Archive for the ‘Microsoft’ category

More Dataviz: Microsoft’s “Blews” Project

25, March, 2008

I came across this recent item on Microsoft’s “Blews” dataviz project, still in the lab, which visualizes how news items are linked to from the left- and right-leaning blogosphere–and shows how much “heat” each item generates.

blews.jpg

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Google vs. Microsoft at the Health 2.0 Spring Fling

11, March, 2008

Here’s a reprint (with modifications) of a story of mine that appeared in The Washington Post today. Based on my recent visit to the Health 2.0 “Spring Fling” conference in San Diego, hosted by the brilliant and beautiful Matthew Holt and Indu Subayia, it runsdown what appears to be shaping up between Google and Microsoft in the consumer-PHR-platform space.

I’ll be adding other entries about Health 2.0 products in the coming days and weeks.

Microsoft HealthVault vs. Google Health

By Craig Stoltz, Special to The Washington Post

Personal health records, or PHRs, were the buzz at last week’s Health 2.0 Spring Fling conference in San Diego — especially recent entries by Google and Microsoft that have the rest of the industry energized, focused and at least a little bit frightened.

Bill Reid, director of Microsoft’s HealthVault program, described the effort to integrate information technology into personal health care as a “long journey. We’re just at the front end of the process.” Was this an acknowledgment of the complexity of the task ahead? Or a a shrewd way to reduce expectations about the software giant’s big investment?
Based on the tenor of the Health 2.0 conference–a high-energy gathering of great minds, big ideas and entrepreneurial hustlers–it may be both. In addition to Google and Microsoft, dozens of companies presented online products designed to make U.S. health care smarter, stronger and better looking. There was a plan by a firm called Organized Wisdom to offer online doctor consults at $1.99 per minute, a provider search tool pitched as “the match.com of health care,” and an electronic medical record by a firm called Myca that made you want to bask in the sheer beauty of ear infection data.
Here’s a look at where Microsoft’s and Google’s personal health record programs are now and where they may be headed.
What Microsoft HealthVault and Google Health have in common:

* Both companies claim the same ultimate goals: To create integrated online environments where you can create and store your personal records, get information, find doctors, make medical appointments, communicate online, manage medications, share information with providers and more. Oh, and with Microsoft and Google, there’s always that other goal: to dominate the world.

* Both put users in control over what goes into the record and who has access to it. If there’s something you’d rather not share with your employer, insurance company or anyone else, leave it out.

* Both are free Web-based services, meaning you can access the records without cost from any computer. The services are described as being as secure as online banking. Both companies pledge not to share your information without your explicit permission.

* Both offer tailored searches that promise to filter out garbage and surface the gold.

Microsoft HealthVault:

Debut: October 2007.

The story so far: Microsoft has assembled a list of companies that make products (glucometers, blood pressure monitors) or offer services (software that pulls in data from labs, hospitals, etc.) compatible with HealthVault. Use one of them, and data from the lab or your home blood pressure cuff automatically gets sucked into your HealthVault PHR. If you aren’t using one of these products or services, though, the only way to create your record now is by uploading existing documents — a recent page of bloodwork results, say — from your computer.

Follow the money: Microsoft plans to make money by placing ads next to HealthVault search results. As with any search, some are text ads generated by keywords. Some are interactive ads promoting HeathVault-compatible devices or services. Some offer related books and products from Amazon. Anyone can use the HealthVault search, but if you want to save your results privately (a nice feature), you’ll need to sign up for a free HealthVault account.

Curious observation: HealthVault’s search results are sometimes riddled with information from interested sources (supplement makers!?!) and below-gold-standard publishers. Do I really need a tailored, secure search to find a Wikipedia article on arthritis?

Google Health

Unveiled: February 2008.

The story so far: The first live-action test of Google’s PHR is a pilot project with Cleveland Clinic launched last month and expected to run six to eight weeks. Screen shots of the service suggest people can create their own PHRs via simple forms with check boxes and pull-down menus. Like Microsoft, Google plans to offer the ability to automatically pull in data (for example, X-rays and readouts from a pedometer) from devices, services and health-care providers. Google is encouraging use of open technology standards that will let the health world’s many different information systems talk to each other easily.

Follow the money: Google doesn’t rule out the possibility of selling ads alongside search results or other Google Health services but says it has no current plans to do so.

Next steps: After the Cleveland Clinic pilot, Google says it will digest what it has learned and move toward launch. No date is set.

