January 18, 2018

With Web at the Core, Chromebook Options are Strong, Plentiful

This looks like an ad. But it's just a few recent Chromebooks.

In 2011, on my first day at Google, I was asked to pick out a laptop. The choices were slim - a thin Apple MacBook Air or the larger MacBook Pro, a forgettable Windows equivalent, or a Linux device more suitable for engineers. While I had the company's first foray into Chromebooks, the CR-48, at home, in addition to my own personal Mac, picking a Chromebook wasn't even an option. The Web-centric OS, which focused on keeping all data in the cloud, and leveraging Web apps, wasn't ready for my every day use.

A few months later, I ran into then SVP of Chrome Sundar Pichai, in the office stairwell as we were on to our respective meetings. Pointing to my MacBook Air, I told him I couldn't wait to turn it in and go completely ChromeOS at home and at the office. In his usual humble and understated way, he said the team was working on it, and to stay tuned. Not too long afterward, in another unplanned hallway conversation, he introduced me to a VP on his team developing hardware, and offered me up as a willing beta candidate.

The 2013 Chromebook Pixel (version 1)
I didn't think much of the choice encounter until early 2013, when I saw Sundar take the stage and unveil the Chromebook Pixel, a high-end Chromebook with a touchscreen, and promised faster speeds and memory.

As I recounted a few years ago on Google+, I saw Sundar as available on IM shortly after the event and congratulated him on the exciting launch. His IM came moments later... "Do you have one yet?" Surprised, I said I didn't, and it was no big deal. I had no such illusions of self-importance. But he answered directly, "I'm so sorry. You were supposed to be on the list." Fast forward, less than an hour later, I had a brand-new Pixel - and I haven't seen a need to use a Mac since.

That a Googler is using a Chromebook isn't newsworthy, obviously. Water is wet. But I remember a time when betting on a Web-centric device like a Chromebook was a real leap of faith. There were always excuses not to make the switch, be it a specific piece of software, some concern about printing, or general distrust of the unknown. Maybe we were worried about moving local storage to the cloud, or editing photos, or losing access to some premium software on Mac or Windows we'd already paid for - often at a cost even higher than a new machine.

Chromebooks have proven exceptionally popular in schools, thanks to their versatility and low cost. And as people become more mobile-centric, their data also becomes more portable and Web centric. Just as you expect to have your data follow you from phone to phone, moving from device to device should be seamless. Like I'd said in 2012, the future of local storage is practically none at all.

This summer, I got my wife a touchscreen convertible Chromebook for less than $100.

Watching the many different options for Chromebook hit the markets feels a lot like the same momentum we saw when Android's many partners took imaginative approaches to new handsets. While we essentially knew the rigid details coming from Cupertino for both computers and phones, Google partners built big and small and with any number of differences to set each apart, from brands as diverse as Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, Lenovo, Samsung and Toshiba.

Now the decision process is one of plenty, not scarcity. So many options, pretty much all of them good. You can get small screens or big screens. You can get touchscreens and convertibles that act like a tablet. You can run Android apps, or even mark up the screen with a digital pen. All very cool.

This summer, while on a family vacation in Chicago, after seeing so many positive reviews for Samsung's Chromebook Pro, I figured it was time for an upgrade from my two year old Acer 710. I quickly bought one on Amazon, had it delivered to an Amazon Locker down the street the next day, and after entering my Google credentials, I had made an incredible upgrade, with no data migration needed. It was almost too easy. (And yes, that's the laptop I'm on now)

Having seen the Pixelbook, the successor to that 2013 Pixel and its 2015 follow-on, and even more good reviews, I'm already getting that itchy feeling and have added the newest device to my shopping cart more than half a dozen times, desperately wanting it, but knowing the Chromebook Pro has a long life left.

Meanwhile, my wife's slim Asus Chromebook I picked up this July gets constant use, and my 9 year old twins bang away on inexpensive Acers to do work in Google Docs. They do the work of machines that cost 10 times as much, without coming bundled with the worry that you lose your data in the event of a disk failure. And the gaps that may once have been there in 2010, 2011 or 2012... they're gone.

If you're an elite creative software wizard who has a custom setup, then keep it up, but for the rest of us who use our devices to create, engage, consume and share, the Web is the most powerful device there is, and Chromebooks were designed for it. They've come a long way.

Disclosures: I work at Google. You knew that. But I still pay for my Chromebooks, except for those provided for me to use at work, obviously.

January 17, 2018

Smartphones Have Virtually Eliminated Boredom from the Modern Life

People are constantly on their phones. All day.
There's a flurry of debate over whether smartphones and their apps have become too addicting. While there is no complete agreement over how often smartphone users access their phones each day, estimates put the number at anywhere from 80 to 150 times. If you're a typical human who is awake about 16 hours a day, that's five to ten accesses per hour. Every hour. You might even put your own estimate much higher, or, instead, see it as one long continuous touch that consumes the entire day.

