Is Ask’s marketing strategy a gift or a curse? I think it’s a bit of both. (Whatever the case, my mother-in-law literally thinks there is a real man called Jeeves who answers your questions when you hit the Search button.)

Apparently Scott Garrell, president of Ask Networks, said in a recent interview: “In a very tough and competitive market, we’re holding our own… people don’t talk in keywords.”

Well, my mother-in-law doesn’t, but then she can’t set the timer on the microwave. It’s always 00:00 in that house. It’s like Groundhog Day, only far less interesting and without the inestimable hangdog charm of Bill Murray.

But I digress. Interestingly, Ask.com’s share of U.S. search queries dropped from 4.5 percent in May 2008 to 3.9 percent in May of this year, while market leader Google grew its share from 61.8 percent to 65 percent (according to comScore). Of course, Garrell is quick to point out the search engine handled 486 million U.S. queries in May 2008 and 555 million in May of this year.

Well done, Ask. You’ve cornered the market for idiots who can barely dress themselves.

jeeves

I guess this was mostly from people typing in queries like: “How do I tie my own shoelaces?”

Garrell adds: “We get more queries in the form of a question than the industry average, and we get queries that are longer.”

Of course you do. You’ve branded yourself “Ask Jeeves” and have a big picture of a butler on your homepage. Well done, Ask. You’ve cornered the market for idiots who can barely dress themselves. (However, it might not be all bad – these are exactly the kind of people who’re going to click on the first ad that comes up.)

Surely people have changed the way they use the web so that semantic search is a little redundant? And it’s not even as if Ask have nailed it. There’s clearly still a long, long way to go if this company wants to nail semantic search – and let’s face it, it is a gargantuan task. Yahoo! Answers probably does a better job for any idiosyncratic queries while *any* other search engine will latch onto the relevant keywords in the query and return an answer as good as Ask’s.

They do a bunch of good, useful satellite domains like dictionary.com, and they’re still a presence in the search market – but not for much longer. Ask’s core customer base is a dying breed.

The latest Twitter controversy surrounding the blog, the hacker and the cloud vendor isn’t disturbing – just inevitable. By now anybody with an iota of interest in cloud computing will know what this story is about. Many people are probably damning Google for their ” lack of security.” But hang on here. Aren’t people being quite cavalier with their data? The other day I refused to give my own partner my PIN… but as I write, it’s happily stored somewhere as a draft on GMail. That really doesn’t make sense.

Hell, I trust the cloud more than I trust myself

Who’s really to blame? I don’t think it’s black-and-white. Frankly, as a rule I trust some company I know nothing about  a  lot more than I trust myself. I leave my passwords lying around on the desktop. I write my PIN on a scrap of paper and keep it in my wallet next to my debit card (nobody’s fooled by the fact I’ve made it look like a phone number). I’m lazy and useless – and I suspect most people out there are too. However, I think cloud vendors have a responsibility to make sure they compensate for users’ inadequacies.

Keeping sensitive data in the cloud isn’t “probably going to happen” – for consumers, it’s been happening for years – the big vendors just need to pull their finger out. At the moment, if you get stung by a lack of cloud security you’ll just be told:

“Only a dribbling buffoon leaves all their valuable data in the cloud.”

While it’s true that simple passwords were used – and in this respect Google is relatively blameless – there really ought to be more safeguards in place so people are forced to at least set more secure passwords. This is a must if the  business cloud is going to expand from web services and utilities into other areas such as secure data hosting.

Jamie Turner, UK cloud computing evangalist and IT Director of TheWebService, has this to say:

Cloud storage, just like Esperanto and the Sinclair C5, is a concept that makes sense… almost.

Having access to your data anywhere in the world from any device is an incredibly powerful thing. The scope is huge, enabling much wider usage and new possibilities, most of which haven’t even been thought of yet.

The problem is, making your calendar universally available in the cloud is a very different thing to placing business-critical company and customer information out there – especially financial information. Despite the significant business drivers that may promote this approach – scalability, agility and all the things that basically remove the inertia that blights most IT departments – security’s still the show-stopping concern.

There are too many questions, and too few answers. What control do we really have over data once it’s up there? What’s the physical security of the data centre? Where is the data centre? Are there cross-border legal issues with hosting the data overseas or in territories with ‘incompatible’ legislative environments? What if you need to destroy data – is that even possible? Then we need to consider the availability of the data: what if the cloud provider folds or they’re taken over by an overseas organisation? If there’s a catastrophic data centre failure, what’s the recovery time? Do they even back things up or just hope that a single data centre will always be safe? It’s a glib but important question – you can have as much redundancy as you like at any given site but if it disappears into the San Andreas Fault you’ll be wishing you still had that magic DAT tape. Are we blindly throwing data into the sky in the hope it will stay safe? Ultimately, this is the big problem with storing sensitive data in the cloud – at least for now: there are just no convincing answers to any of these questions.

