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Bill Bennett

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DuckDuckGo is good enough… most of the time

Jake Voytko posted a long, considered and comprehensive post about his experiment comparing DuckDuckGo and Google Search. It’s a subject that has fascinated me for years.

Voytko’s blog post headline makes his conclusion clear: DuckDuckGo is good enough for regular use.

He writes:

I haven’t tried a new search engine since I tried Bing in 2009. It was time to find out how good DuckDuckGo is in 2020. What was the biggest difference that I found?

Voytko concludes that Google works best for what he calls ‘low intention searches’. He says Google throws out so much information from so many sources that it often returns something close enough to what the searcher wanted.

Broad searches, narrow searches

He found Google shines at broad searches. That’s when you have a less clear idea of what you are searching for.

It wins hands down when you search to buy a product.

Voytko discovered that, in general, DuckDuckGo does a better job when searches are more specific.

Interestingly, the places where DuckDuckGo struggles are also places where Google struggles.

He concludes that DuckDuckGo is good enough for everyday use.

And so it is. Except where it is not.

New Zealand missing in action

Sadly, the place where DuckDuckGo fails me every time is when I search for New Zealand specific information. DuckDuckGo often misses obvious things.

It almost feels as if the search engine is biased against New Zealand. If Google produced the same quality of local results, search engine experts might deduce it had imposed what search professions call “a search penalty” for the entire nation.

I might, say, search for a New Zealand act of parliament, use the correct name of the legislation and yet DuckDuckGo might serve up a Canadian or UK law with a vaguely similar name at the top of search results.

Sometimes the results are totally bonkers, even when I click the New Zealand box at the top of the page. I’ve seen Te Reo names interpreted as spelling errors even when they are commonly used words in New Zealand.

As an aside, it doesn’t do a good job indexing my site either. Google has everything, finding my own stories on DuckDuckGo can be a challenge.

And yet DuckDuckGo still works for me

Despite all these whinges, I’ve moved all my search to DuckDuckGo because when I’m searching for something specific, say a piece of background for a story I’m writing, it regularly beats Google.

If the results are disappointing, you can always search again and use the G! command to have the search sent through to Google. It’s quicker than opening another browser tab.

I find DuckDuckGo cleaner, easier to navigate than Google. I rarely see advertising, that could be something to do with the New Zealand neglect. Or maybe not. Feel free to enlighten us all if you know what’s going on there.,

A DuckDuckGo that helps my writing work is that I can copy and paste the URLs in the search results. I do this if I use a URL in a blog post. I also collect useful URLs for later use. Google mangles URLs for some reason, making them harder to copy and paste.

ChromeOS: Google’s stumbling surveillance capitalism ecosystem 

“Anyone saying that Android apps on ChromeOS are a good experience is delusional.”

Google PixelbookIn Chrome OS has stalled out, Dave Ruddock says Google’s Chrome OS has failed to live up to its potential. Ruddock is a Chrome user who says he does 95 percent of his work using the operating system.

When Chrome OS first appeared it looked like the future. Or at least one version of a potential future.

It’s a great idea on paper.

Take a minimal specification computer. One that costs almost nothing to make and almost everyone can afford. Give it just enough hardware to connect to the net and handle a web browser.

Cloud power

Then let efficient remote cloud systems do all the heavy lifting. After all, that’s what most people now do most of the time anyway. Few MacBooks or Surface Books are not web-connected.

ChromeOS users mainly connect to free services. That’s a problem because in the online world free can be a high price to pay.

Large companies don’t give services away out of the goodness of their hearts. They want to advertise their client’s products or manipulate you into voting a certain way. And we all know that works. It’s an aspect of surveillance capitalism.

This gets worse.

ChromeOS uses Android apps to plug functionality or entertainment gaps. The experience is bad.

Android apps can be cheap and nasty at the best of times. They collect far too much user data. Many Android apps live at the seamy end of surveillance capitalism.

Ask yourself why you need to give someone your home address to write a document or your first pet’s name1 in order to put an interesting filter on your uploaded pictures.

