November 17, 2018

Technology Designed to Help You Breathe More Easily


Silicon Valley has been the leader in many things for decades, but rarely has the region's first place position been for something as undesirable as air quality. Following the record-setting disaster that has wiped out my one-time hometown of Paradise, Bay Area residents are choking on the resulting downwind smoke, seeking answers as to how unsafe it is, and how they can gain relief. And while I know that a week-plus of uncomfortable air is hardly the worst outcome of these climate change fueled infernos, it's something that needs to be addressed.
After last year's record-breaking California fire season that saw unthinkable damage burn through Napa county, I expected we would have bad air days this summer. Planning ahead, I bought two sleeves of N95 air filter masks from Amazon and stowed them in my garage for a not so rainy day. After a summer that saw fires rack up acreage, but air quality stay within range, I wondered if it was another foolish purchase just taking up space. But in the blink of an eye, with the Camp Fire in Butte County, the masks seemed inspired.


With the sun's eerie glow as a backdrop and smoke where fog or blue sky should be, I found myself at the Google campus, expecting to be the only one looking like I intended to rob a bank. But, while I was in the minority, contracted employees including security vendors and valets, who spend much of their day outside, wore them as part of uniform, and many of my colleagues showed up with them as well. By this week, it was rare to see a group of people walk by mask free, as estimates said sucking down Bay Area air was the equivalent of a dozen cigarettes a day.

As for those who took their masks off to smoke? Well. I admire your dedication.

Traffic to EPA sites on Friday, November 16. (via @googleanalytics)

As we all saw our skylines and views mucked by gray and brown bits of my past, area residents everywhere flocked online to sites like AirNow.gov and PurpleAir.com, marveling at how our Air Quality Index (AQI) levels were deep into the unhealthy range. So many people flooded the government's AirNow site that they had to reverse a heavy website revamp, and individual city pages were among the most trafficked government sites all week.

On Thursday, after a week of fashionable awkwardness with my mask, I made some quick buys from the Google bus, aimed to help our air quality at home and contribute our AQI to the crowdsourced data. My first purchase was a pair of Molekule air purifiers that promised to cleanse our dirty and polluted air at home. The second was for a PurpleAir sensor, so I'd know just when we should leave the house with masks, or if we should hole up indoors.

Luckily, b8ta had Molekule devices locally, and the company's general manager made a home delivery to my front step by Thursday evening. They'd promised free overnight shipping to California, but same day was beyond expectations. I set up one device downstairs and the second upstairs, and they've been plugging away at removing toxins from the air so my family can breathe easily. Unsurprisingly, it even comes with a spartan app, so I can move the filters from silent mode to most aggressive, remotely.

This morning, my PurpleAir sensor came.

Like Rachio's smart sprinkler system or the Nest outdoor cameras, these new Internet of Things devices come with the smallest set of instructions. Power them up, connect to Wifi and you're essentially on your way. It even came with a Nest branded power supply, which surprised me, but made immediate sense. With the minimal amount of effort, I registered my PurpleAir device and am now broadcasting the AQI from our house to the shared map.

There's no PurpleAir app (at least that I could find) which would make tracking AQI and our personal data easier, but the website works, and mobile site works well enough on my phone. Still seems like a minor oversight for 2018.

Clearly, the avalanche of attention toward hourly AQI levels and scramble for air filters is going to spike and fall with the latest wildfire or other pollution disaster. I may feel in the future that telling the world my air is just fine isn't world changing. But I've always been delighted in being able to see the data and make decisions. That's why Fitbit works. That's why Nest makes sense. That's why I went solar with Sunrun.

The tragedies that have hit California, and are nowhere near done, are going to have impact on families and our entire region for years to come. We should adapt to a world that acts on data and protects those things we can control.

November 15, 2018

When the Hometown You Always Knew Could Burn Gets Erased from the Map -- Paradise is Lost to the #CampFire

Let's talk about the Camp Fire for a second. My family moved to Paradise in 1991, as I was starting 8th grade. I lived there through high school, until heading to college. The family stayed until all kids had graduated high school - the last in 2004.

(This story is adapted from a thread I initially posted on Twitter)


This was us at home in '91.

