Personal URL on Google+

I’m pleased that Google+ now offers personalised profile URLs – mine is

All I need now is for them to allow me to have multiple Google accounts represented by a single Google+ account so they don’t keep telling me I am missing out whenevr I log in to …

Google Uses Famous Users As G+ Test Team

The Google Plus team turned on a new feature today while it was being announced at Google IO in San Francisco. Google+ Events is a new feature that integrates Google+, Calendar, image slideshows and Hangouts to create a flexible invitation system for event organisers of all sizes. It looks like an interesting and exciting capability.

Except for one thing. It allows anyone to invite anyone to anything. That means anyone in your circles, or who you can identify on Google+, can be added to your invitation and they will receive it via e-mail, on their calendar and on their Google+ timeline. While there are ways to change the default settings to stop the e-mails and the calendar updates, the postings to the timeline are mandatory.

Sounds great, right? Not if you’re someone like Linus Torvalds. From the moment the capability was turned on, well-known figures on Google+ were deluged with event invitations from people trying out the new capability. With no way to control which invitations are actually displayed on the timeline, users like Torvalds found the Event invitations became the dominant form of communication on Google+. His solution? Quit Google+.

It seems that this is the way you get technical support from Google. I was also affected, and after using the new feature to contact Google+ boss Vic Gundotra for comment got a reply saying “I’m already working on it. Team is all over this.” That was reinforced a few moments later by a message from a press spokesman saying “We’re aware of the issue, and we hope to roll out a fix very shortly. We appreciate all the feedback we’re receiving from users and we’re listening closely.” I know they are looking at this unexpected problem behind the scenes; there’s still no fix, though.

This has happened before. When Google+ was introduced, many people discovered it became impossibly noisy if you added a high-volume user like Robert Scoble to a circle. Eventually Google added a “volume control” to fix that, but the service was significantly the worse for the fact no-one had considered the high-volume corner-cases in advance. Sadly, it seems the lesson wasn’t learned.

It’s great that Google are trying new ideas and creating these new services, and I’m looking forward to using this Events capability when they have it fixed. But I do wonder how many times they will make this mistake of forgetting about the high-volume users – the very people who make Google+ initially attractive to new users.

Update:  It seems Wil Wheaton and Robert Scoble were both stung by this badly as well. And it seems Vic Gundotra has apologised to Wheaton and got it fixed.

☝ ChromeBook, SunRay Reborn?

Some people seem to think Google’s ChromeBook is just a cheap laptop with Linux on it. But I think that’s short-sighted. This is yet another attempt at a network computer. Read about it on ComputerWorldUK.

✈ Google Cuts Off Travellers

Usually when I want to illustrate the capricious and arbitrary nature of cloud-provided services, I use other examples. But today Google has shown me that they too simply can’t be trusted to provide a service one relies upon. They are perfectly happy to leave you stranded without explanation or remedy.

As well as shutting down the Gizmo voice-over-IP service they bought, without any explanation or alternative but at least with a little warning sent via e-mail, they have also taken away the ability for anyone to use the “Call Phone” capability within Google Talk in GMail while outside the US. You probably won’t have used it if you had Gizmo set up, but now you need it – it’s gone.

So if you were using Google Voice for your phone calls while in the US and then relying on either using your Android phone with a VoIP client or the Voice support in Chat to manage your calls while you are travelling, forget it. They just turned it off, without warning, explanation or even the courtesy of a response to users in their online forums. That calling credit you have is now useless until you get back to the USA.

This is not the behaviour of a reliable service provider. I’m sure they are technically within their rights; there’s probably a load of weasel-words in some terms of service somewhere. But to provide a service that people depend upon and then withdraw it without warning, explanation, alternative or apology is simply unacceptable.

☝ Google, Chrome and H.264 – Far From Hypocritical

When Google announced yesterday that they were withdrawing from their Chrome browser embedded support in the HTML5 <video> tag for the H.264 encoding standard, there was immediate reaction. While some of it was either badly informed views by people who can’t handle indirect causality or astroturf trolling by competitors, some of it was well-observed. For example, when they said:

“Though H.264 plays an important role in video, as our goal is to enable
open innovation, support for the codec will be removed and our resources
directed towards completely open codec technologies.”

they indicated that a motivation was to only use “completely open” technologies in Chrome. Yet they did not mention Adobe’s proprietary Flash system, designed for embedded media programming yet definitely not “completely open” even by Adobe’s special definitions of the word.

