How about That Subscription Web Search Model?

January 24, 2022

Former Googlers Sridhar Ramaswamy and Vivek Raghunathan are refining their paid, privacy-centric search platform Neeva. We have followed this development from the 2020 beta through the 2021 official launch. Now we learn Neeva has added a free tier from The Next Web’s piece, “How a Couple of Ex-Googlers Are Trying to Fix What’s Wrong with Search Engines.” It appears not enough users are (yet) willing to pay the low, low price of $4.95 per month for search and the team is looking to upsell about 5% of those who sign on for free. It might be a good bet—Ramaswamy reports that a third of folks who sampled the free trial have subscribed. Even he was surprised users cited the peaceful, ad-free screen as their favorite feature. Reporter Ivan Mehta writes:

“[Neeva] will offer ad-free search with customizations, and integration to accounts such as Gmail, Microsoft Office, and Dropbox. People who’re paying for Neeva’s services will get all of this, a leading third-party VPN and a password manager service, and advanced features, like a monthly Q&A. As far as search engine features go, Neeva offers customizations, such as being able to see particular sites in results more or less. You can also ‘skip’ an ecommerce site in results, or get the whole recipe for a dish without having to visit a site. What’s more, the new search engine lets your look through your email right from the search bar. And if you install Neeva’s extension, it also blocks ad trackers that are collecting your browsing data. Last October, Neeva also launched a 1-click Fasttap search geared towards mobile where users just need to type a phrase to get accurate search results. It’s like Google auto-complete on steroids.”

The write-up includes a few screenshots of Neeva features in action. Regarding the how-to behind it all, Mehta tells us:

“On the technological side, while Neeva is aggregating some search results from Bing, the company is building its own crawler and looking at billions of pages every day. But as Raghunathan pointed out in his FastCompany interview earlier this month, crawling the web to create a new index while maintaining privacy standards is hard.”

Perhaps if anyone is up to the task, it is these two Xooglers. As of yet, Neeva is only available in the US, but the company hopes to become global. The plan is to expand into India and Western Europe “soon.” One tactic it is using to compete against the likes of privacy-focused DuckDuckGo and Brave is its partnership with news rating agency NewsGuard, which is helping it assess the accuracy of information. We wonder whether such features plus the free-tier offering will help Neeva reach its stated goal: to become the primary search engine for millions of privacy-centered users in the next two years.

Are there monetization options? The Point team is available to offer some ideas. Just write benkent2020 at yahoo dot com. We’ve been there and know the subscription method was a loser decades ago.

Cynthia Murrell, January 24, 2021

American Airlines Scores Points on the Guy

January 24, 2022

I read “American Airlines Suing the Points Guy Over App That Synchs Frequent Flyer Data.” I have tried to avoid flying. Too many hassles for my assorted Real ID cards, my US government super ID, and passengers who won’t follow rules as wonky as some may be.

The write up focuses on a travel tips sites which “lets users track airline miles from multiple airlines in one place.” The article is interesting and includes some interesting information; for example, consider this statement in the write up:

“Consumers are always in control of their own data on The Points Guy App — they decide which loyalty programs and credit cards are accessible for the purpose of making their points-and-miles journey easier,” The Points Guy founder Brian Kelly said in a statement emailed to The Verge. The site is “choosing to fight back against American Airlines on behalf of travelers to protect their rights to access their points and miles so they can travel smarter,” he added.

The write up includes a legal document in one of those helpful formats which make access on a mobile device pretty challenging for a 77 year old.

As wonderful as the write up is, I noticed one point (not the Guy’s) I would have surfaced; namely, “Why is it okay for big companies to federate and data mine user information but not okay for an individual consumer/customer?”

The reason? We are running the show. Get with it or get off and lose your points. Got that, Points Guy?

Stephen E Arnold, January 24, 2022

Darktrace: He Said, She Said, and Probably They Said Too

January 20, 2022

The high flying cyber security sector suffered a headache when the SolarWinds’ misstep was disclosed. Since that time, the mass media have started paying attention to what a year or two ago was the content discussed at cyber security conferences and workshops. Now, everyone including most US government agencies, hundreds of start ups, and probably a grandmother or two in a Golden Years Long Term Care facility are talking about cyber security, ransomware, bad actors, the Dark Web, the Deep Web, bots, smart malware, and the equivalent of Crime as a Service or CaaS, the on demand resource for stealing financial data.