Dismal

If that wasn’t bad enough, the Android app on ChromeOS experience is dismal. I can’t bear to use it.

Many apps were clearly written for phones and make little or no allowance for larger screens and keyboards. They are buggy as anything and many are a security nightmare2.

There’s something else bad about Chrome. We live in a world where technology iterates towards a kind of nirvana. Each successive line of Windows or MacOS computers is a step up on what went before. Each new generation of mobile phone has a better camera, faster processor, is packed with more oomph.

This applies even when there are two-steps forward, one step back messes like the butterfly keyboards in recent Apple laptops.

As Ruddock points out, the problem with Chrome, the OS and Chromebooks, the computers do not appear to be moving in any direction.

ChromeOS going nowhere

Chromebooks are not as clunky as they were, some are nice to use. But it isn’t going anywhere. The Chrome experience has barely changed over the years. There’s little prospect of it changing in the near future.

It’s stagnant.

Sure this might not matter to school students who need a fast, low-cost route to the web. It matters to almost everyone else.

Ruddock says there are aspects of Chrome life that amount to computing barbarism. He is being generous.

Sure, a MacBook or a Surface Book might cost getting on for ten times the price of a Chromebook. But the experience is on another plane. You can do so much more. It’s a struggle doing everyday work on a Chromebook, it’s a challenge being creative.


  1. Maybe not literally. But they often ask for information they have no right collecting ↩︎
  2. Although I doubt the average Chromebook users cares much for security or privacy ↩︎

NZ, France to halt social media terror promotion

New Zealand and France will work together to make it harder for terrorists to broadcast violence through social media. The move is a response to the March 15 attack in Christchurch which the terrorist streamed live.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron will meet in Paris next month to discuss plans. They timed their meeting to coincide with a G7 digital ministers Tech for Humanity event and a separate Tech for Good summit.

A media statement from Jacinda Ardern says:

“We all need to act. That includes social media providers taking more responsibility for the content that is on their platforms and taking action so that violent extremist content cannot be published and shared.

“It’s critical that technology platforms like Facebook are not perverted as a tool for terrorism and instead become part of a global solution to countering extremism. This meeting presents an opportunity for an act of unity between governments and the tech companies.”

Social media terrorist toolkit

This nails the problem. Facebook and other social media outlets have become part of the terrorist’s toolkit. In part they have spent recent years encouraging ever more extreme and violent content on their sites.

Social media companies know that extreme material resonates with audiences. In effect, they have turned people’s anger into rivers of gold. Rather than calm things down, they have learnt that ramping up fear and hate is a lucrative business.

Profit explains their reluctance to act in the past.

Inevitable

Given this, it was inevitable that a terrorist would one day choose to live-stream the murder of dozens of people. It happened in Christchurch, but the live atrocity could have been anywhere.

It’s good to see Jacinda Ardern work with Macron on this. Neither New Zealand nor France are able to fight these battles alone. It’s also good to involve the G7. The more allies the better. It will take co-ordination from many governments to rein-in the social media giants.

Until now the likes of Facebook, Google with YouTube and Twitter have acted amorally.

Above the law?

If they appear to believe they are above the law, that’s because in a sense they are.

The social media giants are all US-based. They can point to that country’s First Amendment guarantee of free speech as a justification for not policing content loaded on to their sites.

What’s more, the US gives them Section 230 protection. In effect, they have legal immunity for what they publish, although there are exceptions. This sets up a climate where the big social media companies act as if they can do whatever they want.

Reputation not considered

In an ideal world, these companies would fear their reputations and long-term business prospects are risk if they don’t take more responsibility. We’re not at that point yet.

Australia has laws which could see them prosecuted for actions like showing the Christchurch terrorist attach video. Incidentally, there’s a report this morning saying these images are still online and easy to find.

Facebook, Google and Twitter can afford to laugh in the face of small governments. To a degree that’s been their strategy until now. Even medium-sized countries like the United Kingdom are openly disrespected by social media executives. Facebook even dismisses ad hoc groups of countries working together.