While news has referred to Paradise as isolated, we actually were moving from an even smaller town. I'd spent elementary school in Brownsville in Yuba County. When my dad got a new medical practice in Paradise, we were blown away by the McDonald's and "all those power lines".

The route from my elementary school home to Paradise.

I only spent one year in the Paradise school district, before my mom got a job teaching at Chico Jr. High. Through high school, I spent every early morning at church in seminary, and then driving down the Skyway to Pleasant Valley High School.


(Here's us in front of our house)

Paradise was always a retirement community. My dad's work was primarily elder care - geriatrics. Sometimes they died. More than once, I accompanied my dad to the coroner's office while on rounds. As he said, either their heart stopped, or they stopped breathing. Circle of life.

But that didn't mean death by other means was impossible. Fire was by far the top concern for the community. Paradise is located on a ridge in the foothills, placed squarely between two canyons. When fire would light, it would often head for the city.

In 1992, my sophomore year of high school, we evacuated twice. See the @ChicoER's coverage of those fires. Notice one of those started -- you guessed it -- at the Skyway. The problem with this, of course, is that was the main road out of town.

Fires have always been common in Paradise. We evacuated in 1992.

In 1992, even as we had yet to unpack from evacuating the first time, ash started to fall on our driveway and house. Thick, black smoke loomed above us, and the fire was closer than ever. Some firebug, in copycat mode, had lit a blaze near city limits. We left again.

Luckily, as with every other time, the fire crews did an amazing job stopping the flames from getting deep into town. We marveled at the burn scars that approached neighbors' property, but didn't take any homes or casualties. Some have argued Paradise is a woodsy town that had no business building where it did. But it's not all the thick forest you may have in your mind.


This is the entrance to Tiger Tail Lane from Foster Road (via Google Street View).

Long after I left to college and embedded in Silicon Valley, there have been other fires. As with those in the early 1990s, most were stopped. And as @Weather_West and others have reported, there were many plans in place to protect residents if worst-case happened.

Our home's position in a terrain map, clearly in the fire zone.

So what made the Camp Fire different? How did the above map turn into this scar on the North state? In addition to the exceptionally low humidity and the high winds (which can't be discounted), I'd say the origin of the fire played a huge part.

The fire's position (and all the closed roads), as of this week.

Previous fires, which started by Skyway or the canyons, and slowly meandered their way to the city, gave residents and firefighters warning. People had time to pack and leave, and routes were not frantic. The Camp Fire was a sneak attack with brutal force.

The Camp Fire didn't start on the lower Paradise side. It started in Pulga, an even tinier community. It started in the more woodsy side, where topology made it nearly impossible to stop, in starved fuel-laden forests, powered by ferocious winds and drought.

Instead of starting at the bottom of the above photo, it started at the top and right.

The winds pushed the fire into the main part of town, to all the people and all the businesses, and it hasn't stopped. Adventist Health Hospital, where my dad worked, was among the first to go.

When @Weather_West shared a tweet from @Gloria2marie, showing fire South and West of Paradise, I immediately realized the town was gone. In a Slack message to a friend, I wrote:

"This means, if true, it's going to F--- up the whole town. Bye."

Classy, I know. But not wrong.

The casualty totals, surpassing all records in California, have not been a surprise. Knowing the aging, slow, immobile population, many who don't drive, and the speed of this fire, we're lucky thousands did not perish. But the loss is still stunning.

That an entire town can be zapped off a map is practically unprecedented. And for those who want to go back... to what exactly? No infrastructure. No power. No water. No cell service. And possibly human remains waiting for you.

Chico, where I went to high school, has for the most part escaped the direct flames. But now the refugees from Paradise are encamped at the town Walmart, a drier, more outdoor version of the Lousiana Superdome during Katrina. Thousands have nowhere to go.

More than 52,000 people have been evacuated since the Camp Fire erupted in Paradise on Thursday, packing parking lots, shelters and hotels across Northern California, and straining the housing stock.

There are still hundreds missing. So many are unaccounted for that law enforcement is releasing names in batches to avoid overload. Imagine that. The fire was so intense, many people may never be found -- incinerated and returned to the dust.

The Camp Fire is not just another news story or a set of headlines, or an unfortunate reason the Bay Area is smoky. It's a remarkable human and modern disaster.


