Reflections on the frustratingly user-hostile motivations behind Google’s unified user accounts

“If it’s free, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.”

–Everyone on the Internet

As I’ve written about several times on this blog, my 11-year-old son did an informal internship with us at Room 34 this summer. Part of the process of getting him set up as a part of the business was giving him his own email address.

We use Gmail (as part of Google Apps for Business) for our email. As such, creating an account for him on our email domain essentially created a Google user account for him, because Google has, of course, bundled all of their services together under a single login: Gmail, YouTube, Google+ (which no one uses), etc. Sounds convenient, right? Sure, but…

A couple of weeks ago, unbeknownst to me (go ahead and judge my parenting now), my son discovered that with his mail login he was able to log into YouTube as well. We have made it clear to him in the past that (legally) you have to be 13 to get a YouTube account, and that we had no intention of helping him circumvent that. But, kids being kids, he tried to take advantage of this back door he had discovered.

Problem is, YouTube asked for his birthdate. And he gave it. His real birthdate.

Nope! said YouTube, and his account was suspended. But not just his YouTube account. His entire Google account. Suddenly we found he couldn’t log into his email. I went into our Google Apps for Business account to manage the domain, and I discovered, to my supreme annoyance and frustration, that when a user account is “suspended” it really is suspended — it’s in a strange state of semi-existence. It can’t be used, but it also can’t be deleted, even by a domain administrator. So now his email address — his email address on my business domain name, not “gmail.com” — is entirely untouchable.

It’s no surprise that we are Google’s product. A customer is a person or company who pays for products or services rendered. Google’s advertisers are their customers, and our attention is the product they are selling.

As a result, Google collects enormous amounts of data about its users. It tracks as much of our activity across all realms of the Internet as possible. That’s why we are a valuable product to their customers — the advertisers. The more information Google collects about us, the more valuable we become as targets for advertising. And all of that data collection is why Google is required to comply with the federal law regarding collection of information about people under the age of 13 on the Internet. Therefore, my 11-year-old son not only can’t have a YouTube account, but he can’t have an email address that is connected to Gmail, because a Google account is a Google account, period.

On a basic level this is a major inconvenience to me and to my son for our purposes of getting him experience working on the Internet. But on a much deeper level, it is more profoundly disturbing for its privacy implications.

As a web developer, I work often with Google Analytics. I help our clients set it up on their websites. I even use it on my own sites (including this one). It’s great to see where your traffic is coming from, which parts of your site are or aren’t getting traffic, which devices and browsers your visitors are using, etc.

But remember, Google isn’t just collecting that data for your benefit. They’re collecting all of that and much more for their own purposes, far beyond what they even make available to site owners on Google Analytics.

Google has created a scenario through Gmail and YouTube (and, I suppose, Google+) where a large percentage of Internet users are logged into Google at all times, with cookies stored in their browsers. Combine that with Google Analytics being installed on a large percentage of websites around the world, and Google knows that you are visiting all of those sites. You may not be providing the sites you’re visiting with any of your information, and they can’t read Google’s cookies themselves, but they’re pulling in a little piece of Google on every page load, and that piece of Google can read the Google cookies on your computer, identifying not just a computer with your same OS and web browser, connecting from your specific IP address, but you, the logged-in Google user.

What are they doing with that information? And what might someone else do with that information?

I do not like this, not one bit. And yet I still happily use these Google services. And you probably do too.

It’s totally crazy, but I think I want to buy an iPhone 5c… now

topic_iphone_5cNext Tuesday, Apple will be announcing the iPhone 6. Supposedly they’re also announcing an “iWatch” or whatever. The latter is still shrouded in mystery but it really seems like we already know everything there is to know about the iPhone 6.

And honestly… I’m not sure I want it. Thinner? Yes, that would be great. That’s always great. But it’s not like my iPhone 5 is “thick.” Bigger screen? I guess. I’m fine with the size of my iPhone 5 screen, and I don’t want a larger slab to carry around in my pocket. Faster processor? Who would say no to that? Although to be completely honest, my iPhone 5 seems perfectly snappy to me.

So, yeah… I’m pretty happy with my iPhone 5. In fact, there’s only one reason I’m even interested in getting a new phone at all when my contract runs out this month. About a year and a half ago, I dropped my iPhone 5 on asphalt, and dinged the corner right by the camera. Since then, the inside of the camera lens has gradually accumulated dust, to the point where my photos are noticeably blurry, washed-out, and occasionally infested with weird splotches.

Would I be happy replacing my iPhone 5 with another iPhone 5? Yes. I’d be perfectly happy with that. But they don’t sell the iPhone 5 anymore. Instead they sell the iPhone 5c, which is basically the exact same phone but in a cheaper-to-produce (and possibly more resistant to the kind of damage mine suffered) plastic casing. And it comes in bright colors.

I want one. I want the obnoxious yellow one. And I’ve wanted it almost since they came out. For me, the only thing the iPhone 5s had going for it over the 5c was the A7 processor. But, again, I haven’t had any problems with the performance of the 5’s A6 processor.

So, I am left with a strange quandary. I am sure any of my fellow Apple fans will think I am an idiot (or worse) for seriously considering buying an iPhone 5c (actually, two of them) right now, on the cusp of the big iPhone 6 announcement. But here I am.

Apple always has three iPhone models available: the latest-and-greatest (currently the 5s), the last-year’s-model (in this case the 5c, a modified 5), and the two-years-old-model (the 4s). I am wondering what Apple is going to do with their new low-end phone after next Tuesday. Right now it’s the aging 4s, which will be discontinued. That would generally mean it’s time for the 5c to drop into that spot. If I wait until then, I might be able to get a 5c for “free” (“subsidized” by the carrier)!

