161 Comments

Summary:

Design guru Don Norman is the godfather of design in the technology industry, a veteran who has been around the block with companies like Apple and HP. Now he thinks that it’s time we started being more skeptical of Google’s ambitions — or risk losing something important.

Don Norman at dConstruct

Don Norman at dConstruct“What is Google? What do they sell?” asks Don Norman, the author of The Design of Everyday Things and a demigod of the design world.

It’s a question that gets asked a lot, especially as the company’s power and products continue to expand. In a talk on Friday at the dConstruct conference in Brighton, England, he pointed out that –despite the complexity of the organization — the answer usually looks pretty simple.

“They have lots of people; lots of servers, they have Android, they have Google Docs, they just bought Motorola. Most people would say ‘we’re the users, and the product is advertising,'” he said. “But in fact, the advertisers are the users and you are the product.”

Then he went further. “They say their goal is to gather all the knowledge in the world in one place, but really their goal is to gather all of the people in the world and sell them.”

These aren’t exactly new allegations. “You are the product” has become a popular rallying cry over the last couple of years, with plenty of ammunition fired at Google, Facebook and others for their apparent invasions of privacy, their ability to track what we do online, and their ambitions to profit from it.

Nor is Norman’s dislike of the company a sudden conversion. Now 75, he has a distinctive track record of piling on Google — including a famous essay in which he attacked the idea of Google’s simplicity, claiming that “Anybody can make a simple-looking interface if the system only does one thing.” In addition, as a former vice president at Apple, which has come increasingly into competition with Google over the years, you can imagine that he’s not exactly a disinterested party.

Still, his comments were forceful, and they have taken on a new meaning given the context of recent events.

For example, Norman argued that the company’s inhumanity — its inability to understand what is emotionally true about products like Apple’s — is a serious problem. More particularly, he suggested that Google’s approach to emotion, and to people, is the real reason for the debacle over real names on Google+.

“Real names, they say, turn out to be the names on your driver’s license and your passport and your credit cards so that they can track you. Are you happy to be a product?”

I saw more than a few developers in the audience bristle at this apparently uncomfortable idea, or taking umbrage with Norman’s attack. But Eric Schmidt himself admitted that the real names approach is about becoming a broker of online identities.

Ultimately, his charge was one that Google has seen many times before: that it is a machine which needs humans but doesn’t like them very much. Whether it’s in its social networks, its interfaces, or other elements of its design, Google is merely applying a thin veneer that often apes Apple’s approach without understanding it.

“Google doesn’t understand people,” he said. “Have you ever spoken to a Google support person on the phone? They don’t have them. Sure, they’ll direct you to their blogs — where you’ll be lucky if you can find the answer you’re looking for — or they’ll let you give feedback. But do they ever give you feedback on your feedback?”

  1. It’s funny in a sad way to hear a former Apple employee ranting about the ‘inhumanity’ of some company when it’s Apple that wants to put us in a (not so) golden cage.

    I stay with the company that gives me choice. Especially the choice to leave.

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    1. Really, Google give you choice?

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      1. just use Bing

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      2. tim jones = half-witted Fandroid troll. gSheep.

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    2. haha, the absurdity of this statement is amusing. Sure, you can ‘leave’ by stopping using their products (why can’t you do that with Apple?) but they’re going to keep records of EVERYTHING you do for years after you’re gone. You can ‘leave’ but they keep every bit of information they have on you.

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      1. That’s actually not true. You can log in to your google account and see all of the web history they’ve collected, and delete every bit of it if you so choose.

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      2. I guess the absurdity of your statement and your lack of understanding is amusing

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      3. Carlos A. Osuna Tuesday, September 6, 2011

        quentin: They will keep a ‘photograph’ of days past, just as a news paper or a traffic camera.

        All of “Baby Boomers”, “Generation-X”, etc. see ‘privacy’ on a different light as “Millennial/Generation-Y”. There life depends on being seen, being tracked, actively or passively.

        They’re the generation who hates anonymity. That’s the real audience of Facebook, Twitter and Google. They can care less if they are the product (which is just a rhetorical rant), the raw material or which ever in between.

        Of course, he has a point, on feelings, which Apple gets. But we must remember that he’s doing a generalization, which explains why Android is beating Apple and why Microsoft can’t ‘get-it’. There’s just two markets (over 30’s and under 30’s). The first one likes Apple, the second one likes Google. Facebook must work in between and so does Microsoft/Bing.

