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Third time’s the charm: Google is trying to be a phone company, again

Today, Google officially announced something that the tech world has known for months: it’s launching a pair of high-end Pixel-branded smartphones, killing the Nexus program, and competing more explicitly with Apple and every other company that’s making and selling Android phones.

Google is definitely pushing itself as a hardware company like it never has before. But this is hardly the company’s first effort to get into the smartphone hardware business. The first was the Nexus One, which drew iPhone comparisons when it was launched. But low sales almost killed the brand—Eric Schmidt said in 2010 that the Nexus One “was so successful [in helping Android along], we didn’t have to do a second one”—before it was resurrected and pointed at the developer-and-enthusiast niche.

The second and more serious effort began in 2011, when Google bought Motorola for $12.5 billion. After clearing out the old Motorola’s product pipeline, in 2013 and 2014 the company introduced a series of high-end and midrange Moto phones that were critical darlings for their price tags, their focus on fundamentals, and their fast Android updates. These were three non-broken things that Lenovo promptly “fixed” after it bought Motorola from Google for just $2.9 billion three years later.

Google made no mention of its Motorola experiment onstage today, even though the same guy who ran Motorola is now running Google’s hardware efforts. But the sense that all of this has happened before is just one of the contradictions of Google’s new mobile strategy. More importantly, the company’s actions and stated goals contradict one another, to the extent that I wonder just how committed Google is to its hardware plans and, on a related note, just how good its chances of success are.

Google’s sales pitch for its new phones is distinctly Apple-esque: Pixels are the first phones designed from the ground up by Google, which gives Google the opportunity to tailor the hardware to better suit its software and vice versa. This is a departure from Google’s Nexus strategy, in which Google slapped Nexus branding on existing or near-complete products that one of its partners was already working on.

Except, well, the Pixel phones are pretty Nexus-y. FCC filings show that they were clearly built by HTC, and as our own Ron Amadeo pointed out they appear to share components with HTC designs like the One A9.

“Designed by Google” and “built by HTC” don’t need to be mutually exclusive. I don’t doubt that Google blessed each component and design choice individually or that it became involved in the design process much earlier than it normally would for a Nexus phone. And even if the Pixels are HTC phones with Google logos on them, that’s becoming an increasingly common move. HTC can make phones, but the mass market doesn’t care about its brand. Google has a mass-market brand but maybe didn’t want to start from zero to design a new phone. Fine.

The trouble is, Google has actually designed some quality hardware all by itself. The Pixel Chromebooks were both lovely, though they were priced out of reach of anyone but ChromeOS die-hards. And even though the Pixel C tablet’s software has been rough, its hardware has the benefit of at least looking and feeling good. Chromecast is a Google effort, too, as are Daydream View and Google Home.

Google can design its own hardware, and it says that it does. But the Pixel phones aren’t as Google-y as some of Google’s other devices, and they definitely don’t have the signature design touches of the other Pixel products (including the lightbar and the boxy-yet-still-appealing curves). This may be a springboard, the first step in a transition from the Nexus era to a new Pixel era. Google hardware chief Rick Osterloh says that he’s already seen photos from next year’s Pixel camera, so at a bare minimum Google has a roadmap that it’s in control of. But the way Google is hitting the “#MadeByGoogle” drum so hard is odd, given the Pixel’s obvious lineage.
Exclusive features don’t mesh with Google’s business model

Google’s hardware contradictions are puzzling but easily explained. The software contradictions are more troubling.

One of the reasons Apple can get away with keeping iPhone prices the same every year even as Android phones get cheaper is that the company really is in full control of its hardware, software, and ecosystem. The iPhone is the only place to get iOS, it’s the only phone that offers tight integration with the Mac and other Apple products, and it’s the only place where you can get iOS apps.

Few players in the Android market, Samsung aside, can do the same thing, since the primary differentiator is often price rather than any particular gimmick or spec. Google’s Hiroshi Lockheimer believes there’s room for another player in the high-end, high-margin phone market. That may be true, but when asked what Google intends to provide that other Android phone makers won’t or can’t (beyond intangibles like brand value), his answers were vague.

Clearly, the Pixel is going to get a lot of things first: Android 7.1 will come to the Pixel before it’s even available as a developer preview for older Nexus and Pixel devices, to say nothing of OEMs who haven’t even started shipping Android 7.0 updates. The Google Assistant and Google’s new Pixel Launcher are both Pixel exclusives, at least for now.

