A weird sort of monopoly

Over at The Verge, Vlad Savov has written quite an interesting analysis of Google’s market power in response to US antitrust regulators looking into whether Google has engaged in anticompetitive practices. I’ve written in the past about Google’s somewhat evil Android business model, but it’s interesting to think whether Google’s business practices could be thought of as “anti-competitive” and therefore need some kind of government regulatory response.

Savov sums up like this:

“It’s clear that Google is in a dominant position. It’s less clear how that can possibly be remedied when the company is giving away its software for free and under terms that everyone seems to find advantageous. Google is guilty of making software people and companies want. Now what?”

Overall, I think Savov has been a bit too easy on Google, but he definitely raises an interesting question: does what Google is doing count as being “anti-competitive”? I think that just because Google’s android offering is free doesn’t really affect whether it’s abusing its position and being anti-competitive. Mobile operating systems seem to be quite vulnerable to firms abusing their positions because of the strong network effects in play — as Savov points out there’s no apps for other operating systems because there’s no critical mass.

More broadly, if you disagree that Google’s behaviour with android is anti-competitive, but it’s still not desirable behaviour, where does that leave regulators and the public interest? Can regulators ever be nimble enough to challenge these quasi-anti-competitive actions, or do we just pray for the best and hope that innovation will throw up another competitor?

Why the world needs Firefox more than ever

I’ve been thinking a bit recently about why the world needs Firefox, and the ways in which Firefox can be sold to normal people who don’t know what open source software is and just like something which works. The challenge for Firefox, and Mozilla, lies in turning around this worrying trend:

Usage_share_of_web_browsers_(Source_StatCounter).svg
By various Wikimedia users, CC BY 3.0

I think what’s getting in the way of Firefox growing — or even retaining its market share — is the widespread perception that Google Chrome is “just better”. Moreover, Chrome is pre-installed on Android devices and available on iOS. With Firefox, by contrast, a potential user has to go the trouble of installing Firefox on Android, and it’s not even available on iOS (although that might change). Finally, Google has a huge ad network on which they run ads prodding you to try Chrome to speed up the web, an approach which Mozilla is unable to match.

I’m going to explore why we need browser competition, the similarities between the fight Firefox is currently engaged in and the one it fought against Internet Explorer in the 2000s, as well as how Firefox might break out of the declining (or at least not growing) user-base problem it’s currently in. Continue reading “Why the world needs Firefox more than ever”

Is Android evil?

Android naughty or nice
Original robot: Impish / Google, CC-BY

Android is a hugely popular mobile operating system, accounting for about 80% of smartphones. I used to think that it was great to have a mobile OS that was also open source. But I’ve gradually come to realise that Android’s open source credentials leave a lot to be desired, and that Google is engaged in some pretty anti-competitive behaviour.

So I’ve been thinking recently whether using an android phone or tablet is consistent with a concern for privacy, a desire to avoid monopolistic products, and a sympathetic attitude towards open source software. The conclusion I’ve come to is no – Android is pretty evil. Continue reading “Is Android evil?”

Ingress and crowdsourcing civic data

Sometime earlier this year I started playing the smartphone augmented reality game Ingress. It’s basically a giant, global game of capture the flag where two teams fight for control of “portals” which can be anything from street art to historic buildings. The innovative aspect of the game is that it requires you to physically go out into the world and interact with these places – you have to be standing within a few metres of portals to interact with them, and hence the game gets you out of the house and walking around. Although you could play the game as an individual, you quickly come into contact with others on your team to coordinate, and in the process enter into a friendly community.

For me, one of the most interesting parts of the game is that quite a bit of it is crowdsourced. People who play the fame (“agents”) go out into the world and submit points of interest (POI) and a photo to the people who make the game, who then after a period of months either accept or reject your submission. You can also submit new photos of existing portals. So over time you gradually see the streets in the game fill up with more and more portals to interact with, and new interesting photos of monuments and buildings etc.

This crowdsourcing aspect of the game got me thinking of the potential for an Ingress-like game for reporting and interacting with real world objects in a way which actually benefits society. In other words, what would happen if you were to create a hybrid of Ingress and fix it apps which many councils around the world already offer for citizens to report on problems in their neighbourhood?

The basic idea would be that you boot up this app on your phone, and are immediately presented with a map of your surroundings – perhaps a few hundred metres in every direction. The data could be pulled from Open Street Map. As you move around, the centre of the map moves and you can see different things. On the map are a number of different POIs – nearby parks, town halls, etc. The types of POI visible could be changed depending on your preferences. The point is that you could select things on the map around your current location to submit to the app as problems (with accompanying photos). E.g. a street light might be out and in need or repair, there might be rubbish everywhere, plants may be overgrown and in need of trimming on public land, there might be grafiti etc. Once your problem has been submitted, it could appear on the map to others who are also around there. Other people could take additional photos, confirm the problem exists, add more details, or report that the problem had already been fixed or did not appear to exist at all.

The possibilities are pretty much limitless in terms of what you could do with an app like this. You could crowdsource photos of monuments, or create missions where people had to do a number of things around the city. I think it would be really good if it was game-ified such that people felt tangible progress as they “played” the game more. It would essentially gamify being a good citizen, and allow councils and governments to have the power of heaps of helpful people all over the place.

Existing apps which allow people to submit problems in the city, are a good start, but I think they could be way better. Obviously it would be a huge amount of work to put something like this together, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.