Computers Are Supposed to Help Us Solve Our Problems

August 7, 2018 · 10:08

Sameer Samat details the new Android Pie on Google’s blog:

The latest release of Android is here! And it comes with a heaping helping of artificial intelligence baked in to make your phone smarter, simpler and more tailored to you. Today we’re officially introducing Android 9 Pie […]

I wanted to comment on two of the new features…

That’s why Android 9 comes with features like […] Adaptive Brightness, which learns how you like to set the brightness in different settings, and does it for you.

I have been using iPhones and iPads since 2008, and always relied on Automatic Brightness. I don’t know what Apple did, but I never had an Android phone which handled this function, as well as iOS does — I’ve always had stuttering or sudden brightness shifts, including flickering while it’s been adjusted. All this on many flagship phones, including older Nexus devices and more recent ones like the Galaxy S8.

At-a-Glance on Always-on-Display: See things like calendar events and weather on your Lock Screen and Always-on Display.

I have always found it curious that Apple chose not to use the Lock Screen in a more productive fashion (widgets do not count). Just weather information could be easily included and it’s something I miss every day. And since we have a OLED screen on the iPhone X, that could be taken advantage of even further. Burn-in could present a problem and perhaps that is why Apple isn’t in on this, but I can imagine a scenario where one tap on a screen shows upcoming calendar events and the weather, while two taps wake the screen.


Computers are (partly) supposed to help us solve our problems. This isn’t being pursued as I had hoped it would be. We’re 11 years in and iOS still can’t do things that my simple Nokia could, such as setting it to Do Not Disturb mode for a precisely set amount of time. iOS 12 will introduce a few new features that help in this regard but there’s so much more that could be done. My iPhone know’s my daily schedule and how I use it — it should adapt automatically. When I walk into the gym, it should suggest launching Overcast and Workouts (on my Apple Watch). When I leave, it should suggest that I text my wife, informing her that I am on my way and share my ETA. When I get into my car in the parking lot beneath the gym, it should launch Waze and guide me to where she is. I do this every single day and I should not have to manually repeat these steps every time — the OS should have learned by now. It has my location, it knows my routine; it should help automate repetitive tasks automatically.


Problems With Gmail’s “Confidential Mode” →

August 2, 2018 · 09:50

Gennie Gebhart and Cory Doctorow, for the EFF:

While many of its features sound promising, what “Confidential Mode” provides isn’t confidentiality. At best, the new mode might create expectations that it fails to meet around security and privacy in Gmail. We fear that Confidential Mode will make it less likely for users to find and use other, more secure communication alternatives. And at worst, Confidential Mode will push users further into Google’s own walled garden while giving them what we believe are misleading assurances of privacy and security […]

Ultimately, for the reasons we outlined above, in EFF’s opinion calling this new Gmail mode “confidential” is misleading. There is nothing confidential about unencrypted email in general and about Gmail’s new “Confidential Mode” in particular. While the new mode might make sense in narrow enterprise or company settings, it lacks the privacy guarantees and features to be considered a reliable secure communications option for most users.

The one thing I trust Google with is their uncanny ability to try to create an illusion of privacy and security, while in reality doing the exact opposite.


Google Is Quietly Working on a Successor to Android — Project Fuchsia →

July 20, 2018 · 12:05

Mark Bergen, for Bloomberg:

For more than two years, a small and stealthy group of engineers within Google has been working on software that they hope will eventually replace Android, the world’s dominant mobile operating system. As the team grows, it will have to overcome some fierce internal debate about how the software will work […]

The company must also settle some internal feuds. Some of the principles that Fuchsia creators are pursuing have already run up against Google’s business model. Google’s ads business relies on an ability to target users based on their location and activity, and Fuchsia’s nascent privacy features would, if implemented, hamstring this important business. There’s already been at least one clash between advertising and engineering over security and privacy features of the fledgling operating system, according to a person familiar with the matter. The ad team prevailed, this person said.

This sounds very disappointing. I really hope they decide to change course and focus on security and privacy instead.


