August 5, 2009

Past, present and future of online maps

Filed under: bing, google, local search, maps, microsoft — Rakesh Agrawal @ 11:55 am

Business names and landmarks on Google MapsGoogle announced yesterday that it has added more detail on its maps, highlighting businesses and landmarks. They even solved the Albert Einstein Memorial problem that I wrote about last year.

Businesses and landmarks are important because they make maps more in line with the way people think, instead of the way that computers operate. This change also means that businesses won’t have to resort to painting their rooftops to be easily identifiable.

There are two big challenges with what Google is doing:

We’ve come a long way from the early days of the Web when maps consisted largely of roads and a clunky user interface. We’ve seen the addition of aerial imagery, building outlines, photos, public transit, Street View, neighborhoods, user-generated content and live traffic. Google has driven much of this innovation, although to be fair MapQuest had aerial imagery first and A9 had a version of street view early on.

There is still a lot of work to do to improve maps:

  • College and corporate campuses. Campuses such as Google’s and Microsoft’s buildings have numbers, but these aren’t shown on the map. If you were meeting someone, they’d probably tell you to go to “Building 43″. My friend Adam at Google keeps a custom Google map to show where his building is. (Oddly, Microsoft’s Bing maps show building numbers for the Microsoft campus, but don’t let you search for them.) The same thing applies for airport terminals.
  • Controlled-access facilities. Businesses in controlled-access facilities should be hidden by default — few people are going to park and go through security to eat at an airport restaurant. On the other hand, if I’m in the airport, I want to know what businesses are in my terminal.
  • Handling nonstandard locations. Databases are organized around cities and states in the United States. This works for most places, but is problematic in areas that don’t follow the convention like Hawaii or Las Vegas. Hawaiians talks about islands, but the local databases don’t know the concept of an island. This is made worse by the fact that the same town name is used on multiple islands — there’s a Waimea on Kauai and Hawaii and a Kailua on Oahu and Hawaii. Local constructs such as “North Shore” and “South Shore” aren’t understood either. Navigating using local search on my recent trips to Hawaii was error filled.
    In Vegas, hotels are a primary navigation construct and many of those hotels have more shops and restaurants than do a lot of American towns.
    Given how popular these destinations are, I’m surprised this problem hasn’t been solved.
  • Parking availability. In a big city it’s rare that you can drive up to your destination and park right in front; finding parking can easily add 15-20 minutes to your trip. Companies like Urban Mapping are already collecting this information. I had a book called Park It Here! that showed street parking restrictions for every block in Manhattan. I’d love to see that data online.

More on: google, maps, local search

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January 8, 2009

Tellme about Ford

Filed under: cars, launchpad, microsoft, mobile, mobile search — Rakesh Agrawal @ 1:37 am

Yesterday marked my one year anniversary at Tellme. I spent the day where I started a year earlier: at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Coincidentally, Ford officially announced its next generation of SYNC, which incorporates Tellme services. It’s the project I’ve been working on. The first version of SYNC, which allows users to control their cell phones and MP3 players, has been tremendously successful for Ford. Cars equipped with SYNC have been selling nearly twice as fast as those without. The new  features let motorists search for businesses, get turn-by-turn directions, check traffic and get other information using just their voice. The Ford press release goes into depth on the features.

Microsoft’s Robbie Bach, president of the entertainment and devices division, referenced the service as part of Steve Ballmer’s opening keynote.

Robbie Bach introduces enhancements to Ford SYNC (photo from Engadget)

Robbie Bach introduces enhancements to Ford SYNC (photo from Engadget)

January 5, 2009

VOIP: Alive, well and full of potential

Filed under: im, instant messaging, microsoft, mobile — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:22 pm

Om Malik asks on his blog whether VOIP is dead or alive. It’s an interesting question and the answer is very different depending on how you define VOIP.

Many people associate VOIP with cheap voice calls using the Internet. This is what many early VOIP pioneers (Vonage being the biggest name) gravitated toward. They did this for one big reason: that’s where the money was. You could deliver services comparable to what PSTN providers were charging $40-$60 a month for at a much lower cost. The arbitrage opportunity provided a clear value proposition and revenue stream.

Unfortunately for Vonage and the others, that’s also where the sleeping giants were, with billions in revenue they needed to protect. Incumbent telcos have largely marginalized the standalone cheap call providers through more aggressive pricing, bundling, regulatory hundles and IP claims. At the same time, incumbents and cable operators have used VOIP technologies to lower their own operating costs.

But that’s also the least interesting, transformative aspect of VOIP. If you expand the definition to include voice paired with other aspects of communication such as presence and video, things get a lot more interesting — and we’re just beginning to see how transformative that cane be.