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      4. beenyweenies, You are right. You are also wrong. Have you ever heard of Google Cache. They keep everything on file for as long as they decide to, i.e. forever. Do you really think they don’t hold those files for Government Agents and Law Enforcement.
        The same as all the computer manufactures have back doors so the police and other agents can quickly and easily gather your info in an investigation.

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    3. all the iSheeps sitting in rows staring at Steve Jobs big head, like Apple’s 1994 ad

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      1. The pleural of sheep is sheep. The ad was a reference to 1984, the book. I am not aware of a similar work about 1994. Lastly, you are missing an apostrophe after Jobs.

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      2. It was 1984. Get your facts straight before posting. And no need of name-calling, is there?

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      3. In the book 1994 Large Sibling is looking? 2 + 2 = math? :D

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      4. Haha.. putz.

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      5. @Infobhan: “pleural”?! What keyboard do you use, that has an “e” between “l” and “u”?

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      6. Pleural? And you’re critical of someone else’s writing? Lol.

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    4. Apple gives you the choice to leave too. If you don’t like Apple’s product, then simply do not buy it or stop buying it.

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    5. OK, so which part is incorrect?

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    6. The choice to leave? I don’t understand this concept.

      I’m a PC-user, never much cared for Apple’s products. But with any product company, the premise is simple: If you like their products, you buy them. If you don’t any time in the future, you buy another. There’s no information stored or kept about you, and no reason you can’t leave. I’m confused with your statement about “staying” with a company that gives you the choice to leave.

      Looking at Google, bits and pieces of you stay live and remote, no matter how much you delete, if you decide to “leave.” Take Gmail: when you “delete” an email, still remains on the server if it’s deemed important or relevant to Google’s algorithms. Sure, it’s flagged to not be shown to you, the user, but the matter of fact is, you’re just but one interested party in that email, despite what you might think. Plus, Google has the ability to discontinue any product that you use, without the ability to continue to use it (Let’s say Microsoft discontinued Office, ridiculous of course, but you’d still have the software, the documents, etc. If Google discontinued Google Docs, where’s your data? What software do you use to edit it?). Google also has the ability to terminate your access to your *own* data at any time, if they feel they need to. Apple or Dell have no such power. Every time you turn your laptop on, unless it’s broken, your laptop turns on. Regardless of whether these companies still exist.

      So I guess I really don’t understand how you have more of a choice to leave with Google than with Apple.

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      1. Correct. Google does terminate accounts with no prior notice or ability to remedy a “violation” of their business rules (which are subject to change upon whim).

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      2. The battle that you present, isn’t actually Company vs. Company, it’s actually Hardware vs. Cloud.

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      3. “Google also has the ability to terminate your access to your *own* data at any time”

        Use Backups. The same way everyone else should. You can edit it in open office, vim, notepad, msPaint. Not the perfect editing tools, but editors none the less.

        ” Take Gmail: when you “delete” an email, still remains on the server if it’s deemed important or relevant to Google’s algorithms.”

        ISP’s are starting to do this. The kid across the street might be wiresharking you. Do you use any decent program to wipe your old data off your drives? Then your data is still there, waiting to be gone over with someone else’s algorithm.

        The company you work for probably has data on you. The grocery store. The credit card companies. Etc.

        Leaving data around is akin to leaving Carbon Dioxide when you breath.

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    7. You think you have a choice? You think it’s okay for company to treat you as a commoditiy? Listen you idiot, I can choose to use or not use an Apple product. But you don’t even know that you are being lied to and your information being sold without your consent when you use Google product.

      Good luck with that “Choice” of yours.

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      1. Would you please point me to the checkout spot where I can buy your info and how much would that be?

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      2. Call Google and tell them you’re a company looking to buy logistics information about their users. They will show you the checkout spot.

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      3. @travisgamedev

        Lying doesn’t make it true.
        Google grants access to location based demographics for people advertising through Adwords and/or Adsense. Companies like Microsoft when you sign up for Hotmail full on sells your name, demographic and contact details out right.

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    8. Personally, I prefer a company where my relationship is that they produce something and I’ll buy it if I like it – commercial radio was rubbish, free-to-air commercial TV is mostly rubbish, and the commercial web we are being told is ‘the only way’ is mostly ad-cluttered rubbish.

