Company / division: Google
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
If you’re a parent of kids under 13, you’ve likely encountered the COPPA law, even if you might not know it by that name, because your kids will have found it impossible to sign up for an online service or account without either lying about their age or going through a very involved process. As a result, I suspect many kids either do lie about their age (perhaps with their parents’ support) or piggyback off a parent’s account, neither of which is ideal. Google now has a service that lets kids legitimately sign up for their own account even if they’re under 13, as part of a family account tightly controlled and supervised by parents. That feels like a great solution, and it looks like these accounts can effectively graduate when the kids reach an appropriate age. I wish more companies would think about how to help parents help their kids use technology, and this feels like a good step. Of course, this does mean that Google is now capturing information about your kids for a future profile, even if that data collection is limited in unspecified ways.
The timing of this new data from eMarketer is perfect, because I just wrote a piece for Techpinions subscribers today about the battle for third place in online advertising. The reality is that Facebook and Google have been dominant for some time in this space and that shows very little sign of changing. As I argued in my piece this morning, some of the big Chinese names are actually the strongest contenders for third place on a global basis, but they mostly operate only in China, so it’s largely other US companies which are competing in the rest of the world, and they’re all pretty small in comparison to the big two. Between them, Google and Facebook appear to have search and display advertising pretty well sown up, with only the crumbs left for other players, who largely have to compete among themselves rather than having any prospect of taking meaningful share from the big two. As I also pointed out this morning, though Snapchat gets lots of attention, it’s currently behind even Amazon, let alone other bigger names like Microsoft and Yahoo, and will have to wait years to break into the top five. Meanwhile, Twitter is a cautionary tale about even once promising companies stalling before they reach their perceived potential.
Apple Joins Group of Companies Supporting Google in Foreign Email Privacy Case – Mac Rumors (Mar 14, 2017)
Given the way other big tech companies had weighed in on the related Microsoft case over the past few years, it was a little odd that more hadn’t sprung to Google’s defense in this one, but it’s good to see that they are now doing so. These cases have far-reaching consequences not just for user privacy but for the ability of US companies to do business in overseas markets, and those companies need to defend themselves vigorously. The final outcome of both cases is therefore worth watching closely.
via Mac Rumors
Now that I’ve finally got around to writing this up, it appears Google has patched the specific issue highlighted in this piece, but it’s still worth talking about for a couple of different reasons. For one, anytime you bring a virtual assistant into an existing conversation between two or more human beings, there’s a tension between the bot knowing as much as possible about each participant and using that to be helpful on the one hand, and avoiding exposing personal information about the participants on the other. Google appears to have screwed that up here in a way that could have been damaging or embarrassing for users, though it has now been patched. Secondly, this kind of thing can only happen when you collect and keep enormous amounts of data on your users in the first place – a company that neither collects nor retains such data in a profile could never expose it. It’s clear that Google didn’t intentionally do so here, but it was able to do so anyway because of its business model. Competitors such as Apple might argue that not collecting such data, or keeping it secured on a device rather than in the cloud, would make it impossible for a cloud service to share it with others. We’re going to have to work through lots more of these scenarios in the years to come, and the competition between companies that strictly preserve privacy and those that use personal data to improve services will be a critical facet of that evolution.
I linked to reviews of Android Wear 2.0 and the LG watches that launched at the same time a few weeks ago, and those were pretty negative. Now, here we have another entry from a major Android vendor and it seems to be at least as bad as LG’s. At this point, it feels like some Android vendors have given up on the platform entirely, while others seem to have given up trying to make a smartwatch competitive with the Apple Watch but are still putting what they do have out into the market. None of this is going to help Android Wear or smartwatches in general. I’ve said before that I think it will take a Pixel-style first party entry from Google to give this platform the boost it needs, because for now Android Wear continues to be more or less irrelevant in the smartwatch and broader wearable market. Even if Google does get into this market directly, however, it continues to be far smaller and narrower than many people originally thought, and it’s currently dominated by Apple.