Continue reading on ComputerWorldUK

★ H.264 Is Not The Sort Of Free That Matters

Mushroom forestAt the end of last week, the MPEG-LA consortium announced they were extending the arrangement whereby they allow ‘web uses’ of the patents reading on the H.264 standard that they administer for their members to be licensed without charge. The arrangement, which runs in five-year periods, has now been extended to the expiration of the patents in the pool.

At first sight, this sounds great. Headlines have popped up all over the place which might lead one to believe that everything is now fine in the area of video streaming on the internet and we can all proceed without fear of having video taxed. But I’d suggest leaving the champagne corked for now.

Unpacking The News

The statement actually takes a lot of unpacking, probably intentionally so. H.264 is the widely-used “MP4” video format created many years ago by the Motion Picture Experts Group, MPEG. Those “experts” were mostly associated with various corporations and research labs, and the international standard they created was heavily encumbered with patents.

Realising that no-one much would use the standard if each user had to go negotiate patent licensing terms with a large number of separate parties, the patent-holders wisely decided to get together outside the scope of MPEG and create the “MPEG Licensing Authority”, MPEG-LA.

Despite the name, MPEG-LA is nothing to do with the standards group itself. It’s a for-profit company devoted to making the patent problem worse in the name of making it “easier to handle” by creating patent pools for all sorts of other technology areas, beyond the media formats they already police. Go looking for the exact terms under which they are offering “free use” in this case and you’ll find they are not keen for you to know. The best available are summaries that are sketchy about the exact definitions of terms.

They had indeed in February decided to waive licensing charges for what they describe as “where remuneration is from other sources” than direct payment by the viewer to the broadcaster. Their original commitment was to leave such uses untaxed until 2015 and thenceforth to tax at a rate no greater than on-demand internet TV viewing. Their announcement last week commits to never charge under these circumstances.

Chain Of Taxes

Their use of language helps us understand what’s really happening, though. For H.264 video to reach your browser, there is a chain of events that has to happen, and MPEG-LA is taxing every one of them apart from, now, the last.

First, the H.264-format video needs to be created – but that isn’t free under this move. Then it needs to be served up for streaming – but that isn’t free under this move. There then needs to be support for decoding it in your browser – but adding that isn’t free under this move. Finally it needs to be displayed on your screen.

The only part of this sequence being left untaxed is the final one. Importantly, they are not offering to leave the addition of support for H.264 decoding in your browser untaxed. In particular, this means the Mozilla Foundation would have to pay to include the technology in Firefox.

If they could do that. But they would not be able to do so, since the software they create is open source and thus needs to be able to be freely used by others, as a whole or as a kit of parts, without any restrictions. A license bought from MPEG-LA would not be “sublicensable”, meaning they could not gain the right for any arbitrary open source community member to do the same as Mozilla was allowed with H.264. Consequently they are unable to benefit in any way from this apparently generous action by MPEG-LA.

Why Now?

Why are MPEG-LA taking this action now? They wouldn’t say clearly when they were asked, so we’re left to guess. It seems likely that it’s an action induced by Google’s WebM CODEC. At a minimum, MPEG-LA owes to its members a duty to maintain the commercial competitiveness of H.264 over WebM.

But there may be more to it than that. When WebM was announced, MPEG-LA made predatory noises and tried their best to instill fear, uncertainty and doubt in the market through veiled threats of patent litigation against Google and WebM. It may be they are getting ready to launch that attack, seeing this as the ideal moment for the opening of a third front of patent litigation against Google after Oracle and Paul Allen have started the war.

Whether or not that “Axis” forms, the news is nowhere near as good as other commentators would have us believe. The future of the web and of web video depends on open source software, and H.264 remains unusable in open source because of patent threats. MPEG-LA’s apparently magnanimous gesture offers as little to open source as their original tactical move.

Given the tendency for commentators to stick to directly-causal explanations, they seem to be getting away with it despite the fact it really changes nothing with respect to modern adoption of H.264. We should not be affording them so much credit for it.

[First published on ComputerWorldUK]

☞ Google Fixes WebM Licence

I’m delighted to say that Google has responded and fixed the licence for WebM so that they don’t need to submit it to OSI any more – they are now just using a BSD licence with a separate patent grant. Read more over on my ComputerWorldUK blog.

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