Company / division: Google
Several trade groups representing parties involved in online advertising have sent an open letter to the Coalition for Better Ads (of which they are themselves among the largest members) pushing for faster implementation of self-regulatory moves intended to stave off the threat of browser-based ad blocking. The context here is moves by browser makers – notably Google and Apple – to get tougher on bad ads and cookie-based tracking respectively, both of which threaten the online ad industry. The industry would therefore like to put in place self regulatory measures which have been discussed for some time but not implemented as a way to try to stave off more of this stuff, though the Apple changes have already gone into force and Google’s are likely to do so as well. The online ad industry only has itself to blame for failing to self-regulate sooner and more effectively and thereby maintaining an environment in which such moves by tech companies are deemed necessary. Poor online advertising really serves no-one well in the long term but the industry’s short-termism in allowing it to continue unchecked is now leading to nasty long-term consequences which it is essentially powerless to reverse.
via Marketing Land
Target and Google have announced a nationwide launch of their partnership to offer voice shopping from Target through Google Home (and eventually the Google Assistant on smartphones too). This follows on from Google’s earlier announcement with Walmart, and these partnerships feel very much like a new front in the escalating war between Google and Amazon. This also opens up potential new revenue streams for Google around voice, a medium far harder to monetize through advertising than its traditional businesses, and which Amazon is certainly going to leverage for e-commerce sales. On the other hand, an indirect relationship will make this a little more complex than a single-company solution – customers will have to train the Google Assistant to know which retailer to use for which items if they have several integrations set up. And of course for now shopping is still a minority use case for voice speakers, well down the list of actions people use regularly, though that may change over time.
Google today announced an effort to give a billion dollars to various philanthropic causes aimed at mitigating the effects of technology on jobs and work over the next five years. It has apparently already given away a tenth of that sum over the past few months, with 1% of the total coming in a donation to Goodwill to create educational programs. Much of the money will likely go towards programs which help workers learn new skills which will be more relevant in the future workplace, a worthy and important goal in a world where educational systems are mostly still the same ones designed over a hundred years ago by industrialists looking to train good factory workers. Google and other big tech companies have obviously played a role in creating this change, for better or worse, and so aligning their philanthropic efforts with mitigating its negative effects is a sensible strategy, if nothing else than as a useful PR counterpoint to recent criticism of the company on other fronts. Google joins Microsoft as a big philanthropic spender, with the latter recently announcing a big project to help provide broadband in rural America.
via USA Today
A reviewer at Android Police reports that he discovered the Google Home Mini unit he was testing was recording nearly everything he said while in its vicinity, because the device erroneously thought he was holding down the button which acts as an alternative to its wake word. Google has now pushed a software patch which disables that button entirely for the time being, to ensure that doesn’t happen to others. Given that many people already feel uncomfortable with the idea of an always-listening device in their home, the idea that it could be recording and transmitting to Google’s servers everything that’s being said because of a bug will not instill confidence. This is something of a nightmare scenario for these devices, and the fact that Google turned off a feature of the device to fix it indicates just how seriously it’s taking the issue. Reviews of the Mini have dribbled out here and there and have mostly been positive, while this is the first mention I’ve seen of this issue, but it’s certainly not a great start for the Mini.
via Android Police
Google Acquires Podcast App 60db (Oct 10, 2017)
Business Insider is reporting that Google has acquired a podcasting app called 60db, which specialized in shorter audio segments, among other things. Interestingly, 60db had earlier published a blog post on Medium announcing the acquisition, only to take it down immediately after, though not before it was captured by a publication covering the podcast market. In that post, the company said it was joining Google News, which is an interesting wrinkle given that Google’s current podcasting efforts sit within Google Music and not Google News. That suggests that the podcast app might perhaps complement web-based news with audio news, conceivably as part of Google Home. Podcasts have become a big focus for other companies in the last couple of years after Apple was almost the only big player in the market for a long time, and it still dominates overall listening, in part by virtue of being the only platform with a dedicated podcast app installed on its devices. But Spotify, Amazon, and now Google are all taking the space more seriously, which will mean some meaningful competition for those users who care enough to look for alternatives to the default apps that come with their phones.