      There is the freedom of open source, of course, but the server side web largely takes that freedom away from the user.

      Google actually remind me of the Apple of old – the ‘Think Different’ era when they used politics to sell their products. Now it’s Google that are the big business pretending they are the alternative.

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    9. Adrian O'Connor Tuesday, September 6, 2011

      I know the other replies have already said this, but what are you talking about? In what world are you forced to stay with Apple? Apple offer you a product that you can either take or leave. There is no one forcing you to buy. There is no lock in. The choice between (say) Dell and Apple is like the choice between Ford and Toyota. Choose either, it doesn’t matter. Next time you can change your mind if you want.

      With Google it’s different. They offer good products at seemingly unbeatable prices (free). Google Apps for Domains, for instance, is a great product, but you pay a hidden price — your data. And once you’re invested in the Google way, it’s hard to leave. Getting a new mail server is not a simple task. Leaving Google Docs once you’ve got a reasonable library isn’t going to be plain-sailing. Disabling your Google Profile or leaving Google+ will limit your ability to use other Google services. And let’s not forget the tracking that goes on outside of your regular account — all of those little Analytics scripts in billions of pages across the web aren’t just there to give the webmasters pretty graphs you know.

      Me thinks you need some perspective.

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      1. Leaving MS Exchange is easy – you just need a new mail server. Leaving Gmail is impossible – you would need a new mail server. Doesn’t compute.

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      2. Any instances where someone saw their “personal” info being exposed by google to someone? Personally I feel Apple forcing having an apple account forcibly linking to a credit card, to download an free app, a stupid act….

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      3. How is that different than iTunes? Perhaps only that iTunes doesn’t tell you up front?

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      4. Look up how to disconnect your credit card from iTunes. It’s pretty simple and you could have chosen that option when you first signed up. You can still use it. You just can’t purchase anything. It’s a good option if you have kids using iTunes.

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  2. And his point is? That crApple is better than Google or what? Or that we start using Bing?

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    1. His point is probably that you should protect yourself from them all. But, when it comes to Apple, they do do a better job protecting your identity. Selling you is not their line of business. Same with Amazon. Whereas, it IS Google’s only business.

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      1. Don’t trust close, secretive, neurotic crApple- it might show at your door looking for its lost iCrap

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      2. Good response.

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      3. @tim jones – you’re an idiot.

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      4. @tim jones

        Yes, how absurd of a company to want to track a lost and then stolen prototype device in a business worth billions of dollars…

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      5. yes your identity is safer in the hands of one corporate master than the other, it is safer to be a slave of Apple, than a slave of google. Yes it also helps the shareholders of Apple, but that is moot and is morally just.

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    2. Good golly there are still idiots posting on the internet?! crApple, really? That’s all you bring to the conversation?

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  3. Why should Google which is often “free” open its staff to potential personal verbal telephone abuse – people always know their problems far better than the help desk jockey who over a narrow channel without all the info may struggle to diagnose and fix the particular issue. After all software is a work in progress.

    As for the bottom line no “feedback on feedback” from Google this is a not-so-clever phrase which does not reflect the truth. Just two days ago over the weekend Brenda of Google in Seattle gave me an answer within 24 hours, and I am in a different time zone. In my experience Google online support is very good; I am sure that people will have bad experiences, some with Apple – it’s all part of life’s rich pattern.

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    1. I think you missed his point. It’s not that they never respond, it’s that they do not view the user as a user, but, rather, a product, a commodity, so their responses are toned as such (from a company-wide standpoint, individuals paying proper attention to users can run counter to the larger corporate attitude)

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    2. In a previous role, I managed Google For Business accounts. These are not free (we paid $5 per user per month, with around 150 users), but are pushed to the same forums full of people asking – but never receiving answers to – questions that the “free” users get pushed to.

      No matter how much you pay Google or Facebook, they have clearly made a point that customer service means treating their customers as individuals, and that’s not something they wish to do.

      And sure, many Google products are free to end users, but Google makes money from our use of those products through the advertising they can then sell.

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      1. You must be a bad admin. When I check my Apps admin control panel there is UK, Canada, USA and Rest of the world phone numbers. I also use the Enterprise Portal not the free forum. So far average response rate from a Google employee is about 30 minutes. Not bad.