New Zealand, France and the G7 are a more powerful combination. They can act together. Yet that last sentence has an important word act. The countries must do more than just bat ideas around in a talk fest. They must take collective action if anything is going to change.

I talked to Lynn Freeman on RNZ Nine-to-Noon about the NZ, France effort to tackle violence on social media

How Google can seize Microsoft Office crown

As Microsoft refocuses to chase enterprise cloud opportunities, Google has an opportunity to lead the productivity software market. It has taken a decade, but now G-Suite can challenge Office.


Almost every office worker of my generation spent years working with Microsoft software.

For a while Windows was, in effect, a monopoly. Any other operating system was, in number terms, a freak show.

While Windows was the star of the show, it gave Microsoft leverage elsewhere. The most obvious example was with Office. Almost everyone used it. Most people had no choice.

Even people who chose a Mac over a Windows PC were more likely to use Office than Apple’s iWork.

Windows, Office everywhere you look

In the media companies where I worked, Office was the only option for over a generation. Today editors, publishers and designers still expect to receive Word documents.

Send them something else and they think you’re weird.

Or they don’t understand. Some get angry. Others make a private promise never to commission work from such an infidel again. Not using Word was a poor career move. It can still be.

When I use a non-Microsoft writing tool, nine times out of ten I still send the finished document in a Word format.

This keeps everyone happy. It keeps me in work. This is no exaggeration.

It doesn’t matter that often a plain text file might be a better option for everyone concerned.

Edit, review in Word

This works in reverse. People send me Word documents. They may need reviewing or editing. This has to be done in Word. The application borders on compulsory.

Sure, some alternative products can handle reviewing and editing functions as well as Word. At least they can most of the time. However, in practice the process is not always smooth or straightforward.

Which means, like it or not, it makes economic sense to pay the $160 or so each year for an Office subscription. It’s a bargain even if the software sits idle on the hard drive.

There’s an instant return on that investment the first time a piece of work arrives that you can only fix in Office. This is something that might happen a handful of times a year. It always happens sooner or later.

Apart from anything else, dealing with incomptabiliti takes time. For many of us time is money.

A $165 Office subscription is cheaper than spending half a day dealing with file formats.

The end of the Office era?

Windows, Office and Word are all still dominant. It may not stay that way much longer.

Before we go any further. Let’s deal with LibreOffice. This is an open source alternative to Microsoft Office.

While LibreOffice has its charms, it is Office for people who don’t like giving money to Microsoft. The user experience is similar. So is the workflow.

Your productivity is unlikely to change if you switch from one to the other. That is not the case with moving from Office to Google Docs.

Generation Docs

Many younger journalists and communications people prefer Google Docs. While I’m uneasy about privacy and security with Google, that’ not how other people see things.

I’ve worked for publications and editorial services where Docs is the tool of choice. Its collaboration features are great. Google Docs is easy to use.

It has flaws. Yet, flaws, privacy and security questions aside, Google Docs is better for journalists than Word.

That’s because it’s simple and pared back. Many of the heavy-duty features in Word are for lawyers or other specialist users. Most of us never fire up three-quarters of the program’s code.

The privacy and security questions about Google Docs are big ones. Especially in the light of recent revelations about how big technology companies snoop on customers.

Google can trawl through your Google Docs documents. It can collect data to help its customers target you with advertising. It can learn things about you. By now you should have figured out that with online services sometimes free can be too high a price.

Still, Google Docs does everything a journalist or communications professional might need.

Docs is good enough for most folk

In other words, Google Docs is at least a good enough alternative to Word. For many, if not all people, it is better.

There are reasons why it has yet to conquer Word. We’ve already looked at privacy and security. There’s also the question of inertia.

People might not love Word, but they are comfortable with it. The software took us a long time to master. A lot of people aren’t happy with discarding such an investment in time and effort. Of course this is an internal version of the sunk cost fallacy.

It’s easy to think about our personal productivity when we get to make our technology choices. Not everyone has that freedom. In large corporations Microsoft continues to hold a huge market share. Corporate IT departments tend to be comfortable with the devil they know.

And anyway, the security and privacy issues that worry individual users loom larger. Google Docs is often treated with suspicion by streetsmart IT professionals.

