Opinion

John C. Abell

The future of search only cost $30 million

Mar 27, 2013 21:17 UTC

On the surface, Nick D’Aloisio’s story is the kind tech lives for, and sometimes regrets. It’s the tale of a kid selling an obscure startup for an inflated price, and then it becomes as irrelevant as Netscape, and its buyer’s remorse is part of the company’s enduring legacy.

But the story of Summly, a startup whose app appeared in the Apple Store only five months ago and was purchased on Monday by Yahoo for a reported $30 million, isn’t part of this trite arc.

This isn’t a boilerplate tale about a youngster hitting the jackpot, a former Internet giant trying to buy a relevance makeover, or even about an intriguing programmatic way to summarize news. It is about the future of search. 

D’Aloisio’s youth – he’s 17 – and windfall are interesting data points, even if all the work behind the magic algorithm isn’t the sole product of this high schooler’s brain. Like all really good ideas, Summly’s is simple: Anything can be summarized, but by having a computer do it,  the number of things you can summarize — and the speed with which it can be done — are massively increased. As an app, it filtered news stories and — Presto Chango! — spit out the CliffsNotes version, optimized for a smartphone’s tiny screen (and our infinitesimal attention span).

If nothing else, D’Aloisio put together a company with serious backers — the first was when he was 15, and then some eyebrow-raising names like Yoko Ono and Stephen Fry and Ashton Kutcher followed. These investors were either captivated by this young man or captivated by his idea, despite him.

What is Google doing?

Mar 22, 2013 18:15 UTC

A few years ago, web thinker Jeff Jarvis published an homage to the world’s most successful Web search and advertising company titled “What Would Google Do?” These days, the question seems to be, “What is Google doing?”

Google won us over with a revolutionary approach to Web search that made its predecessors seem archaic. It quickly toppled Yahoo as the coolest company on the planet based solely on its efficient and fast way of finding everyone else’s content. Now, though, Google is something entirely different.

What is Google doing? I’m not sure. There may well be a great, bumper-sticker answer. But Google’s actions are too chaotic to come up with a grand, unified theory. It’s toying with apps, mobile software, mobile hardware, mobile phones – and, oh yeah, still dabbles in Web services it decides with zero discussion to terminate with extreme prejudice. It’s one thing to be pulled in all directions as a dance partner, it’s another to have it happen on some carnival ride.

Pebble: This smart watch is a rock star

Mar 15, 2013 19:00 UTC

When Alvin Toffler popularized the term “information overload” in 1970, even that legendary futurist could not have predicted the flood of data that drowns today’s road warrior. E-mails from multiple accounts, instant messages, texts, iMessage and Google Voice — and, oh yeah, phone calls — all clamor for attention from our smartphones.

Enter a new solution: The smart watch. Pebble, a Kickstarter project now being delivered to its first backers, uses the power of your smartphone instead of competing with it. Pebble is still in development and a little rough around the edges, but it is the first to get the smart watch formula right. It could become a big deal. It’s easily the most important thing I’ve added to my go bag since the tablet.

Pebble is an e-paper* wristwatch that displays messages and caller ID on a crisp display that is always an arm’s length away. This allows you to leave your phone in your pocket or across the room instead of constantly reaching for it or leaving it face up at arms’ reach (Eliminating this custom at every conference and restaurant table would alone earn Pebble a place in heaven). It is a one-way device: you still have to use your phone to answer messages, or talk on the phone.

Paying the piper for privacy

Mar 15, 2013 17:51 UTC

Three privacy stories caught my attention in the past week:

1. Google is paying a token $7 million fine for sniffing out private information as its roving Google Maps cars gathered images for Street View.

2. A new study has found that seemingly innocent disclosures on Facebook can be used to form highly accurate predictions about whether you are a genius, drug user or gay.

3. If you use certain porta-potties at the Austin, Texas, tech confab South By Southwest, passersby know if you are … standing or sitting inside, and for how long.

Go Bag grab bag: SXSW survival sundries

Mar 8, 2013 17:30 UTC

 

Attending a multiple-day event that covers a lot of ground, like South By Southwest, makes your go bag even more indispensable. Whether you’re on your way to SXSW or already running around downtown Austin, you need to take extra precautions that your bag is properly stocked. All the basic rules apply (you’ll find those external batteries to be a godsend), but here are my recommendations for that 20 percent buffer in your go bag.