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  4. You are always the product, regardless of whether or not you pay too. You either pay to be the product, are the product in exchange for a service, or live off the grid.

    People tend to forget that other apt adage, about wondering who the sucker at the table is. If by paying for a service, you think that your information isn’t *also* being monetized, then you’re not just paying for the service, but you’re also the sucker at the table.

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    1. Ask Bjørn Hansen Monday, September 5, 2011

      No, sometimes you are the customer. When I buy an iPod from Apple I’m their customer. When I buy advertising from Google I’m their customer.

      The iPod is Apple’s product. Someone searching on Google is their (paid) product. Google have lots of free products, too.

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    2. Apple makes a whole lot more money when I buy an iPad than they could serving me ads. Apple measures customers in the millions. To put it another way: if they start violating my trust, they lose my business, and in quite short order, lose their business as well.

      Google makes all its money selling access to my peripheral vision. Their customers number in the billions, and are often unwitting. If they start violating my trust, I’ll try to protect myself, but if I stop using their services they don’t lose much.

      Google has much less to lose by abusing your trust in them. Yes, any company might sell your data, especially in a going-out-of-business pinch, but that doesn’t mean there is a real and qualitative difference between the company whose business plan is “sell your data” versus one whose business plan is “sell products to you”.

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  5. > “Google doesn’t understand people”

    That’s why Schmidt says G+ is an ‘Identity Service’ right ;)

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  6. These attempts to demonize Google are growing rather stale. All that play on words and silly distinctions on what’s the product are meaningless – Google doesn’t hide the fact that it makes money from advertising. The deal is very clear – you get free services (in most cases) in exchange for viewing ads.
    The bits about Google’s design are also just silly. Why does he try so hard to make what Google’s doing sound bad? Did they ever claim they were the only ones capable of making a simple interface? No. They made the choice to use that design, and that’s it. However, if we take for example Chrome’s design, we see that the minimalism *is* actually appealing to users, and suddenly everyone else is designing their browsers a lot more like Chrome.
    This example goes to show that it’s just meaningless to treat a company so big as a single entity, and make dumb claims that it’s inhuman etc. There are PEOPLE working there, like you and me. Some of them may be less sensitive to most people’s emotions, but the vast majority (by simple laws of probability) will be normal people.

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    1. “The deal is very clear – you get free services (in most cases) in exchange for viewing ads.”

      No, you’ve just highlighted the fact that people don’t understand the deal. You get free services in exchange for Google analyzing your personal data and viewing habits in order to target you with ads.

      Ads I don’t mind. Google reading my email to find out what ads are most relevant? That I mind.

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      1. It’s not my fault you’re stuck in the previous century, when then were very few targeted ads, and the common business model was generic ads on the TV, newspapers etc.
        The world has changed, and targeted ads have proven very effective across the whole advertising industry, not just Google. It is still early in the game, but anyone who doesn’t acknowledge that the ads he sees aren’t exactly the same as the next person is just ignorant. As the saying goes: Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

        In this case, however, I think many people who are aware of targeted ads fail to realize it is probably in their interest as well. There is no point in showing me an ad for, let’s say, female hygiene products, because I happen to be a man. The ad space could be much more effective if it showed me tech products for example, or promotions for a sports event. In this sense, it’s a win-win situation.

        The downside is indeed the uncertainty of who has information about you and what it can be used for besides these ads. But we’re straying quite far from the original argument – the point remains that Google is most of the times upfront about its collection of your data (barring the very notable street view wifi incident), and has yet to be proven to mishandle that data. I’m not saying it can’t happen or that you shouldn’t be wary, but there’s no point in mud-slinging based on future potential wrong-doings.

        P.S.
        The same cannot be said for Facebook, for example, which has been shown several times to mishandle your private information. That’s a much bigger privacy problem than Google at the moment.

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      2. “Google reading my email to find out what ads are most relevant? That I mind.”

        If Google is “reading” your email to suggest ads then so is Microsoft, they are “reading” your Word document to suggest the correct spelling. Oh look there is a red squigly, Firefox just “read” what I typed.

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      3. “The world has changed, and targeted ads have proven very effective across the whole advertising industry, not just Google.”

        True. But, is this good for the consumer?

        I’d argue that it could be, and quite often is, but is often enough not. For instance, when you are barraged by ads for Hooters on every web page you visit because you sent an off-color joke via your gmail account.

