Amazon’s A9

Amazon has launched a test version of its search engine – A9. It combines Google search results and book search results. A third panel can show one’s browsing history. The story broke via John Battelle who wrote about the Amazon-Google partnership:

My gut tells me the public face will be one of partnership: After all, A9 uses Google’ search results and displays at least two paid AdWord listings per result (I’ve requested comment from Google, you can imagine I’m not the only one…). But I have to wonder: What business is Google in, after all? Is it still in the business of just search – as it was back when it was cutting search provisioning deals right and left, with Yahoo (already ended), AOL (arguable imperiled due to Gmail and other trends), Ask, and Amazon? Is it really still in the business of being an OEM to others, a strategy which allowed it to steal those portals’ customers? Or…has it evolved, to a business where it owns a large customer base, one it must now position itself to defend?

It seems to me, Google’s position in Amazon’s A9 implementation is at best a step backwards. If A9 is as good as it seems to be, every customer that uses and/or switches to A9 becomes an A9 search customer, and, more likely than not, a deeper and far more loyal Amazon customer. (The service incorporates a personal search history and many other really neat tweaks, including a wicked good Toolbar.) In essence, Amazon seems to be making a play for Google’s customers. Or it seems that way to me, anyway. Sure, Amazon isn’t in the AdWords business. It’s happy to outsource that to Google and focus on the entire US retail GDP instead…

One could argue that A9 is a pure commerce play, not a search portal. After all, that’s what the folks at Amazon insisted when they founded the company and located it in the heart of Google/YahooLand (ie, Palo Alto). But that argument is disingenuous. First off, take a look at the A9 interface. Where’s the commerce? (Answer, it’s there, but it’s hidden). And second, I’d argue that you can’t really be in the commerce business without having at least a strategy for owning search. The reverse also hold true. It’s two ends toward the middle, and by the way, that middle ground is getting damn crowded – AOL, Yahoo, MSN, eBay, IAC, Amazon, Google…

What makes this particularly noteworthy is that A9 is built quite literally on top of Google. In short, Amazon has taken the best of Google, and made it, to my mind, a lot better. Sound familiar? Yup, it’s what Google did to Yahoo, Yahoo to Netscape…you get the picture.

WSJ writes:

A9, in some respects, appears to be a repackaging of existing search technologies. For traditional Web searching, A9 uses Google to display links to relevant Web pages that contain selected keywords. At the same time, A9 provide links to electronic copies of books that contain those keywords — such as “iPod.” The books A9 links to are available on Amazon.com through Search Inside the Book, a service Amazon first introduced on its own Web site last year to encourage users to browse through and purchase more books. A9 also offers users a search toolbar, much as Google does, that shows up on the menu of their Web browsers to make searching simpler.

Where A9 seems to take a more distinctive approach to searching is with a feature that displays a users’ history of searches on the site so that they can quickly resume prior hunts for information. “What A9 really wants to do is offer a highly personalized and enhanced search experience,” says Alison Diboll, a spokeswoman for A9.

News.com elaborates:

A9 is not powered solely by its own search technology but rather by that of Google, Amazon and Alexa, another Amazon subsidiary. Unlike Google, A9 displays search results with expandable columns to the right, which open up book-related listings or a personal history of search queries. It also displays Google-sponsored ad listings. Data stored on its servers can even tell people which sites they’ve visited–and when. (Web surfers must register to see their personalized search history.)

A9’s toolbar lets users search the Web, Amazon, the Internet Movie Database and Google; it also can look up definitions. What’s novel about it is that it can keep a diary of notes about any visited Web pages and then store them for access on any computer.

People also can search directly from a browser address bar by typing a9.com/query, for instance, “www.a9.com/harry potter.”

The world just got that much more interesting!

India’s Billion-Dollar IT Companies

Infosys has become India’s first listed IT company to cross the billion-dollar revenue mark. Wipro is likely to do the same when it announces its results. Satyam is closing in. TCS already has (but is still privately held). For all four, the road ahead is software, services and consulting for the global market. It would be nice to see a billion-dollar company focused on the local Indian market – that still seems quite a long way off.

Nvidia vs ATI for Graphics Chips

NYT and WSJ have stories on the battle in graphics chips between Nvidia and ATI.

NYT: “In hopes of recapturing the clear advantage it let slip, Nvidia is counting on a new generation of its GeForce chips that it is introducing April 14 to make a big splash in the market. Until last year Nvidia was the overwhelming leader in making the chips that are used to improve the ability of personal computers to portray complex three-dimensional and fast-moving graphics images, a quality particularly prized by video game players. Moreover, it had an exclusive deal with Microsoft for the graphics processing chips used in the Xbox game machine. That all came undone last year when Nvidia placed an ill-timed bet on a new generation of chip-making technology that ended up reaching the market too late. At the same time, the company lost its Xbox contract to rival ATI when it refused to meet Microsoft’s stringent pricing demands…Both Nvidia’s new GeForce 6 family and ATI’s new product that will reportedly be named Radeon X800 – which the company says will be announced soon and should be in the stores roughly at the same time as Nvidia’s – will have more than twice as many logic transistors as the current state-of-the-art Pentium chips. The chips made by Nvidia and ATI compete primarily for the high-end gaming market, where consumers pay between $300 and $500 for add-in cards that yield accelerated graphics.”

