Company / division: Alphabet
Android is notorious for its poor track record in supporting older devices, but one of the supposed advantages of the old Nexus program and the new Pixel devices was supposed to be solving that issue by removing the carrier and OEM middlemen from the process of OS updates. However, Google has officially stated that the Pixel devices aren’t guaranteed to get further OS updates beyond two years from their launch, while they will receive security patches for another year after that. Given that these are Google’s current and only devices, the idea that someone would buy one today with no guarantee of OS updates after 18 months is a bit much, especially given that average upgrade cycles are lengthening towards three years. Bear in mind, for example, that all iPhones back to the iPhone 5 (now four and a half years old) run iOS 10. For Google to offer such limited upgrade support even on its own devices is baffling and a sign that it’s not yet taking its first party hardware seriously enough. My guess is that these are bare minimum timeframes and that it may end up prolonging support beyond these official dates, but the message it’s sending here isn’t great.
Google Broadens Hate Speech Policies for AdSense (Apr 26, 2017)
★ Google Makes Tweaks to Search to Combat Fake News (Apr 25, 2017)
★ Samsung Uses Google Music as Default Option on Galaxy S8 (Apr 21, 2017)
Google recently got out of the satellite mapping business by selling its Skybox / Terra Bella unit to Planet Labs. That unit had mostly been working on mapping imagery, and Google clearly decided it didn’t need to do that work itself to benefit from the results, and effectively outsourced it. Now two executives from that former team have ended up at Apple, under former Dropcam exec Greg Duffy. Given that Apple has nothing whatsoever to do with satellites today, that raises some interesting questions. While it’s true that Google, Facebook, and others have invested in satellite and other new methods for getting connectivity to remote places, Apple has far less incentive to do so, because its users are typically the kind of well-connected people that can afford premium smartphones and computers, not those in remote emerging markets. And to pursue such a play in a market like the US makes little sense either given how satellite broadband has struggled to compete with wired and wireless services because of limited throughput and high latency (just ask DISH). What makes more sense is some kind of mapping play for better imagery, although even there the same logic that led Google to dump its unit would apply to Apple too. These are certainly intriguing additions to the Apple employee rolls, but I’m not yet convinced that either broadband access or mapping are the explanation here.
★ Ad Standards Consortium Considers Action Against Bad Ads (Apr 21, 2017)
This story puts the recent Google ad blocker story in some useful context. That Google story suggest Google was going to act unilaterally in adding an ad blocker to its Chrome browser to target bad ads, though it would use standards developed by the Coalition for Better Ads as its benchmark. This story suggests the Coalition itself is debating taking a unified stand on bad ads, which would give Google useful cover as a member of a broader group rather than a single company transparently acting in its own interests (especially given that the EU Competition Commissioner has already said she’ll watch what Google does here closely). And as I said in the earlier piece, being part of a group which bans bad ads but allows the ones that generate 90% of its revenue would obviously be good for the top and bottom line at Google. Update: see also this later piece from Bloomberg, which adds some useful additional context and detail.
★ Google Home Now Recognizes Multiple Users by Voice (Apr 20, 2017)
This has been a long time coming – in fact, in just a few weeks it’ll be a year since Google debuted Home at its I/O developer conference and implied that it would have multi-user support, though of course it was missing when the device actually launched in the fall. And that’s been a big limitation of a device that’s supposed to get to know you as an individual. So the fact that Google Home now recognizes distinct users by voice is a big deal, and an important differentiator over Amazon Echo. I’ve just tried it with my unit and although it set up accounts for me and my daughter without problems the app conked out when I tried to add my wife, so the results are mixed (I suspect it may be because my wife’s account is a Google Apps account). It does recognize the two voices we set up and will now serve us up different responses, which is great. One big limitation, though, is that each user has to have a Google account and has to download the Google Home app onto their phone, which means it won’t recognize little kids who don’t have Google accounts. And given that it’s using voice recognition rather than, say, different trigger phrases, I can’t set up separate personal and work accounts. But for those who can use it, the Home will now be a much more useful device, serving up calendar information, music preferences and so on on an individualized basis rather than trying everyone in a home as the same person.
Alphabet’s Verily Launches Baseline Health Study (Apr 19, 2017)
I did a deep dive on Alphabet’s Verily subsidiary a while back for my Beyond Devices Podcast, and also wrote up some of the key themes for Techpinions subscribers here. What I discovered is that Verily, perhaps more than any other Alphabet subsidiary, has been characterized by hubris in trying to solve the world’s problems with technology. Its two most high-profile early initiatives – a glucose monitoring contact lens and a Star Trek-like “tricorder” to check patients’ vitals – both turned out to be vaporware. But at the same time, Verily is doing enough interesting work that it’s managed to secure partnerships with some big names from the traditional pharmaceutical industry (see this chart from my Techpinions piece), and is working with two big research universities on what it calls its Baseline longitudinal health study. It’s that study that’s now kicking off in earnest (and for which the watch Verily announced last week will be used), as the first 10,000 participants come in for their first set of tests and measurements. The Bloomberg article here does a good job characterizing both the current state of Verily and its return to reality after that early hubris, as well as some of the issues that still dog the tech people who run Verily when it comes to privacy and other related issues. It’s very clear that some of the people in charge have very little common sense when it comes to those issues in the healthcare realm, something that’s been a problem for Google too. And of course the biggest problem with the Baseline project is that – as a longitudinal study – it will literally take years for it to deliver meaningful results. There’s nothing wrong with ambition, especially when it comes to solving the world’s big problems, but it has to be grounded in reality and good practices, especially in the healthcare realm.