2010: When the Searching Part of Finding Things Becomes Obsolete
Okay so it’s 2010 and I think I’m finally officially allowed to be pissed at the future. I don’t care so much about flying cars (I live in Montreal, the drivers here would make anybody fear the age of flying cars), but the Christmas shopping experience I just went through was thoroughly and pitifully outdated.
My typical perennial scenario: it is the day before Christmas and I need to find presents. I’m going searching – on my two legs – only, it’s the same search my parents would have gone on twenty years ago. How has this form of search not evolved? How can it be 2010, in a major metropolitan area, and I can’t even search locally for a product? Before the Internet, if I were a responsible shopper, I imagine I might have gone to a mall – but you know, a couple of weeks early. These days, as a responsible shopper, I have to order off the Internet even more than a couple of weeks early, which trust me, isn’t any more likely to happen. Besides, some things you can’t buy off of the Internet, like a musical instrument. All I knew was I wanted a musical instrument my two year old niece could smack gleefully without bothering the parents too much. First, I searched my brain — good old trusty brain. It told me that quite obviously what I was looking for was a glockenspiel, stupid. Good old smart-ass brain. So I’m off, romping around aimlessly in a confused state looking for any kind of store that seems like it might sell a glockenspiel. I can’t even spell glockenspiel. I’m screwed. But it’s my fault I’m screwed, really, because my chosen phone isn’t smart enough. Phone IQ medians change, apparently. I’ve used a basic blackberry for a few years now, no-frills web and essential e-mail. I’ve been able to broadcast location info, manually, and receive basic information and messages when out and about, a revolution in and of itself — I’m no location information virgin — but I can’t kid myself, for the most part it’s just text messaging on steroids. I’ve never had that gratifying lazy sit-back-and-be-pampered with location-savvy data stuff being fed to me effortlessly, by virtue of my latitude and longitude. What’s the opposite of broadcasting? Broadceiving? Yeah, never had it. But next year. Lookout Daisy. I expect the world. I’m gonna buy me a fancy-assed phone, click the “report my whereabouts to government agencies and Google” button, and let the shopping stress just melt away. Right? The potential for GPS enabled, location aware cell phones to change the way we search for merchandise, services, and, well, anything at all that you have to be near to want, is mind-bogglingly massive. Our friendly neighborhood data comptrollers Google and pals have not failed to notice this fact, of course, and are quietly planning world domination via what might seem to be an innocently coincidental, convenient, or just geekily clever, convergence of acquired technologies. Today Google went ahead and admitted/announced/gleefully-spewed it has built (no no it was HTC, really) a consumer cell phone, the Nexus One, and will be selling them itself. From Google freaking dot com slash freaking phone. For the first time Google is selling something directly to the consumer, and it’s giving me the willies. The plan, quite openly, is to make a bunch of money per handset, presumably by partnering with merchants and providing advertising that has the mobility value-add of knowing exactly where the potential customer is in space-time (our personal-life-data-trail (ahem, profile) now includes how long you spend at the grocery store, in the chips aisle — lookout! Run to tinfoil aisle!). In simple terms I expect merchants to hop on the standardize-our-inventory-and-submit-to-Google train, then have the opportunity to help make real the lazy-man’s last minute Christmas shopping experience that I so meta-selfishly desire (I guess that wasn’t simple terms, my bad). Google, incidentally, recently became an affiliate — offering ads for a percentage of sales. Woopdee do, who cares, you think, if you don’t know what it means to be an affiliate. Oh crap, you think, if you do. And so the future’s plot thickens (rarely does it thin — Obama maybe). The same week they announce the phone Google enters talks to buy Yelp (*gulp*) . I’m no conspiracy nut, but c’mon, Google would be stupid to not offer me 10% off jeans if I buy two pairs at Old Navy in the next hour because I happen to be ten feet from Old Navy and my Nexis One’s accelerometer just felt itself drop through the hole in my tattered pockets so obviously I need some pants and oh, wouldn’t you like 15% off of the Thai place around the corner, it’s only three hundred yards to your right. I know you like Pad-Thai, Naoise. You’ve tried a few home recipes. You usually eat lunch around 12:30, don’t you Naoise? AHH my phone’s talking to me! And not in the normal, phone call way. In a bad, Hal way. Google won’t be stupid and own everything, or even make things exclusive, risking anti-trusting finger pointing (could Google make “open source” the biggest scapegoat concept ever?), but on the Google phone Google apps will run so crisply, and be so — what’s the word? Oh yeah, free, that everyone will use them. Competitors will innovate, and build up a following, to inevitably be out-innovated (ooh cool word), or bought, by Google. It’s a pretty sweet self-satisfying cycle, and it only makes sense to own the handset — I think Google sees all the potential Apple is squandering in its handset ownership duties. Of course Google says this is all about choice in the marketplace for evolving superphone devices blah blah, thin veil blah. The most obvious tell that this is about owning the users more than the sale, is that you have to have a Google checkout account to buy a phone. Kapow, Google has a direct path to sell anything to you in the future. Anything. From anybody. Anywhere. Incognito (it’s not itunes, it’s just a checkout at the end!). So what has to happen for my imagined lazy shopping experience to truly materialize? Well there is a tug-o-war of reasoning that has to be worked through — local merchants won’t adopt until there is an active pool of people to advertise to. But Google knows that when an ad network starts it needs to attract merchants with wee samples of high converting audiences, letting merchants imagine there is an infinite pool of potential golden traffic to be tapped – get the merchants in early and it’s easy to keep them. Google’s handset sells for $529, cheaper if you buy it with a plan from a provider. A lot of people expected Google to do something radical and make the phone really cheap — the public understands enough to know Google sells ads and will make money off of each handset sold. Instead of going cheap Google made their phone the same price as other exclusive phones — whether intentional or not, this ensures Google’s audience for the emerging mobile consumer market in the US doesn’t thin in buying-power too soon, which will have the effect of impressing early advertisers. Earlier in 09 I wrote a post about ways the Internet might change that could alter how we think about and interact with the concept of search. The first item on the list was a look at personalized information agents — information fetching algorithms that learn about your habits and present information proactively you might want to see. Google, with its recent adaptation of personalized search as the default for Google search, is lumbering slowly down an inevitable road towards being my personal information agent. Google knows that the story my cell phone has to tell, the one item which I never move more than a few hundred feet without taking with me, is so information rich, so personal, that they could convert it into staggeringly useful stuff-of-search. They’ve already proven that if you simply blend staggeringly useful stuff with a mix of innocuous, somewhat relevant advertising, people go “meh, could be worse”, and you get away with all the advertising. Next year, with my fancy-assed new phone, which by then will have a “find-my-presents” app that knows I’m shopping for my three year old niece, I’ll be saved the trouble of actually searching right? As I happen to be walking down a random street in December, my phone will suggest that I turn left here, go to the music shop across the street, and try out the four star recommended glockenspiel, because obviously that’s what I’m looking for, stupid. Local merchant makes a sale, Google gets a cut, and I experience a world where the searching part of finding things becomes obsolete. So in the end it’s inevitable that I’ll get my lazy-man’s shopping experience – just what I oh-so-uncarefully wished for – and yet, I can’t shake the willies. What is the smart-ass part of my brain hinting at?