This was our Christmas photo our first December in our Paradise home.
It's almost certainly gone now, but we're alive.

I've read some ridiculous tin foil hat conspiracies on Twitter that you wouldn't believe about how the Camp Fire started. You could say this type of fire was inevitable, but also preventable. Of course climate change played a role. Of course the town makeup played a role.

Either way, this is a conversation we are going to keep having in California, and throughout the Western US and beyond. Is Lake Tahoe safe? Is Sunnyvale? Last year Napa found out the hard way. My grandparents' home in Redding was threatened in the Carr Fire.

It's reality.

This isn't a "feel sorry for us" thread. It's been a while, and my whole family is safe. But they are active in connecting with those who stayed. The woman who prayed her way to safety in a firey ride you may have seen on @Gizmodo was a high school friend I've heard pray before.


This was the last photo I took in Paradise, in May 2015, when I took my boys to a party for my brother's child - their cousin. The home that looks like it was under construction a few short years ago... it's gone now, to dust and ash.

As you lament the bad air and see the numbers rise ever upward, I hope this helps remove the abstract from what seems like a tiny town far away. Like the Woolsey Fire and the Carr Fire and all the others, your home could be the next hashtag. Have a plan.

October 20, 2018

Comments as a Platform, Or Silencing the Trolls


Web content has typically divided into three camps - those who create, those who react, and those who just watch. The lurkers, if you will. From the very earliest days of blogging, those first posts awaited the inevitable comments, and, given a clear revenue stream, you would see early participants like Fred Wilson say that "comments are how bloggers get paid."

[Source: https://vanelsas.wordpress.com/2008/06/02/the-real-value-of-social-media-interaction/#comment-2531]

The earliest engagements we had with people who read our site gave us incredible discussions, and spawned more posts and even, in rare cases, changed minds. Sites like Digg, Reddit, Slashdot and others became known for their diverse threads, and those in the comments are why you showed up.

But we've also seen the pendulum swing the other way. Everybody knows to "never read the comments" on popular news sites, as the most aggressive vitriol and ignorance floats to the top. YouTube comments have long been notorious for their lack of quality (though I feel this has improved of late). And Twitter, for many who should be able to use the platform, their every move can attract trolls who have a vendetta to take them down - but somehow don't get banned.

As social media sites eclipsed the momentum of blogs, conversations moved. We adapted by integrating social discussions from FriendFeed, Facebook and Twitter and appended them to our blogs. We would all share our posts on social, and then engage where the content landed. The best bloggers would find their readers wherever they were. But others simply turned comments off. Maybe it is because they were full of spam (they were) or the quality wasn't there (often true), but also, because the total quantity declined.

Let's go back to talking about Twitter. Twitter drives me nuts because it's fantastic and so poor at so many things. They seriously have real-time on lockdown. There is no better place to see what is happening right now. If there's a calamity, search Twitter. A breaking news event? Search Twitter. A sporting event? Twitter.

But Twitter has this awful habit of giving all users an equal voice. Now hear me out what I mean.

If you tweet publicly, anybody who you haven't blocked can reply, and their content is appended to your tweet. It follows you around. If a Republican politician posts, left-leaning posters race to take down their message, while the MAGA crowds prop it up and try to gain eyeballs. If the Kardashians say something, the crowds pounce on the valuable real estate quickly to show their adoration or pimp whatever link they've got going.

And down the publicity food chain, if you're a woman, especially a visible one, you get awful men saying foolish things. I guarantee it. They may call you names or question your ability. You block one and ten more pop up. If you're black, or Jewish, the racists will find you. They all know how to tweet.

So what I recommend above all other Twitter changes is the ability for people to reclaim their space. Hillary and Trump should both be able to post information without the crowd's replies being appended. Just like blogs and YouTube stars can turn comments off, Twitter users should be able to as well. The thing about social networks (and most products, to be honest) is that you should give the users control. But they haven't done it, and I think it delivers a great disservice to the platform, which has become a hotbed of harassment and hate - as Reddit and others have too.

If you can trust your commenters enough to give them a voice, by all means, amplify their voices. But when they have shown you time and again that they cannot be trusted, turn it off.