Curious observation: So why would Google take on such a big, difficult project — creating complex data exchange systems and storing all that personal information — if there’s no way to make money? Data show more than 70 percent of people seeking health-care information turn first to Google. A strong personal health dashboard linked to other Google services, including its cash-cow search business, can make sure those health-seekers stay with Google rather than with the competition. Like Microsoft, for instance.

The Coming Google Boycott?

1, November, 2007

There have been attempts to boycott Google over the years. I sense a much larger, diffuse but potentially powerful one is on the way.

In previous boycott action:

  • In 2003 the company was accused of complicity with the National Security Agency in its attempts at citizen surveillance; boycotts were organized. And almost whooly ineffective.
  • In 2006 its decision to “censor” [whether that term really applies is open to debate] its search results at the direction of the Chinese government drew equally ineffective boycott attempts.
  • Along the way other purported sins–among them Antisemitism and mistreatment of Adwords customers–have prompted the B-word.

But these are issue-driven boycotts. I’m wondering whether something bigger, a sort of ABG (Anything But Google) moment is upon us.

When Brother Google declined to outbid Microsoft for a share in Facebook, some interpreted it as a sign that Google will build up its own largely-ignored-in-the-U.S. social networking site, Orkut. [It is also apparently going to create open standards for social community applications, to force Facebook and MySpace, et al. to open up their users to the larger Web.]

But if Google plans to compete for users in the social networking space with its own brand–at the same time it attempts to insert itself in the middle of the mobile phone market, and place itself in the center of personal health care with Google Health, and plow ahead with a big, potentially anticompetitive merger over tough industry and government scrutiny–the Mountain View juggernaut may hit a tripwire. Add the $700 per share stock price and it could hit a wall.

I sense, in tinny noise from the blogosphere and in the grumbles of civilians I know who like to kvetch about their dealings with personal technology, an accumulating resistance to Google hegemony. It’s awfully similar to what happened to Microsoft when developers, state attorneys general, the federal government, business users, IT managers and consumers all began, for different reasons, to oppose the Redmond colossus.

This led such things as traction for open source software, Linux, software-as-service, competition in the IT backend market, the rise of Firefox–in short, to humbling Ballmer & Co. a bit. From my viewpoint, the world has become a better place for it.

And now, my ear-to-the-rail picks up vibes that it’s Google’s turn, with consumers and businesses alike moving to an Anybody But Google phase. Not just for reasons of fears about privacy and company bigfooting, but simply because there’s a growing sense that as it has grown the Don’t Be Evil crowd has lost the capacity to live by its own motto.

I’m not organizing or advocating a boycott. And Lord knows nobody’s search engine is about to topple Google from that pinnacle, Ask.com’s funny but sadly desperate TV ads notwithstanding. But I feel a big ABG phase is about to begin.

I, for one, plan to make strictly ABG decisions about my cell phone.

For as long as I can hold out.

Google Health: Your Interest or Self-Interest?

29, August, 2007

Like its fellow Brobdingnagian competitor Microsoft, Google has plans to enter the world of personal health in–no surprise here–a big way.

Both firms plan to offer medical records, improved health search and other features designed to profitably entangle health consumers in the management of their personal health care. They’ll join the long-established pack leader WebMD, the deep-pocketed Revolution Health* and at least half a dozen other legit contenders for some market share of health consumers.

There are screen shots floating around of alpha versions of Google’s personal health record tools. You can preview a beta of Microsoft’s new health search on the Health and Fitness channel on msn.com.

But I was playing around with Google’s new health search the other day and was struck by a wave of nausea. 

Put “depression” in the Search Engine of First Resort and you’ll see (firstly) a couple of Adwords purchases stripped across the top of the results, then a second horizontal strip of links, which are choices by which you can filter your search further (i.e., Treatment, From Medical Authorities, Alternative Medicine). All of the following results are said to come from what are called Google co-op partners, described as trusted sources of health information. This appears to be true.

But if you do not click on one of those filters, you get Google’s organic results. And the first result when I put “depression” in the search engine was  depression.com, a site devoted to the deadly disease sponsored by. . . GlaxoSmithKline, maker of the depression drug Wellbutrin. Depression.com describes the disease and lists treatments that include talk therapy and, of course, medication.

The only medication the site acknowledges is Wellbutrin. Not Prozac. Not Paxil, not Zoloft or any of the newer drugs. It mentions electroconvulsive therapy, for god’s sake, but not Prozac.