Google’s Duplex Phone AI Feels Revolutionary →

June 28, 2018 · 11:54

Ron Amadeo, for Ars Technica:

Duplex patiently waited for me to awkwardly stumble through my first ever table reservation while I sloppily wrote down the time and fumbled through a basic back and forth about Google’s reservation for four people at 7pm on Thursday. Today’s Google Assistant requires authoritative, direct, perfect speech in order to process a command. But Duplex handled my clumsy, distracted communication with the casual disinterest of a real person. It waited for me to write down its reservation requirements, and when I asked Duplex to repeat things I didn’t catch the first time (“A reservation at what time?”), it did so without incident. When I told this robocaller the initial time it wanted wasn’t available, it started negotiating times; it offered an acceptable time range and asked for a reservation somewhere in that time slot. I offered seven o’clock and Google accepted.

From the human end, Duplex’s voice is absolutely stunning over the phone. It sounds real most of the time, nailing most of the prosodic features of human speech during normal talking. The bot “ums” and “uhs” when it has to recall something a human might have to think about for a minute. It gives affirmative “mmhmms” if you tell it to hold on a minute. Everything flows together smoothly, making it sound like something a generation better than the current Google Assistant voice.

So Google’s demo at I/O 2018 was partly staged. The journalists invited to test it out were not able to speak directly to Google Assistant but had to have an engineer enter their data manually. I assume that that last integration will be one of the easier parts of the project, which as a whole is extremely impressive. It will need to me more accurate though, so Google won’t need people to oversee the calls themselves — Google says it currently handles 8 out of 10 calls without the need for human intervention.

Other reports about Google Duplex from the past day or so:


Google and HTTP →

May 29, 2018 · 13:00

Dave Winer:

I’ve been writing about Google’s efforts to deprecate HTTP, the protocol of the web. This is a summary of why I am opposed to it.

This isn’t their first attempt and it won’t be their last foray into trying to influence the internet, but hopefully it won’t affect us as much as it could, especially since we do have alternatives to Google Search and Chrome.


Say Hello to Google One →

May 15, 2018 · 10:55

Frederic Lardinois, for TechCrunch:

Google is revamping its consumer storage plans today by adding a new $2.99/month tier for 200 GB of storage and dropping the price of its 2 TB plan from $19.99/month to $9.99/month (and dropping the $9.99/month 1 TB plan). It’s also rebranding these storage plans (but not Google Drive itself) as “Google One.”

Since they’re not only consolidating their storage plans under the “Google One” slogan, will this be updated in the future to include subscription services such as YouTube Red? If yes, then will users be able to select which services they want, to customise the plan (and price) to their needs or will Google go down the Amazon Prime route, where many services will just sit unused but will still be paid for?


Google Has More of Your Personal Data Than Facebook →

April 23, 2018 · 11:04

Christopher Mims, for The Washington Post:

As justifiable as the focus on Facebook has been, though, it isn’t the full picture. If the concern is that companies might be collecting some personal data without our knowledge or explicit consent, Alphabet’s Google is a far bigger threat by many measures: the volume of information it gathers, the reach of its tracking and the time people spend on its sites and apps […]

It’s likely that Google has shadow profiles on at least as many people as Facebook does, says Chandler Givens, chief executive of TrackOff, which develops software to fight identity theft. Google allows everyone, whether they have a Google account or not, to opt out of its ad targeting. Yet, like Facebook, it continues to gather your data […]

Google also is the biggest enabler of data harvesting, through the world’s two billion active Android mobile devices. Because Google’s Android OS helps companies gather data on us, then Google is also partly to blame when troves of that data are later used improperly, says Woodrow Hartzog, a professor of law and computer science at Northeastern University.

A good example of this is the way Facebook has continuously harvested Android users’ call and text history. Facebook never got this level of access from Apple ’s iPhone, whose operating system is designed to permit less under-the-hood data collection. Android OS often allows apps to request rich data from users without accompanying warnings about how the data might be used.

Meanwhile, we still don’t have the tools or means to protect ourselves from being targeted by Google, Facebook, and others, or to block their tracking practices completely.


Apple Hires Google’s A.I. Chief →

April 4, 2018 · 09:37

Jack Nicas and Cade Metz, for The New York Times:

Apple has hired Google’s chief of search and artificial intelligence, John Giannandrea, a major coup in its bid to catch up to the artificial intelligence technology of its rivals.

Apple said on Tuesday that Mr. Giannandrea will run Apple’s “machine learning and A.I. strategy,” and become one of 16 executives who report directly to Apple’s chief executive, Timothy D. Cook.

