I'm finishing my coffee...

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Google, Earthlink, and Apple could really ring your Bell(s)

A really interesting conversation with a friend and a little story about Google, Earthlink, and the city by the bay has really got me thinking.

I have come to the conclusion that there is an epic battle taking place, and it's happening in the palm of your hand and your living room. Put the KY down, okay? This isn't that kind of blog. This battle is about the ultimate phone/computer/dvr/media device and the underlying infrastructure which allows it to work, one that gives you control over what's on the "boob-tube", whether you answer that chat-call from your parents, posting to your blog, checking movie times, getting directions, making reservations, reading/sending mail... your entire digital life, really.

You are right, the ultimate device doesn't exist... yet. But the battle to develop it, control it's features, and to provide the underlying infrastructure for its' services is being hard-fought as we speak. It's a really complex and competitive plot with a number of companies and their partnerships writing the story. My thinking about this thing has been pretty uptight because there are a lot of ins and outs, but I'll do my best to make a cohesive argument here.

My suspicion started with the announcement from Mayor Newsom that Google and Earthlink were teaming up to deliver free (and premium, for paying customers) wi-fi to the city of San Francisco. In order to provide the proper context for my line of thought, we must travel back in time to the summer of 2005:

When the brain and I moved into our current domicile a year and a half ago we decided to tithe to the technology gods at SBC (now AT&T) and get both telephone and DSL services. At the start of the last college football season (yes, I am a college football fanboy) we added Dish Network Satellite TV (billed through our AT&T account!). All these services are being provided through one outlet and the inter-operability between them is very 1.0, but it is interesting nonetheless. Our telephone line provides signals to our home that are translated by various devices that allow us to order movies, check email, surf the web, chat with friends, ignore calls from telemarketers (our DVR displays caller ID on our TV), etc.

The brain and I both have laptops and we use wi-fi in the house. Slowly, through the advent of software and features such as email, chat, newsreaders, personal multimedia managers, and skype we are migrating from our analog lives to the digital wonders of the internets. If it weren't for the fact that we need our phone line to keep DSL, we would have dropped our local phone service a long time ago. The Bell(s) with DSL services, cellular network providers with EVDO services, and cable/satellite TV providers with high speed internet access via cable modems all have a dog in this fight. But the high cost of DSL and Cable Internet as well as digital service plans offered by cellular network providers are prohibitively expensive and in this writer's opinion putting the full financial burden of making these services available on the consumer is the major failing of their business models. There are other ways.

Google, for instance, has developed a staggering number of amazing products and services available online. They don't put the burden of developing and maintaining these services on the end user by charging them for it, but rather they collect information about their users and advertise to them in order to generate revenue and remain profitable.

San Francisco's wi-fi initiative is a shot accross the bow of telco's, cellco's, and cable co's. Google and Earthlink have fired the first shot in this battle and could be reloading to launch a blitzkrieg style attack seen in the annals of history only by the likes of Poland, possibly even tomorrow.

Apple, a company so good at designing hardware and software so well integrated and feature rich that people lust over their products is less than 24 hours away from their signature event, MacWorld, where they typically release a lot of new products. This is where it gets interesting. Imagine: Google and Earthlink team up to provide freely available ubiquitous wi-fi service throughout the country & Apple unveils the iPhone and iTV (which is all but released, but may not get announced). If iTV and the iPhone have some version OSX installed (even a scaled down or mobile version) it could be game over for the telco's, cellco's, and cable co's.

I wouldn't need to pay for their overpriced services I would just log onto the free wi-fi with my iphone or iTV to check my mail, calendar, stock prices, or to make an iChat or Skype call. In order to take advantage of media rich content such as prime-time TV, movies, music, etc I would likely need to subscribe to the premium service. This would be a-okay with me as I would be saving at least $100 on my combined cable, internet, and cellular service bills each month, I can afford to splurge.

Whether Apple and Google would partner is dubious, some of their products are very complimentary and others are ostentatiously fierce competitors. Google's CEO recently joined Apple's board of directors... so that is food for thought. Even if they weren't partners, they will still make benefit for glorious products and partnerships of each company...

The biggest question is about the users and I think it is one that is being answered 28 hours a week in your average household. In order to keep wi-fi services free or relatively cheap and dominate the market, Google and Earthlink will have to collect a lot of information about who we are in our digital life so they can more effectively sell advertising. On the flip side users will have to be willing to put up with extremely targeted (some might say invasive) advertising to get access to the wi-fi network...

If you have a problem with being advertised to, I hope you don't plan to watch the SuperBowl. This Google Video site makes every commercial (55 by my count) from SuperBowl XL available for your viewing pleasure... At 30 seconds a pop (some are longer) and assuming they are only shown once (they aren't) I say I will have wasted at least 27.5 minutes of my life by the final whistle; The brain says I will have wasted at least 4 hours of my life; My parents just say I have wasted my life...

This is my pick for most creative ad from last year's SuperBowl. I suddenly feel like eating cow...

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