a bunch of trying, this script got me to the gold.

#!/bin/bash

remotehost=yourec2instanceaddress

remoteuser=root

bucket=yourbucketname

prefix=yourprefixname

AWS_USER_ID=yourawsuserid

AWS_ACCESS_KEY_ID=yourawsaccesskeyid

AWS_SECRET_ACCESS_KEY=yourawssecretaccesskey

rsync –rsh=”ssh -i
|pathtoyourawskey|.pem” –rsync-path=”sudo rsync” |pathtokeys|{cert,pk}-*.pem $remoteuser@$remotehost:/mnt/

ssh -i |pathtoyourawskey|.pem $remoteuser@$remotehost “\

\

export JAVA_HOME=/usr;\

sudo -E ec2-bundle-vol -r i386 -d /mnt -p $prefix -u $AWS_USER_ID -k /mnt/pk-*.pem -c /mnt/cert-*.pem -s 10240 -e /mnt,/root/.ssh;\

sudo ec2-migrate-manifest –region us-west-1 –manifest /mnt/$prefix.manifest.xml -k /mnt/pk-*.pem -c /mnt/cert-*.pem -a $AWS_ACCESS_KEY_ID -s $AWS_SECRET_ACCESS_KEY

ec2-upload-bundle –location us-west-1 -b $bucket -m /mnt/$prefix.manifest.xml -a $AWS_ACCESS_KEY_ID -s
$AWS_SECRET_ACCESS_KEY –acl aws-exec-read;\

ec2-register –region us-west-1 -K /mnt/pk-*.pem -C /mnt/cert-*.pem $bucket/$prefix.manifest.xml;”

Another super important thing was to ( I use ubuntu ) perform an apt-get ec2-ami-tools to make sure you have the ec2-register installed.  It will install java as a result, but will not set the JAVA_HOME environment variable.  It just wants to be able to find the binary so I added the export JAVA_HOME=/usr.  Java is in /usr/bin/java.

After everything is up, you’ll still have quite the mess in your /mnt folder, but I wrote a cleanup script to deal with that.

Happy scaling!


Kindle Mac Mount Bug Workaround

Posted: March 25th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Amazon, Companies | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

From the time I got my Kindle 2 with the 2.0 firmware, it didn’t mount except occasionally on my Mac.  I was puzzled for a while, but I finally figured out what was happening.  If you have wireless turned off, the Kindle 2 won’t mount on your Mac.  If you turn wireless on and then plug it in, it mounts instantly.

My guess is that the Kindle 2 is trying to turn off wireless when it is already off, since it doesn’t get the turned off signal or whatever, it gets sort of stuck.  The bug is still there in the 2.0.2 firmware.

I hope this helps someone!


Amazon Kindle 2 Review

Posted: March 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Amazon, Companies | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments »

The Kindle 2 is vastly improved over the first Kindle, I said some pretty harsh things about the first version of the Kindle, but really I saw that as a prototype, not a real production device.  It is amazing that Amazon sold 300,000 versions of that device.  The second one is much better than the first, but it still isn’t worth $360 dollars.  That being said, I do love it.  The longest reading session I have had with it has been about 6 hours, without any eye fatigue.

By contrast, I can hardly read for more than 30 minutes on my laptop, or my iPhone without my eyes becoming tired.  The device isn’t perfect however.  The buttons while better as far as accidental page turns, are still somewhat prone to accidental page turns, however with the faster screen refresh the penalty for an accidental page turn is less.  The screen flash is annoying, especially for how often you have to change pages, and the click of the button could be aggravating for anyone near you at night when reading.

The wireless is good, I have great signal wherever I go, and do get most books within a minute.  I wish I could send annotated sections of books to other people, but that functionality is missing, I did send over some feedback, requesting that feature, and I got back what appears to be an actual email from a person, not a form letter, although it is hard to tell.

The Kindle 2 experience is definitely premium, and Amazon is targeting a certain class of people, anyone else would just question why in the world anyone would pay $360 for a book, even with all of the features that the Kindle has.  The packaging was very well done, with little waste, they took a page from Apple’s playbook on that.

The main reason I wanted the Kindle 2 was because of the sheer waste involved in getting programming books.  Not only is the cost ridiculous as far as the shipping and transport of the books, the fact that they are obsolete so quickly makes them very wasteful and heavy.  With the Kindle, I can just load up the device with the books, and instead of carrying 10 pounds of books, I can carry 10 ounces.  It is a vast improvement.  With access to wikipedia, and the ability to search within the book, it makes finding specific reference material a breeze.  I would recommend it to any programmer.

The Kindle has come a long way since the first version.  If it weren’t for this recession I’m sure that Amazon would sell a lot more of them.  Unfortunately, the only way to really sell this device is in person.  It is difficult to appreciate how nice reading on it is when looking at a picture or reading a description.  I don’t know of any service that will allow you to rent Kindles, but Amazon should do this at airports if they really want to sell them.

Back to the price.  Is it really worth $360?  The question isn’t easy to answer.  It really depends on how you use your Kindle.  If you use it mainly as a recreational device, to read your average new york times best sellers, and you are looking for a way to save money on books, then you will be waiting for a long time to recoup your investment.

If you, however are the same sort of individual, except that you have a very strong green bent, then yes, it is worth it.  If you normally buy books right when they come out and are their most expensive, or you are a software or other professional engineer, and you buy very expensive and large books, as I said above, it is definitely worth the money.

Other people to whom I believe it would be worth it are business and legal professionals, since you can send various electronic formatted documents to your Kindle, including Microsoft’s DOC format, then some of those lengthy documents can be sent to your Kindle for you to peruse at your leisure.  Actually, for those sorts, I see it as being somewhat indispensable, since they travel and read so much.

The bottom line is its complicated.  My reasons for buying it were for the weight savings, as I am frequently mobile, in that I don’t have to carry the books any more, and I can search the books.  I do indeed have a slight green bent, at least on the side of conservation, so I see a benefit in the lack of world destroying transport and logging around the Kindle experience, so for me as an early adopter, I see it as subsidizing a better future.  I don’t think it will become mainstream until they get the price down around $149.  I think that would be the sweet spot for the Kindle.  For me, it is indeed worth the $360.