Gobbled by Google


Required reading this week was Ken Auletta’s Googled: The End of the World as We Know It.

Auletta wants us to believe that Google succeeded in moving from a garage start-up to a $20 billion company because of passion, focus and vision (amongst other things). From a management perspective, perhaps, Googled sieves out the key lessons well, although midway through, one gets the feeling that Auletta is more Google apologist than objective business writer/commentator.

“Focus”, for example, is the explanation for why Larry Page did not look up from his PDA during a meeting with with Barry Diller. IMHO, this is bad manners, not focus, and Google succeeded in spite of it.

In fact, I think that it takes something more than passion, focus and vision (and all those other things) for a technology to company to move from zero to google.

In the dot com boom era, there were no shortage of companies with these “prerequisites”. Admittedly, a good many were founded on suspect business models, but there were also those which failed because they had ideas ahead of their time.

In 2001, for example, I interviewed with a company that was building mapping software.

The company (and I can’t even recall its name anymore) had a young and passionate staff, who were pretty much focused only on the mapping application, and had a vision of an application similar to Google Maps, several years before the latter existed. They even had government support in terms co-funding and subsidized premises in a technology park that probably had the fastest Internet access Singapore had to offer.

But it closed about a year later when seed funding dried up … along with dozens other start-ups with similar attributes.

I don’t think that this company had a bad idea per se because of the concepts they had in mind then can be found in GPS and other mapping applications today.

I do not discount Auletta’s observations of (and praise for) Google’s management practices, but fundamentally, I believe that it succeeded because — like other successful ventures — it was in the right place at the right time with the right product.

Google was not the first search engine by a long stretch — inter alia, there was Yahoo!, Lycos and Alta Vista — but it came into the picture at about the time when the world was on the brink of the Internet revolution. Search-term advertising was still quite new; Internet advertising then comprised largely of banner ads which were sold mainly by eyeballs and click-thrus. The dominant online advertising company in the late 1990s was DoubleClick (which was acquired by Google in 2007 for $3.1 billion).

As a search engine, Google is at the cross-junction of the Internet, well placed to tap on a massive share of Internet advertising revenues.

What struck me when I first used Google (probably in the early 2000s) was unlike the other search engines, there was no advertising on the initial webpage. What made me continue using it, however, was probably the fact that it gave quick and good search results. Google’s acquisitions broadened its product line to include killer apps like email, maps (Google Earth and Streetview), photo-hosting and now, social networking. It is probably safe to assume that almost every netizen is familiar with the brand.

Google has indeed changed the world as we know it. Its success can be attributed to the passion, focus and vision of its founders and staffers. There was also a great deal of creativity, innovation and risk-taking, that might be more difficult to come by.

And a good dose of serendipity never hurt anyone.

Further thoughts:

This article where Google CEO Eric Schmidt discusses their relationship with Apple brings to mind another issue.

Google is a big business, and big businesses are oftentimes associated with evil, if only because scale breeds monopolies.  For example, what if Google uses its dominant position in Search to disadvantage its competitors … and could anyone prove it?

Is everyone else now a small fish, waiting to be gobbled by Google?


Singapore Politics in the Digital Age


Noticed that Here Comes Everybody includes a brief mention of Singapore in pgs 209/210.

“Many countries place restrictions on the media in the run-up to elections, but this raises the question of who “the media”is today and what controls should be put on them. Different countries are coming up with different answers — Singapore banned blogging during the last few weeks before a 2005 election but couldn’t control Singaporeans blogging overseas …”

First, a couple of clarifications.  The said events actually took place in April 2006, and the ban was actually against podcasting of political content.

Singapore has Election Advertising Regulations which allow only political parties, candidates and election agents to advertise. The prohibition announcement was the government’s (somewhat less than adroit) attempt to ensure that netizens conform to this regulation.

Blogging on politics per se was not prohibited, although the government did announce that individual bloggers “have to register with the Media Development Agency if they persistently promote political views.”  The government’s view was that individuals should not hide behind the anonymity of the internet to manipulate public opinion.  Such a move, of course, led to vociferous responses from the local blogging community.

And from my own observations, Singaporeans bloggers, at home and abroad (who knows, really?), continued to post regularly on the campaigning. (For more details, see the news article appended below)

Clarifications notwithstanding, I agree with Shirky on how the freedoms which the digital age brings can damage current social bargains (described as the second kind of loss under Solving Social Dilemmas). For Singapore politics, this is a particularly relevant point.

You see, the press in Singapore is not seen as a watchdog, but more as a nation building tool. The dominant media companies are government-linked corporations, and consequently, local journalists observe out-of-bound markers in their reporting.

All fine and good, but as Shirky points out, the Internet (and blogosphere in particular) has blurred the definition of what a journalist is.

The government believes that citizens are entitled to their views, but must be prepared to defend them.  On the other hand, local netizens are aware that government leaders have taken some opposition politicians and (foreign) journalists to court for libel/slander, and some remain behind the cloak of anonymity that the medium allows.

The next general election in Singapore will have to be held in the next 18 months. What will be rules of engagement be this time? I am not sure. The one thing that is clear is that with new media like Facebook and Twitter, the rules may have to be updated with every election.