October 17, 2018

How 23 Year Old Me Got a Job at a Stealth Company With a Fake Website

My first two years in Silicon Valley were spent in Burlingame at a dotcom that hoped to revolutionize telecommunicatons online - with Web meetings, conference calls and even faxing from the Web. They had great services, but not enough customers, and eventually ran out of funding in early 2001, jettisoning marketing, sales and business development folks, before selling for scraps to Oracle.

Being in Marketing myself, this meant it was my first trial to try and find a full-time job, in a world where online job databases were taking over. I'd polished the resume and started applying at anything that sounded close to what I thought I did...

Web Marketing Manager... E-Marketing Manager... Marketing Manager... Internet Marketing Manager...

Keep in mind this was a time when companies knew the Internet was a humongous deal, but were still trying to figure out where the money was coming from. The dotcom stocks had gone to the moon and crashed down. E-Business firms were raising tens of millions to figure out how put supply chains on the Web, and it could be hard to separate the real from the fake.

Meanwhile, with the crush of aspiring gold-seekers flooding to the Valley, hoping to win the stock option lottery, traffic was a mess. I used to compare driving 101 South to parallel parking at 70 miles an hour -- just a zoo. So very quickly, the location of where I could start was just about as important as the starting salary. Belmont was better than Palo Alto. Mountain View better than San Jose. Maybe I could even walk.

I tweaked my CV as best I could and threw it on Monster and Dice.com and all their clones, hoping to break through the noise. Here's what Dice.com looked like back then.



One of my job hunting volleys reached a company who so obviously needed my help. Their website was this hideous reddish purple and their icon looked like a squished crow. But they promised big things with revolutionary shock waves. I applied for the role of eMarketing Manager, to aid with promotion and copy, and redo their Website.

They asked me to come in for an interview and I pored over their site, ready to talk about how they needed to tailor their content for who their visitors would be -- investors, partners, analysts, and yes, customers. I studied the site in and out and felt prepared.



That Monday, sure their headquarters was in some garage somewhere, with like maybe 5-8 guys who couldn't write, I rolled in ready to tell them the ins and outs of marketing and publishing on the web. I pulled into the parking lot on Bernardo in Mountain View. Across their lot was Placeware, the Web meeting company eventually purchased by Microsoft. And one building down -- Handspring, the exciting handheld company run by Jeff Hawkins and Donna Dubinsky in their follow-on from Palm.

Instead of less than a dozen people, Synaxia had a quiet swarm of folks. About 50 were in Mountain View, and they'd raised two rounds of funding, for about $35 million. I still didn't really know what they did.

The first interviewer, a director of product marketing, and I went back and forth as I kept sounding confused as to their promise. He said they made the Web faster with specialized network servers. I thought they competed with Akamai. He said no. Maybe Akamai would be a customer? No. I felt a little stuck, as he talked about host bus adapters, raid arrays, and fibre channel.

So I went to what I knew - Web sites. As I began my spiel, he shook his head and stopped me.

"Louis, the Web site is a fake. The company name is a fake. In two months, we're going to rebrand and launch our product, so none of this matters."


I felt like my legs had been pulled out from under me, that I may as well just leave, but I was young enough (and likely cheap enough) that they didn't give up on me, even as I got through two more people.

My final interview was a friendly, older, and heavier guy, with short cropped white hair, folded arms resting on his belly, and an ability to talk your ear off. He was the vice president of marketing. I had 30 minutes with him, and for 20 minutes or so, he yammered on about the state of Catholic high school athletics, and told me about his kids, or told me stories about his career. He seemed very nice, but I was scared he wouldn't get a chance to learn about me at all - let alone figure if I was worth hiring.

Before I had felt like I even had a chance to get a word in edgewise, he interrupted, and said, "Look, if you got to me, you'll be fine," and just as quickly, he was gone -- off to the next meeting.


Years later, he would constantly tell me how he had been the reason I was hired, that I had been his discovery, and he took all the credit for my accomplishments. A fantastic boss, but an even better story teller.

A few days later, I got a call that offered me the job. I had no idea, really, what kind of salary to ask for, but, having just finished my double major from Berkeley, and getting two years under my belt, I was looking at a 50% raise over my last job. It seemed like so much money -- commensurate with being able to deliver a brand new website in about 30 days (which my designer and I managed).