WSJ: “both companies still are a long way from the industry’s ultimate goal — artificial worlds that are indistinguishable from reality. But in the hands of skilled programmers, the chips will help bring a new level of realism and emotional force in games by creating characters that are more convincing when they move, talk, laugh and cry. Over time, such chips are likely to inspire richer forms of entertainment, where story lines and character development are as important as action, that will appeal to broader audiences…Nvidia and ATI, which both have sales of about $2 billion and market capitalizations topping $4 billion, are longtime rivals in the graphics-chips business…Nvidia still accounted for 58% of the 23 million PC graphics chips sold for desktop PCs in the fourth quarter of 2003, says industry watcher Mercury Research, compared with 38% for ATI…These latest Nvidia and ATI chips are narrowing the gap in image quality between games and movies. A key reason is a set of programming conventions, defined by Microsoft, that assigns a tiny piece of software to define the light and shade on each of the thousands of picture elements, or pixels, that make up a display screen.”

Good and Bad Technologies

Fred writes about Clay Shirky’s comments about good and bad technologies and freedom to innovate:

The thing that will change the future in the future is the same thing that changed the future in the past — freedom, in both its grand and narrow senses.

The narrow sense of freedom, in tech terms, is a freedom to tinker, to prod and poke and break and fix things. Good technologies — the PC, the internet, HMTL — enable this. Bad technologies — cellphones, set-top boxes — forbid it, in hardware or contract. A lot of the fights in the next 5 years are going to be between people who want this kind of freedom in their technologies vs. business people who think freedom is a shitty business model compared with control.

And none of this would matter, really, except that in a technologically mediated age, our grand freedoms — freedom of speech, of association, of the press — are based on the narrow ones. Wave after wave of world-changing technology like email and the Web and instant messaging and Napster and Kazaa have been made possible because the technological freedoms we enjoy, especially the ones instantiated in the internet.

The internet means you don’t have to convince anyone that something is a good idea before trying it, and that in turn means that you don’t need to be a huge company to change the world. Microsoft gears up the global publicity machine its launch of Windows 98, and at the same time a 19 year old kid procrastinating on his CS homework invents a way to trade MP3 files. Guess which software spread faster, and changed people’s lives more?

Simple, and so true!

Mystery of India’s Growth Transition

[via Brad DeLong] Dani Rodrik and Arvind Subramanian analyse India’s productivity’s surge in their paper: “Most conventional accounts of India’s recent economic performance associate the pick-up in economic growth with the liberalization of 1991. This paper demonstrates that the transition to high growth occured around 1980, a full decade before economic liberalization. We investigate a number of hypotheses about the causes of this growth favorable external environment, fiscal stimulus, trade liberalization, internal liberalization, the green revolution, public investment and find them wanting. We argue that growth was triggered by an attitudinal shift on the part of the national government towards a pro-business (as opposed to pro-liberalization) approach. We provide some evidence that is consistent with this argument. We also find that registered manufacturing built up in previous decades played an important role in influencing the pattern of growth across the Indian states.”

TECH TALK: As India Develops: Distribution Hubs (Part 5)

Continuing from the RISC paper by Atanu Dey and Vinod Khosla:

The claim is that sustainable rural economic development can be achieved by providing a stable and reliable infrastructural platform upon which all essential service providers will be able to co-locate. The model is based on the recognition that providing these services to the rural population could be a commercially profitable venture. The model combines cooperation and competition amongst firms to achieve the goal of economic growth, services diversity and development efficiency. It is market-oriented and the motivating factor is competition for the rural market. It focuses the attention of corporations, NGOs, and government agencies so as to obtain economies of scale, scope, and agglomeration. These economies are fundamental to the RISC model as an engine of growth.

  • Economies of Scope: A RISC provides a complete set of services and functions. Each service provider itself is a customer of other services co-located on the RISC. The banker uses the internet and postal services, and the internet service provider uses the banking and postal services, and so on. They make each other mutually viable and even possible.
  • Agglomeration Economies: Benefits, savings or (average) cost reductions resulting from the clustering of activities. RISC obtains urbanization economies, which arise from the agglomeration of populations and infrastructure facilities.
  • Scale Economies: The average cost of a large number of RISCs could be significantly lower than the cost of implementing only a handful of RISCs. Scale economies would be significant at each level of the model. At the infrastructure level, there are transaction costs associated with the necessary coordination between the firms providing the core infrastructural services. At the services level, the cost of the services will be inversely proportional to the quantity demanded and supplied.

    There is a fundamental assumption of appropriate scale where costs are low somewhere between the small village and the megacity. But we would argue that independent of this assumption (and even if scale economics did not decrease above a certain size and the megacity was economically optimal), the socially optimal and feasible size is at the RISC scale with ACCESS for all villagers within a bicycle commute. We need to stop the rural urban migration and the megacity/megaslum phenomenon because of its significant costs.

  • Atanu Dey and Khosla suggest that RISC is a kind-of Marshall Plan for rural India:

    The Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Western Europe after the devastating effects of the Second World War was proposed by the US Secretary of State George Marshall in 1947 in a commencement address at Harvard College that many consider to be one of the most transforming speech of modern times. For the next four years, participating countries were gives grants and loans amounting to $17 billion (about $100 billion in current dollars) that were used to restore their industrial and agricultural production. The countries registered increases in their gross national product ranging from 15 to 25 percent.

    While there was a component of humanitarianism in the Marshall Plan, the motivation was not entirely altruistic. The US had a compelling interest in the economic and political stability of Europe as a means to its own security and prosperity. People in the US feared the return of financial troubles and unemployment of the 1930s. The Marshall Plan was intended to increase US prosperity as well by boosting exports and thus increasing employment for Americans from bankers to farmers. Much of the money Europeans received was spent on goods produced by the US and so the US economy flourished. The Marshall Plan delivered gains through the trade links that were forged between the US and Europe.

    In a sense, rural India requires a sort of Marshall Plan in which the resources of urban India are mobilized to the mutual benefit of both areas.

    Tomorrow: Distribution Hubs (continued)

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