Perhaps iPhone-Siri will be able to talk to HomePod-Siri and Apple-TV-Siri next year and be able to control them. Or know how to set more than one timer at the least.


Don’t Use AMP →

January 10, 2018 · 09:33

Malte Ubl:

TL;DR: We are making changes to how AMP works in platforms such as Google Search that will enable linked pages to appear under publishers’ URLs instead of the google.com/amp URL space while maintaining the performance and privacy benefits of AMP Cache serving.

Nothing significant has changed; you still cede content control to Google.

Do not use AMP.


Google Collects Android Users’ Locations Even When Location Services Are Disabled →

December 7, 2017 · 08:27

Keith Collins:

Since the beginning of 2017, Android phones have been collecting the addresses of nearby cellular towers—even when location services are disabled—and sending that data back to Google. The result is that Google, the unit of Alphabet behind Android, has access to data about individuals’ locations and their movements that go far beyond a reasonable consumer expectation of privacy.

Quartz observed the data collection occur and contacted Google, which confirmed the practice.

I wonder what would have happened had they not been caught, and I mean that with all the sarcasm in the world.

What scares me most is that people stopped caring about companies doing things like this. Sure, I care. Maybe even you care. But most people don’t.


The Pixel 2 Has a Custom Google SoC for Image Processing →

October 17, 2017 · 18:20

Ron Amadeo, writing for Ars Technica:

In addition to the usual Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 SoC, the Pixel 2 is equipped with the “Pixel Visual Core,” an extra, second SoC designed by Google with hardware-accelerated image processing in mind. At the heart of the chip is an eight-core Image Processing Unit (IPU) capable of more than three trillion operations per second. Using these IPU cores, Google says the company’s HDR+ image processing can run “5x faster and at less than 1/10th the energy” than it currently does on the main CPU.

The Pixel Visual Core is currently in the Pixel 2, but it doesn’t work yet. Google says it will be enabled with the launch of the Android 8.1 developer preview. At that time, the chip will let third-party apps use the Pixel 2’s HDR+ photo processing, allowing them to produce pictures that look just as good as the native camera app. The chip isn’t just for Google’s current camera algorithms, though. Google says the Pixel Visual Core is designed “to handle the most challenging imaging and machine learning applications” and that the company is “already preparing the next set of applications” designed for the hardware.

Having two entirely separate SoCs inside a smartphone is unusual. The Pixel Visual Core has its own CPU (a single Cortex A53 core to play traffic cop), its own DDR4 RAM, the eight IPU cores, and a PCIe line, presumably as a bus to the rest of the system. Ideally, you would have a single SoC that integrates the IPU right next to that other co-processor, the GPU. The Pixel 2 is based on the Snapdragon 835 SoC, though, and you aren’t allowed to integrate your own custom silicon with Qualcomm’s design. What Google can do is wrap a minimal SoC around its eight IPU cores and then connect that to the main system SoC. If Google ever set out to compete with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon line, an IPU is something it could build directly into its own designs. For now, though, it has this self-contained solution.

I’m willing to bet Google is planning to or already working on their own SoC. Once (and if) it goes to market, I wonder if they’ll be able to compete with Qualcomm and Apple, and how many years it will take them to catch up. Designing your own custom silicon is definitely a huge advantage, one which Apple is currently successfully leveraging over their competitors.


Google Flipped Out →

September 2, 2017 · 10:35

Kashmir Hill:

I was working for Forbes at the time, and was new to my job. In addition to writing and reporting, I helped run social media there, so I got pulled into a meeting with Google salespeople about Google’s then-new social network, Plus.

The Google salespeople were encouraging Forbes to add Plus’s “+1″ social buttons to articles on the site, alongside the Facebook Like button and the Reddit share button. They said it was important to do because the Plus recommendations would be a factor in search results—a crucial source of traffic to publishers.

This sounded like a news story to me. Google’s dominance in search and news give it tremendous power over publishers. By tying search results to the use of Plus, Google was using that muscle to force people to promote its social network.

I asked the Google people if I understood correctly: If a publisher didn’t put a +1 button on the page, its search results would suffer? The answer was yes.

After the meeting, I approached Google’s public relations team as a reporter, told them I’d been in the meeting, and asked if I understood correctly. The press office confirmed it, though they preferred to say the Plus button “influences the ranking.” They didn’t deny what their sales people told me: If you don’t feature the +1 button, your stories will be harder to find with Google.