via Android Central
Uptime is a goofy video sharing app from Google’s Area 120 startup incubator – The Verge (Mar 13, 2017)
Google was once famous for the 20% time it gave its employees to work on passion projects, but then word started to spread that this wasn’t really happening anymore. And then last year Google announced the creation of an incubator for employees’ projects, which seemed to be trying to resurrect the spirit of 20% time if not the details. The first app from that incubator just launched, and it’s a co-watching app for YouTube videos. On the one hand, there’s an obvious fit with an existing product at Google, which is a good thing, and on the other it’s not clear why the YouTube team didn’t build this. I’m not sure what value is added by having this be a separate app that doesn’t carry any Google branding (even in the App Store, it’s listed as being offered by Area 120, the name of Google’s incubator). If the main purpose of Area 120 is to keep entrepreneurial employees onboard, then perhaps this will serve its purpose, but on the evidence of this first app, I’m not sure it’s going to lead to anything all that compelling. Having tested the app briefly, the overwhelming impression I was left with was that it was incredibly privacy-invasive – it kept prompting or reminding me that everything I was doing would be shared with friends and/or publicly available.
via The Verge
CIA Leak Reveals Gaps in Patchwork of Android Software – WSJ (Mar 11, 2017)
The CIA leak taught us nothing new about the slow rate of Android adoption, but it did perhaps serve as a reminder of its consequences for security. Android adoption is notoriously slow, and it’s something I’ve written about quite bit (see here for my most recent deep dive into the numbers). It takes roughly two years on average for a new version of Android to reach 50% adoption among the base, and no version ever gets above about 40% adoption before a new version begins eating into its share. Compare that to iOS, which typically gets to about 70% adoption within a few months of release, and whose two most recent versions usually account for over 90% of the total base. In the past, this was very problematic, because it meant security vulnerabilities weren’t patched and users were left open to hacks and malware. However, more recently Google and its partners have separated some of the security patches from major OS updates and fast tracked these through a separate update process with the carriers. It’s not a universal solution, but it has helped mitigate some of the security impacts that result from slow OS updates. However, Android in general continues to be far more vulnerable to malware than iOS both because of the slow update issue and because of its overall architecture.
More announcements today from Google’s big Cloud event, with today’s focus being more on the end user tools rather than the infrastructure ones covered yesterday. The big news is that Hangouts is getting a bit more sophisticated, with a more fleshed out version of the meetings app now called Hangouts Meet and becoming a bit more like WebEx, and a second feature set which basically mimics Slack under the Hangouts Chat banner. Google is definitely getting stronger in some of these areas on the enterprise, although it’s surprising to me that we haven’t seen some of this stuff much sooner – Google has been using a version of Hangouts internally for years for its meetings, and I would have thought we’d have seen these more optimized tools long before now. But it’s getting there, and it’s starting to feel like the enterprise side is a lot more logical in its structure and feature set than Google’s consumer messaging and communication apps.
Though the CIA leaks from Wikileaks earlier this week are worrisome in their scope and bad news for the vendors whose devices and platforms have been compromised, there’s at least some comfort in the knowledge that these tools have at least theoretically been subject to due process in the past. However, Wikileaks claims that it has the code for the hacking tools themselves and is debating releasing that code, which would make it available to any hacker who wanted to use it, dramatically increasing the potential for misuse for hacking regular individuals. Again, Apple has said (and Google also confirmed this evening finally) that most of the vulnerabilities have already been patched in recent versions of their respective software, so that should be some defense. But as I’ve said already this week, what a vindication of Apple’s refusal to cooperate with the FBI a year ago over hacking an iPhone.
via USA Today
Google is having its big enterprise cloud event, Next, this week, and making lots of announcements of both new features and new customers. I got a briefing on the new features on Monday ahead of the announcements, and it looks like a decent set of mostly incremental improvements, many of which are about closing the gap competitively with Amazon and Microsoft and a few of which are more unique. But all the new features and customer wins Google announces won’t change a basic fact outlined well in this WSJ report: Google is way behind the two big players in this space in terms of scale. Even with rapid growth, Google is unlikely to close the gap because both AWS and Azure are growing fast too. Google claims that it’s winning a good share of the engagements it competes for, which then implies that it’s still not being considered for many engagements where Amazon and Microsoft are competing, something that’s also reinforced by a (somewhat self-serving) comment from Microsoft in this article. Its job at this point is, then, to ensure higher consideration when companies are looking for a cloud provider.