How Google Is Taking Over the World
If you get the feeling you live in a Google World, you aren't alone. Its giant projects are expansive -- developing Android to power most smartphones and tablets, becoming the standard-bearer for mapping and even showing off driverless cars and smart glasses. In fact, CEO Eric Schmidt's trip to North Korea underscores its near-omnipotence, even in the darkest corners of the earth. Where there's an opening, it'll find its way into it, hunker down and finesse its way into a stronghold -- and these are five of the ways it'll merge, grow and expand in 2013.
The Search Continues
Google will be free and clear of the two-year-long Federal Trade Commission investigation into search monopoly, paving the way for its dominance to continue. The commission, composed of both Democrats and Republicans, announced it wouldn't take action into the issue of bias. Despite finding some evidence that search algorithm changes harmed competitors, it said that the movements could be "plausibly justified" as innovations to improve its results.
The regulatory body also investigated whether Google harmed U.S. consumers by suing to block sales of competing mobile devices, namely those by Apple and Microsoft. On this front, the FTC reached a broader settlement that would give competitors access to patents necessary to make smartphones, among other devices. Google voluntarily agreed to stop borrowing content for use in its own services. The settlement encourages the company to resolve patent disputes through arbitration first, not through lengthy, expensive court battles.
Competitors who alleged Google engaged in antitrust activities believe the Internet giant got off lightly, compared to FTC treatment of IBM in the '70s and Microsoft in the '90s, which levied significant financial penalties and smacked both companies with restrictions. Maybe the FTC didn't want to hobble a thriving business in these harsh economic times, or perhaps the case didn't merit tougher measures. Regardless, Google's lobbying efforts have paid an important dividend in the decision. But it isn't out from under the FTC's investigative eye.
The immediate FTC threat is gone, so Google can plow ahead and transform itself from a search engine into an "answer engine," designed to give you a better, faster experience. Through constant refinements of its algorithm, its goal is to build a service like the Star Trek computer, able to directly and instantly answer your queries -- and the reality is closer than you think.
However, it faces competition in search by an old foe. Not Microsoft, but instead Facebook, which unveiled its "social graph" search, allowing you to browse through friends' interests, preferences and locations, among other data, more easily. If you're looking for personalized information and meaningful results on music, books, travel and other subjects, the search is a boon. It delivers more targeted data than Google. And as Google fights to refine its search results by instituting constant changes in its algorithm, Facebook's offering is posing a serious threat.
Google Wi-Fi -- Expanding Its Reach
So far, Google isn't in the water you drink, but it is in the air you breathe -- sort of. If you live in the southwest Chelsea neighborhood of New York City, near its headquarters, you can dip into its free public Wi-Fi. Similar to the FTC resolution, the project highlights its increasingly cozy political relationship, but this time with state officials. It promises to bring free Internet access to hundreds of thousands of people each year, making it the largest such network in city. New York officials praised the move, which connects more than 2,000 residents, 5,000 students and hundreds of workers, retail customers and tourists that visit the neighborhood daily.
"New York is determined to become the world's leading digital city, and universal access to high-speed Internet is one of the core building blocks of that vision," said New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. "Thanks to Google, free Wi-Fi across this part of Chelsea takes us another step closer to that goal."
But some critics aren't as quick to give Google a pat on the back. The Wi-Fi network will cost around $115,000 to build and $45,000 a year in upkeep. The company will pick up two-thirds of the tab, and nonprofit group Chelsea Improvement will cover the rest. The positive buzz stemming from the association with an exciting "digital city" project is well worth this tiny -- at least by Google's standards -- investment. Also, it benefits with broadband Internet use, which lets you browse more at faster speeds, executing more searches along the way.
In addition to Wi-Fi in its home city of Mountain View, Calif., Google plans to offer high-speed fiber-optic access in the Kansas City metropolitan area, and for more than just faster service. The Internet giant already began testing television service in Kansas City. Its Motorola buyout means it can make set-top hardware and start a direct run at Apple in the growing smart-television arena. In that light, these isolated projects may hint at deeper ambitions. On the surface, providing free Wi-Fi is a generous gesture, but establishing the infrastructure also lays the ground work to support and expand bigger, more ambitious projects like Google TV down the road.