via Business Insider
Google has apparently now, like Facebook and Twitter, found at least some spending by actors tied to the Russian government on its platforms, including YouTube and Gmail, and the Washington Post says the amounts spent were in the tens of thousands of dollars. However, the New York Times reports that the actual amount definitely spent by entities connected to the Kremlin was much smaller, at around $4,700, while there is another $53,000 that was spent by Russian entities which have not yet been proven to have a connection to the government. Unlike the money spent on Facebook, of course, ads on Google’s platforms have far less potential to drive viral activity, meaning that the direct reach of the ads was likely much of the total reach, and that amount of money wouldn’t have bought much of that. Google doesn’t seem to have commented on the record about any of this yet, but my guess is that the Times story was pushed by Google PR to provide context on the Post one. But this does draw Google further into the mire that’s already engulfing Facebook and to a lesser extent Twitter, something of which we saw further evidence over the weekend.
Janko Roettgers at Variety has done a great bit of analysis on the impact of the removal of YouTube from the Echo Show on sales and reviews of the devices. What he found is that the sales ranking in Amazon’s bestseller list seems to have fallen significantly over the past week or two. That’s not surprising given that as I said when the news was first announced, YouTube was a somewhat integral part of the value of the device’s screen, and Amazon had far more to lose from the end of the partnership than Google. It’s still not clear what exactly prompted the end of that relationship – right at the end of the Variety piece, there’s a quote from the Google executive who manages its competing Home portfolio there, in which he says the company is still evaluating the speaker-with-screen segment. So that competition may or may not have prompted it, and I’m still inclined to believe that it may have been a tit-for-tat against Amazon for scheduling a big hardware unveiling the week before Google’s own.
Quartz reports that Alphabet’s DeepMind subsidiary, which is still registered as a separate private company in the UK and therefore has to report its own financials, lost $162 million in 2016, on revenues of just $40 million, all of which came from Google. It’s a quirk of accounting that DeepMind is still reporting as a separate company, but it gives some insight into the cost of running such a business, which is focused on cutting-edge AI work, much of which is not ready for direct monetization in revenue generating products. Given that Alphabet as a whole spent over $15 billion on Research and Development in the past year, this is a tiny fraction of the total, and an operation the company can easily afford to keep going along these lines. Much of the losses, incidentally, stem from the $137 million the company spent on staff and related costs, of which I would guess a big chunk is stock-based compensation, which runs at $2 billion per quarter for Alphabet as a whole and $100-150 million per quarter in the Other Bets segment. And of course there are big chunks of Google itself working on AI as it relates to specific products too, so this is far from the scale of Alphabet’s overall investment in AI, which is increasingly filtered into everything Google does.
YouTube has licensed nine of its original shows and movies, which were until now exclusive to its Red subscription service, to a third party in order to generate additional licensing revenue. Two of the great advantages of producing original content are exclusivity and licensing rights, though the two are often somewhat mutually exclusive, but YouTube appears to be playing both sides here, keeping the shows as exclusives for a period of time before broadening availability to develop a content licensing revenue stream too. That’s not a strategy I would ever see most of the other companies developing original content employ in such a windowing approach, but it likely suits YouTube reasonably well given its smaller subscription footprint and the increasing presence of aggregators and others who want to show YouTube content to fans on other platforms like traditional TV, somewhat ironically. But this will also allow YouTube to monetize its content in other geographies where the Red service hasn’t launched, whereas Netflix is now very focused on its near-global presence.
Google has created a pair of machine-learning-powered filters for website owners which will allow them to avoid hosting racy or seedy ads on their sites. Neither of these categories are banned by Google’s policies today, and anyone who’s visited many news sites online has seen the types of manipulative, low-class ads caught by the second set of filters, while the first set will use an algorithm for skin detection to weed out ads tending towards the racier side. This set of moves is on the flip side of the controversy around YouTube and Google’s broader ad platforms earlier this year, when it was the advertiser brands that didn’t want to be associated with undesirable content, while this deals with the opposite problem of undesirable ads showing up next to high-quality content. Both are part of the challenge for Google and other online ad platforms in a highly automated, entirely price-driven system for placing ads, and it’s good to see Google offering site owners some more quality controls, just as it improved controls for advertisers following the boycott earlier this year.