Skype has been a key innovator in this space. Over New Year’s, we introduced my parents to Skype. My mom could see our family in India, whom she hadn’t seen in months. My parents are very much laggards when it comes to technology; they don’t know how to text. But the clear value of Skype’s voice and video service had my dad pulling out his camera to buy a Webcam.

For work, I use Microsoft Office Communicator 2007 to interact with colleagues. No matter where I or my colleagues are in the world, I can see what they’re up to and communicate with them using text, voice or video. Or all of the above.

Communicator integrates with Outlook so I can see when they’re in meetings and don’t interrupt them. There’s also integrated conference calling. My office “phone” rings on my laptop. (It also rings on a dusty hunk of plastic on my desk, which I haven’t touched in months.) It’s the most powerful communications tool I’ve used.

There are two big challenges for this definition of VOIP: getting the technology in front of nongeek users and migration of more and more communications to wireless, where the carriers rule with an iron fist.

I’ll talk about each of these in future blog posts.

September 17, 2008

Wall Street and the incredible shrinking newspaper industry

Filed under: google, journalism, media, microsoft, newspapers, yahoo — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:35 pm

A friend asked me today “Does one Bear Stearns bailout equal the entire newspaper industry?” I decided to find out.

Although there isn’t a clear answer, I was surprised by how small the newspaper industry is. Here are the market caps for publicly traded newspaper companies:

Company Market cap (millions)
Washington Post Co. $5,450
Gannett 3,640
New York Times 1,960
Belo 627
Scripps 388
McClatchy 283
Media General 198
Lee 114
Daily Journal 64
Sun-Times Media Group 19
Combined $12,743

The key newspapers that are missing from this list are the Tribune papers and the Wall Street Journal. If you add in the $5 billion that News Corp. paid for the Journal and assume that Tribune is worth $2.25 billion ($8.2 billion value of the deal, discounted at the same rate as McClatchy’s year-to-date performance), the total value of the industry comes to $20 billion. (I’m being generous here and not subtracting out Kaplan’s contribution to the Washington Post’s market cap, which is likely 2/3 to 3/4 of the $5.5 billion.)

By comparison, the government has committed $30 billion in loan guarantees to Bear Stearns and $85 billion to AIG. The actual cost to taxpayers won’t be known for sometime. Bank of America is paying more than twice the value of the newspaper industry for Merrill Lynch.

Some other comparisons:

Market cap of selected companies (in billions)

Market cap of selected companies (in billions)

In other newspaper news:

More on: journalism, newspapers

June 3, 2008

Google offers fresh perspectives on travel photography

Filed under: flickr, fun, geotagging, google, microsoft, photography, travel, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 11:15 pm

Google’s Panoramio has launched one of the most exciting advances in online pictures since flickr added geotagging. A new “Look around” feature shows you when pictures are available from other angles.

In the screenshot below, you can see the dome of the Taj Mahal highlighted. Clicking on that takes you to a picture of the dome. (Shown in red on the right.)

The UI is a bit confusing. For example, in the screenshot there is a blank image in the middle. I assume that means something, but I haven’t been able to figure out what. The same goes for the overall arrangement of thumbnails. Regardless, it’s a lot of fun to play with.

The feature is only available for sites with lots of pictures. Try the Brooklyn Bridge, Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, Tower of London and the Ponte Rialto. I had an easier time finding places to explore in Europe than in the United States. (This could reflect the fact that Panoramio is based in Spain.)

Microsoft’s Live Labs has been demoing similar technology called Photosynth for more than a year, using images of the Basilica di San Marco. Photosynth offers a spectacular 3D overview. I’d love to see it out of the labs.

Until then, I’ll be playing with Panoramio. Check out their take on the Basilica.

Read more on Panoramio’s blog.

Disclosure: I work for a Microsoft subsidiary.

May 5, 2008

Occasional reader – cognitive surplus, Larry Page on changing the world, CSI and mapping crime

Filed under: apple, dash, google, gps, iphone, microsoft, reader, satellite navigation, video, weekly reader — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:46 pm

Some interesting reads from the last few weeks:

  • Clay Shirky at Web 2.0 Expo on the cognitive surplus (Web 2.0 video) – Author Clay Shirky spoke recently on how much could be done if only a fraction of the time spent watching TV is put to other uses. He estimates that 2,000 Wikipedias could be created with just the time Americans spend watching TV in a year. (I just clicked off the TV to write this post.) While Shirky focuses his talk on production of content, all that production also has a significant effect on consumption. Time is a zero-sum game. The time I spend on Facebook or reading about Jon’s exploits in Russia is time I’m not spending with TV or traditional media. And for every producer, there are at least 10 to 20 consumers.
  • Larry Page on how to change the world (Fortune) – Google co-founder Larry Page lays out the challenges we face in changing the world. The core problem is that not enough people and companies take risks. Part of this undoubtedly is due to the risk/reward systems in most companies. Innovation (and the people who chase it) are often the first to go when belts need to be tightened.
    I was at a conference last week where Erik Jorgensen of Microsoft demoed some amazing technologies in mapping, such as 3D map tours. A questioner from the audience, a Microsoft shareholder, asked what the ROI was. Fortunately, Microsoft and Google do well enough in their core businesses that most investors give them the freedom to innovate.
  • ‘CSI’ sleuths out Microsoft’s latest technology (USA Today) – CSI:NY producer Anthony E. Zuiker is teaming with folks at Microsoft labs to bring bleeding edge technology to viewers. (And no doubt frustrating real life criminalists with increased expectations.) Last week’s episode featured Microsoft’s Photosynth technology. CSI:Miami used variations of Microsoft’s Surface computing. Microsoft isn’t the only one in the CSI product placement game; many of the pictures processed by the Photosynth technology in that episode were taken with iPhones.
  • Honda system to warn motorists of crime hotspots (AFP) – In-car navigation systems and PNDs are getting more data rich all the time. On recent Acuras you can get Zagat ratings. With a Dash Express PND, you have access to Yahoo! Search results. Now, in Japan, your Honda can tell you when you’re in a dangerous neighborhood. I suspect that fears of redlining and disparate data sources will keep that from happening here. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some enterprising Dash users use create and share localized feeds for such an app.

May 3, 2008

3D maps meet geotagged pictures

Filed under: flickr, geotagging, maps, mashups, microsoft, photography, web 2, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 11:32 pm

Microsoft’s Virtual Earth has a phenomenal addition to Live Search Maps that allows users to create virtual aerial tours. Here’s an example using pictures from my trip to Kauai:

The tours can be exported as a video file and uploaded to a video sharing site (as above) or shared by link to Live Search Maps. Like many such links on AJAX sites, it doesn’t preserve the correct state. Click “Tour in 3D” in the upper left and “aerial” above the map for best effect.

Tours can be created manually by pushing pins into a map. The service also plays nicely with GeoRSS, GPX, KML or KMZ files. The above tour was imported from my flickr pictures. (Unfortunately, flickr caps geo exports to the most recent 20 pictures per search.)

The 3d map tours can be generated from GPS tracklogs. Here’s a tour based on the tracklog from a recent bike trip through San Francisco, taking the ferry back from Sausalito:

Major cities, like San Francisco, benefit from 3D models of key buildings. The blue line in the video is the tracklog.

Both of these tours were created using the default settings. You can also customize the view shown at each location by rotating, tilting or zooming. I don’t see an option to playback the full tracklog.

Disclosure: I work for a Microsoft subsidiary.

March 18, 2008

Tellme about St. Patrick’s Day

Filed under: fun, microsoft, yahoo — Rakesh Agrawal @ 1:29 am

Tellmes know how to throw a great party. The annual St. Patrick’s Day party was a jolly good time. Colleagues from Microsoft’s Silicon Valley campus joined us in the courtyard for limerick and mashed potato sculpting contests. The winning sculpture? A bust of Steve Ballmer:

Bust of Steve Ballmer

Ironically, on the train ride home I heard a Marketplace report about concerns that a Microsoft acquisition would destroy Yahoo’s culture. Who knows what would happen, but the report did contain at least one factual error: Microsoft employees do get free coffee. Tellme employees also get free cookies.

(RSS readers should click through to the post to see the slideshow.)

February 1, 2008

Microsoft yodels for Yahoo!

Filed under: aol, google, iphone, microsoft, mobile, mobile search, social networking, wireless, wireless data, yahoo — Rakesh Agrawal @ 5:12 pm

Microsoft and Yahoo logosThe announced Microsoft bid for Yahoo! means a lot of different things for lots of people. An emboldened competitor for Google. A stronger ad network for advertisers. Heightened acquisition hopes for AOL. Better benefits for Yahoo! employees. (Microsoft has the best benefits I’ve seen in the industry.)

But what does it mean for every day consumers? The biggest impact is likely to be in the mobile space. Microsoft’s ownership of the Windows Mobile OS and Yahoo’s large audience and mobile applications could revolutionize the industry.

As revolutionary as the iPhone is, it’s not a true network device. Apple did a terrific job integrating four devices – phone, Internet tablet, media player and camera – into one.