Just listened to Ariana Huffington (of the Huffington Post) at the Shorenstein Center today (14Sep). She highlighted the importance of trust in new media and shared how the Huffington Post had pre-moderated all its comments despite having meagre resources in its early days so as to ensure civil discourse.

The issue of trust is in fact central to online political debate in Singapore.  The government believes that political commentary should not be anonymous, but some bloggers continue to hide behind pseudonyms.  This said, there are many Singapore bloggers who put their names (and faces) behind their words, and in fact, there are already contenders for Singapore’s version of the Post, such as The Online Citizen.

The issue, it seems, is whether trust can exist alongside anonymity in the political blogosphere.


Podcasting is not allowed during elections
By Hasnita A Majid, Channel NewsAsia
03 April 2006 1806hrs (GMT +8hrs)

Podcasting will not be allowed during elections as it does not fall under the “positive list” which states what is allowed under election advertising.

Senior Minister of State for Information, Communications and the Arts Balaji Sadasivan added that streaming of videos during campaigning would also be prohibited.

He was addressing a question in Parliament on Monday about the use of new technologies on the internet during hustings.

Pictures of candidates, party histories and manifestos are on the “positive list” and are allowed to be used as election advertising on the internet.

Newer internet tools like podcasting do not fall within this “positive list”.

Dr Balaji said: “There are also some well-known local blogs run by private individuals who have ventured into podcasting. The content of some of these podcasts can be quite entertaining. However, the streaming of explicit political content by individuals during the election period is prohibited under the Election Advertising Regulations. A similar prohibition would apply to the videocasting or video streaming of explicitly political content.”

The Parliamentary Election Act was amended in 2001 to allow political parties to advertise on the internet.

This was to ensure responsible use of the internet during campaigning as the free-for all environment of the internet is open to abuse.

Dr Balaji added that individual bloggers can discuss politics, but have to register with the Media Development Agency if they persistently promote political views.

When registered, they’re then not allowed to advertise during elections – something only political parties, candidates and election agents are allowed to do only.

Despite new internet technology, there’re no plans to change the law on campaigning on line during an election.

The government’s view is that people can have diverse views, but should not hide behind the anonymity of the internet, to manipulate public opinion.

Everything’s changed

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Signed up for DPI-659.  As required, I read Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody. Went through Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail and the first part of Groundswell.

I should be getting a sense of deja vu.  Been there, done that.

After all, once upon a time, I too was a computer geek.  Well, kind of.  Built my own 486 during my undergrad days. My 96k external modem tapped (against hostel regulations) into a shared incoming telephone line to connect to the local ISP.

My undergraduate thesis (circa 1997) was on the (then nascent) Internet advertising industry.

In the late 90s, I worked briefly at a web consultancy, where we helped brick and mortar businesses to create their online presence.  In most cases, these were static, information-only pages that simply proclaimed “Hey, we have a website too!”  (Most of our clients were not ready to go into e-commerce in a big way; setup costs were high and the online population in Southeast Asia was relatively small.  Contrary to the Long Tail, it was a small number of clients and angel investors who were keeping us fed.)

When my son was born (in 2001), I even had a website to post his baby photos, lovingly assembled in HTML.

So this new media/digital age stuff ought to be familiar.  Except that it isn’t.

In the past few years, my work as a bureaucrat pretty much only required me to use email and Microsoft Word.  Pre-assembled laptops became cheaper than DIY bespokes.  So it has been some time since I’ve seen the inside of a computer, wrote a line of code, or given any thought to the Internet (except for figuring out which ISP gives me the best deal).

The Radical Transformation (from my perspective)

And now, everything’s changed.

With Facebook, publishing on the web is just a step from having an email account. Mobile computing has increased the time the online population remains online. And now, even my mom’s buying stuff online in between her mahjong sessions.

Shirky, Anderson and Li & Bernoff (along with others) rightly herald these changes as a paradigm shift.  In class, Nicco described several radical transformations.

For someone who has been in a state of virtual hibernation over the past 8 years, the difference — in a nutshell — is this: it used to be two distinct worlds — the real world and the virtual world (like Second Life).  These days, however, it is hard to see where one ends and the other begins.

Same but Different in Singapore

It is not clear if the trends discussed in class are entirely applicable to Singapore (where I come from).  The quoted figures on online/mobile penetration/activity are usually US- and Europe-centric.  Singapore is probably not too far behind the adoption curve (if the queues for iPhones and iPads are anything to go by).

So in a way, what happens here or in Europe is often a foretaste of what will generally happen in Singapore some time later. This applies not just to the adoption of new technologies but also social networking trends.  Shirky’s book mentions several examples of the flash mob since 2003.  In Singapore in July 2006, about 30 people turned up at a central subway station dressed in brown in silent support for Singaporean blogger who goes by the moniker of Mr Brown, whose weekly newspaper column had been suspended after the government criticized his satire on high living costs.

Methinks, however, that the impact of the digital age on politics will be different in Singapore.  Our political system diverges from the US in many ways; for example, our political parties to not raise funds from voters in the same way that US presidential campaigns do.  Nonetheless, I believe that the online revolution will change Singapore political landscape.  More on this later.