        Given socially-retarded face-palms like Buzz, do you trust Google to make the “right” choice about when serving targeted advertising benefits the customer and when it does not?

        “If Google is “reading” your email to suggest ads then so is Microsoft, they are “reading” your Word document to suggest the correct spelling. Oh look there is a red squigly, Firefox just “read” what I typed.”

        Surely you are technically competent enough to realize the difference between an in-memory operation which leaves no permanent record and a cloud-sourced operation which by design leaves records in multiple cross-referenced databases which are backed up and retrievable by anyone who cares to retrieve them, right?

        Google scans your mail using a proprietary AI algorithm which is intended to decipher what topics you are interested in from the content. It then records those topics of interest, along with who you sent the mail to and when, so that it can more reliably “serve” you advertisements which exploit those interests. It is not perfect yet (although you have *no idea* how close to perfect it really is!), but that is certainly Google’s goal. “Google reading your mail” is a perfectly apt description of the process.

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    2. Once again, we get an Indian named guy, probably engineer, defending Google.

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      1. Seems like Jorge loves Indians :-)

        LOL
        (by an Indian)

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      2. “[…] an Indian named guy, probably engineer […]”

        …by which you mean, more intelligent than you?

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    3. finally a voice of reason. google is some big evil corporation out to bag you, tag you, and sell you off to the highest bidder, they dont go through your email and read your private conversations, they are just a bunch of programmers, artists, and engineers. far as i understand it google has the most higher ups which actually understand technology, most decisions are made by consulting the individuals working there. most products are open source so anyone can work on them even if they arent employees, and they can make them better.

      there is an impulse in many people to see something which lots of people like and which lots of people say nice things about and trust and just instinctively think “they are evil” this in turn leads to a cognitive bias against the company and anything they can find to support this bias they latch onto.

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    4. i was just wondering, if Google gives Most of its Products for free i.e Android OS then how the hell will they make money to pay their staffs? i know for sure that No body opens Business just to give stuff away for free, Profit usually is involved. so therefore i will agree that they may be involved in other Stuff to make money, like getting and selling user Data. now it all makes sense!

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  7. “demigod of the design world”? Apple designs overhyped, overpriced crappy trinkets

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    1. Jealousy? Just because they do it well? Seriously, how naive do you have to be to actually believe that Apple’s success is due purely to a brainwashed cult-like following buying garbage products because they don’t know any better? It’s simply astounding that you can be so poor at critical thinking to end up at this conclusion, of all things.

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      1. calm down, iSheep

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    2. Poor thing. You are a pre-pubescent child.

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      1. Tim Jones, you need new jokes. iSheep? crApple?

        You’re not funny and you sound like an angry person who didn’t get hired by Apple. I fee sorry for you.

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    3. Beware the green-eyed monster…

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    4. Hey, Tim. I heard someone said something bad about Google over at Reddit. Why don’t you go over there for a while?

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    5. Yes. Probably that is why they get those tons of design awards and huge respect from the design community for their “trinkets”…

      Overpriced? Hello, the 90’s called, they want their argument back –in several markets Apple keeps beating competitors on price (tablets, high end and ultra-portable laptops).

      Overhyped? Could it be because people, er, LIKE them?

      Are you one of those guys that threw a Windows Vista launch party?

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    6. Tim Jones did you have surgery at a very young age? It seems like you did to me, there could be no other explanation for your stupidity. It’s as if they made a large hole on the top of your cranium. After, they removed all brain tissue from your skull, and replace it with bags of shit. Not just any shit, but shit that had been ingested and digested repeatedly. They might’ve added some boiling spoiled semen. Lastly they garnished your shit filled skull with scrotum sweat.

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  8. Another case of making good the enemy of perfect. Politicians are usually the master of this tactic, and it’s a common marketing weapon for companies to highlight their competitors flaws on minor issues while ignoring their real advantages, but Norman sounds like another iphone fan putting down android.

    If you’re on a search for the perfect company, you’re going to have a disappointing life. While I think Apple is a great company (my favorite and most valuable holding of all the stocks I own), they are far from perfect. I could spend all day describing aspects of their computers, tablets, phones, and services that frustrate and annoy me, just as I can with Google. However, while I can provide even more complaints about companies like Microsoft, Dell, HP, etc. (that set is much bigger). those companies have far less redeeming value. And if your target is companies that hoard personal information and sell it to third parties, Google would be nowhere near the top of the list of offenders.

