Google searches for a way to avoid Microsoft’s fate

 


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Google searches for a way to avoid Microsoft’s fate” was written by John Naughton, for The Observer on Sunday 18th January 2015 07.00 UTC

The news that Google’s share of the web-search market in the US has suddenly dropped is interesting. According to an independent analytics firm, StatCounter, last month Google’s market share dropped to 75.2%, compared with 79.3% a year earlier. That is its lowest share since 2008, when StatCounter started tracking the data. Yahoo, by contrast, seems to be on the up: its December market share (10.4%) was the highest it has achieved since 2009.

This could be just a blip, of course, and it doesn’t change the fact that Google is still the dominant player in search or that its share of the European search market ranges between 90% and 96%, depending on which country you look at. So this is not the time to start selling your Google shares, but it does make one look at the company through a different lens. What if the dominance of its core business were beginning to wane?

Remember that Google is, despite the hoopla about self-driving cars, antisocial spectacles, YouTube, the “right to be forgotten”, stratospheric balloons and the other exotic stuff, primarily a company that makes its (colossal) revenues from search-driven advertising. (Advertising provided bn of the company’s bn revenues last year.) All the cool, PR-friendly stuff that the company does stems from two things: those vast revenues and the shareholding structure that enables the company’s co-founders to do as they damn well please rather than being hounded by quarterly earnings reports and Wall Street expectations.

Google’s existential challenge is therefore how to keep the search money-pump going. So far, the main strategy has been to do everything in its power to extend internet use. The more people who are connected to the net, the better it is for Google. (Which is why Project Loon, which aims to bring free internet connectivity to poor countries using balloons in the stratosphere, makes both philanthropic and commercial sense.) But since most new internet users in the next decade will access the network via mobile phones, that means Google has to be active in that space too. Hence its development of Android, the operating system that powers the overwhelming majority of smartphones.

So Google is doing all it can to keep its core product growing. But it’s also working on a Plan B just in case search declines or is displaced by some as-yet-unknown technology. Part of Plan B is trying to be spectacularly innovative (self-driving cars, say); another part is to acquire startup or young companies such as Deepmind or Boston Dynamics, just in case one of them has managed to find the secret of life, the universe and everything. This quest has probably turned the search giant into the largest and most active venture capitalist in the US. You could view this either as a quest for world domination or planning for life after search.

Bill Gates once said that the only technology company that reminded him of Microsoft in its early days was… Google. Thanks to one of those delicious ironies in which capitalism excels, guess which company Google now reminds people of? Answer: Microsoft in its current dotage. Gates’s creation was once even more dominant in the industry than Google is now. It had three core products – the Windows operating system, Office and Windows Server – which were licences to print money. Microsoft had huge revenues that just rolled in every quarter, just as Google’s advertising revenues do today, and on the back of them built a huge 128,000 employee company. But, cushioned by its money-pump, it failed to innovate and, in particular, failed to address the decline of the desktop PC and the rise of mobile computing.

Despite Google’s self-image of an ultra-agile, young company, in fact it’s become a 55,000-employee monster, which is what is leading some people to see parallels with Microsoft. The Bloomberg columnist Katie Benner is one. “Microsoft,” she writes, “was stymied by a huge headcount and, more importantly, legacy products that no one inside the company wanted to mess with for fear of killing the golden goose… Even when those commanding positions were eroded at the margins, it was hard to see a world in which Microsoft wouldn’t be the backbone of a PC-centric tech industry.”

By the same token, it has been impossible to envisage a networked world in which Google would no longer be a dominant player. But after last week’s revelations about market share, maybe it’s time to downgrade “impossible” to merely “difficult”.

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Thokozile Masipa: the world awaits her verdict on Oscar Pistorius

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Thokozile Masipa: the world awaits her verdict on Oscar Pistorius” was written by Nastasya Tay, for The Observer on Saturday 9th August 2014 23.05 UTC

Once a tea girl, a nursing assistant and a journalist imprisoned for her beliefs, the woman who will pass judgment on Oscar Pistorius‘s fate has retired to consider her verdict. For 41 days, Judge Thokozile Masipa has presided over proceedings in Courtroom GD: the accused’s tears, verbal scraps between the two white Afrikaans attorneys trying to convince her of their arguments, calling everyone to quiet order. Everyone calls her “m’lady”.

Stern, but inscrutable, the 66-year-old has listened to reams of evidence, her head resting on an arthritic hand. Now she must decide if she believes the Paralympian shot and killed his girlfriend in a case of mistaken identity on Valentine’s morning last year of if, as the prosecution asserts, he’s guilty of premeditated murder. She will deliver her judgment on 11 September.

However, despite having become a recognisable figure in her red robe on the world’s television screens, Judge Masipa remains an intensely private woman. Suzette Naude, her soft-spoken court registrar, says the judge doesn’t even confide in her. “I don’t know what she thinks about the case. She hasn’t discussed any of her views with me at all,” she said. Asked about Masipa’s pronounced limp – she examined evidence in court on the supporting arm of an orderly – Naude shakes her head. “She once told me it was a broken femur, but others say it was childhood polio. No one really knows.”

