Sunday, October 5, 2014

The slippery slope

I fell into a well. I knew it was there. The field is pockmarked with many wells and I knew they were out there. Some are camouflaged while others have a big sign that says “jump in here!” Some of the shallower ones are actually more dangerous.

The well I landed in is one of the deepest, but, hopefully, one of the less dangerous. Even so, I caught myself near the top and set a bosun’s chair, but it keeps slipping farther down the well.

The well is called an ecosystem and its purpose is to ensure that once you are in one company’s ecosystem, you will consume more and more of their products to the exclusion of their competitors.

In personal computing the first serious ecosystem competition was Apple vs Microsoft. Once you made a commitment to one operating system or the other, your choice of software was pretty much determined with little overlap. With the beginning of broadly available online connectivity the battle was between networks such as AOL and CompuServe which initially couldn’t trade email. Now the competing ecosystems are the likes of Amazon and EBay for merchandise and Facebook and Google for everything else.

Why does business need an ecosystem? It’s branding to the nth degree. When I was growing up, you were either a Chevy or a Ford person. Later it was Coke or Pepsi. Loyalty to a name could ensure prosperity for a company, independent of the quality of the product. Now it’s “do you live on a wall or in a hangout?”

Say you want an e-reader with a mostly broad and reliable supply of books. You download the Kindle apps and register for an account to buy books and synchronize your desktop reader with your phone’s. The next best seller you buy “you can get the Audible version too for $3.” And, “this book was made into a movie – watch it on Prime.” Later you need a toaster for a cousin’s wedding – order from Amazon because you get free shipping. That’s an ecosystem.

The ecosystem I fell into is Google. Beware the credo of the internet that “if you can’t figure out what the website is selling, you are the product.” Google delivers us to its advertisers. More than that, it delivers our profile to its advertisers.

Early in the commercialization of the web online advertising was like magazine advertising. A site might attract sci fi junkies or wine aficionados, but if one person moved from one site to the other there was no way to know it was the same person. Then along came DoubleClick. They realized if everyone had ads from them, they could read their own cookies regardless of who owned the content. Then they would know that I drink wine, watch Dr Who, and also am shopping for a snowmobile. So, I get skiing ads on Wine Spectator and comiccon ads at Eddie Bauer.

Google’s got a pot of money and is looking for synergistic businesses to buy. So they pick up DoubleClick and then YouTube (lots of interest-specific profiling to do there). Hop over to their core product and what takes up the prominent position in any search? Ads. Ads that not only apply to your current search, but also all of your web surfing.

They also created an email service where people spend lots of time and provide a pretty decent online office suite. Of course, to use those personalized services, you have to sign in to their system. For convenience, one sign in gives you access to all these services and leave the “keep me signed in” box checked so you don’t even have to enter your password every time you restart your browser. Now your searches are not just an anonymous cookie, but you with a detailed profile with a name, email address, chronic diseases, and more. Don’t worry, Google’s motto is “Don’t be Evil.”

How do I cope with the ecosystem?

I take the effort to uncheck “keep me signed in” and try to remember to sign out when I’m done. I avoid logging into other sites while logged into high value sites (financial or personal information). I have four browsers and never sign in to any account from two of them. I seek out my browser’s configuration to ensure “do not track” is enabled and third party cookies are disabled. I also set all cookies to be cleared when I close the browser – but that can be a real nuisance sometimes. I use the Firefox plugins Ghostery to alert me who (besides the site I actually went to) is watching what I do and NoScript to ensure those third parties can’t sneak malicious or tracking code onto the pages I’m viewing.

By the way, if you carry a smartphone, you’re permanently in Google’s or Apple’s ecosystem (or Microsoft’s for a couple of you). This is in addition to Verizon’s and ATT’s ecosystem, or whoever your carrier is, which has been true as long as there have been portable phones. You might also be in Samsung’s or Amazon’s or HTC’s ecosystem if the phone manufacturer chooses to watch over you for more than system upgrades.

If you’ve installed an app from Facebook, Twitter, or a myriad of others; they also could be watching over you even if you’re not actively using the app. And now some retailers and entire malls have technology that can identify the radio signals your phone is constantly putting out to track you from sweaters to socks or from Gap to Banana Republic to Sears Automotive.

The only way to stay out of the well is to stay out of the field. But we know that means living in the 20th century. Why did we so expectantly await the future?

NOTE: Products and companies are named as representative. It is not my intention to imply any one person or company is better or worse than any other.

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