Company / division: Alphabet
This is a fascinating little piece on a guy who claims to have technology that would help Google from showing ads on problematic videos and websites, and who has apparently been responsible for raising the issue with reporters. Unfortunately, there’s fairly little evidence of that connection in this article, and I haven’t been able to establish one independently. But it would be striking if a guy trying to sell his technology was behind this crisis for Google and YouTube. None of that is to say that the issues aren’t real, but as we all know none of this is particularly new, so it would help explain why all this has suddenly come to a head now.
Google’s AI Explosion in One Chart – MIT Technology Review (Mar 27, 2017)
One of the big problems with evaluating which company is ahead or behind in a field like AI is that there are few external signals – companies work on a variety of AI projects behind closed doors in their R&D departments, and many of them only surface when they’re built into products and services they bring to market. Some have suggested using patents as a way to measure leadership, and this article cites publication in scientific journals as another. Certainly, Google’s publishing is a sign that there’s lots of work going on, but it also reflects the (deliberately) quasi-academic culture at DeepMind, its big AI acquisition, while Apple is also slowly moving in this direction with regard to AI specifically. Neither patent filings nor academic papers, however, have a direct connection to using AI to provide better products and services, and that remains very difficult to measure.
Google details Talk transition, SMS removal for Hangouts, other G Suite changes – 9to5Google (Mar 24, 2017)
This has been a heck of a long time coming – Google’s various messaging apps have been a confusing mess for ages now, and it’s good to see some rationalization of the portfolio and a bit more clarity about which bits will survive and what they’ll be used for. SMS-style messaging now belongs in the Messages app, which doesn’t have an equivalent on the desktop, while the ages-old Google Talk will finally be retired in favor of Hangouts, which will carry over some but not all of its functionality, with the rest going away. Some users will no doubt be annoyed at some of the lost functionality, but on the whole this should be a good thing for users. Of course, there is still Google Voice, which combines elements of services also found in Hangouts and Messages, so this doesn’t clear things up completely.
This story just keeps going, and in some ways it’s more of the same, but these two pieces are worth calling out specifically. The Bloomberg piece mentions a memo sent to advertisers late this week providing more detail than the blog post on Monday, though sadly the article doesn’t provide many of those details. The Journal piece, meanwhile, provides lots of examples of ads from big brands still showing up next to bad videos, with some of those brands adding their names to the list of boycotters. Importantly, the changes in the memo are supposed to be implemented by Sunday, so if advertisers are happy with the changes, we could see something of a return to normal early next week. As per my Techpinions piece yesterday, I still think that’s something of a long shot, although I argued that none of these brands really want to abandon YouTube or Google permanently, and will likely return to the fold once they extract some concessions over data and analytics. But if those fixes don’t go down well, and there continue to be widespread and easily found examples of ads showing against bad videos, then this could drag on for months.
Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and YouTube are bidding to stream the NFL’s Thursday night games – Recode (Mar 24, 2017)
When Twitter won these rights last time around in their first year as a separate set from television rights, it turned out to be something very different from what many of us expected. Rather than a massive splurge on a very valuable set of rights, it turned out that the winner merely got the right to show the games along with advertising mostly already sold by broadcasters, meaning there was very little additional revenue opportunity, and as such Twitter got the rights for a paltry $10 million. These NFL games have actually been a good fit with Twitter’s overall live strategy, which has mostly been focused on winning audiences rather than lots of new revenue, but it seems others are interested in taking another crack this year. It would obviously fit well with Facebook’s recent push into professionally produced live video, but also with YouTube’s recent investment in e-sports rights and with Amazon’s foray into TV bundles and Twitch video streaming. It’s less of a good fit with Apple’s current focus in the TV space, so it’s not surprising that its name doesn’t appear here. I’ll be very interested to see if the NFL is pitching the same kind of package as last time or whether the winning bidder will have the right to sell more of its own ads this time around.