Google in Your Wallet
Beyond getting more bang from its political buck to fuel search and generate positive press, Google is also trying mighty hard to get into your wallet or purse.
No, I'm not talking about Google's Wallet, though it's working to iron out wrinkles. The way it wants to get into your wallet is with Zavers. The service saves digital coupons to your accounts, based on your interests and visits to retailer websites. So, when shop and check out, the real-time savings are automatically deducted at checkout when you give your phone number.
The service, which welcomed New York's Original Grocer D'Agostino as a network partner, is essentially a coupon book tied to your phone: you add coupons to your account, and they're automatically applied at the register with a single scan. Cloud technology gives manufacturers a real-time look at the pace of redemptions so they can target and plan coupon policies with that information in hand.
As Zavers illustrates, companies are taking small steps to lure consumers to go digital when it comes to their pocketbooks. Last fall, Apple joined the market with its Passbook feature. Zavers and Passbook are unlike more-ambitious e-payment systems that need NFC chips, store digital versions of their credit cards on handsets and pay for products by scanning their phones at special pay stations at supported retailers.
Passbook takes a more introductory approach to mobile payments, focusing on storing virtual tickets and vouchers, and Zavers does the same with coupons. Google and Apple are betting that by easing consumers into the digital wallet concept with coupons and tickets, it will familiarize them with the e-payment concept while avoiding the security concerns that go with smartphone transactions.
Not Even the IPhone Escapes Google's Grasp
Apple aficionados scorn Google and Android, extolling the virtues and ease of Apple's operating system in what is increasingly a two-horse smartphone race. But Apple fans aren't as steadfast when it comes to Google's apps, and there are more Android programs than ever in the iOS store, ready for iPhones to download. For example, after Google released its revamped Maps in December, the app became that month's most downloaded program for the iPhone. Google also pumped out a YouTube app, an iPhone version of its Chrome Web browser and updated software to use its Gmail service.
Two dozen Google iPhone apps, with variations for the iPad, are available on Apple's App Store. The strategy is simple: it wants to reach an audience that can give it results to improve products and generate more income. Besides, having Apple fans familiar with its products helps Google one day turn them to Android, so it's a win-win.
Last year, Apple began removing Google services installed on its phones. Instead, it began promoting its own services. But it's unreliable and highly criticized maps service, complete with misplaced landmarks and inaccurate addresses, highlights how challenging the approach is. For Google, the snafu was an opportunity to quickly design a Maps app for the iPhone and watch it become a hit.
Google's success in that arena is remarkable. According to Nielson, in the U.S. last November, nearly 12 million unique users of the Google-created YouTube app for the iPhone, and the 7 million users of its search app, placed them both in the top 20 list of iPhone apps with the biggest audience. For the company, it always comes back to advertising. Since it makes money from selling ads that appear on phones and not the phones themselves, it doesn't care so much about what type of phone its services are on. What is important to it is whether that consumer uses its apps, shares data and is looking at ads.
Google Teams Up With the FBI
You may be surprised to learn the FBI is partnering with Google to catch crooks. The agency launched a website that uses Google Maps to show visitors the location of criminal activity -- down to the street level. The site also displays photos of "wanted" suspects along with their physical descriptions. You can even search locations, an unidentified robber's nickname, weapons used and other clues.
Google, along with Facebook, is keenly interested in facial recognition technology. The ability to scan through photos looking for specific facial features is also massively appealing to law enforcement agencies who are increasingly turning to these new digital DNA technologies, and getting results. Last year, the FBI arrested hacker Higinio Ochoa after using GPS data embedded in an iPhone's photo of his Australian girlfriend's impressive cleavage, an image he left to taunt authorities. Authorities used the photo to track down Ochoa's girlfriend, and then him, showcasing how law enforcement, even when dealing with a person expected to be highly skilled in covering his digital tracks, can still get its man.
Google's partnership with the FBI may offer citizens a harmless, even helpful way to spend online time, but the future is increasingly crowded with scenarios where this and other Google-inspired technology could be misused and trigger sharp privacy criticisms.
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