But Android’s success is built in part on how widespread it is, and Google’s business is built on casting wide nets that can collect lots of data. It might make sense to keep the Pixel Launcher exclusive to the Pixel phones to give Google’s phones their own unique look and feel and tighter integration with all of Google’s services. But the Assistant will almost certainly be available for other Android devices eventually, just as Google Now and Google Now On Tap (two services that have plenty of overlap with the Assistant anyway) already are. The Daydream VR platform is already open to other phone makers as long as they’re using Android 7.1.

Google’s stuck in a place where it needs to give its own Android phones unique features to differentiate them from the crowd, which is doubly true since they’re being sold at iPhone and Galaxy prices instead of Nexus prices. But it makes most of its money by building out large userbases and making its products and services as available to as many people as is realistically possible. In that tug of war, Google will ultimately be pushed to do whatever is best for its bottom line, something that may damage its nascent phone business.

Which kind of Google experiment will the Pixel phones be?

Are we missing a part of Google’s strategy? The so-called “Andromeda” project, that long-rumored collision of Android and ChromeOS, could be part of it. But this whole hardware shift could just as easily be one more experiment from a company that loves to try new things without always committing to them.

Gmail, Android, Chrome, Chromebooks, the Chromecast, and of course the search engine that forms the core of the company are all solid successes that Google is obviously committed to. Motorola, the Nexus Q, the Android Update Alliance, the Google Play Edition program, Google Hangouts, the OnHub, Google Buzz, Google Wave, Google+, Project Ara, Google Glass, Google TV, Google Reader, and any number of other initiatives swept under the rug during a “spring cleaning” phase were all eventually canceled or dramatically scaled back as the company’s strategy and personnel have changed.

Source: ars Technica , article by Andrew Cunningham (http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2016/10/googles-phone-strategy-is-a-study-in-contradictions/)

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How marketers are distributing 360-degree videos beyond YouTube and Facebook

When you read The New York Times’ technology section today, you will see an ad from Google at the top of the page featuring a 360-degree video clip on the left and a still image with a “Come Explore” button on the right. Clicking on the button, you will be directed to an in-browser 360-degree series titled “The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks.”

There, you can watch a glacier recede at Kenai Fjords in Alaska, fly over an active volcano in Hawaii or ride horseback through the Bryce Canyon in Utah.

This is one of the latest examples on how marketers and advertisers are tackling the distribution issue in virtual reality: pointing people to a 360-degree video experience with a teaser clip or display ad on a big publisher. Viewers don’t have to buy a headset, download a separate VR app or go to YouTube.

Jack-In-The-Box, for example, promoted its Brewhouse Bacon Burger last month with a contextual ad on Twitch linking viewers back to a 360-degree video around its juicy burger. Sarah Bachman, vp of mobile strategy for Horizon Media, the agency behind Jack-In-The-Box, declined to disclose how her team measures the campaign as she is not authorized by the brand.

Still, it’s unclear if serving teaser content on a major publisher can truly help brands extend the reach of their VR efforts. At the moment, there is no single scaled VR solution, so it requires a varied but deliberate distribution plan and lots of testing, said Bachman.

The prevailing approach for distributing VR content is through a mobile app like Google Cardboard or via YouTube and Facebook. The former requires downloading the app, which is an additional barrier to consumer adoption, while the latter requires embedding the content back on a website. This amounts to a broken 360-degree experience, explained Michael Rucker, co-founder and chief operating officer for VR company OmniVirt that provides the technology for the two campaigns above.

“Publishers should be able to power VR experiences right on their own media property as they have been investing in this space. But rendering a 360-degree video across all of a publisher’s different platforms is a difficult technical challenge,” he said.

Teaser content on major publishers aside, agency Arnold Worldwide has been testing out the organic reach of new distribution platforms like Littlstar (via an unpaid partnership) and Samsung VR (think of both platforms as the VR equivalent of YouTube) since this past April in its “Instant Caribbean Vacation” 360-degree video experience for Carnival Cruise Line.

“On these two platforms, we are focused on organic views only right now. That, in part, will help justify any paid media support we opt to put behind those platform placements down the road,” said Sean Will, vp and director of digital production for Arnold Worldwide. “Content-wise, I think we need to build more embedded interactions. For example, Google has created some nice experiences with its street map technology, like the VR tour of Dublin.”

Since those methods could help consumers get more familiar with 360-degree videos, brands are less hesitant to invest in VR. The distribution issue of real immersive VR experiences like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, however, still remains unsolved, according to Dave Meeker, vp of agency Isobar’s U.S. operations.