Even as our lives get more and more digitally connected, the cell phone remains a remote island of information. Someone needs to build a device that integrates the Internet seamlessly.

Some of the things I’d like to see:

  • A network address book. You no longer have to use the 10-key keypad or a sync cable to keep your address book up-to-date. In fact, you don’t have to update it all – as your contacts move, those changes are automatically reflected. The address book would incorporate network presence so that you don’t call people when they’re in the middle of something.
  • A network calendar.
  • Integrated photo applications. I’ve been looking for a way to view pictures from my friends on flickr through my mobile phone or iPod Touch. The best efforts have been clunky. When I take pictures, they’re seamlessly integrated with my flickr account, without the hacks that are currently required. (Sprint has done a nice implementation of this kind of integration with Picture Mail, but their Web application is awful and little used.) The pictures could also be used for picture Caller ID.
  • Richer data push to the phone. It amazes me that we’re still stuck sending 160 character text messages to each other. A network-integrated phone would allow for a better experience. Want to invite someone to dinner? Send them a message which appears complete with photo, address, review and link to driving directions.
  • Web access to text messages and integration with IM. When you’re at your desk, text messages come in on your IM client. Leave and they get routed to your cell phone. All of your texts are available in your mail app. The carriers are an obstacle to making this happen (text messaging is highly lucrative), but a combined Microsoft-Yahoo might be able to pull it off.
  • Network control of your phone. Phone stolen? No problem, send a bullet to erase all of the data. Forgot where you left your phone? See a map of where it is.
  • Local search integration. Found a business that you like? Add it your network address book for quick and easy access. Click to rate right from your cell phone.
  • Location-aware presence. The option to publish location to other networks, including IM networks. More on that later.

Some variations of a few of these features, like the network address book and calendar, exist in enterprise-focused devices. Yahoo! Go is an excellent consumer application that includes features such as a flickr viewer, but without integration into the OS isn’t as great as it should be.

Microsoft’s ownership of the phone OS, deep integration of Yahoo! Go and their combined consumer audiences could be combined to create a phone that out Apples Apple.

See also:

ObDisclaimer: These are my personal views and do not reflect the views of my employer.

September 14, 2007

Bringing email into the 21st century

Filed under: aol, email, facebook, google, microsoft, social networking, yahoo — Rakesh Agrawal @ 7:49 pm

John McKinley, former AOL CTO and now VC, asks “Who will be the first major (Google/Yahoo/Microsoft/AOL) to break ranks and apply a fundamentally new metaphor to email?” There’s been a proliferation in ways to communicate — IM, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Wikis, SMS, comments.

People have more compelling, more contextual, more effective, and more convenient options to share and interact than ever before, and incumbent forms of communications will be the losers here.

Email as we know it has changed little since the mid-90s. Most of the features have been incremental. The biggest breakthrough was Webmail instead of client-based mail — and that happened in 1996.

John has some great thoughts. Here are my additions, in priority order:

Spam control – One of the reasons I like Facebook messaging is that I know that messages are much more likely to be real — no Viagra or stock pitches. I’d say more than 70% of the mail I get in my Gmail account is spam. I also have had numerous cases of false positives with important personal mail getting sent to the spam folders. As a domain owner, I also get to deal with the bounces from spammers forging my domain name. We need to move to a model where we focus on identifying the good email. (See my blog post on Picture ID for one example.) If the big four would work together to secure email sent among them, it’d be a big step forward.

Security – This strikes me as a business opportunity for the big 4. It amazes me that this far into email, it is less secure than paper mail. I’d love to sign up for e-billing with all my credit card companies and utilities, but it’s a pain. The lack of email security requires that I get an email reminder (hope that the email doesn’t get spam filtered), log into their site and then view a PDF. I just want them to send me a copy of my bill that I can view, store and search. You could probably charge for this – 1 or 2 cents per bill is a lot cheaper than the post office. You could also provide the ancillary service (which is becoming even more important) of authenticating the emails to prevent phishing.

Smarts – I wrote a blog post about smart email a while back. Many of the emails I get are from computers – banks, credit card companies, airlines, etc. They’re all generated off templates. Understand them and do the right thing. Put my bill due notices on the calendar, along with my itineraries. Show me when that package from Amazon is going to arrive. Automatically archive all the sales and deals that have expired. I don’t think entity extraction is good enough for this. Google has been trying for a while with Gmail and the results have been fairly poor. It will likely require the mailers to follow microformats and append the data in machine readable form. But if the Big 4 were to agree on a framework for the formats, it would take off. You could start with vCal and work from there.

Recommended reading:

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