The judge arrives in a Mercedes at Pretoria’s face-brick high court each morning as the winter sun is coming up, driven from her home in Midrand by her secretary because she doesn’t drive herself. By 6.30am, she is at her desk, poring over the day’s documents, more than two hours before any other judge.

Friends describe her as religious, health conscious and hard working. “Once you come in here and become a permanent judge, you begin to see that you spend most of your life here, instead of home,” Masipa once said.

Usually based in the Johannesburg high court, which has the highest case burden in the country, she jokes that even her four grandchildren need to make appointments to see her. Her husband, a tax consultant, does the cooking.

Susan Abro, a senior attorney who served with Masipa on South Africa’s electoral court for six years, says the judge is “very clever, very professional”, but, above all, warm and modest. “She comes from a human rights background, so that’s the point – you must allow people to feel like they’ve had their day in court, to feel as if they’ve been heard,” she told the Observer.

“She’s not one of the ones who makes a big splash about themselves, makes judgments so they’ll be reported,” she added. “And she has a wry sense of humour.”

Born on 16 October 1947, Masipa was the first of 10 children, and one of only three surviving – five died in childhood; another brother was stabbed to death in his 20s.

She grew up on a two-bedroom house in Orlando East, then a poor part of Soweto, sleeping in the dining room, or under the kitchen table if they had visitors. She’d keep a look out for the police while her grandmother brewed beer in the yard. Now, her childhood home is a creche for poor children, set up by her late mother. She helps pay the bills and also finances a nearby project that her sister runs for unemployed women.

Moving between schools in Soweto, the Alexandra township outside Johannesburg and Swaziland, she worked hard. “From a very young age, I wasn’t a great socialiser; I would be buried in my books,” she said in a 2008 interview for Courting Justice, a documentary about South African female judges. She became a social worker, inspired by her mother, who was a teacher.

Wanting to go to university, but lacking the money, Masipa spent years grappling with resentment, working as a clerk, then a messenger, then a tea girl, watching young white girls with high school diplomas doing the jobs she wanted. Eventually, she found her way to university, graduating with a BA in social work in 1974. The list of “funny” jobs continued, until she applied for a junior reporter’s position at the World newspaper, where she worked as a crime reporter until it was banned in 1977. Those were the days of growing unrest in Soweto: the death of 13-year-old Hector Pieterson in 1976; the assassination of activist Steve Biko in 1977; the riots.

As the women’s section editor at the Post where she moved, Masipa wrote about schools, education, the quality of textbooks, the conditions of labour for domestic workers. The promotion was a big step up. “No mean feat,” fellow journalist Pearl Luthuli recalled. “That position was for a white woman.”

“Sometimes the police would call up and say you are not supposed to write this and that. But Tilly [short for her European name Matilda] would stand her ground. She’s a really tough cookie,” former colleague Nomavenda Mathiane said of Masipa’s work.

Her strength found its way to Johannesburg’s streets when she was 29, when she marched with other female journalists to protest at the detention of several of their black male editors at the Post and demand press freedoms. She was arrested and thrown into a filthy jail cell with four of her colleagues; they used the newspapers they were carrying as bed linen and defied their white warden, who tried to force them to clean the excrement of previous prisoners.

It took Masipa 10 years to complete her law degree at the University of South Africa, while working as a full-time journalist, wife and mother. She graduated in 1990, after Nelson Mandela had just been released from prison. Even then, no one would take her on as an attorney, so she did her pupillage at the Johannesburg bar. Female lawyers were still few and far between. Masipa recalls answering her phone to rivals, who expected her to be a man.

The announcement of her appointment as the second black woman in South African history to the bench in 1998 was accompanied by a note of her hobbies: dancing, gardening, yoga. “It was part of a breakthrough. In a sense, she is a pioneer,” said Albie Sachs, a former constitutional court justice. Masipa herself jokes that she is probably the “youngest” ever appointed to the high court, after only seven years at the bar, a part of South Africa’s racial and political transformation.

But black female judges are still a rarity. Even though the population is 80% black, only 44% of superior court judges are. And out of the country’s 239 judges, only 76 are women.

On her journey to the bench, Masipa dropped Matilda in favour of Thokozile, which, in Zulu, means “happy.” Now, Masipa says, she feels the bench has more credibility in its diversity, but it also comes with specific challenges.

“Sometimes it’s not that easy; sometimes the woman comes before your court and she’s saying to herself, ‘Well, she’s black, she’s a woman, she must understand this.’ But you still have to look at what the law says,” she said.

She has admitted that her township background and disadvantaged childhood have an impact on her judgments, allowing her to identify with the people in the dock before her, especially young criminals, who she feels should be given an opportunity for rehabilitation.

On one occasion, hearing from an assessor of a young man moving with “the wrong crowd”, Masipa called him into her office and told him to go back to school. He did. Her most eminent judgments have followed a theme: protect the vulnerable. In May last year, Masipa sentenced a man who raped three women during the course of house robberies to 252 years in prison, condemning him for attacking and raping the victims “in the sanctity of their own homes where they thought they were safe”.