These simple sundries could help you survive SXSW: You’ll need some sort of food item in your bag for that moment you realize you’ve been panel hopping for 16 hours straight without a barbecue break. Both Pure Protein and Clif Builder’s have 20 grams of protein, which provides great slow-release energy and fewer empty calories. Builder’s is closer to candy; 20 grams of sugar to Pure’s 2g. It’s also bigger: 64g to 50g. For more fat, quicker energy and carbs, I go with Kind. Most other bars I’ve tried or looked at seems to be candy masquerading as health food, or inedible heath substances masquerading as food. I love having fruit available, but it bruises easily. The best portables are clementine oranges: They are small, seedless and can take plenty of punishment. They are also messy, so you’ll need … A MSR PackTowl. Cleaner, smaller, more environmentally friendly than tissues or paper towels. Could make you a hero in the event that a keyboard has an unfortunate meeting with a margarita. Launder it in your hotel sink and it’ll be dry by morning. Gum and/or mints. They help stave off hunger in the morning and keep people from recoiling from that taco you wolfed down after lunch. Packs of gum will weather any go bag abuse. I prefer rolls of Newman’s Wintergreen to mints in metal or plastic containers because the packaging disappears along with the contents. And you don’t rattle. A refillable water bottle. One of the smartest is the Clean Bottle, which unscrews top and bottom to make it easier to clean. I carry a Platypus collapsable because it’s flat and — like that roll of mints — takes up less space as you use the contents. Eating utensils. Plastic utensils are terrible, and a terrible waste. The placesetting-to-go market has gone from bulky camping item to slick accessory, like Sigg’s Folding Clip Cutlery Set, so there is plenty to choose from these days. My personal choice is a little eccentric: Snow Peak travel chopsticks. They are made with excellent materials and are beautifully designed, down to the squared-off top half which prevents them from rolling around. A collapsible bag for all the SWAG you’ll pick up. My choice is a MiniSax. It folds as small as my pack towel, opens to 8 x 9 inches and can carry more than 20 pounds. Comfortable shoes for when you have to hoof it back to the Convention Center from way across the river. Consider a pair of unisex Timberland Radler Trail Camps, which slip on and off quickly and zip up into virtual nothingness. For heel-wearers looking for a more stylish option, I’ve heard foldable flats work well. There’s an easy trick to carrying around extra outerwear — wear as much as you can, and carry as little as possible. Layer! The three-shirt rule — t-shirt, overshirt, outershirt —  keeps your bag emptier. Based on the last few Austin deluges, you might want to throw a foldable plastic poncho. My pick is the Sierra Designs Microlight, which packs up into it’s own sack. Don’t forget your paper business cards – they were all the rage at TED. They are still the coin of the business meet-up realm — a physical reminder of having encountered you that Bump cannot match. It’s a quick, easy way to communicate your information when the decibel level in the room is too high to hear. And, “Here’s my card, let’s connect after SXSW” is quite possibly the best way to conclude a dragging conversation and hop on over to the next party.

None of these items will add much to your burden, but any one might just save the day.

 

Photo credit: REUTERS/Adrees Latif 

Chromebook Pixel: A netbook to challenge the notebooks

Mar 1, 2013 18:15 UTC

Google unleashed a snarkfest when it introduced the Chromebook Pixel. The reaction was swift and mostly merciless. “Sorry, but there’s no defense for the Chromebook Pixel” claimed BGR. “Bizarre, pointless,”said Bruce Berls. The Wirecutter declared: “The Chromebook Pixel is not for you.” In one of the most positive receptions ZDNet’s Matt Baxter-Reynolds calls it “deliberately bad” — and then goes on to give three reasons why Google was smart to release something that was “entirely illogical and unsellable.”

So, naturally, I had to see for myself. After using it for four days, I’m not convinced this product is ready for mass adoption. That isn’t because the Chromebook Pixel is a joke, or a toy; it’s as solid a performer as any full-featured computer I’ve used. But it’s going to take a few generations to make this netbook a true contender in a notebook world. At $1,300 or more, this Pixel is clearly an early adopter’s plaything with a price point to prove it.

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