This seems like a great program from Google aimed at bringing in a more diverse workforce. For all that tech companies like to say they try to be diverse in their hiring, part of the problem is that people from underrepresented groups never apply in the first place, and companies therefore have to proactively reach out to those groups, as Google is doing here. Google is bringing students from Howard University, a historically black college, onto campus in Mountain View to help train black coders. This is on top of existing programs where Google employees spend time at Howard and other historically black universities helping students prep for interviews at Google and so on. Good for Google for doing this.
via USA Today
Google Provides an Update on Android Security (Mar 23, 2017)
This is a year-in-review post from the Android security team, and it’s supposed to be reassuring on the state of Android security. However, there are several fairly worrisome data points in here worth pulling out. Google says 0.71 percent of all Android devices had a “potentially harmful app” installed at the end of 2016, so almost 1% of the roughly 1.5 billion Android devices in use, which amounts to almost 11 million actual devices, and that number has risen rather than fallen in the past year. Secondly, even though Google has been working with carriers and OEMs to push security updates to devices outside the very slow OS upgrade cycle, about half of devices in use at the end of 2016 had not received a platform security update in the previous year. Given how frequently Android exploits are discovered, that’s pretty worrying. On the plus side, Google has reduced installations of malware from the store by around 50% across several categories, which is obviously good news, but the fact that it acknowledges some of the apps installed from the official store still contain malware is a sign that it isn’t doing its verification job well enough.
Netflix still has a huge lead in the streaming wars, but Hulu’s smaller service has loyal users (on TV sets) – Recode (Mar 22, 2017)
I added the parenthetical in the headline because that’s the key caveat here, as the piece itself points out. There’s a great chart in here comparing penetration of TV viewing over WiFi by various services with the average hours spent viewing those services in households that use them, and it highlights Netflix’s dominance as both the most popular and most used service within that narrow viewing category. Hulu does well on time spent too, though with far fewer households, while Amazon Video comes bottom of the four, and YouTube has reasonably high penetration but low time spent (again, on TVs in homes). Obviously, all four services can be viewed outside of homes too, and it’s YouTube in particular would score much higher in a mobile-only comparison. But for the other three services, in-home viewing on a TV is a critical segment of the audience, and it’s worth noting the order on that basis: Netflix first, Hulu second, and Amazon third. Sadly, there’s no traditional content in here for comparison’s sake – much higher percentages take pay TV services in the US than any of these services, and time spent is quite a bit higher too. The full Comscore report (linked below) is well worth reading in its entirety – lots of other interesting data points.
In my first piece about the UK backlash against YouTube by advertisers last week, I said that I saw no reason why the trend shouldn’t spread to the US, because the same issues applied here too. Now we’re starting to see signs that – despite YouTube’s somewhat vague reassurances earlier this week that it would do better – US advertisers are indeed beginning to jump on the bandwagon too. And the first big name is AT&T, one of the biggest advertisers in the US, and that’s likely to lead to more. As I’ve said in previous pieces on this topic, this is a thorny issue for YouTube, which can’t simply remove all ads from more obscure videos. Even its existing standards for which videos are suitable for advertisers are sometimes controversial, as this Guardian piece suggests, so going further down that road is likely to alienate at least some smaller creators, and of course have implications for Google’s revenue as well. At least some financial analysts are already downgrading Alphabet on that basis, and if this continues to snowball I’ve no doubt we’ll see more of that. Update: this story is moving fast: Verizon, Enterprise, and GSK have also joined in.
via USA Today
Google Maps will let you share your location with friends and family for a specific period of time – TechCrunch (Mar 22, 2017)
Location sharing is one of those really thorny privacy issues, and Google has gone back and forth on it over time precisely for this reason. In this case, it’s now opening the feature back up, though now in the Google Maps mobile app, and with some sensible limits, such as time- and person-based sharing. I can see a lot of utility in sharing my location with someone temporarily if we’re planning to meet up or if I’m on my way home and want to share an ETA. On the other hand, sharing that information with friends or family members means sharing it with Google too, and presumably also means your Google Maps app has to be running and tracking your location in the background, which has battery implications. For some people, those will be non-issues, but for others they make it less palatable to use these features. And of course the more openly you share your location (and the more companies track it) the more ways there are for hackers (and law enforcement) to access it too.
