Google's Latest Scheme To Control the Internet May Surprise You

More than a mere social network
More than a mere social network
Paul Laubacher

Google+, the social network of the American web giant is, in fact, a lot more than a social network. Larry Page, the web giant's CEO, describes it as “the social backbone” of a company whose ambition is simple, if not the least bit modest: to control the Internet.

“If Google+ was just a social network, we would have to say that with 500 million members — just half the number that Facebook has, which is huge — it's a failure," writes Guardian journalist Charles Arthur. And that's exactly what most of the world thinks about Google+ — that it's a social network. And so the hasty conclusion, given lame level of engagement relative to Facebook, is that it's a failure.

But perhaps that's a flawed view. You cannot compare Facebook and Google+ because the strategy behind Google's social network is global," says Philippe Torres, director of studies at the Atelier of BNP-Paribas specializing in new technologies. Sure, if you judged Google+ by Facebook's criteria, it might be deemed a failure, but membership numbers don't represent the whole story, he says. “We have to note that the growth of Google’s social network is by far better than Facebook’s during the same period," Torres says. In two years of existence, Google+ claims to have 500 million members, of which 135 million are active users.

Beyond that, Google+ is only a small part of the Mountain View, California company's empire, says Nate Elliot, a senior analyst at Forrester. “Add YouTube (800 million users), Gmail (500 million accounts) and Gtalk, and that's more than one billion people who exist in the Google universe." Elliot says it doesn't matter whether Google’s social network is all that relevant. “In order to be on Gmail, you have to be on Google+, which increases the user base. All it takes for Google to be satisfied is that the users are active from time to time.”

Arthur notes that even if a user does nothing, the Google+ account tracks a user from the moment of login to a Google account. “On Google Maps, it is Google+ that you have to use in order to save (or share) a location," Arthur says. "And for other functionalities, you must go through your Google+ account."

The case of YouTube is even more shocking: “Of course, you can YouTube without your Google+ account, but if you want to do something on the website — like commenting, for example — you will have to log in," Arthur says. The same is true for Google Drive (Google's “cloud computing” document service), Google Shopping etc. "Google+ wants you to log in, in order to see everything and save everything."

The strategy could scare off paranoid users. “The goal of Google+ is to unify all the services of Google in an identification system, a unique log in, that can be traced on the Internet through every website that uses Google ads, Google sign-in or even Google Analytics," says blogger Ben Thompson. “All the functionalities of Google+ — or of YouTube or Maps or Gmail, or any other service — are traps with the intention to make sure you are connected to Google at any moment.”

Google likes your ‘likes’

Benedict Evans of Enders Analysis says that “the objective of Google isn’t just to index the whole web, but also to track what the users do." Torres agrees. “The battle that is being played out between Facebook and Google on this point is massive," he says. "Two philosophies are going head to head: the inheritor of the web 1.0 and the leader of the web 2.0. At the end, the winner will have control of the entire web. For now, Google is winning.”

It might seem that Facebook has the market cornered on "affinity data," or what users like. Mark Zuckerberg’s social network practically invented the "like" and the collection of Internet users’ preferences. But Elliot notes that Google also a massive quantity of data and will replace Facebook thanks to its analytical tools.

“While Facebook struggles with the problem of privacy, Google will be able to gain the upper hand,” he says. Perhaps the proof is in the numbers: Google generated $50 billion in 2012 revenue, $40 billion of it from advertising. And though 2.7 billion Facebook "likes" are being registered every day, its revenue during the same period was just $4 billion.

"Google understands the world is changing," Elliot says. The goal is not to know what the user wants to do, but what he likes. Journalist Charles Arthur characterizes Google+ in a single word: Matrix. Yes, like in the movie. The goal? That you stay inside the Matrix, forever.

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How China Flipped From Tech Copycat To Tech Leader

Long perceived as a country chasing Western tech, China's business and technological innovations are now influencing the rest of the world. Still lagging on some fronts, the future is now up for grabs.

At the World Semiconductor Conference in Nanjing, China, on June 9

Emmanuel Grasland

BEIJING — China's tech tycoons have fallen out of favor: Jack Ma (Alibaba), Colin Huang (Pinduoduo), Richard Liu (Tencent) and Zhang Yiming (ByteDance) have all been pressured by Beijing to leave their jobs or step back from a public role. Their time may be coming to an end, but the legacy remains exceptional. Under their reign, China has become a veritable window to the global future of technology.