I read “Short Seller says Darktrace Targets Are a Pipe Dream”. The back and forth between the UK financial firm and the Darktrace cyber services firm is interesting.(Keep in mind that years ago I did some small project for Autonomy, but my experience was pretty good. Nevertheless, before some research-minded 20 something tweets about my consulting, you have been alerted.)

The write up hits three interesting points. I am not interested in Darktrace, however. I think these points apply to a large number of the companies closing deals, often for Palantir-scale invoices, for threat intelligence, cyber defenses, digital canaries, smart perimeters, yada yada.

What are those points?

  1. Projections are extremely optimistic. What cyber security firm thinks about running out of clients for six and seven figure license fees? Hint: Think of a number between minus one and one.
  2. Headcounts move around, change, and are disconnected from an old school GraybaR (circa 1869) organization chart
  3. Customers sign on and then bail out. Does this sound like a Theranos-type observation.

The write up states:

ShadowFall says Darktrace’s business is driven by “an aggressive, promotional, sales focus” and is unlikely to stand the test of time. British hedge fund ShadowFall has taken a short position against cybersecurity specialist Darktrace, calling its business “watery-thin”. The hedge fund is known in the City as the ‘dark destroyer’ for its practices of unpicking corporate reports and devaluing shares. While the fund paints its work as a public service, as a short seller its own business model relies on driving down the prices of companies it bets against.

What’s up here? I think Darktrace is like many cyber security vendors. Consequently, ShadowFall is probably getting the curling stone close to the scoring circle in the game of full body contact investment curling. However, the specific issues like the three I identified above are part of the Silicon Valley territory. I call this phenomenon of overstatement, misdirection, and management management magical misdirection part of the behavior I described a decade ago in my monograph “The Google Legacy.”

The cyber security sector is not doing a Tom Brady grade job protecting an organization’s data. Why? Breaches occur because careless or indifferent employees click on links which invite bad actors to come in and have a seat in the engineering meeting. Bad actors prowl message boards for an unhappy employee, pay that employee to insert a USB stick into a laptop, or exfiltrate log on credentials. Finally, giant companies don’t build software with security as Job One. Every day I learn about another flaw in either commercial software or open source libraries. Bad actors don’t have to worry too much. There are quite a few bright bad actors and an expanding pool of oligarchs responding to a business opportunity.

No cyber vendor can keep up. In fact, best of class outfits are selling to those outside of the cyber security National Honor Society and Phi Beta Kappa stratum. (Example: Recorded Future to a general service outfit.) There are too few top flight cyber security engineers to staff the companies building or needing these specialists. Yep, a people shortage exists.

The net net is that ShadowFall has diagnosed an industry wide problem. The write up, however, focuses on ShadowFall’s analysis of a single company. A more useful and fair analysis would take a good, hard look at other cyber security firms. A spectrum or league table of behaviors can be generated. Then a company in the cyber security business can be put into a performance context. I understand that in the UK Darktrace is news. That’s okay with me. There is a far more significant analysis job to do. Darktrace becomes a data point, and my experience suggests there are outfits which warrant a similar analysis and commercial enterprises for which there is more data available.

Where is this type of analysis? I have not seen one. The reason may be, “Who wants to kill the gold goose laying cyber threat eggs filled with money?”

Stephen E Arnold, January 20, 2022

Microsoft and Games: A Different Take

January 19, 2022

I have been monitoring the breathless write ups about Microsoft responding like a good digital soldier in Call of Duty. The news hits the cash deal for more than $65 billion in cash. There are signals from the incredibly efficient government machinery that acquisitions will be subject to scrutiny, rules, and maybe more upfront testimony. I love these preambles: “Senator, thank you for the question.” Then the crystal clear responses. Thrilling.