Independent of the discussion of whether this is a "good thing" or not, the ability to constantly engage with one's phone, checking messages from different apps, getting the latest news instantly, window shopping or achieving a new high score, the device has virtually eliminated the opportunity to be bored - acting as the glue that connects times when you're otherwise active. The smartphone acts as a space filler and a constant alternative for whatever else you might be doing.

Not too long ago, there was something we recognized as a quiet space between activities. Mental breaks. Whether that was standing at a corner for the light at the intersection to go green and allow us to cross the street, or taking an escalator at the mall, or waiting for the bus, we recognized those gaps as something like boredom. Was there nothing on TV? Bored. Forced to wait in line at the supermarket? Bored. Finished your book? Bored. Is the baseball season over? Bored for four months.

Think people aren't constantly on their phones while driving? Think again.
But this isn't the case now. If you look around at people, everyone is seemingly in a state of constant engagement with their phones. Drivers at intersections waiting for red lights to turn are waiting for cues from the cars next to them to indicate the signal has changed. Pedestrians are walking with their feet slightly askew to avoid unseen stumbles, and draft behind the people ahead of them, one hand holding the phone at an angle, looking up every few steps for potential surprise. Those waiting for the bus only interrupt their phone use to glance up and see if their ride is on its way.

Many a word has been spilled about how smartphones have invaded daily lives. Couples go to restaurants and read their phones instead of talking to one another. Colleagues may glance at their phones and tweet while you're talking to them, looking up on occasion to see if whatever you're saying is more interesting than whatever popped up on their screen. It's no longer a challenge to find something to do. Instead, it's a battle to see who can be the most sensational or carry enough weight to trump the alternative that is constantly available on a 4 or 5 inch screen.

Often, when presenting to rooms full of people at events, I see attendees on their phones. It's been years since you could authoritatively demand a 'laptops down' meeting and expect to get everyone's full attention. That people are going to try and deliver continuous parallel attention is a reality, and you are in a constant battle to earn their mind share, in a hope that your engagement will be more lasting and more significant than what their phone has selected to bring to the fore.

In the last decade plus, more of what we used to depend on full sized computers, cameras, televisions, maps and more has been miniaturized and made portable in our pocket. This has allowed our entertainment, learning and communications machines, our commerce engines... to be constantly with us. People meet their soulmates on their phone. They get paid on the phone. They can order food and have it delivered, all from their phone. If life's every important value, to consume, to share and to survive, can be designed and managed from your phone, it really begs the question of whether the world within the screen is less valuable than the one on the outside of it.

My own kids, still under 10, don't yet have phones. It's already challenging as a parent to provide them the structure they need to learn independently and prioritize work over entertainment, without giving them a magic device that does it all in their pocket constantly. But they do know they live in a world where boredom is a practical impossibility, and where everything is practically a request away.

Life moves faster now, and it isn't boring. That's no longer an option.

January 10, 2018

Linking Less and Talking More: Disappearing Web Mentions


The World Wide Web was designed to primarily do three things - inform, discover and connect. A globally connected series of documents could instantly bring you to the thoughts and experiences of someone across the world. In the earliest designs of the Web, it was through hyperlinks that you would find those new voices. Links brought you new sources of data, and those downstream documents led you even further to new people and ideas.

As the Web evolved, and incorporated photos, videos, streaming, and all manner of media, discovery expanded to include search. Without an explicit link, you could still find pointers to new content in the results of your query. Destination sites, acting as content hubs, would surface new content, usually within their network, of recommendations you might like. Ads, essentially links with pretty pictures, would offer another exit.

WebCrawler: One of the Web's first search engines
When blogging was the main medium of first person information sharing, prior to the rise and later domination of real time social streams, the way we discovered new voices was through links to others. I'd mention those I agreed with and highlight, with more links, those I didn't. One popular feature in practically everyone's sidebar was a blogroll, to show those with closest ties or just who we liked to read. And there were custom search engines, like Technorati, which when combined with tools like Google Alerts, could let you know when somebody mentioned you on the Web.

Technorati: The original blog and link search engine
But over time, a number of things happened to chop away at this fluffy cloud of friendly discovery.

1. Many Blogs Gravitated Toward Internal Linking, Not External Linking
The big sites realized that keeping visitors on their own site was more profitable and aided their metrics more than sending them away did. And while there is obvious irony in my posting to my own discussions on this from the past, we actually had lengthy discussions about these internal linking practices in 2007 (Part two and part three
Arguments a decade ago in favor of internal linking were that site visitors were familiar with companies and topics discussed, and could see previous coverage by their publication to learn more if they weren't. And any link off site started feeding the ad revenues of a potential competitor.
2. Dedicated Blog Search Sites Didn't Graduate to Quality Businesses
Technorati was a specialized blog search engine that skipped the general Web and went directly to blogs for its content. Its leaderboard of bloggers was closely watched, as were trending topics on the site that led to see what the blogosphere was discussing. But it was seemingly always in financial trouble, and has pivoted beyond recognition to whatever it is now.  
A 2010 interview I had with the company's leadership team claimed a pivot to quality, but their CEO was gone a year later, and so are pretty much all the discovery tools that initially aided me to find some of the best voices of the Web 2.0 era. And yes, Google Blog Search quietly disappeared not too long afterward.
3. Blog Discussions Pivoted to Real Time Streams and Sharing
As I noted in 2009 (yet another internal link, am I right?), linking between communities was declining in favor of retweets on Twitter or sharing into the stream. The microburst of a little site traffic would provide that one time dopamine hit, but not leave a trail for later web spiders to find.
My top referring sites, via Google Analytics, from previous years

As the social streams of Twitter and Facebook took over, and bloggers (me too) got distracted, the share became the canonical mention. Your mentions on Twitter, or your notification of shares on Facebook, were faster delivered and easily quantifiable. And individual profile owners are quite unlike the publishers looking to deep dive into their analytics to discern where traffic came from.