But… the lowest-end model has only ever been available in a 16 GB size. I’ve learned over the years with iOS devices that I can’t really get by with less than 32 GB of storage. Right now the iPhone 5c is available in 16 and 32 GB models. But after next Tuesday, assuming it becomes the low-end model, the 32 GB version might disappear.

And what of the mid-level model? Will the 5s be downgraded to colorful plastic and renamed the 5sc or some other strange appellation? Would I want that instead? (Yes, I probably would, especially since it would most likely still come in a 32 GB version.)

At the moment I am considering hedging my bets, and buying two 32 GB iPhone 5c’s right now. Yes. Buy them. Keep them in the package. And for the love of all that is good in the universe keep the receipt. Then, wait and see. If I actually want something that gets revealed on Tuesday, I could return the 5c’s. If not, I have them.

Am I crazy?

A grandma glossary

I was thinking about my grandparents this morning. In particular, I was thinking about how both of my grandmothers had some interesting idiosyncrasies in their respective vocabularies: things I heard each of them say all the time, but have never heard anyone else say, ever.

I was fortunate as a kid to live in the same town as both sets of my grandparents. I got to see them a lot. My dad’s parents watched me daily while my parents were at work, from the time I was a baby until I entered sixth grade. And we saw my mom’s parents at least weekly.

As many kids probably do, I identified my grandparents not by name, but by a distinguishing characteristic that resonated with my developing brain. In this case, the colors of their houses. So my dad’s parents (the Andersons) were “green grandma and grandpa” and my mom’s parents (the Madsons) were “white grandma and grandpa.” I realize now that a stranger hearing me talk about “white grandma” out of context would probably interpret the meaning in an entirely different way.

I lost all four of my grandparents within a decade, from 1991 (when I was a senior in high school) to 2001. But their memories live on in all of the experiences I shared with them, and especially in the quirky ways that my grandmothers used to speak. Here are some of my favorites. (I’ll probably revisit this post over time and add more as I remember them.)

Bourgeois — a euphemism for “bullshit.” My grandma’s father was French, which is probably where she picked up the term. I had no idea what she was actually saying, but whenever someone needed to be called on their BS, she’d give them a nice friendly “bushwa.” (Grandma Madson)

Breakfast food — cereal. All cereal is breakfast food, but not all breakfast food is cereal. Except to my grandma. (Grandma Anderson)

Davenport — a couch or sofa. I know my grandma was not unique in using this term, but “davenport” is definitely the “RC Cola” of names for this particular piece of furniture. (Grandma Anderson)

Forth and back — back and forth. I have to admit, my grandma actually had a pretty compelling argument for this one: “You have to go forth before you can go back.” Indeed. (Grandma Anderson)

Frigidaire — a refrigerator. There are plenty of brand names that become synonymous with what they are (Kleenex, for instance), but my grandma was one of the few people who did this with kitchen appliances. (Grandma Anderson)

House slippers — umm… as if you’d wear them anywhere else? Strangely, both of my grandmothers used this phrase, so maybe it was a generational thing.

Parasol — an umbrella. Once upon a time people used parasols on a regular basis, and they actually did differ from umbrellas in construction, if not so much in design. But as the parasol has fallen out of favor, I would guess that most people now use “umbrella” as an (excuse me for this) umbrella term for both. But for my grandma it was the other way around. (Grandma Anderson)

Warsh your head — again, I know my grandma was far from the only person to say “warsh” instead of “wash,” but I don’t know anyone else who would say “head” instead of “hair.” She also said “warsh your teeth” but considering she wore dentures it probably made a little more sense. (Grandma Anderson)

Wrath of God — unsightly physical appearance. As in, “I look like the wrath of God,” said when my grandma did not feel that she was properly made up to leave the house. (Grandma Madson)

The Computer Course #4: Process, Roles and Responsibilities for a Website Project

For a brief introduction to this blog series, start here.


This past week my 11-year-old son got some hands-on experience in the real life work of a web development shop. First, I had him make some content updates on one of our favorite clients’ website. Later, he sat in with us and our design partner on a conference call with a new client.

In between, it was time for our weekly Computer Course lecture. This time it was all about process, roles and responsibilities on a website project.

The content for this lecture came directly from materials we have posted on our company website, so rather than repeating myself, you can read them here:

Roles and Responsibilities
Who does what on a website project, and how are their roles related? This essay answers those questions and (hopefully) more.

Process
Once you know who does what on the website project, how does everyone go about their tasks? This essay explores the various, overlapping steps in the process.

The Computer Course #3: History of the PC

For a brief introduction to this blog series, start here.


For the third installment in this series I took a slightly different approach. Rather than preparing a lecture, I had my son do a research project and report. At some point in the near future I will flesh out my own version of the report but for now, here’s the assignment. (I have linked each of the 10 topics to its Wikipedia page as a starting point.)

Research Assignment: History of the Personal Computer

The topic is the history of the Personal Computer. There are 5 pieces of hardware and 5 operating systems I want to focus on.

Hardware

Apple I
Apple II
IBM PC 5150
Commodore 64
Lisa and the original Macintosh

Software

MS-DOS
Original Macintosh System (and how it was inspired by Xerox Alto)
Windows 3.1
Windows 95
Mac OS X (and how it was based on NeXTStep)

Write a brief paragraph (3-5 sentences is good) for each, 10 paragraphs total. Important things to include are the years they were produced, any particular people who played an important role in the development, and what made them each unique and influential.

The report should also have an introduction paragraph where you explain the overall topic, and a conclusion paragraph where you summarize what you found most interesting, or how you think the different systems are related or influenced each other.

Wikipedia is a good place to start, but also check the References section at the bottom of each Wikipedia entry, and look at at least one reference source for each. At the end of the report, include your own References section listing all of the links you used.