At its Build developer conference earlier this year, Microsoft laid out a vision for an ecosystem that would bridge its first party Windows operating system running on PCs and a variety of software experiences running on the two major mobile platforms, iOS and Android. At the time, it wasn’t entirely clear how that would work, and on iOS in particular there are major barriers to third parties providing deep integration. But it was a novel concept, and intended to offer an alternative to Apple’s hardware-based ecosystem lock-in and Google’s software-and-services-layer lockin by combining some of the best of both while offering more neutrality and flexibility.
Today, Microsoft announced two new mobile products intended to further that vision: a version of its Edge browser for iOS and Android, and an Android launcher that builds on an earlier, subtler effort. The Edge browser offers integration with the PC version, in a manner very similar to what Chrome and Safari already offer when used across platforms. The launcher, meanwhile, takes advantage of Android’s flexibility to integrate third party experiences directly into the operating system and offers some clever integrations for hopping between Android and PC experiences. This is the closest Microsoft is going to come in the near term (or probably ever) to having its own platform on mobile again, though of course it’s absent on iOS. Although Apple obviously offers tight integration between Macs and iPhones, the vast majority of the iPhone base doesn’t own a Mac, and many use PCs for work, school, or in their personal lives, so there’s clearly a need here Apple itself hasn’t worked all that hard to meet. That opportunity is likely even larger on Android, where an even higher portion of the base uses a Windows PC. These are early steps, and they certainly don’t execute on the vision Microsoft laid out at Build in its entirety, but it’s a good start.
Here’s a roundup of some of the smaller announcements Google made today, including the Pixelbook Chromebook, PixelBuds wireless earbuds, and an intriguing AI-powered camera called Google Clips. The Pixelbook is true to the original Pixel Chromebook from Google, which was equally bizarrely positioned as a premium device in a category which is mostly appealing for its low cost. It’s added some hot recent trends like convertibility and a $99 pen, ChromeOS has added Android app support, and Google is debuting its Google Assistant on a laptop here as well. None of that is likely to overcome the inherent funky positioning of a $999-plus Chromebook, and it’ll continue to be a marginal device. That Google should continue to compete here rather than entering the smartwatch market directly feels funny given how much more the Android Wear ecosystem needs first party hardware from Google than ChromeOS does.
The PixelBuds earbuds are in the “neckbud” category rather than the truly cordless earbud category Apple’s AirPods dominate today, and I think that’s fine – I’m wearing BeatsX on a plane as I write this, and continue to like these better than AirPods, and I think this category has a lot of value. The earbuds are priced the same as AirPods, and as with those buds, come with a voice assistant built in, though Google’s big differentiator is real-time language translation, which was successfully demoed on stage. Of course, most of us only rarely (if ever) need such a function, so this is more of a gimmick than a useful feature for now, but it’s a great gimmick.
Lastly, Google’s big surprise at today’s event was one of the last things it unveiled, which is a small standalone camera which is designed to unobtrusively capture pictures and video in the home, powered by AI which will determine when and how to take them. That’s a brand new concept, though it obviously competes to some extent with both Samsung’s Gear 360 line and cameras from the likes of GoPro, whose stock took a big hit today. In reality, of course, this product likely won’t sell in any big numbers because the category doesn’t exist, because it’s priced at $250, and because Google doesn’t have the presence or history in hardware to launch a new category, and it’s best seen – like the real-time translation feature in the PixelBuds – as evidence of Google’s AI chops, and as something which might therefore come to other Google products in time and thereby reach a broader audience.
Google today announced both larger and smaller versions of its Google Home device, while adding software features to its existing hardware, as part of its second generation hardware launch event in San Francisco (see here for my comment on the Pixel 2 smartphones it also announced). It’s a busy time for voice speaker announcements, coming a week after Amazon’s big update of its Echo line, and the same day as Sonos’s voice speaker launch, but we now have a much clearer picture of how the lineups of major vendors will be positioned to finish out the year and going into next year.