I agreed to the job, and the pay bump, and my excitement lasted almost a full workday.

On the first day, HR asked me to sign papers to complete my employment, and I added my signature with enthusiasm. I walked back to the HR manager's desk, and she opened a folder titled "E-marketing manager". The first page in the folder was a job description (mine) with a salary range.

The bottom of that salary range was above where I had signed, and the top of that range went a full $30,000 higher. I immediately felt like I was underpaid, and I'd have to work a decade before I felt like I'd caught up. But I managed to get the job at the stealth company, and their fake website -- lasting 8 1/2 years, until I left in 2009.



Above is one of the last real ones I published, after multiple generations of product and many hundreds of customers. (And eight bosses. I outlasted everyone I interviewed with)

January 30, 2018

Real Valley Stories: Search Marketing With the Open Directory Project

Editor’s Note: Part 12 in an irregular series of stories from my many years in Silicon Valley. Part 11 talked about the time I got called into HR's office to meet with lawyers over industrial espionage. This time, a story involving gray hat search engine marketing in the early days of the Web.

DMOZ is now closed. 

Believe it or not, before the world of automated spiders that crawled the entire Web and ranked the results for your searches, much of the way we found content on the Internet was thanks to manual updates from an invisible army of directory editors. Yahoo! defined the initial dot-com era, with its hierarchical oracle making or breaking traffic downstream, as sites were organized and shuffled into categories by unseen text tweakers, much like the editors of Wikipedia try and keep its tens of millions of article pages up to date, with a seemingly fluid mass of edits to keep the live encyclopedia current.

But Yahoo! wasn't the only Web directory. Rich Skrenta and others, also behind Web 2.0 efforts Topix and Blekko, introduced the Open Directory Project, referred to as DMOZ, for it was hosted on the directory subdomain of the Mozilla.org site, with an objective of harnessing contributions from around the world (like Wikipedia), to build a directory, similar to Yahoo!, that could plug into any site that wanted to host one. In a time when many sites were seeking Internet traffic and riches by acting as the front page for the Web, attaching the open directory project to your portal could give you an edge and not require you to bring on a ton of staff.

As with Yahoo!'s directory, a company's inclusion in the DMOZ directory could act as a binary gate as to whether or not potential users would find you. In 1999, working as a Web marketing manager for a Web startup that offered internet faxing and conference calls, I found myself irked to see that our services were not included in DMOZ. Making things worse, the categories I would expect to see us listed in seemed slapped together and without an official owner. Given my understanding of the space and knowing our many competitors, I registered an account and requested to moderate the relevant category.

The DMOZ Internet Fax Listings from 1999 (via Archive.org)

Not too long afterward, I was given the option to update the category, including those of our competitors. As it was nearly two decades ago, I honestly don't remember if I used my company email or a Yahoo! email or equivalent, but I didn't try and disguise where I worked. My application had gotten through.

FaxCube from the year 2000.
When I did log in, I found the content in a state of abandonment. There wasn't much you could do with a site's listing. Give it a title, a link, and a short description, literally about a dozen words. It was fairly impossible to differentiate services from one another, especially in a commoditized space where the core function was pretty straight forward. But I cleaned up the descriptions for all the entries, including our competitors, to accurately display their offerings. Some offered email to fax services, while others offered the reverse. Some offered broadcast faxing. Some required a proprietary fax viewer, and others were completely Web based. That kind of thing.

When content was edited in DMOZ, edits would later propagate downstream. Sure enough, my colleagues noticed a spike in Web traffic to our main sites, with referrers coming from all the places DMOZ was set up. For no cost, I had a clear impact in our customer acquisition funnel, and maintaining the DMOZ became part of my ongoing work.

Later, DMOZ added the option to highlight two entries in the group, which were solely up to the moderator. This, of course, gave me the option to expand from a gray area, to clearly going over the line into promotion. It went without saying I thought our service was the best, and highlighted it at the top. I also chose to highlight a partner site (the Netscape Fax Center) that was white labeling our service, essentially the 1 and 1A positions.

This got even better when we soon realized DMOZ was fueling search results for AOL. The more people who searched for Internet Faxing on AOL, the better we were to see results.