This creates a potentially terribly misleading scenario. A user–aware that Google has a new health-related search method that filters out the heavily SEO’d, popularity-based claptraps that a Google search often produces–in good faith does a search on a disease name and gets results topped by one of the heavily SEO’d, popularity-based claptraps the new search is supposed to filter out.

To filter out commercially self-interested sites, a user has to click on one of the search-narrowing terms like “treatments.” 

To be fair, that top listing for depression.com is not purchased by GSK. They earned their top listing the old fashioned way, which is to say buying the best keyword url and then SEOing the hell out of the site.

Google may defend the practice of holding back its list of filtered, trusted sites until a user clicks to narrow the search.

But assuming at some point Google will promote its “health information from trusted partners” search results when it debuts its full health service next year, I believe it’s a misleading practice that should be changed by launch.

It also raises the big question posed by Google’s entry into the personal health space: Will users be able to trust a company whose economic engine is fueled by delivering economically self-interested advertising to users–and whose practice is to deliver popularity-based, SEO’d results in response to searches–to provide disinterested information on personal health? 

I don’t know the answer to that. But so far, the Mountain View collossus seems to be in danger of putting misleading information in front of some very vulnerable consumers who are looking for a credible source of information on a very serious matter.

It’s too early to call that sick. But not to consider it an early warning sign worth monitoring. 

Microsoft: Finding a Vertical Search Breakthrough

18, July, 2007

With all the talk lately about Microsoft’s search plays–the shrewdly coercive debut of its Windows Live Search service, and its Ask.com partnership/talent raid–a new feature in MS’s search portfolio has quietly surfaced in beta form. It looks good.

In February our friends in Redmond purchased Medstory, a search engine serving the health vertical. [This is all part of the company’s plan to enter the enterprise and consumer health spaces in a big way, summarized nicely in this blog entry by ZDnet’s Mary Jo Foley.] The first public display of MS’s deployment of this technology now appears on MSN’s Health and Fitness pages.

Quick tour: From the Health and Fitness home, search for your favorite condition, treatment or disease (scoliosis, let’s say). At the top of the results you’ll find something called a “dashboard,” a graphical arrangement of results within key subtopics (“Diseases and Conditions,” “Tests and Procedures” and so forth).

Each item in that category is represented by a bargraph-style bar indicating its relevance (“spinal fusion” tops the “Tests and Procedures” subtopic, for instance).

Click on that and you get a vetted list of relevant results from credible sources. First result in the case I’ve described: a Healthwise link to “spinal fusion for scoliosis.” Results can be further filtered by source (Harvard, Mayo Clinic, Runner’s World (!), etc.)

I’m fairly familiar with health vertical, from my time toiling in the inkfields of The Washington Post health section and the digital dairy at Revolution Health. That said, a few observations:

  • The dashboard graphic is powerful, probably the most-instantly “gettable” method of arranging results  I’ve seen, certainly in the health space and (I think) anywhere in searchland.
  • The results at this point are thin–the algorithms have not digested enough quality health information providers to offer even a screenful of choice for many “long tail” conditions. [It does fine with heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer, etc.]
  • The popup triggered when you choose a 3rd-level result (spinal fusion, in the example above) is annoying as hell, since it makes you choose between “scoliosis and spinal fusion” or just “spinal fusion.” If I were taking this out of beta, I’d eliminate the popup and drive the user right to results for “sciolosis and spinal fusion,” putting “search spinal fusion alone” as an option above the results. 
  • Graphically, the closest competitor in the health space is Healthline, a well-machined engine that presents results in a wicked-cool “HealthMap,” which presents results via a kind of knowledge tree. 
  • Brother Google in the health space offers something similar to the MSN/Medstory narrow-your-search gambit, but in its Googleish manner offers only a top-of-screen layer of wordlinks to do the narrowing. But Google’s results are topped with often instructive images and the results are richer. [With one knock-you-back-on-your-heels exception: It’s first link results under “scoliosis” comes from–I am not making this up–Wikipedia. Google health squad, code blue!]
  • Then there’s WebMD’s weak-pulsed search, a product of the wayback machine with some search-narrowing tool add-ons. Unless the 650-pound gorilla in the health consumer space has something extraordinary in development, they may find themselves in trouble.

With vertical search all the rage among the geekocracy and VCs alike, the MSN/Medstory tool is worth a look. At this point, though, I’d still use Google to find stuff on scoliosis. But our friends in Redmond are used to playing catch-up. Sometimes they succeed, even in a truly competetive space.