What’s Microsoft itself say? Here’s one example: “Microsoft to Acquire Activation Blizzard to Bring the Joy and Community of Gaming to Everyone, Across Every Device.” The words that caught my eye were the names of the company. Those entities evoke thoughts of the antics of gamers in articles like “Activision Fires More People in Sexual Harassment Probe” and “California Sues Activision Blizzard, Alleging Culture of Sexual Harassment.” Perhaps these are allegations, but the message seems clear. Then there are strategic notions like this one from Inc. Magazine’s “1 Word Explains the Biggest Challenge Facing Microsoft’s $68.7 Billion Acquisition of Activision Blizzard”:

The goal is to feed the company’s Game Pass strategy, which has failed to gain traction among developers who aren’t particularly excited about handing over their flagship properties to a subscription service when they can easily command $50 or $60 apiece. Microsoft wants to let users pay $15 a month to play any game.

We have big money, sexual harassment matters, developers, gamers, and a reorganization.

My view is different.

Think back to late 2020 when news of the SolarWinds’ supply chain misstep circulated. FireEye (now part of Norton and renamed Trellix) reported the fact that a vaunted cyber security outfit (namely FireEye itself) was compromised. In short order, security professionals issued Emergency Directives like 21-02, tried to figure out what happened, and how many entities were compromised. Microsoft suggested that the issue was a result of 1,000 programmers beavering away in Eastern Europe. Rumors surfaced that the SolarWinds’ misstep had taken place months, possibly more than a year, before the FireEye announcement in December 2021. Public disclosures about breaches appear after lawyers and public relations professionals wordsmith. How long does this take? It varies in my experience. “Troubling Trend: It Takes Nine Months to Detect and Respond to a Cyberattack” makes clear that breaches have been implemented and performing the stipulated tasks for a considerable period of time.

Many pundits, consulting firms, investment outfits, and even SolarWinds itself realized that a certain large software company’s systems and methods were the surf board the bad actors were riding across the flows of digital data.

How do some individuals and companies respond when one subject — in this case, questionable engineering, insecure systems, and a snappy security breach that left US government agencies wondering who was pawing around in their allegedly secure servers — dominated the headlines.

My view was that a distraction was needed. What was that distraction? I interpreted the launch of what is known as Windows 11 was that distraction. Pundits took the red herring and gnawed. Familiar functions were suddenly unfamiliar. The October 2021 release of Windows 11 caught some people by surprise. Hello, Windows watchers working for Leo LaPorte and the TWIT TV operation.

My view was that Windows 11 was pushed out in order to create a point of discussion of some magnitude. My view is that chatter about Windows 11 would help mute the conversation about Microsoft security and its engineering practices.

Did it work? Sort of.

What’s up with the big news about the Activision Blizzard deal is that it looks to me like another distraction. Sure, one can make a business case about games, the metaverse, and the need for adult supervision of a gamer outfit. (This is interesting in light of Microsoft’s new found interest in alleged dalliances among the Softies.)

My take, which I admit is contrarian, is that Microsoft is using what looks like a major, super deal to focus attention on matters other than the security of Azure, Exchange, and even kicked to the kerb Word application.

Many arguments can be raised to point out that Microsoft’s senior management is not trying to distract anyone from anything. Windows 11 shipping without Android app functionality is just one of those things. Buying a game outfit saddled with some potentially costly legal allegations is just a bold move.

For me, Microsoft is using a magician’s method. Get the audience looking away from the nimble fingers palming a card or removing a divider so a rabbit can be pulled from a hat.

Why? My view is that the security issues remain is certain important Microsoft software systems. How did 2022 begin? “Microsoft Kicks Off 2022 With 96 Security Patches” explains that 89 of these were important. And what about virtual private network support? Oh, right, fixed now. And what about Windows Server vulnerabilities. There are fixes now for the issues created with those January patches. For details see “Microsoft Rolls Out Emergency Updates for Windows Server and VPN Bugs.”

But let’s talk about games, shall we? No, I would prefer to ask, “Why not apply those Microsoft billions toward addressing security issues?”

Stephen E Arnold, January 19, 2022

Bad Culture: Signals Are Tough to Ignore

January 18, 2022

I have worked in a number of interesting jobs and on fascinating projects for more than 50 years. I have some time perspective. My first “real” consulting job was an analysis of the content in a number of magazines for a large New York publishing outfit. The person who supervised my work was the individual who coined the phrase “Photomat. Where your photo matters.” My recollection is that he was interested in the results, and he was up front about what he wanted to learn from the investigation. As I recall, he said, “I want to know how to increase renewals.”