Today, Brent Simmons laments the result of all the mentions going to the streams and leaving the Web. With links decreasing, and blog search being a relic, he yearns for a way to find again how his business is mentioned on the web or when he is being linked to. Joe Gregorio, like me, wistfully remembers analysis of referral logs to find how people found you... all through links.

Simmons' proposal is a limited one, keeping it to the MacOS/iOS community. A small project like that shouldn't be too challenging, but it speaks to a bigger problem, where the connections we once demanded are an afterthought behind the latest viral tweet and trending Facebook share. Streams are ephemeral, but the Web was built to last. It'd be great to see new voices building, informing and connecting again.

Disclosures: I work at Google and am on the Google Analytics product. So I think about publisher tools and visitor stats more than most.

January 09, 2018

Space Fillers and Superstars: Silicon Valley's Divergent Career Arcs


Career Paths Are Often Circuitous Routes

My career in Silicon Valley started before I'd even graduated from college. Rather than plug away at Berkeley and try to get top grades, I split my time my senior year between going to classes and commuting across the Bay Bridge to Burlingame, working for a revenue light startup during the initial dot com boom. By the end of 2018, I will have completed twenty full years in the Valley.

In these twenty years, I've been laid off. I've been promoted. I've fought for raises and rejected stock offers. I've co-founded my own consulting business. I've worked at startups with three people, ten people and two hundred. And for the last six plus years, I've been at Google, which can hardly be called a startup.

In these two decades, I've seen companies lay everyone off firsthand, and had another acquired. I've pitched Sand Hill Road for venture capital funding, been part of corp dev talks about a possible acquisition, and even filed for IPO. I've worked with billionaires, millionaires, neighbors, and colleagues straight out of college, with debts to pay.

And while I've been lucky enough to accumulate 15 years of work at just two jobs, that is fairly unusual for the industry. Some estimate the average software engineer, used as a metric for the average employee in our tech-centric world, is only 1 to 3 years. (Source)

Underneath the headlines and noise of product announcements, and seeming get rich quick ideas, the reality is the overwhelming majority of Silicon Valley employees are role fillers, who just get things done. Some are living month to month, and others are more comfortable. But for each example of wunderkids who get lucky on their first try, you have cubicle dwellers whose LinkedIn history won't have you blinking an eye. And the Valley needs these people. Hundreds of thousands of them.

The Intersection of Skill, Luck and Loyalty

Marissa Mayer famously put together a rubric after completing a Symbolic Systems degree at Stanford to determine where she would take the leap from her 14 job offers, and Google was seen as having the greatest upside. Tough to argue against those results, and hindsight is 20/20. Yet a close friend of mine who graduated from the same school with the same major is as anonymous as they come, with a pedestrian career. There's no discounting Marissa's hard work and ambition, but not everyone gets lucky.


In 2009, I wrote about this magical intersection of skill and luck - where good people work incredibly hard at toxic companies, or doomed dinosaurs. There are tomes to be written about the worker bees of the Valley who come in and work hard for a full day's pay to make all the services go, but aren't job hopping for the latest startup du jour, instead hanging on with loyalty to the company even if the company doesn't return the favor.

Roll the Dice or Buy a Lotto Ticket

For every superstar like Marissa, there are thousands more stories like my friend and others who just missed. A decade plus ago, I had a roommate who passed up being one of the first 25 employees at Google, so he could instead finish his PhD. (He is now a professor at NYU)

The more cynical among us could say that aggressively enterprising workers should quickly hop from job to job and ride the rocket to financial happiness, and yet another group will say that if the current workplace isn't looking like a lottery ticket, you should quit and form your own startup. It certainly looks easy enough, with so many ideas landing venture funding.

Venture capitalists will tell you they are looking for that elite leader, the masterful person with unique product vision and market awareness - a founding team with impeccable credentials. But every decision is a bet. The VCs and companies make bets on the staff, and the staff makes bets on the companies each day they show up. Sometimes you win the jackpot, sometimes you push, and other times, you could lose it all and have to start over.

Among a world of aspiring superstars, a much more common, but also important, role played out daily amidst the rows of cubicles and open office spaces in the Silicon Valley is an army of people making it all run, quietly.

Disclosures: I briefly overlapped at Google with Marissa from 2011 to 2012. Also, if you must know, I attended UC Berkeley, a natural rival of Stanford. But that's not really super relevant.