Monday, April 26, 2010

Who do you trust to run your world?

If you think Facebook (FB) is just a place to dish and diss, you're not getting it.

At least you're not getting Mark Zuckerberg's plans for your life. The site's founder is pretty chuffed these days, having blown through the 400 million member level, and decimated all challengers along the way.

Last week, there were plenty of nifty ideas for FB at the organization's annual clambake/hype-up for developers. At the root of it all is Zuckerberg's vision of FB as a gateway to other stuff on the intertoobz.

Right now, you need a separate username, password, and log-in process for each online service. FB envisions a world in which your Facebook cookie would get you into those sites automatically. How nice of FB to perform these services for the benefit of all netizens.

The tradeoff for you would be that your profile, your friends list, and any other info you have made public would be shared with those other sites, and presumably parsed by them, and various other third parties, for opportunities to sell you stuff.

Those third parties can expect to pay FB for the privilege of being part of their world, and to be required to play by FB's rules.

You may be OK with that deal, but consider this a heads up that free lunches in cyberspace are rapidly going the way of the VIC-20. Personal information is the new currency. You give up a chunk of your privacy, and you get services in return, including unsolicited services you don't necessarily want.

All of that, if successfully implemented in its full glory, would make FB equivalent to Rome at the height of its empire, the place from which all roads lead.

But nothing is inevitable.

If you think Google is just a place to look up stuff, you're not getting it.

For Google, 400 million souls is little more than a rounding error.

Google enfolds everyone in the known world, or will soon, and is now conducting foreign policy discussions with other major powers, like China.

Google's vision is to be part of everything everyone does, everywhere.

So far, its services include YouTube, Picasa, Orkut, Gmail, Blogger, Google Maps, Google Buzz, Google Analytics, Google Calendar, Google Docs, Google Groups, Google Video, Google AdWords, Google Alerts, Google Books, Google Chrome, Google Dictionary, Google Earth, Google Finance, Google Gadgets, Web History, Google Health, Google Images, Google Insights, Google Scholar, Google Latitude, Google Translate, Google Videos, Android, Nexus One Phone, Google Reader, Google News, Google Online Storage, Google Rankings, Google SketchUp, Google Product Search, Google Sync, Google Talk, Google Trends, Google Places, and heaven only knows what else. This is just some of the stuff they're telling us about.

Less well known, the company's large scale initiatives to manage patient information for the health sector, and to manage energy grids for public utilities, prove it is thinking big in pursuit of its mission "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."

[Caveat: As a commercial enterprise, with its stock listed on NASDAQ, Google's motivations can not be entirely altruistic and benign, despite their stated philosophy that "You can make money without doing evil." Sometimes people and businesses are just collateral damage of strategies that are not intentionally evil.]

Google Wave, introduced as a tool for brainstorming, posting photographs, running meetings, and other real-time communication/collaboration activities, isn't getting much traction. [Note: It has now been yanked.]

But don't be too surprised if the thinking behind Wave evolves into a framework linking all Google (and other) services to each other and to you. Imagine the commercial possibilities of collecting and mining your information, probing your every dislike and desire, deconstructing your buying decisions across all of these services and those yet to come, not to mention sharing your transactions, affinities, and interactions with other retailers, charities, and political parties who pay for a look at your profile.

Okay, it's 2012. You're thinking a backyard deck would be nice. You go to SketchUp and draft a concept in 3-D. You get a nice message from your local Home Depot outlet with some plans and materials lists, conveniently linked to their online store. You muse about your ideas on Buzz. You hear from a deck-builder, a franchisee of a national chain. They'd love to take care of the whole thing for you. You get an invitation to join the Outdoor Entertainment group. You build the deck. You do a Google search for deck chairs. Amazingly, the very first search return is for an outdoor furniture store right in your neighbourhood. A charity sends you an e-brochure on skin cancer, with a link to its online donations page. It goes on like this. Seamless. Shameless.

And don't forget to update your Facebook page. Maybe invite your friends over for a deck party. Do you need hors d'oeuvres? There'll be a pop-up on your Android phone as you walk past the market.


Update: January 8, 2013, Google brings in high-horsepower guy Ray Kurzweil. Now it gets interesting.

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