That made zero sense to me because text analysis in 1970 had little to do with the real world. Indexing Latin and cranking out concordances, yes. But subscription renewal? I was clueless, but I did the work and reported results which made this big wheel spin with joy. I liked the person and I liked the company. As it turned out, I did consulting work for one of the other senior managers for over 45 years.

This early experience is different from what is described in “Young People Are Leaving Tech Because of Bad Culture.” This article explains:

Talent and skills provider Mthree found 59% of people between the ages of 18 and 24 said the company culture in their tech-based role made them so uncomfortable they had quit or at least thought about quitting. When it came to those from under-represented groups in UK tech, these figures were higher, with 64% of female respondents, 67% of those from a mixed-race background and 68% of young people who are bisexual saying they had either left or considered leaving a role because of a company’s culture.

Quite a contrast. I had a positive first consulting experience.

I think the issue with work today is broader than the technology sector in which I have worked for many years. Earlier in my career, I worked for a blue chip consulting firm and I have done projects for other big time blue chip outfits. I have avoided, for the most part, the mid tier operations. These struck me (perhaps incorrectly) as lacking the rigor associated with the blue chip outfits.

McKinsey’s Leader Wants to Change the Firm” includes this statement:

McKinsey’s reputation also faced challenges. In February, the company said it had reached a $573 million settlement over its previous work advising OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma LP and other drug manufacturers to aggressively market opioid painkillers. McKinsey admitted no wrongdoing. The firm also drew scrutiny in recent years for its work with some foreign governments, including Saudi Arabia. [Emphasis added]

The idea that the downstream consequences of casual algorithmic tuning at Facebook-type companies and logic-driven business advice linked to drug addiction suggests a deeper issue. Is it the culture of the go go, Wolf of Wall Street thought processes or are these specific, observable symptoms of an ethical cancer? Are individuals operating flash mob snatch and run robberies unhappy with job opportunities or are these behaviors a loss of a strong social fabric?

Either way, people are making decisions which appear to be harmful to others. The impact of these types of behaviors are likely to accelerate the loss of technology and behavioral influence the US possessed when I began my work career half a century ago.

Change has been a long time coming, and I don’t think “speeding up decision making, rethinking performance evaluations, and avoiding future scandals” is going to retain tech talent or address certain behaviors that are genuinely harmful to others.

Stephen E Arnold, January 18, 2022

Amazon Twitch Vs Star Amouranth

January 17, 2022

The stars of new media are creating a new twist on the Hollywood studio moguls fight to control the stars of the silver screen. Class Struggle in Hollywood, 1930-1950: Moguls, Mobsters, Stars, Reds, and Trade Unionists documents some of the power struggles. Yep, you can buy it from Amazon, the outfit which is one of moguls, mobsters, stars, reds, and trade unionists-type protagonists in the study by Gerald Horne.

The modern social media spin is that Amazon Twitch finds itself in an uncomfortable old school Hollywood moment. Its “audience” is manufacturing or spawning “stars.” Unlike the digitally inhibited book publishers, Amazon Twitch is now finding it more difficult to corral and manage the streamers. These individuals with fame blasting into orbit with unique insights and talent allow Amazon Twitch to sell ads. And those ads? Pre rolls demand attention before one knows if the Twitch creator is online, doing the BRB (be right back) pause, or just leaving the inflatable pool naked in the digital stream. The ad produces revenue and the person wanting to form a digital bond with the star gets annoyed. Even Amouranth haters have to endure ads in order to post angry emojis and often hostile comments in the starlet’s live stream.

Amouranth Calls for Twitch to Start Revealing Ban Reasons for Streamers” includes some interesting observations and statements, some attributed to the social media starlet Kaitlyn Siragusa aka Amouranth. (One of her talent is creating video hooks like chewing on a microphone whilst breathing and donning a swim suit and splashing in an inflatable kiddie pool. She is also pretty good at getting media attention and free publicity. Plus she allegedly owns a convenience store. Did you, gentle reader, when you were 29 years old?)

The write up includes this statement:

Amouranth has called for that to change, and soon ?— according to the Amazon platform’s top female streamer, Twitch must change their tune, start being clearer when it comes to explaining bans for suspended stars, and finally “accept accountability” for the site’s rules.