    Constructive criticism is valuable. Vendettas are not.

    It’s also not fair to compare Google’s business model with Apples'; Google sells information and Apple sells hardware. Apple has no need to monetize any information it gathers, other than to create products that people will buy.

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    1. I don’t see anywhere in the article that said Apple was perfect. Criticism of Google doesn’t equal blind praise of Apple. There is a clear, visible distinction between how Apple designs it’s products around the human element in comparison to other companies though. Saying Apple is better at it, doesn’t mean they’re perfect. How do you make that leap?

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      1. I’m sorry, the comments about Apple were meant as a reply to PXLated’s comments above. I should have kept them separate, or at least referenced those comments, but I got a little lazy.

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  9. Speaking as a some-time Google support person on the phone, they do indeed have them :)

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    1. Marcos_El_Malo Monday, September 5, 2011

      Mind sharing your phone # and extension, so we can reach you? :)

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  10. wow more scare mongering by a former Apple exec. If buying a cheap mass produced Apple device manufactured by pitiable and massively exploited slave labor in China fulfills the emotional needs of users, then users need to get a life. By the way the real consumers of Apple Iphone are the carriers, the carriers buy the Iphone and sell it to the end users.

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    1. Do you actually believe that Android devices aren’t created in the same type of factories and conditions? Or the hardware that runs Google’s data centers? HA

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      1. poster never mentioned Android, all that was mentioned was Apple’s crappy trinkets. This iSheep is freaking out that Apple crappy cash-cow iPhone is getting further and further behind Android

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      2. Forget it, quentin. People like him live in a little dream world where Apple = EVIL and Google = GOOD. Jobs is Mussolini. Moble Flash = choice. Nothing can dislodge the meme.

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      3. Dont worry Quentin, anyone who uses the term iSheep as an argument is far more of a sheep themselves than they realize. Every one of Tim Jones’ comments on here indicate that he’s a die-hard fandroid, one of the sheep of the Android kind – so blinded by the light shining out of Sergey’s buttcrack that he can’t think for himself anymore.

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      4. I know that, but article states that apple devices are emotionally satisfying. So I just took a potshot. I know everything is manufactured in China. I just question his assumption that selling hardware devices is morally and ethically superior to making money via advertising. I would argue, since google democratizes access to information ex a shanty dweller in Brazil gets the same access to information that the CEO of Apple gets via google search, now how empowering is that. I would argue that google business model is superior to Apple. But that is silly. I enjoy products from a lot of different companies and yes that includes Apple.

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      5. Marcos_El_Malo Monday, September 5, 2011

        @Bob:

        Fair enough. I’ve gotten fairly minimalist and anti-consumer society myself, although I still love good tools, and when I buy them, I want the best. Since I’ve given up a high salary to live in a developing nation and to have a lot of free time, I can’t always afford the best, so a lot of the time I make do. It’s a choice I’ve made and I’m mostly happy living with it.

        I do love Apple gear. It’s worth it to me to economize in other areas to be able to afford it. I just pulled the trigger on an iPad, which I am planning to use as my primary PC (we’ll see how that goes). This means I’ll be using public transportation for the next several months or so, which I don’t mind. OK, that was a lie. Public transport here is a pain in the ass. Wednesdays? That’s the bus drivers day off, so if I want to go to town I have to walk 3 km to the highway and catch a bus there. Could be worse, but it’s a pain in the ass. Still, I’ll put up with it because the iPad will be worth it for me. I considered the Macbook Air, but I really want my own car or motorcycle before the end of the year!

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      6. Marcos_El_Malo Monday, September 5, 2011

        more @bob:

        Also, having worked at times in the advertising industry I can say, yeah, it’s pretty evil. Not as bad as the music business, though, so they at least have that.

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    2. If you knew what you were talking about or had actually read the article and comprehended it you would know his time at Apple is minor.

      Oh and hey Android kiddies and whiners…you know what computers are overwhelmingly used at Google? Macs. Macs everywhere you look.

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      1. Oh and also at Motorola, Macs everywhere, plus Cisco, Oracle, IBM…

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      2. yes and Eric Schmidt called Steve Jobs the best CEO ever, your point child ?

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