DMOZ listings for Internet Telephony in early 2000. (Via Archive.org)
In early 2000, we introduced a new Web based conference call and meeting product. Addicted to the free traffic from DMOZ, my team asked me to see if I could get our content similarly included on whatever the equivalent was for Internet conferencing. I poked around, and, again, applied to be an editor for the Internet Telephony page. It wasn't a perfect fit, but it was pretty good.

Again, I got approved, and again, I added our sites, and again, I promoted our main site and a partner site to be included as the pair at the top of results. Again, we started to get plenty of Web traffic from DMOZ and its downstream partners, accounting for more than double digit percentage of our traffic to both properties. But this time, it wouldn't last long. Maybe it was the clear marketing copy promoting both services, but one day, I logged in and saw our service demoted to the standard results, with another in its place. I reversed the change, and it wasn't too long until there was a debate upstream as to whether these listings were in good faith.

PhoneCube, in all its glory, from 2000.
Not too long afterward, my moderation rights had been removed from both sections. I'd essentially been fired from my side job of gray hat SEO, long before most of us knew what that meant. And yes, my engineering peers lamented the loss of traffic, as our more organic listings, on AOL search and elsewhere, didn't carry as much weight, once we became one of the fold.

Had I just stayed content to include our services in the listings, or even just to stay a moderator of the less exciting Internet faxing space, it's possible I could have been editing text descriptions for our sites and our competitors indefinitely. But pushing our own products and our partner sites turned out too good to be true. The "Wild West" Internet traffic rush didn't last forever, and, as it turns out, neither did our products. I was laid off after we couldn't get a funding round closed at the beginning of 2001, and a few months later, the company was parceled off to become part of Oracle (see 2006 post). Some of my colleagues still work there nearly two decades later. As for DMOZ, it too shut down a few years ago, a relic in the world of Google and Facebook.

Disclosures: This whole post is a disclosure! I worked at 3Cube during this time. I work at Google now, a perceived competitor to whatever Yahoo! and AOL call themselves now. And as I work on Google Analytics, this is not a post about SEO to all you SEO/SEM folks.

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.

January 04, 2018

A Decade of Silos Has Throttled Open Content Distribution

The 2018 Social Media Flow is Driven by Content Silos

In the ten-plus years since I started this blog, one of the clearest trends on the Web has been for destination sites to want to control the user session and experience. In parallel, sites focused on aggregating content from external sites or highlighting the best of the web - serving as a filtered pass through, have struggled. Many are gone.

While significant efforts were made during the forging of Web 2.0 to drive open standards and allow for data to flow from one site to another, through RSS, Pubsubhubbub, Atom, XMPP, or whatever your preference, 2018 on the social web is a much more challenging place to write once and publish everywhere.

As I view the publishing space, I often turn to four big challenges that have to be solved for a platform to be a success to both authors and readers:

1. Creation

A platform, be it for photos (Instagram, Flickr, Google Photos, etc.), short updates (Twitter), long form (Medium, Blogger, WordPress, etc.), video (YouTube) or a mishmash of all (Facebook, Google+, etc.), needs to make it easy for the content creator to share what they want, in the form they want, and have the output be what they intended. This is true whether we are talking about desktop or mobile creation.

2. Distribution

Once the content is created, it has to be sent somewhere. If you write a post and hit publish, how do people find it? Is it sent to a third party network where they are hanging out? Is it sent by email? Do they get a notification on their phone? Does it flow down their timeline, as they have new items to consume? Or is it just another flat file, waiting to be indexed by Google and other search engines?



3. Discovery

Readers want to find new content. They seek relevance, freshness, and community. This mirrors the three pillars of social sites I highlighted back in 2009, and echoes that readers want intriguing views that mirror their own preferences. Like I'd predicted in 2006, the Web has become a divided place, where we all flock to our groups of like minded people, and disavow opposing views, but we still are eager to find more who reinforce our position. We still crave new friends and stories and we want to find them quickly.

So how good a job do these apps and sites do of surfacing new people and ideas? Do they have an aggregated site with highlights and popular people or posts? Is there a place to find more obscure viewpoints and new voices?