“Remember, 360 is just an entry point to VR. If a brand wants to do VR, there’s no clear path to success at the moment. The question is, do I go for scale, or do I go for big impact?” he said. “We are still at an early stage, but the potential is absolutely here. We are not limited by the technology, but we are limited by the adoption of the technology.”

Source: Digiday, article by Yuyu Chen (http://digiday.com/agencies/marketers-distributing-360-degree-videos-beyond-youtube-facebook/)

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PayPal is shutting down its Windows Phone, BlackBerry, and Amazon apps

PayPal is thinning the number of mobile operating systems supported by the company’s flagship app down to just two: Android and iOS. The PayPal mobile apps for Windows Phone, BlackBerry, and Amazon’s Fire OS will be discontinued as of June 30th.

It’s fairly common to see these decisions for Windows Phone and BlackBerry, but a little less regular to see a company of PayPal’s stature just up and abandon Amazon’s fork of Android, which runs on Kindle Fire tablets and the failed Fire Phone. PayPal doesn’t offer much of an explanation for the decision, but claims it’ll lead to better apps for the remaining platforms. “It was a difficult decision to no longer support the PayPal app on these mobile platforms,” said Joanna Lambert, PayPal’s VP of consumer product, in an announcement on the company’s blog. “But we believe it’s the right thing to ensure we are investing our resources in creating the very best experiences for our customers.”

PayPal is quick to point out that despite being left without a native app, affected users will still have full access to PayPal’s mobile website for account management and money transactions. There are other options, too; BlackBerry users can still send peer-to-peer payments with PayPal through BBM. And on the Windows side, Outlook.com users can enable the PayPal add-in to send payments right from the email app.

“We remain committed to partnering with mobile device providers, and we apologize for any inconvenience this may cause our customers,” Lambert said. PayPal claims that putting a sharper focus on just the two apps will allow the company to “innovate and make enhancements to PayPal’s mobile experiences to give our customers the best possible ways to manage and move their money.”

Source: The Verge, Article by Chris Welch (http://www.theverge.com/2016/5/25/11777422/paypal-killing-windows-phone-blackberry-fire-os-apps)

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7 helpful ways to use Google Now on Tap

Among the new features announced with the current version of Android last year was Google Now on Tap, an extension of Google Now and Google search to practically every possible screen on your smartphone.

While the feature was received with quite a bit of fanfare, it’s not always as practical as Google would have you believe. It’s very hit or miss. Often giving you no useful search cards when you would expect it to.

However, there are some situations where Google Now on Tap shines and makes what would normally be a multistep process just a tap or click away. Here’s how to get the most out of Google Now on Tap.

Find out when your favorite band is playing
With Google Now on Tap, you can quickly check for upcoming shows or concerts by long-pressing the home button when listening to an artist in a music app like Google Play Music or Spotify, or while viewing their Facebook page. Once the card for the band or artist appears, scroll all the way to the right. If upcoming tour dates are available, you will see an option called Events. Tap this to icon to bring up more information.

Find a music video for a song
If you’re listening to a specific song in a music app, bringing up Google Now on Tap will provide quite a bit of information on both the band and song. If there’s one available, it will also provide a direct link to the official music video on YouTube. When you tap this icon, YouTube will launch, the video will load and it will begin playing.

Create a calendar event
If you’re trying to make plans with friends, queueing up Google Now on Tap will suggest creating a new event in your calendar. If you tap the card, your default calendar will open, jump to creating a new event and input the details discovered by Google Now. Tweak the information (such as location and time) and save the event.

Get more information on news stories
If you keep seeing the same story pop up in your news feeds and you don’t know the backstory, you can quickly find it with Google Now on Tap, which is surprisingly great and providing some context on different stories, people, events and more.

Check package tracking
Google Now will automatically track packages for you as it finds valid tracking numbers in your inbox. However, if you’re viewing a tracking number on a website or a friend sends you a tracking number in a chat, you can quickly track the package without having to copy and paste the tracking number. Instead, just summon Google Now on Tap and tap Track [carrier] Package.

Search for product reviews
Amazon product reviews aren’t always the most reliable or trustworthy writings. Often, old Amazon listings get repurposed for new (and sometimes completely unrelated) products by the same company. The issue of paid or incentivized reviews also exists, and some reviews just aren’t reliable.

Place dinner reservations
If you’re on the Facebook page of a restaurant, someone mentions it in a chat or you’re on their website but can’t find a way to book a reservation, make sure you have the OpenTable app installed on your Android device and long press on the home button. If the restaurant is available on OpenTable, you can also then jump into booking a reservation from Google Now on Tap.