She is quoted in the write up as saying:

“They [Amazon Twitch] do it because they don’t want the accountability of telling you what you did wrong. They don’t want to be in charge of upholding their own policies.”

Before you scoff at her talent, consider the allegation: A large technology outfit which is believed by some to be a monopoly type operation wants the money, wants the control, and does not want to upfront about who gets punished and who does not.

If the assertion is accurate, the social media star’s “situation” could become a flywheel and bump into the flywheel inside the Amazon money machine. Think in terms of one Tour de France racer bumping into another racer’s machine.

image

Amouranth is a human, and the products which Amazon offers are not. Amazon’s services are not people to the bits and bytes either. But Amouranth, the talent, is a human, and the human can create some waves. In a phone chat with one of my research team, we identified these momentum enhancers:

  1. Amouranth can claim discrimination and take her objection to a legal eagle or — heaven help the US government — one of the committees investigating the behavior of the largely unfettered tech giants. Wow, Amouranth testifying and then doing the talking head circuit.
  2. Amouranth can enlist the support of other individuals who have allegedly been digitally and financial abused by the high school science club management methods in use at some of the other high-tech, “we do what we want” outfits. Are there unhappy YouTubers out there who would respond to a call for action from a fellow traveler.
  3. An outfit struggling for traction — maybe a BitBucket like set up? — could make a play for these stars and use their followers to kick a video streaming service into gear? What happens if a somewhat rudderless operation in the streaming business embraces Amouranth and pulls off a Joe Rogan-type of deal? Imagine having Amouranth on ESPN as a commentator for a sports event which pulls an audience so small it’s tough to measure? What about Amouranth on the Disney Channel? (Come on, Minnie. Join Amouranth in her inflatable pool. Let an Amazon accountant manage the money from the program’s ad revenue.)
  4. More interesting, Amouranth might become the first Twitch personality to become a social media Adam Carolla in an inflatable kiddie pool.

Net net: Amouranth may be a starlet-type problem for Amazon Twitch. If not managed in an astute manner, a disruption of considerable size could result and travel at the speed of social media. Ad hoc censorship may have a hefty price tag.

Stephen E Arnold, January 17, 2022

Alleged Collusion Between Meta and Google: Shocking Sort Of

January 17, 2022

Google and Facebook’s Top Execs Allegedly Approved Dividing Ad Market among Themselves” reports:

The alleged 2017 deal between Google and Facebook to kill header bidding, a way for multiple ad exchanges to compete fairly in automated ad auctions, was negotiated by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and endorsed by both Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (now with Meta) and Google CEO Sundar Pichai, according to an updated complaint filed in the Texas-led antitrust lawsuit against Google.

Fans of primary research can read the 242 page amended filing at this link.

One question arises: How could two separate companies engage is discussions to divide a market? Perhaps one clue is the presence of the estimable lean in professional Sheryl Sandberg, who joined Google 2001 after blazing a trail in economics, McKinsey-type thinking familiar to many today as the pharma brain machine, and then some highly productive US government work.

At the Google she was a general manager. Her Googley behavior earned her a promotion. She was one of the thinkers shaping the outstanding revenue generation system known as AdWords. She added her special touch of McKinsey-ness to AdSense to the Gil Ebaz smart system packaged as Applied Semantics aka Oingo. The important point about applied semantics is that the technology included what I think of as steering or directionality; that is, one uses semantic information to herd the doggies (users) down the trail (consumption of ad inventory. For more on this notion of steering yo8u will want to listen to my interview with Dr. Donna Ingram who addresses this issue in the DarkCyber, 4th series, Number 1 video program to be released on January 18, 2022.

In 2007, chatting at the party helped her migrate from the Google to the company formerly known as Facebook. Ms. Sandberg, Harvard graduate with a chubby contact list, joined the scintillating management team as the social network engineering machine. In 2012, she became a member of the company’s board of directors. She leaned in to her role until some “real” news outfits flipped over the mossy rock of Cambridge Analytica’s benchmark marketing methods.

Ms. Sandberg was recognized by Professor Shoshana Zuboff as the Typhoid Mary of surveillance capitalism. Is that a Meta T shirt yet? He book is a must read. It is called Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. It appeared in 2013 and may be due for an update to include the Cambridge Analytica misunderstanding, the Frances Haugen revelations, and, of course, the current Texas-sized legal matter.