Amazon has a pretty mature product line now, but still no direct entry in the premium audio space, a segment it seems willing for now to cede to partners and competitors. Apple is entirely focused on the high end market, with its HomePod priced at $349 and coming in December, while Sonos is trying to find a niche between these two markets with its $200 Sonos One speaker and a neutral approach to voice assistant and music ecosystems. Lastly, we now have Google pursuing a good, better, best strategy like Amazon, but with its best much more focused on premium audio than Amazon’s new Echo Plus, which seems more geared towards smart home support and costs far less.
It’s fascinating to see Google come in above Apple in its pricing for the Google Home Max, at $400, suggesting it’s not going to be dragged down the pricing slide with Amazon but wants to make real margin on its products in the category. Given how much complaining I’ve seen about Apple pricing itself out of the voice speaker market, this new announcement certainly adds an interesting wrinkle. Of course, Google is also providing a cheaper speaker at $50 to compete more directly with the Echo Dot from Amazon, and is smartly focusing there as in its core Google Home product on design which will fit much better (and more subtly) in a home environment. Google should take significantly more share than it did last year with this new range of devices, especially the Mini, and it already took decent share with the first generation products. All in all, this is a great set of announcements from Google that should do pretty well, with the possibility of more to come in the speaker-with-screen segment early next year.
★ Google Announces Pixel 2 Smartphones (Oct 4, 2017)
I’m breaking up Google’s announcements today into several chunks, starting with the Pixel smartphones it revealed here. Much was already known about these new devices, starting with external images and some of the features, but there were some details such as pricing and availability, as well as one or two additional features which were more of a surprise, as well as the marketing and positioning, which is always one of the most important parts of these launches but which doesn’t leak ahead of time. What we got from Google was a pretty confident launch, building on last year’s decent start, and emphasizing even more than last year the software and AI capabilities behind what the phone can do, while de-emphasizing the hardware itself, which got fairly short shrift. That reflects Google’s relative strengths and weaknesses in this space, but it forces it to ignore the big hardware advancements being made in things like dual cameras, 3D depth perception, wireless charging, and so on, which have been themes in other flagship phone launches this year.
Last year’s Pixels suffered from four big challenges: firstly, the phones were competitive but not notably better than other phones on the market in any key ways; secondly, Google’s marketing was handicapped by targeting the iPhone whereas the most likely buyers are existing Android owners; thirdly, devices were in short supply; and lastly, distribution was limited, with just Verizon as a US carrier partner. This year’s phone looks a little stronger relative to the competition, but not enormously so given the big advances from the other major players. From a marketing perspective, we’ll have to wait and see what Google does as the time of launch approaches, but I’m not holding my breath for anything dramatically better or different relative to last year. There was at least one reference to short supply by Google hardware exec Rick Osterloh at today’s event and so I’m guessing it’ll fix that this year. But distribution remains limited to Verizon in the US, which is a baffling choice given how much Google is pouring into this hardware effort – why go to all that fuss and expense in making hardware that three quarters of US smartphone buyers won’t even consider?
All told, I’d expect this year’s phones to sell better than last year’s, but not nearly as much as if they’d launched on all four carriers as they should have. That should leave other premium Android OEMs breathing a big sigh of relief, because it means Pixel 2 won’t even be a consideration for most of their buyers. This marks two straight years of Google making somewhat puzzling strategic choices with regard to the Pixel launch, something I wrote in depth about last year.
YouTube TV Will Advertise During World Series Games (Oct 3, 2017)
Google’s YouTube TV online pay TV streaming service will be a sponsor of this year’s baseball World Series, marking its first big ad push to gain new subscribers. That’s a reflection of the service’s broad reach now that it’s secured rights for local channels and launched in 49 of the 50 largest US markets, covering 2/3 of the US population. But it’s also something of a funny choice given that YouTube still doesn’t have the Turner channels, of which TBS carries the National League playoff games leading up to the World Series, though of course it’s possible that YouTube TV will have added those channels by the time baseball season rolls around again. In general, though, YouTube TV feels like it has very low awareness among cord cutters in general, in part because it has limited its rollout to areas where it can offer local channels, and hasn’t made a ton of noise about launching in new markets. With a big sponsorship like this, that could change, and it could quickly become one of the more popular pay TV streaming services out there, giving existing brands like Sling, DirecTV Now, PlayStation Vue, and others a run for their money.