So let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater – this problem just needs to be addressed, fast.

As predicted here and here, Google has announced its new Chrome operating system project.

In a blog post that indirectly pokes fun at Microsoft OS’s perceived instability and short shelf life, Google are trying to endear themselves to the public with their embracing of the open source community and clear functional ideals (“it should just work,” they say).

With all the anti-Microsoft sentiments surrounding Vista and the anti-monopoly debacle surrounding its European launch of Windows 7, Redwood is having a tough time of late – a tough time that the modest success of Bing probably isn’t going to help all that much.

But be warned. There is a certain limit to what a desktop-bound God can do. If Google takes total monopoly of the cloud, there will be no limit to what they could do. And I for one find it a little unsettling.

G-Drive

G-Drive

G-Drive

What is this X-Box design reject that’s nudging its way onto tech pages everywhere?  Apparently it’s Google’s latest stab at the cloud.  It’s the cloud – but in a nice tangible box.  Or rather, it’s a device that lets you access Google’s mighty servers and store all your stuff on them.

Google’s still a bunch of high-school geeks coding up “cool stuff”

But does this cut to the root of the problem?

I don’t think so.  Google seems to argue that somehow this box will “amalgamate all of its services” but I think it’s a desperate attempt to think around a problem rather than dive in head-first and solve it.

So what’s the problem?  It’s this: Google’s wasting its advantage in being early to market with cloud-based could-be solutions by not providing Enterprise-class cloud services.  Google docs is great but it’s totally focussed on the consumer end of the market.  We need tools with more functionality, or at the very least we need them marketed at business.  Google doesn’t seem to have the first clue at aiming its products B2B.

Google’s still, at heart, a bunch of high-school geeks coding up “cool stuff” before moving onto the next project – or buying it out.  Time to grow up, Google.

Update:

Our senior developer Richard Geary pulled me aside yesterday to tell me that the G-Drive would not, in all probability, as the Telegraph surmised with its Photoshop-suspect-image, come via an actual box.  I was shocked.

Frankly, though, I actually wouldn’t put it past anyone to do just that.  But just to illustrate that I’m not averse to a bit of Photoshop myself:

g-drive1

Obviously some things will have changed by the time of widespread adoption in 2015.  That ridiculous new Google icon for one.  But you’ll probably still be running XP.

It seems Google is upping the ante in its war with Microsoft…

Google Microsoft spoof search results SERP joke

Google ups the ante

Surprised they never thought of it sooner to be honest.

Microsoft seem keen to embrace Web 2.0 and Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA), despite the fact it’s bungled opportunities for innovation in the past.

Microsoft have made a few statements recently that suggest SaaS and SOA are on its mind, whisperings like this abound and finally a couple of days ago Microsoft stopped being coy about its plans and made a statement.

With Microsoft wading in, does this mean we have to take cloud computing seriously?  I think it does.  What does this have to do with the inability to right-click in Microsoft’s development platform Silverlight?  Why do I randomly bring that one up?  We’ll discuss that later.

I’m going to take you back a few years to illustrate why Microsoft has hit the ball out of the park by taking cloud computing seriously.

Back in the day, most people thought Apple had a good thing going with its market-leading hardware and operating system:

Apple's model

Apple

If people wanted the Operating System, they had to buy into the Mac – and vice-versa.  What could possibly go wrong?  Well we all know what did go wrong for Apple:

Microsoft's model

Microsoft

By positioning itself primarily as an Operating System and Software manufacturer, Microsoft pulled off its now infamous coup de grace: allowing other vendors to supply the hardware increased competition and drove down the price of the hardware.  If you wanted a cheap computer, you didn’t buy an Apple.  So you ended up tied to Microsoft’s operating system and got sold its software, which rapidly became ubiquitous.  Microsoft leap-frogged Apple, positioned itself higher up the food chain and strangled Apple in the process.

Microsoft have had that smug grin on their face ever since.  The one company that’s made that smile waver is Google:

Google's model

Google

The Internet was another rung on the ladder – Microsoft anticipated it but despite successes with their Internet Explorer browser failed to capture the hearts of Internet users after Google scored a sneaky goal by dominating the search market.  There’s enough room in the system for Apple to have a place on the bottom, and there’s more than enough for Microsoft higher up, but Google had now decisively leapfrogged Microsoft.  Despite still wearing that smug grin, Microsoft has been irritated at Google’s share of the expanding market; it does not want to be left behind.  Which is why this has made them a bit happier:

Google's market

Google

It’s made them happier because it hasn’t really worked.  Google have tried to extend their presence into more cloud computing services and they’ve pretty much failed.  Sure, web-based mail has been succesful, but everyone’s got a piece of that and it’s more of a utility than a way of life; a few scattered tools on the web hardly look to challenge Microsoft’s domination of the operating system and software market and neither do they look like much of a missed opportunity (yet).