With that, I published a story headlined, “Stick Google Plus Buttons On Your Pages, Or Your Search Traffic Suffers,” that included bits of conversation from the meeting […]

Google promptly flipped out.

This borders on blackmail, NDA or not.


Google Removes 300 Apps Used to Launch DDoS Attacks From Play Store →

August 29, 2017 · 14:32

Kate Conger, writing for Gizmodo:

Google has removed roughly 300 apps from its Play Store after security researchers from several internet infrastructure companies discovered that the seemingly harmless apps—offering video players and ringtones, among other features—were secretly hijacking Android devices to provide traffic for large-scale distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks.

How many more have yet to be discovered?


Google Will Pay $3 Billion to Remain Top Search Provider on iOS →

August 16, 2017 · 15:11

Luke Dormehl, writing for Cult of Mac:

Google could pay Apple as much as $3 billion this year in order to remain the default search engine on iOS devices, a new report claims.

The claim comes from Bernstein analyst A.M. Sacconaghi Jr. If true, it would represent a sizable increase from the $1 billion that Apple was paid by Google for the same reason back in 2014.

While this is (or would be) a good business decision on Apple’s part, they really should just set DuckDuckGo as the default search engine. The good of the users should come first and DDG is easily good enough for most.


So, About this Googler’s Manifesto →

August 7, 2017 · 10:07

Yonatan Zunger:

I’m writing this here, in this message, because I’m no longer at the company and can say this sort of thing openly. But I want to make it very clear: if you were in my reporting chain, all of part (3) would have been replaced with a short “this is not acceptable” and maybe that last paragraph above. You would have heard part (3) in a much smaller meeting, including you, me, your manager, your HRBP, and someone from legal. And it would have ended with you being escorted from the building by security and told that your personal items will be mailed to you. And the fact that you think this was “all in the name of open discussion,” and don’t realize any of these deeper consequences, makes this worse, not better.


Google Stops Reading Emails For Gmail Ad Personlisation →

June 24, 2017 · 20:21

Diane Greene:

G Suite’s Gmail is already not used as input for ads personalization, and Google has decided to follow suit later this year in our free consumer Gmail service. Consumer Gmail content will not be used or scanned for any ads personalization after this change. This decision brings Gmail ads in line with how we personalize ads for other Google products. Ads shown are based on users’ settings. Users can change those settings at any time, including disabling ads personalization. G Suite will continue to be ad free.

This is a great decision. Surprising, but great. It still doesn’t change the fact, that Gmail’s proprietary implementation makes it terrible to use with third-party email clients, but hopefully this is the beginning of a more privacy-focused Google. I doubt this, but I can be hopeful, right?


Google Sucks →

June 2, 2017 · 11:14

Google update on the Nik Collection:

The Nik Collection is free and compatible with Mac OS X 10.7 through 10.10; Windows Vista, 7, 8; and Adobe Photoshop through CC 2015. We have no plans to update the Collection or add new features over time.

I knew this would happen. This is fucking unacceptable. There’s also a petition going, if you want to try to save it.


Google’s Proprietary Fork of HTML Is Taking Over the Open Web →

May 22, 2017 · 08:14

Nick Heer:

Consider this: Google owns the most popular search engine and the biggest video hosting platform in most countries, operates one of the most-used email services on Earth,1 has the greatest market share of any mobile operating system, makes the most popular web browser in many countries, serves the majority of the targeted advertising on the web, provides the most popular analytics software for websites, and is attempting to become a major internet service provider. And, to cap it all off, they’re subtly replacing HTML with their own version, and it requires a Google-hosted JavaScript file to correctly display.


Google Plans Ad-Blocking Feature in Chrome Browser →

April 20, 2017 · 13:54

Jack Marshall:

Alphabet Inc.’s Google is planning to introduce an ad-blocking feature in the mobile and desktop versions of its popular Chrome web browser, according to people familiar with the company’s plans.

The ad-blocking feature, which could be switched on by default within Chrome, would filter out certain online ad types deemed to provide bad experiences for users as they move around the web.

Google could announce the feature within weeks, but it is still ironing out specific details and still could decide not to move ahead with the plan, the people said.