In 2009, Masipa handed down a life sentence to a policeman, who shot and killed his former wife after a row over their divorce settlement, telling him: “No one is above the law. You deserve to go to jail for life because you are not a protector. You are a killer.”

In 2009, she told the city of Johannesburg that it had failed to fulfil its constitutional obligations by not providing accommodation for squatters who were threatened with eviction.

The Department of Justice has been at pains to say Masipa’s assignment to Pistorius’s murder trial was a procedural one, but many South Africans also regard it is as a significant and welcome statement about the changing nature of the country’s justice system.

“It is a tough place to be, because for a long time it was only men who sat here,” Masipa once said. “And in our culture it’s even tougher, because some men are just not used to seeing women giving orders. But one gets used to it. It’s not you as a woman who’s there – it’s the position that you fill. So you just get on with it.”Comments will not be opened for legal reasons

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Tiger Woods’s future unknown after missed cut at US PGA Championship

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “What next for Tiger Woods after missed cut at US PGA Championship?” was written by Ewan Murray at Valhalla, for The Observer on Saturday 9th August 2014 14.51 UTC

Where next for Tiger Woods? Never mind in a broad sense, quite literally the answer to that question is unknown. “I don’t know,” was Woods’s blunt answer when asked when and where he will appear next. The 38-year-old’s early exit from the US PGA Championship cannot be classed in any way as a surprise. Nor can the suggestion – and it was only that – from Woods that he will shut down in a competitive sense for an extended length of time.

As Woods talked of hitting the gym in an attempt to restore the core strength he believes lost through back injury, he was unable– or unwilling – to put a timeframe on his competitive return to golf.

There may be little option. Woods has failed to qualify for the forthcoming FedEx playoff series. He has no confirmed playing appearances for the remainder of 2014. Speculation has pointed towards him featuring at the inaugural America’s Golf Cup in Argentina in late October; there would be four million dollar reasons for the 14-times major winner to do so.

The issue of Woods’s participation or otherwise in the Ryder Cup remains a vexing one for the United States captain, Tom Watson. Someone with a sense of ambition – or mischief – and spare money to spend in an overseeing role at the forthcoming Italian or Welsh Open might want to contact Woods’s management to establish whether he can be coaxed into a brief appearance on the European Tour, in a final effort to prove his Gleneagles ambitions to Watson.

The Ryder Cup scenario need not be complicated. Woods has given quite enough to golf to be worthy of selection, should he declare both his fitness and commitment. The theory that he cares little for the biennial contest between his country and Europe has been offset by regular, strong statements that he wants to play in Scotland late next month.

The notion that Watson will come under commercial and political pressure to name Woods as a wildcard pick cannot be ignored. Ted Bishop, the PGA of America’s president, claimed only this week: “If you had an opportunity to put Tiger on that team, if he is healthy I would take my chances every time. If I am going to win or lose, I am going to do it with a guy like Tiger Woods on my team.”

There is a major fitness “if” in there, of course. Officially the worst season in Woods’s decorated professional career has a strong mitigating circumstance in the form of a back injury. At Valhalla, winces and limps proved far more common than Woods birdies.

“I need to get my glutes strong again, my abs and my core back to where I used to have them. They are just not quite there yet,” Woods said. “Obviously by playing, you can’t burn the candle at both ends. I need to get stronger physically and be back to where I was.

“It is certainly very frustrating any time you have to sit out because of surgery and to deal with the things I’ve had to deal with this year. It’s no fun. 2008 wasn’t a whole lot of fun, even though I won four times that year. It still wasn’t a whole lot of fun trying to play through that. Consequently, I missed nine months.”

Given that Woods famously won a major championship with a broken leg, the odds on him listening to advice that he should seek a similar recuperation stint this time are long. The growing sense, though, is that Woods is realising as much himself.

Notah Begay, the Golf Channel analyst closest to Woods, has made comments that shouldn’t be viewed in isolation. “This [missed cut] could be a blessing in disguise for Tiger Woods because now there is a forced layoff. We might not see him until his event in December, which might be a good thing and allow him to give some time for that back to repair itself. It might be something that he needs, which is a forced layoff.”

Begay’s co-pundit Frank Nobilo looked a little deeper. “For the first time in his career, he has to take stock,” Nobilo said. “His career has gone through so fast for us, 18 years of brilliance, and finally he is at a stumbling block. For the first time in his career, he is going to have to re-evaluate.”

When asked if he felt old when competing nowadays, Woods replied: “I felt old a long time ago.” He added: “It’s hard because you want the bigger muscles controlling the golf swing. I have got to rely on my hands to do it. The club face is rotating so fast through impact because I’m just not able to get my arms and the body in the correct spot.

“It [the back problem] throws everything off. I can’t get anywhere near the positions that I’m accustomed to getting to. I can’t do it. I’ve got to rely on timing, hands and hopefully I can time it just right.”

Woods’s issue is not merely physical. It is mentally tough for someone so accustomed to success to struggle in front of the watching world. There may even be an inner realisation from Woods that he will never scale golf’s greatest heights again. For now, there is a clear excuse for that: Woods should use it in downing tools for the rest of this year.

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