Stacking business cards

I started a new job a few weeks ago, and my employer unwittingly gave me a bunch of future collectibles and items worthy of a museum. Let’s quickly recap the process:

  • Filled out a bunch of government and insurance forms by hand
  • Got a box full of crisp new business cards
  • Given a plastic corporate credit card
  • Had my picture taken and got issued a prox card for the building
  • Was mailed an insurance card
  • Set up direct deposit by stapling a paper check to a paper application

Sitting at my desk for an hour on my first day filling out forms, it struck me how absurd this will all sound in ten years’ time.


Quickly, let’s review the several ways these old processes are going to die:

  • Near Field Communication – no need to exchange information by holding anything other than a phone.  I don’t suspect that I’ll be using many of these 300 business cards.
  • Virtual wallets – plastic cards won’t be around for too much longer.
  • Electronic distribution – already exists, but hasn’t made its way into older systems like insurance credentials yet. So they’re still sent via snail mail. But the USPS itself won’t be around for much longer in its current form.
  • Persistent, linked virtual and real-life identity – at some point, governments will issue us all credentials that we can use for jobs, security, applying for credit cards, and so on.  No more bringing your passport to the office to fill out your I-9.
  • Remote access control – my credentials to enter the building will reside on my phone, and can be tracked and granted/revoked remotely.  See the Yale NFC door lock.

That said, these changes won’t see substantial adoption for annoyingly long.  Michael Arrington wrote about business cards dying three years ago. And probably a hundred companies have started to attempt to manage the problem.  Yet still the paper cards persist and I got a new pack in 2011.

It’s a great reminder that, while things happen lightning-fast in tech world, the “normal” world still inches along. And summarily rejects the majority of our attempts to uproot systems that have existed happily for decades.

Humbling and frustrating at the same time, but it makes me so excited to write a retrospective on this in October 2021.  It’s on my calendar already.

GPS gripes

Today I had a minor annoyance with the UI of GPS systems — both the OEM versions in car dashboards as well as handheld and smartphone GPS.  Why is it that in almost every GPS system, you can’t get an instant reroute around a road that’s blocked off?

It seems that in the quest to build the simplest UI possible for getting the directions, the UI forchanging them suffered. I shouldn’t have to pull over and change the mode from shortest time to avoidall highways just to get around one blocked off section of one highway.

If anyone knows of a GPS device / app that gets this right, I’d love to know about it — I haven’t tried them all.

Nevertheless, this is a great lesson in UI development.  While certain features are more crucial in the sense of being used frequently, others are more crucial when you think about failure modes.  Case in point: driving on a highway and having your route blocked demands a simple action to get around it.  This is important to remind myself when I start designing a product for real people to use.

iMorning: wasting 2% of your life by sleeping next to your phone

This morning, I woke up and did what I’ve done almost every day since I got a smartphone: checked my e-mail, text messages, and various social feeds.  One thing led to another and I read 3 news articles, and watched a YouTube video.  All without even getting out of bed.

Pew Center research found that 65% of American adults sleep with a cell phone next to their beds.  Among people 18-30, that figure reaches 90%.  And with the smartphone trend at 40% of mobile subscribers and climbing, all those phone-sleepers have a ton of content to distract them while in bed.

Naturally, that’s led to lots of people losing sleep to their smartphones, and even to prioritize it over their domestic partners.

What’s alarming is that time spent in bed using my iPhone is not a direct substitute for time on my computer.  I do a lot of the same tasks, but less efficiently using a small keyboard.  And often I find myself reopening the same e-mails I checked on my phone when I get to the computer.

I think this is a dangerous behavior, but a difficult one to shake.  The phone experience is compelling, feature-rich, and easy to sit in bed with to procrastinate on sleeping or starting the day.

In Google We (Anti)Trust

Today the FTC launched an antitrust inquiry into Google’s core search business. This is a departure from the past, in that it’s not an analysis of their acquisitions as an indicator of trust formation, but rather taking a look at their main business.  Coverage on TechCrunch and WSJ.

Naturally, many Google competitors have called for such an investigation in the past. What’s monumental about this inquiry is that it’s happening now, a leading indicator that Google has almost reached the height of its market power as it stands today.  It has 2/3 of search share in the US and over 80% in Europe.

While many of us trust fully in Google having good intentions and doing no evil as a firm, I’ve been wary of their strategies for a while.  In an OPIM class taught by professor Clemons in spring 2010, we heard him discuss his theories about Google with a representative of the Google Legal team. Needless to say, they didn’t reach agreement.

Prof. Clemons wrote about what an antitrust case against Google would look like, back in March 2009 (on TechCrunch).  It was controversial, as was his later post that Google’s search results often qualify as misdirection.

For anyone who doesn’t feel like reading his posts (which are excellent by the way for anyone interested in the dynamics at play here), I’ll summarize.  It’s notable that, while Prof. Clemons focused on Google’s use of market power to send searchers to other companies’ websites, the new case might focus on Google sending searchers to its own web properties.  Both are damaging, but in different ways.

Search is an essential facility

The first part of Prof. Clemons’ argument is that search is an essential facility on the internet for companies to reach customers.  Search engines have become our default behavior online — we search even for things we know the URL for.  So the geometry of the web looks something like this:

This means that if a company’s page is not carried by a search engine, or is not given its due exposure, it can be basically ‘killed’ by being denied access to the way customers usually use the Internet.  Even if the customers still have a (less lazy) option for typing the site’s URL directly.

Google’s search function is not contestable

Next, we notice that Google is able to use its product in one market (search advertising) to completely subsidize its entry into other markets (like document editing and email).  The use of one market to subsidize another is a failure of the contestability test and often an indicator of abuse of market power.

Is there consumer harm?

This will be difficult to prove and hinges on one of a few arguments. One possible path is to charge Google with setting the prices of sponsored search too high, which limits the results that people see and causing them to go to web properties they didn’t intend. Another path is that Google is unfairly setting the organic search location of its own YouTube and Places properties to an artifically high rank.

Overall, while this particular inquiry may turn up fruitless (Google has undoubtedly learned from the Microsoft case), it’s certainly food for thought as we consider our own search behavior.  Ask yourself this — do you rely on Google’s answers too much when you search?  I’d be willing to bet that most people can count the monthly times they’ve clicked page 2 in a search result on one hand.