This isn’t the worst example yet of an IoT / smart home vulnerability, but it’s bad enough, given that it allows burglars to defeat a security system if they happen to know how. More worrying, it appears the researcher who discovered the vulnerability shared findings with Nest back in October, but Nest didn’t notify customers or push out a patch until now, when it says it has a fix rolling out to customers soon. The more of these devices we have in our homes, the more potential points of vulnerability there will be for hacking of one kind or another, and makers of both systems and ecosystems need to bake really tight security in from the get-go to prevent as many of them as possible.
via The Register
Google releases Android O to developers, promising better battery life and notifications – The Verge (Mar 21, 2017)
There’s an increasing dichotomy between the way the world’s two big mobile operating systems are run. On the one hand, you have Apple, which updates not just iOS but many of the apps that live in it once a year, announcing new versions in the summer at its developer conference and releasing them in the fall to consumers, with smaller updates through the year, and consumer adoption reaching a majority of the base within weeks. On the other, you have Google, which now announces new versions of the OS in a blog post, provides more detail at its developer event, and makes it available to OEMs in the fall, with consumer adoption typically taking a year to reach significant numbers and never reaching a majority of the base for any single version. However, individual apps are now mostly updated separately, making even full releases like the Android O version announced today relatively minor updates, focused on back-end developer features and a handful of consumer-facing features. That’s to some extent an inevitability when Google has so little ability to get new versions out to consumers quickly, but some have argued (with some merit) that Google’s approach actually pushes app-level features out more quickly and more regularly than Apple’s. The focus of this update for consumers is on notifications and battery life, with the former bringing Android’s power management more in line with iOS, while the latter could extend Android’s lead in an area where Apple has been making some mistakes recently. But by far the more interesting and important updates will be happening in individual app updates which will reach users much more quickly.
via The Verge
Last week, there was a blowup in the UK over ads showing up next to videos promoting hate and terrorism, and Google issued an initial response in Europe without promising any specific changes. It’s now talking about the problem on a global basis and getting slightly more specific about how it’ll tackle the problem. Given that the initial post highlighted the challenge of human curation, Google’s promise to do better in policing content is too vague to be reassuring – how will it do this? By hiring thousands more people to check individual videos? Better computer video analysis? On the other hand, it’s finer-grained controls for advertisers and tighter default settings are very much in line with the solutions I proposed last week, but come with other risks. If by default advertisers’ ads won’t show against the long tail of YouTube content, that will dramatically reduce the attractiveness of posting video to YouTube for creators, and revenue for YouTube as well. So the devil is in the detail here, and detail is something this post is incredibly short on. Hopefully we’ll see a lot more specifics as Google works its way through this. There are no easy solutions here though. Update: one other thing worth noting, which I had intended to include earlier but forgot: Google is going to be cracking down on some content not just from an advertising perspective but in terms of what can be posted to YouTube in the first place, which feels like a significant shift.
After years waiting for Google Fiber, KC residents get cancellation e-mails – Ars Technica (Mar 20, 2017)
In some ways, this story is far from surprising – Google has publicly announced a scaling back of its Fiber activities, supposedly in favor of new technologies. However, in theory it’s also still committed to the small number of markets where it’s actually rolled out service, including Kansas City. And indeed a statement towards the end of this piece suggests Google is still rolling out fiber in new areas. What I suspect is happening here is that Google is cherrypicking the most attractive neighborhoods while scaling back on others, just as other providers have done (just in the past two weeks, I’ve commented on stories relating to AT&T and Verizon around this very problem). Selectivity about where to roll out was always a facet of Google’s Fiber strategy, and for every provider who does this that’s based on a calculus on how much rollout will cost, what percentage of households will buy the service, and how much they’ll spend on average. That then leads to a determination about which houses are worth serving based on some pre-determined threshold for profitability over a certain period of time. I’m guessing that what’s happened here is Google has just raised that threshold by another notch, putting some homes that once made the cut out of the running now, hence these cancelations. Which would make it another symbol of increased financial discipline and belt-tightening at Alphabet.