I wish this meant that they would block their own ads, which I find incredibly offensive. Especially aesthetically.


‘Nexus’ Brand Will Be Replaced by ‘Pixel’ and ‘Pixel XL’ →

September 2, 2016 · 08:46

Edgar Cervantes:

Recent rumors have been suggesting the Search Giant plans to end the Nexus legacy, altering the naming scheme. The murmurs were vague and hard to wrap our heads around, but now a couple sources are claiming this is true… and that the next Google phones will be branded under the Pixel series.

To be more specific, these sources claim Google’s new handsets will be named Pixel and Pixel XL. Both are independent and one of them seems to have a great track record of information. The guys over at Android Police swear by them and multiple publications have said similar things now, so there’s a good chance of accuracy here.

As for these phones, the standard Pixel is said to be the 5-inch version, which has been so far code named as Sailfish. On the other hand, the Pixel XL is said to be the 5.5-inch Marlin.

I prefer ‘Nexus’, but ‘Pixel’ seems OK. No idea why they would do this though — Nexus has been a brand for years now and is hard to mistake for anything else.


Lack of Android Updates — Enough Blame to Go Around →

September 1, 2016 · 08:11

Andrew Cunningham:

After doing some digging and talking to some people, we can say that it will be either very difficult if not completely impossible for any phone that uses Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800 or 801 to get an official, Google-sanctioned Nougat update (including the Z3). And that’s a pretty big deal, since those two chips powered practically every single Android flagship sold from late 2013 until late 2014 and a few more recent devices to boot.

This situation has far-reaching implications for the Android ecosystem. And while it can be tempting to lay the blame at the feet of any one company—Google for creating this update mess in the first place, Qualcomm for failing to support older chipsets, and the phone makers for failing to keep up with new software—it’s really kind of everybody’s fault.

This is such a cluster-fuck. Still.


How to Crack Android Full Disk Encryption on Qualcomm Devices →

July 25, 2016 · 09:39

Mohit Kumar:

Android users are at severe risk when it comes to encryption of their personal and sensitive data.

Android’s full-disk encryption can be cracked much more easily than expected with brute force attack and some patience, affecting potentially hundreds of millions of mobile devices.

And the worst part: There may not be a full fix available for current Android handsets in the market.


The Chrome Distortion: How Chrome Negatively Alters Our Expectations →

March 26, 2016 · 09:29

Chris Thoburn:

Chrome has taught us to idealize features for so long that we’ve become blind to its many glaring faults (…)

I’ve learned the hard way that Chrome is the new IE. I’ve learned that you have to architect an application well from the beginning for it to work well on all platforms. I’ve learned you can ship large ambitious JS apps to mobile, but it takes dedication and experience, and every trick you know to do it well for Android. I’ve learned that Apple loves the web, probably more than Google, and has invested heavily in ensuring we have a high quality platform upon which to build apps.

But most of all, I’ve learned that we’re wasting a ton of effort right now trying to fix Chrome from the outside. We’re dancing around the issue; pretending that universal rendering, service workers, app-shell architecture, and keeping more of our applications on servers (where they don’t belong) is more than just a workaround for how bad Chrome is. Yes, these ideas have uses, merits, and probably are the future; however, our need and love of them right now is because our performance expectations have been badly distorted by the situation Chrome has left us in.


Facebook, Google and WhatsApp Plan to Increase Encryption of User Data →

March 14, 2016 · 20:38

Danny Yadron:

Silicon Valley’s leading companies – including Facebook, Google and Snapchat – are working on their own increased privacy technology as Apple fights the US government over encryption, the Guardian has learned.

The projects could antagonize authorities just as much as Apple’s more secure iPhones, which are currently at the center of the San Bernardino shooting investigation. They also indicate the industry may be willing to back up their public support for Apple with concrete action.

Within weeks, Facebook’s messaging service WhatsApp plans to expand its secure messaging service so that voice calls are also encrypted, in addition to its existing privacy features. The service has some one billion monthly users. Facebook is also considering beefing up security of its own Messenger tool.

Snapchat, the popular ephemeral messaging service, is also working on a secure messaging system and Google is exploring extra uses for the technology behind a long-in-the-works encrypted email project.

At this point in time I would like to see more action from the other tech companies — this is obviously a delicate situation, but too much is at stake.