Source: CNet, Article by Taylor Martin (http://www.cnet.com/how-to/7-helpful-ways-to-use-google-now-on-tap/)

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App Promotion in 2016: The Impact of Earned Media

There are many avenues for driving awareness and acquisition of a new app, all of which can be useful depending on the app itself and its target audience. There are three channels, however, that should be included in the promotion efforts of every app:

  • App Store Optimization
  • Search Engine Optimization
  • Social Integration

While all three of these channels tend to be highly competitive, they share the benefit of being earned media, which is the most trusted form of advertising. This means that performing well in any of these channels will result in a higher level of customer affinity with your app than paid media channels. The affinity achieved through earned media results in more word-of-mouth promotion, both online and offline, multiplying the app’s reach exponentially.

ASO
The concept of app store optimization for a mobile app is similar of search engine optimization for a website. The difference is ASO targets searches performed within app stores while SEO targets searches performed within search engines.

While the concepts of ASO and SEO are similar, there are some tactical differences that must be considered in order to perform.

The first step in app store optimization is knowing how target consumers search within the app stores.  Effective keyword research is dependent upon different technologies that are used for SEO keyword research. There are a number of tools that provide insight into keyword level search volume and competition within the various app stores.

The next step is to optimize the relevant elements of your app. These elements vary slightly among app stores. The app title is the most impactful opportunity for optimization as simply having a keyword included in the app title can improve ranking for that keyword by 10%. This space must be used wisely, however, because the Google Play store only allows for 30 characters in the title. Apple, on the other hand, provides more flexibility with 255 characters available.

Other key elements for keyword optimization include the description and the keywords. Including images and video are also crucial for enticing installations, but do not provide much opportunity for keyword optimization.

ASO also focuses beyond ranking in app store searches to ranking within categories in the app stores. Categories provide users with a popular directory-style functionality for discovering apps. Unlike web directories, however, people use app categories. It is important to have strong performance in app store search as well as a paid promotion plan to drive those installations and ratings.

SEO
With app content becoming more and more ingrained in search engine results, SEO is no longer just about websites. The trend began with app indexing, which allowed content within an app to be crawled and indexed by search engines and has evolved to include the ability to install an app using a button directly placed in search engine results.

With the integration of app content into search results also comes new ways to track data. Google Search Console has recently become available for apps, providing troubleshooting and search performance data such as impressions and clicks at the keyword level. This is also a must have for properly setting up and testing app indexing.

App Indexing
For in-app content to display in search engine results, the app content must be indexable with deep linking added.
An added benefit of app indexing is that app pages appear more prominently in mobile search results than mobile webpages, with the app logo embedded in the snippet.

Install Button
SEO provides additional opportunities to promote an app by including an app install button directly in search results. If your app is available in the Google Play store, then proper app indexing and search engine optimization is even more impactful with the integration of the install button in mobile search engine results.
Google Search Console also reports on how many times the install button was clicked within search engine results.

Social Integration
An app needs to have a presence in the major social media platforms, but social promotion goes far beyond the app having its own Twitter handle. The beauty of social media for advertisers is that it does not necessarily require a substantial budget to build a powerful method of driving app installations. Anyone promoting an app can leverage social media to some extent.

Although, despite not needing a huge budget, effectively promoting an app via social media does require a comprehensive strategy and strong follow-through. This larger social media strategy is composed of sub-strategies for each relevant platform.

The first step is knowing which social channels are most used by your target audience and what types of content they interact with. This, of course, will inform which networks to focus efforts on.

It is also crucial to a social promotion campaign to leverage app users after they have installed the app to help with promotion. Integrating social media into the app to allow users to post directly to social media from the app can significantly expand the social reach.

Offer incentives to existing and potential app users for sharing the app. Incentives tied to app functions are best because they do not cost anything and also lead to further engagement with the app, therefore leading to more monetization opportunities. Examples of these types of incentives include additional levels in games, unlocking of new content, and offering a premium version of the app free for a set time.

Social influence adds another layer to earned media via social. Networks such as Grapevine Global have emerged as a way to connect advertisers with social influencers that would be willing to promote their offer. According to Quirk’s Marketing Research Review, word-of-mouth is the #1 purchase influencer among millennials. Receiving an endorsement from those with a strong following among the target consumer base can expose an app to a highly captive audience.

Of course, there are many paid promotion strategies that should be considered when marketing a new app. In any case, however, the earned media channels of ASO, SEO, and social media should be part of the app promotion.

Source: Search Engine Journal, Article by Marc Purtell (https://www.searchenginejournal.com/app-promotion-2016-impact-earned-media/163114/)

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