via Ars Technica
This situation in the UK doesn’t seem to be getting much attention here in the US, but it should be, because although the boycott is UK-only for now, the issues at stake aren’t UK-specific at all and could easily spread to other markets. What’s happened is that some UK companies as well as the UK government have become increasingly concerned that their ads on YouTube have been appearing next to some pretty undesirable videos featuring extremism or promoting terrorism, and Google’s tools for avoiding this don’t seem to be doing their jobs. As a result, several companies and the government have now stopped advertising on Google at all as a protest until Google fixes things. A blog post from Google makes clear just how hard it is to police the video on YouTube – 400 hours of video are uploaded every hour, and it stopped ads from showing on 300 million videos last year, which provides some sense of the scale and the impossibility of monitoring all this with human beings alone. Google is never going to be able to police the content itself at sufficient scale and with sufficient accuracy to solve the problem directly. The solution is therefore probably paring back the kinds of videos on which at least certain ads would appear – such as limiting big brand advertising to channels with long histories, large numbers of subscribers, and a good track record. However, it’s likely that many brands would choose to limit themselves to this higher quality material, which in turn would mean the long tail of videos on YouTube might go un-monetized or monetized at a much lower rate, which would have a severe impact on not just creators but YouTube’s financials. Not only could this problem spread to other markets, but Facebook will have to deal with many of the same issues as it ramps up video advertising on its platform.
This feels like something of a slime ball move on Uber’s part on two fronts: firstly, trying to move the court case with Waymo out of open court and behind closed doors; and secondly, essentially trying to push the case off its back and onto Levandowski’s. I had said previously that the course was going to be fascinating for the details it would provide about how Uber developed technologies and how it would defend against what look like fairly solid allegations, but if it gets its wish here we won’t get to see any of that. But I think it’s the attempt to make this a case about an employee rather than the company that seems particularly sleazy – if the allegations are indeed true, then Uber and not Levandowski benefited the most, and making this seem like a dispute between an employee and former employer feels like a total misrepresentation.
via USA Today
LG lures G6 shoppers with a free Google Home – Engadget (Mar 16, 2017)
The LG G6 is one of the first Android phones which will launch with the Google Assistant onboard, so there’s a logic to tying in the Google Home device as an add-on, though this is still a first for Google, which didn’t even bundle the Home with Pixel sales (it did bundle the Daydream View VR device with early sales, however). Promoting the Google Home as a good companion to other Android phones beyond the Pixel is important – both the installed base and future sales of those phones are going to be massively larger than the Pixel, and so most sales will go to these owners (or iPhone owners). This obviously echoes what a number of smartphone vendors have done in the past with other accessories, though usually ones more directly tied to smartphones, like smartwatches.
E-sports are one of the few where the TV and digital rights aren’t sewn up for years to come, and so they’ve become a battleground for big digital players, with Amazon buying Twitch and YouTube now stealing one of its most high-profile, high-quality content deals. This is a big step for YouTube, which has dabbled with various bits of live sports in the past but has never had a really high-profile deal. It’s obviously not going to deliver NFL-like viewing numbers, but it’s a good test of YouTube’s commitment to live video and sports.
Human curation feels like an interesting way to solve a problem with an algorithm, and it’s striking that Google pays 10,000 people to check its search results for quality in the first place. As I’ve said previously, the specific problem with “snippets” in search is better solved by eliminating them for obscure or poorly covered topics, but the issue with false results is certainly broader than just snippets. It sounds like this approach is helping, but it doesn’t feel very scalable.
via USA Today
This feels like an extremely stupid move for Google. Though Google claims this wasn’t an ad, that’s utterly disingenuous, and inserting ads this early in the Google Home lifecycle (if ever) is a huge mistake – this is just the kind of thing that will put people off buying a Google Home, especially because it fits a narrative of Google only being interested in advertising. This is a hardware product, for which users have paid a decent price, and it shouldn’t be playing ads, especially without an opt-out – there is no indication that users would hear ads in any of the marketing material. I just tried my own Google Home to see if it would play this message, but it didn’t, suggesting that Google may have stopped playing the message. If so, good, but it never should have happened in the first place, unless Google wants to kneecap its own product this early in its competition with Amazon’s Echo.
via The Verge