4. Consumption

Since the smartphone revolution, kicked off by Blackberry and the iPhone and now led by Android, more people are constantly connected and reading news from their mobile devices. In many countries, the mobile device is the only window to the Web. Does the content flow well for mobile consumption and new ways to navigate from screen to screen, update to update? Or is it best suited for a leanback tablet experience or for the desktop?

What typically happens with content platforms is the content fills the available container. Twitter is a clear 140 or 280 characters. Social hubs like Facebook and Google+ favor large photos and a short introduction. Instagram is all about the photo with a small description. Blogger and WordPress and Medium are as long as you want to go. One has to consider if users and screens keep up.

2009's promise of sharing everywhere wasn't meant to be.

We've Come a Long Way from Aggregating Streams and Sharing the Web

As content started to be created in a wide array of social sites, aggregation services like FriendFeed helped bring people's streams together. Bookmark services like Delicious helped people save the highlights from the Web and amplify the world's favorites. Users voted up posts from Digg and passed them along with StumbleUpon. The most voracious consumers lived in Google Reader and didn't miss a single post from the RSS feeds they were subscribed to.

It was too good to last.

The largest social platforms were not content in simply being links to external sites. Facebook focused more on original content shared on the platform, with less priority given to send traffic off site. Google Reader shut down, and while Feedly and others stepped up, the world of RSS never recovered. Delicious died. Digg is a shadow of itself. FriendFeed was obliterated. LinkRiver closed. Socialmedian closed.

In the wake of all these gateways' demise, taking content from the open Web and getting it in front of new viewers is more challenging. While I've always said you need to be where the users are and can't force them to come to you, what could be automated is now requiring manual intervention at practically every step.

Just What Am I Talking About?

The alpha and omega, yin and yang of social outlets (for text, anyway) are Facebook and Twitter. Facebook is much bigger and much more profitable, but don't get distracted. People creating content for the Web also need to make sure that content fares well downstream on Facebook and Twitter. You can write it for the open Web, but you then have to take explicit action to share the content downstream - or set up automation to either site, usually backed by RSS. At that point, whether you get discovered or not is up to each site's algorithm, which has leaned more in favor of implied interest rather than chronology of late - meaning you can see viral content from hours or days ago before you get the newest stuff.

On a mobile phone, notifications are the holy grail of getting someone's attention. (See: Life by Numbers and Notifications from 2014) It's not uncommon to get notified when someone tweets, but it's very uncommon to ask for a notification when a site makes a post.

In parallel, the feedback loop from such networks, as well as Instagram or others, is near instant and acts as an incentive for the author to initiate their content on that silo natively. Post a 20-tweet storm to Twitter, and immediately start seeing those likes and retweets roll in. Post a story to Facebook and wait for the Likes and comments. Post a news story or a blog post, and ... wait. Wait for visitors in Google Analytics? Wait for the post to be shared downstream? Wait for the story to be indexed in Google News and search?

The elimination of Google Reader, FriendFeed, and Digg as amplifiers of Web content, alongside the attention absorption by Facebook and Twitter makes it harder for Web authors to get visibility - and they they aren't dropping their content into the real time stream.

So What Does the New Flow Look Like?




In 2009, it seemed pretty easy to me. Post on the blog. RSS would take it to FriendFeed and Google Reader. FriendFeed would post to Twitter. Twitter would post to Facebook. Then I'd run around and answer comments wherever they were distributed. (More on distributed conversations from 2009)

Now, I can still post on the blog. And the RSS link is the same. I even get the small bump of engagement on Google+ from the blog's page automatically adding my content there. But then, to make sure I cover all my bases, I then make another share of the same content to Medium, for those who love their site, and I've even found good engagement on LinkedIn, by making a third post of the same content on their channel. It's a different audience, but, if on topic, they share and engage.

So that's three posts. Meanwhile, I still have to share the story on Facebook and Twitter separately, hoping that someone will break their consumption flow and engage on my content downstream.

It feels like more work to get less return. And yes, I recognize that some may not miss FriendFeed because they never used it. Maybe others think Digg got replaced outright by Reddit, and gains similar traffic. Others prefer Hacker News. So aggregators do exist, obviously, but hubs aimed at surfacing new content, as opposed to highlight content on the site and keeping readers there, have declined.