The write up cited above points out a statement from the Google. The main idea is that the idea is “full of inaccuracies and lacks legal merit.”

I believe everything I read on the Internet. I accept the Google search output when I query “Silicon Valley ethics” – Theranos. I trust in the Meta thing because how could two outfits collude? I think such interactions are highly improbable in Silicon Valley, the home of straight shooting.

Stephen E Arnold, January 17, 2022

Apple: The Privacy Outfit

January 14, 2022

I have avoided writing about Apple’s handy dandy stalker gadgets. Those are some super special privacy centric gizmos, aren’t they? I will, however, point anyone with an interest in Apple’s privacy approach to “Your iPhone Can Secretly Listen to Conversations with AirPods — Here’s How.” Good actors and bad actors may get some surveillance ideas. The article says:

Apple’s Live Listen feature lets you hear someone speaking around 50 feet away.

That’s handy, isn’t it?

Allegedly the system works with AirPods, AirPods Pro, AirPods Max, Powerbeats Pro or Beats Fit Pro.

For the how to, absorb the information in the article, which includes illustrative screen shots. Yep, Apple is definitely into profits, ooops, I meant privacy.

Stephen E Arnold, January 14, 2022

TikTok: Redefines Regular TV

January 11, 2022

What do most people under the age of 30 want to watch? YouTube? Sure, particularly some folks in Eastern Europe for whom YouTube is a source of “real news” and tips for surviving winter in Siberia. (Tip: Go to Sochi.)

TikTok videos Will Be Playing at Restaurants, Gyms, Airports Soon” reports:

TikTok partnered with Atmosphere to bring short-form videos to the background of your next gym session, restaurant meal, or airport visit. Startup Atmosphere streams news and entertainment to commercial locations such as restaurants, airports, hotels, doctors’ waiting rooms, and other venues. That content is sourced from a host of free, ad-supported networks, including YouTube, Red Bull TV, AFV TV, World Poker Tour, The Bob Ross Channel, and, now, TikTok—making its out-of-home video service debut.

The airport venue may not be A Number One with a Bullet today, but it has promise, particularly when paired with those surveillance centric smart TVs from some folks in South Korea and elsewhere.

My thought is that the short form video looks like the future of entertainment. Instead of smash cuts, the new programs will be structured like TikTok videos. The idea will be to create an impression with the individual videos providing the shaped or weaponized content.

Dystopia? Nah, just the normal progression of information when new tools, techniques, capabilities, and methods become available. In the case of TikTok, the addition of a China-linked approach adds spice. Perhaps it is time to think in terms of managing the content streams which are set to displace what Boomers and other old timers find reliable.

That requires understanding, will, and commitment. Those are qualities on display in many seats of government, aren’t they?

Stephen E Arnold, January 11, 2022

Google: Negative Externalities

January 11, 2022

I read “The Internet Is Rigged In Big Tech’s Favor.” Published in the capitalist tool, the article includes a wonderful phrase for anti-competitive, allegedly monopolistic behavior, and collusion with fellow travelers like Apple. Here’s the passage:

this isn’t to say that Google, Facebook and the rest of the major tech companies haven’t done a lot to improve the lot of a substantial portion of the human population, but their continued growth and evolution requires critical scrutiny and some sort of framework to reduce negative externalities.

The phrase at which I marvel is “negative externalities.” Yep, negative externalities. At least the capitalist tool strives to suggest that Google and a handful of other companies have had what some might call a negative impact on certain sectors of business and upon some individuals.

The write up states:

When it comes to Alphabet, Google’s holding company, at least they are better at pretending. CEO Pichai is great at explaining why the company’s focus is on improving user experience to the maximum that his algorithms and artificial intelligence allow it. Yet, behind the scenes the company’s top priority continues to be its bottom line.

Okay, say one thing, do another. This is new? Nope, what’s “innovative” is the Forbes is starting to critique the companies which have been among the most adept at manipulating capitalist tools: Market control, PR spin, and the principles of that outstanding pioneer JP Morgan.

Right on time with insightful criticism. Great euphemism too: Negative externalities. Yep, when the Internet to some is big tech, magic happens: Misdirection.

Stephen E Arnold, January 10, 2022

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