Facebook, Google, and Twitter Struggle to Contain Fake News in the Wake of Las Vegas Shooting (Oct 3, 2017)
I had this in my list of items to cover yesterday but it was a busy day for other news and I’d already covered a couple of Facebook stories, so I decided to hold it over to today given that it was likely to continue to be newsworthy. This BuzzFeed piece does a good job rounding up some of the issues with Facebook, Google, and Twitter properties in the wake of the awful shooting in Las Vegas on Sunday night. Each of these platforms struggled in some way to filter fake news and uninformed speculation from accurate, reliable, news reporting in the wake of the shooting. Each eventually responded to the issue and fixed things, but not before many people saw (and reported on) some of the early misleading results. And it does feel as though some of the issues they saw were easily avoidable by limiting which sites might be considered legitimate sources of news ahead of time, or at the very least requiring new sites claiming to break news to pass some sort of human review before being cited. Normally, I’d say this would blow over quickly and wouldn’t matter that much, but in the current political context around Facebook, Google, and so on, it’ll probably take on broader meaning.
The two halves of this story have been bouncing around for a while now, but it seems they’re finally official. We’ve been hearing for some time about plans to end Google’s “First Click Free” policy, which gave newspapers the option of making their paywalls porous to search users or forgoing traffic from search, and its replacement is now being announced. It stops punishing publishers for not offering free access to articles, while giving publishers more granular control over how many free news items users of Google search get before they hit the paywall. At the same time, Google is talking (again) about plans to help news organizations drive subscriptions. As I’ve said repeatedly, both Facebook and Google are viewed with distrust by the news industry, but the former has at least been visibly acknowledging the tension and seeking to do something about it, while Google has been slower to act. It’s good to see it finally making changes now, although the subscription tools won’t debut until next year are are still not being spelled out in detail.
via New York Times
Bloomberg’s Apple and Google reporters have teamed up for a story about Google building new tools to help secure the accounts of high profile users or others with higher exposure to attempted hacking. This is apparently a response to some previously reported hacks of prominent users’ Gmail accounts and will combine new ways to secure logins with restrictions on third party app integrations and other features designed to close potential entries for hackers. The feature has a name – Advanced Protection Program – and will be marketed to executives and politicians among others, suggesting that it will be a fee-based service, likely an add-on to corporate deployments of Google’s G Suite. All of this feels very topical in the midst of all the reporting about Russian meddling in last year’s US elections, and although that’s mostly currently focused on ad buying and influence through social networks rather than hacking, it’s all obviously connected, with widespread allegations that the Russians were feeding documents from various hacks to Wikileaks, for example.
In Twitter’s statement on Russian meddling in last year’s elections, it mentioned that Facebook had shared with it data on the accounts it had previously reported, and it now appears Facebook has shared similar data with Google as well, as it investigates its own role in all of this. The three companies have been the main focus – so far – of US congressional investigations into the use of online advertising and platforms to influence the outcome of last year’s elections, so it’s natural that the companies would share whatever data they have with each other. Twitter, though, was reprimanded (rightly or wrongly) by at least two members of Congress this week over seemingly relying too heavily on Facebook’s prior work rather than performing its own extensive search of past activity, and it seems Google is doing rather more of its own digging, though there’s no word so far on what it’s found. Both Google and Facebook have been widely criticized over their roles in allowing problematic activities to take place on their platforms, but I continue to argue that the cost of policing such activity at such a level as to eliminate it 100% would be disproportionately expensive in time and money.
Alongside this week’s big Amazon hardware announcements, it’s apparently made a quieter announcement too: the launch of Fire OS 6, the latest version of the company’s fork of the Android operating system, which is used on Fire TV and Fire tablets. This new version is based on Android 7.1.2, which was the last version of Android 7 to be released before this year’s launch of Android 8 / Oreo a few weeks back. So although it definitely brings Fire OS more up to date than the previous Lollipop/Marshmallow-based version, it’s still about a year behind in terms of core Android features. It’s not yet clear when Fire OS 6 might come to Amazon’s tablet lineup, or which Android features it might bring with it, but it’s a good reminder that Amazon still bases some of its most important products on a proprietary flavor of Android, yet another front in the coopetition between Google and Amazon.
via Android Police