To properly make the Web as desirable and viable a platform for publishing, we need to work together to fix the distribution and discovery gaps, make content fantastic on mobile for creation and consumption, and allow for engagement that is as simple as a Like. I applaud (there's the joke) Medium's approach to reward users with claps, for at least they're trying something. We should all be trying.

Disclosures: Yes, I work at Google. Sometimes, I help the Blogger team. I used to work on Google+ and have many friends on those teams still. I miss Google Reader every day. FriendFeed too.

January 03, 2018

How a Google Home in Every Room Gives My Kids Answers All Day


Some time last year, we installed five Google Home units in our house. One was placed in the master bedroom. One each went in both our kids' rooms, as well as one in the office, and one downstairs in the kitchen. Knowing that asking Google any question was just a simple request away, I was eager to see how the family would adjust to having a friendly assistant ready at any time to go fetch answers. What I've seen is that the devices are used throughout the day, and, often, the kids talk to Google before they talk to me.

OK Google, tell me a joke.

The morning starts with Google Homes sounding the alarm to wake up.

As the kids mumble "OK Google, stop", we have momentary quiet, until they shuffle out of bed and ask Google what the weather is going to be that morning. Obviously, depending on Google's answer, this can mean wearing shorts or jeans, long sleeve shirts or short sleeves. If the answer isn't detailed enough, I've heard the kids ask a second time, asking for the high of the day, which could impact how they prepare for PE at school, or if it's going to rain, and they need to pack an umbrella.

One example from our Assistant history.

As the morning routine begins, the first person downstairs gets to be the DJ, asking Google to play a song, which serves as the background music for breakfast. If the song isn't what they wanted, they simply say, "OK Google. Next song." until one they would prefer comes on.


If it's a weekday, we're most likely off to school and work, and we're all out the door. But if not, we probably have another query to Google Home to see how bad traffic is wherever we are going, how long will it take to get there - or sometimes, how the weather will be at our destination.



When the kids get home from school, Google does more than just act as background music device. My 9 year old twins use the Google Homes to confirm math homework answers to see if they are right, or ask it to sub in if an equation is too hard, or if they are unsure of spelling. The Google Assistant is the parent who is always willing to give an answer and never gets tired. 

With the expectation that Google has all the answers, the type of questions can be fast and furious. "What is hypoglycemia?" "Are hedgehogs nocturnal?" "What state is Boston in?" "What time is it in Sydney, Australia?" "What does salutation mean?" "What day is Black Friday?" "What time is it sunset?"

If Google doesn't know, or says, "Sorry. I can't help with that yet. But I'm still learning!", it's usually followed with sighs of exasperation and amusement, as they follow on with a different query more likely to get an answer.

The most popular question asked of Google Home this last year? By far, a simple one. "What time is it?", followed by "how much time is left on the timer?" for those ever important assigned times when they need to be reading, or when kids are taking turns with a game or a device, and need to hand it off to another child.

How many more minutes are left on my timer?

As homework time wraps up, and the kids find themselves on leisure, as dinner is eaten, and things are tidied up, I can hear them play music in each room as they have access to the world's artists on demand. "OK Google, turn your volume to 50 percent." "OK Google, play Katy Perry."

Do they always get the question perfectly right? No. But the device tries its best to guess and provide the answer - or pushes for another try. "Sorry. I don't understand?" or "Try again in a few seconds."

As bedtime approaches, everyone asks Google to set an alarm for the next day to start the process anew. And yes, if you're wondering, we do disable the devices in the kids' rooms by 9 p.m., so they don't end up rocking out in the wee hours. If they want something so badly they need to ask that late, they can ask me.

Set an alarm and call it a day.

The Google Home devices were such a benefit to our house that they were the go-to gift this last Christmas. Given they were only $29 apiece on the Google Store, I maxed out the order of ten, and shipped them in many directions - to family, to friends and even to neighbors, as they too could see the benefit of a smart assistant that takes the kids' tough homework questions on without complaint, and is more than happy to let you know if it's going to rain.

Just like touchscreens and tablets were so easily made a part of our family's life, from the very first iPads, and through the Nexus line, adding voice-activated devices has been simple and the children don't find them daunting at all. After all, who wants to get a laptop out and type in a query?

Disclosures: I work at Google, obviously. I paid full retail for my devices.