Exteral disruption

An external event could change the move from Word to Google Docs to switch from a trickle to a flood. One may be on the way.

Twenty years ago Windows accounted for about 19 in 20 personal computers. Today it is around four out of five and falling. Apple’s MacOS is now at about 12.5 percent of the market. Google’s Chrome OS is on the rise.

Computing is no longer restricted to personal computers. If we add tablets and phones to the mix, then Windows’ share has plummeted compared with its golden age in the 1990s. It may be around a third of the total today. Its share of new device sales is closer to 10 percent. So its influence is only going to drop.

Let’s not labour this point too much. After all phones are not great for writing tasks. The key here is that Windows no longer dominates. That, in turn, means the writing is on the wall for Office. It’s going to be less important in the future.

Windows and Office are under threat from two directions. In both cases the biggest threat is from Google.

Chromebook looms

At the low end, Google’s Chromebook hardware is winning hearts and minds in schools. For now this is more true in the USA than in places like New Zealand. It’s a real trend there.

Few young American students have ever seen Windows or Office. They use Chromebook, Android or iOS. In most cases they work with Google’s G-Suite, now the preferred name for Google Apps.

When those students graduate and start work they are going to take that experience with them. Where they have a choice they’ll pick G-Suite because that’s what they know best.

Many will find Office to be clunky, restrictive and old-fashioned. They will puzzle over the clumsy collaboration tools — clumsy compared to G-Suite.

More Chromebooks coming

There are reports that PC makers are looking at extending their Chromebook ranges. Microsoft’s move into own-brand hardware makes any decision here easier.

The word from the US is that by the end of the year the big PC brands will offer business-oriented Chromebooks. They’ll be cheaper than Windows PCs. Chromebooks have a lower total cost of ownership. What’s more bypass the infrastructure corporations need to make Windows and Office work.

This is happening at a time when Microsoft is in transition. The company has gone from being The PC Company, to a cloud and enterprise computing business. Windows is no longer central.

Office licence revenue remains strong. Yet defending this may soon be a distraction from Microsoft’s new corporate mission. The company seems to have lost interest in Windows or, at least, pushed it down the pecking order.

This leaves a vacuum. Apple isn’t going to fill the gap. It has its own mission, the brand will remain a niche up-market option. Google has its eyes on the bulk of the market.

None of this will happen overnight. Most likely we’ll see Google gain market share at Microsoft’s expense for a while. Then something else happens to change the dynamic. A possibility is for Microsoft to spin-off what, by then, will be the non-core business.

Either way, Windows’ dominance is over. Google has an opportunity to win customers.

European regulator wants to rein in tech

Margrethe Vestager, the European commissioner for competition, says the government has to move fast to ensure that tech does not subvert society. Presumably, she means the European government.

“…as it becomes clearer how those companies were used to manipulate the 2016 U.S. elections, Vestager feels validated in her distrust of Silicon Valley’s power…”

The quotes come from a podcast interview. It shows Europe, or at least Europe’s competition regulator, is moving in a different direction to the USA and Asia. On the surface at least, these regions seem more comfortable with power being concentrated in fewer hands.

European market

“We want a free market, but we know that the paradox of a ‘free’ market is that sometimes you have to intervene. You have to make sure it’s not the law of the jungle, but the laws of democracy that works.”

Vestager said her commission will continue to focus on preventing large tech incumbents like Google from stifling competition from startups. She also has misgivings about the secrecy surrounding the algorithms that power much of the internet.

“I think some of these algorithms, they’ll have to go to law school before they’re let out. You cannot just say, ‘What happens in the black box stays in the black box.’ You have to teach your algorithm what it can do and what it cannot do, because otherwise there is a risk that the algorithms will learn the tricks of the old cartels.”

While it is easy to identify problems caused by tech companies, fixing them looks harder. Regulating for greater competition is a start, so is transparency, yet, for now, the tech giants have momentum.

Source: Europe’s chief regulator Margrethe Vestager on reining in tech: ‘This is the biggest wake-up call we’ve ever had’ – Recode