TikTok is the perfect example. Launched in 2016, the video messaging app has been downloaded over two billion times worldwide. It has passed the 100-million active user mark in the United States. Thanks to TikTok's success, ByteDance, its parent company, has reached an exceptional level of influence on the internet.

For a long time, the West viewed China's digital ecosystem as a cheap imitation of Silicon Valley. The European and American media described the giants of the Asian superpower as the "Chinese Google" or "Chinese Amazon." But the tables have turned.

No Western equivalent to WeChat

The Asian superpower has forged cutting-edge business models that do not exist elsewhere. It is impossible to find a Western equivalent to the WeChat super-app (1.2 billion users), which is used for shopping as much as for making a medical appointment or obtaining credit.

The flow of innovation is now changing direction.

The roles have actually reversed: In a recent article, Les Echos describes the California-based social network IRL, as a "WeChat of the Western world."

Grégory Boutté, digital and customer relations director at the multinational luxury group Kering, explains, "The Chinese digital ecosystem is incredibly different, and its speed of evolution is impressive. Above all, the flow of innovation is now changing direction."

This is illustrated by the recent creation of "live shopping" events in France, which are hosted by celebrities and taken from a concept already popular in China.

10,000 new startups per day

There is an explosion of this phenomenon in the digital sphere. Rachel Daydou, Partner & China General Manager of the consulting firm Fabernovel in Shanghai, says, "With Libra, Facebook is trying to create a financial entity based on social media, just as WeChat did with WeChat Pay. Facebook Shop looks suspiciously like WeChat's mini-programs. Amazon Live is inspired by Taobao Live and YouTube Shopping by Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok."

In China, it is possible to go to fully robotized restaurants or to give a panhandler some change via mobile payment. Your wallet is destined to be obsolete because your phone can read restaurant menus and pay for your meal via a QR Code.

The country uses shared mobile chargers the way Europeans use bicycles, and is already testing electric car battery swap stations to avoid 30 minutes of recharging time.

Michael David, chief omnichannel director at LVMH, says, "The Chinese ecosystem is permanently bubbling with innovation. About 10,000 start-ups are created every day in the country."

China is also the most advanced country in the electric car market. With 370 models at the end of 2020, it had an offering that was almost twice as large as Europe's, according to the International Energy Agency.

Photo of a phone's screen displaying the logo of \u200bChina's super-app WeChat

China's super-app WeChat

Omar Marques/SOPA Images/ZUMA

The whole market runs on tech

Luca de Meo, CEO of French automaker Renault, said in June that China is "ahead of Europe in many areas, whether it's electric cars, connectivity or autonomous driving. You have to be there to know what's going on."

As a market, China is also a source of technological inspiration for Western companies, a world leader in e-commerce, solar, mobile payments, digital currency and facial recognition. It has the largest 5G network, with more than one million antennas up and running, compared to 400,000 in Europe.

Self-driving cars offer an interesting point of divergence between China and the West.

Just take the number of connected devices (1.1 billion), the time spent on mobile (six hours per day) and, above all, the magnitude of data collected to deploy and improve artificial intelligence algorithms faster than in Europe or the United States.

The groundbreaking field of self-driving cars offers an interesting point of divergence between China and the West. Artificial intelligence guru Kai-Fu Lee explains that China believes that we should teach the highway to speak to the car, imagining new services and rethinking cities to avoid cars crossing pedestrians, while the West does not intend to go that far.

Still lagging in some key sectors

There are areas where China is still struggling, such as semiconductors. Despite a production increase of nearly 50% per year, the country produces less than 40% of the chips it consumes, according to official data. This dependence threatens its ambitions in artificial intelligence, telecoms and autonomous vehicles. Chinese manufacturers work with an engraving fineness of 28 nm or more, far from those of Intel, Samsung or TSMC. They are unable to produce processors for high-performance PCs.

China's aerospace industry is also lagging behind the West. There are also no Chinese players among the top 20 life science companies on the stock market and there are doubts surrounding the efficacy of Sinovac and Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccines. As of 2019, the country files more patents per year than the U.S., but far fewer are converted into marketable products.

Beijing knows its weaknesses and is working to eliminate them. Adopted in March, the nation's 14th five-year plan calls for a 7% annual increase in R&D spending between now and 2025, compared with 12% under the previous plan. Big data aside, that is basic math anyone can understand.

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