The whole point of having a platform is that you can use it to roll out your real money-spinners.  Apple used their Mac platform to roll out their OS.  Microsoft used their OS to roll out their software.  Google has dominated the Internet platform with its search engine, but the nature of the technology means that Google can’t use it to sell people anything else.  It earns vast revenue itself through advertising, sure, but Google wants more.  And why not?  It would be the equivalent of Microsoft saying: “Sure, we’ve built Windows, and that makes enough money – let’s not bother trying to sell people Word.”

This is why Google took the natural step and tried selling people on Google apps.  But the problem is that their tools are treated more like fanciful games by most Internet users, not the integral way of life that software like the Office suite has become.  So where does the problem lie?  The problem is with the Internet; it’s too big, Internet users aren’t loyal and they surf about like gadflies.  Google might control it but it’s not really a platform for rolling out web services; it’s too diaphanous.  There is a solution, but it’s difficult to grasp it.  This is the model that had slowly been appearing in the minds of Microsoft and Google:

The Future?

The Future?

(Of course I have over-simplified here: cloud computing will not kill traditional software and Operating Systems, but I believe it will reduce their share of the market considerably.)

Just like the Windows operating system crystallised a bunch of messy code in the minds of users with a user interface that then made software accessible, so a web-based OS should organise the mess of the web into something manageable for the average user.  And it will be a real platform for rolling out web services.

Of course, we’re talking about a conceptual operating system here: users will still need something to boot up their PC!  The way we’re moving, however, it looks like the user-interface and backbone that drives the software will be web-based.  It makes sense.

Isn’t that just an internet browser?  Well, not really.  Google’s Chrome seems developed with web services in mind, with all its accoutrements and javascript powerhouse, but it’s not exactly revolutionary, and neither is it an operating system to drive SaaS applications.

Microsoft are going to try and do to themselves what they did to Apple: leapfrog the market, leave the market free beneath them and thus open up competition below to channel more consumers up the funnel towards their new base.

Something that tells me very strongly that they have this in mind?  The inability to right-click in Silverlight!  If Microsoft are so keen to be a part of Cloud Computing, why have they irritated every programmer in the land by making right-clicks ineffective? (The developers at The Web Service are not happy.  Typical quote:

Why have they disabled right click when Mac users make up 5% of the computing population and only 5% of those have a one-button mouse?  You might as well deliver software to everyone as a book because not everyone has a computer!

Well, it might seem a bit bizarre at first, but this is what I reckon:

Microsoft want to make their cloud computing platform and software as accessible to as many Internet users as is humanly possible, even if that means limiting the applications.

Why?  Simple: They plan on leap-frogging once again, this time into the cloud, and they know they will leave behind their earth-based operating system.  Like they did before, they will move up a level, make a cloud-based operating system that is accessible to all, and will gain mass adoption.   People will abandon Windows XP, Vista and whatever earth-bound incarnation of Windows 7 is around.  They’ll most probably use Linux instead (it will be one hell of a lot cheaper); all the stuff they’ll be interested in, the UI, cuddly bits and what makes their web-based software work will be fed to them through the cloud.

Microsoft knows they’re having to move house and wants to be sure of capturing the new market further up the ladder before the old one decays and withers away.  So they’re trying to do what they did with Windows and make their first steps into a cloud-based OS ubiquitous by letting as many people as possible hook into it.  Then, once more, they’ll be unmoveable.

Maybe that’s too much to read into from one functionality problem with Silverlight, but this sort of thing never stopped Columbo.

September’s Information Age brings into sharp focus the real power of Google’s new internet browser, Google Chrome.  The bottom line is, what’s truly different about this browser is that it’s custom-built to support Software-as-a-Service.  Faster browsing, nice user interface… meh.  These are just accoutrements to the SaaS powerhouse that Chrome’s been designed to be.

Googles Eric Schmidt - profile at Sydney Morning Herald

Google's Eric Schmidt - profile at Sydney Morning Herald

Chrome will directly challenge Microsoft as a platform for powerful industrial apps

-Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt

As such, Google and Microsoft are yet again set to go head-to-head, but in a market more important than internet browsers; how they fare will shape the future of both the Internet and how people use software.

Eric Schmidt said in a recent FT interview: “Microsoft has a history of favouring its own applications and I can give you 500,000 pages of court testimony, document weblogs and so forth and so on about that.”  So, the browser is clearly designed to prevent the company from being sidelined by Microsoft.

Microsoft has thus far only made tentative steps into the SaaS arena with its half-licence, half-SaaS “Software+Services” fudge.  Google, on the other hand, has its head firmly in the clouds with its SOA apps, gathering enough useful data from people’s mail and search history to give it a competitve advantage over Microsoft.

How Google does with its Chrome browser could be central to the the advancement of SaaS – let’s hope it doesn’t stay in Beta for the next twenty years like Gmail looks set to be.

Read the full story here.