Company / division: Alphabet
The Information reports that Waymo is gearing up to offer the autonomous ride sharing service it previously announced sometime this fall (i.e. in the next month or two) but that its technology still has real problems dealing with some basic situations like left turns without human assistance. That’s a pretty fundamental problem and indicative of the state of autonomous driving even at companies as far along as Waymo is (generally further than others), and even in locales where it’s been testing for quite some time and therefore should have really good data. It’s not clear quite how Waymo is going to resolve that issue (neither making three right turns nor remote human control seem like workable long-term solutions). But bear this in mind next time you hear a car or tech company talk about imminent autonomous driving.
via The Information
Waymo has finally succeeded in getting the due diligence report on Otto which Uber commissioned as it planned to buy the company unsealed, allowing many details about what Uber knew and when to emerge. However, like earlier disclosures in the lawsuit, it mostly confirms that Anthony Levandowski, the executive at the center of the case who is nonetheless not named in the suit took documents and other information with him from Waymo, while not providing evidence that Uber benefited from that. Uber, meanwhile, continues to say that when it found out about the document haul Levandowski had, it ordered him to destroy it all and not bring it to Uber – proving that assertion false is Waymo’s biggest challenge. Of course, Levandowski as an individual might still have used that information in developing at least one version of LIDAR technology he worked on at Otto/Uber, but that would only cover some of the claims Waymo has made in the case.
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
Google is Reportedly Working on an Echo Show Competitor (Sep 29, 2017)
This report from TechCrunch appears to be based to some extent on the same tip I mentioned both in yesterday’s item and on the podcast last night: it suggests that Google is working on a competitor to the Amazon Echo Show. It sounds like it would run key Google apps and serve as a smart home hub, and might also run Netflix, while the screen is expected to be similar in size to the Echo Show’s, at 7 inches. This is still a small slice of the overall voice speaker market, one which needs to prove itself more as a strange hybrid of stationary tablet and voice speaker with a display. Videoconferencing is one of the features Amazon’s promoted most with regard to the Echo Show, and it sounds like Google’s device will support that too, but of course we all have many devices capable of that function already, and the additional utility of having that device always in the same place is limited. Google’s leaked Home Mini and rumored Home Max seem much more promising in the near term.
If there are two big recent trends in voice assistants, they’re control of music and control of TVs. Every major company in this space is making announcements about these two areas, with Amazon adding voice control to its music apps and then Alexa to its new Fire TV box, Apple preparing the music-centric HomePod for launch, and Sonos prepping an event next week which is also likely to be music-oriented. In that context, then, it’s no surprise that the latest set of devices to get Google Assistant support are those running Android TV, of which there are currently very few, notably the gaming-centric Nvidia Shield and Sony’s Bravia TV sets. The Nvidia Shield support was actually announced way back at CES in January if I recall correctly, but support is only rolling out now. More broadly, Apple TV and Amazon’s Fire TV already support voice control, while there’s also an Alexa integration with DISH’s satellite service, and Comcast offers its own native voice control through its remotes, so this is becoming table stakes for a TV interface. The specific voice functions Android TV supports seem roughly on par with those offered on other platforms, though perhaps a bit more limited.
Google is Reportedly Working on a Premium Google Home Max (Sep 28, 2017)
9to5Google reports that Google is working on a premium speaker for its Google Home range, tentatively named the “Max”, which could either appear alongside the recently leaked Google home Mini at next week’s hardware event or show up sometime later. Such a device would be the first sign that either of the two major players in the voice speaker market today is interested in participating in the premium audio space directly – Amazon beefed up the audio capabilities in its own devices at yesterday’s event, but they’re still not aiming to compete with high-end speakers. Given the recent announcements from partners using Google Assistant and Alexa in the premium segment, I had assumed both companies would cede that market to others, but it appears that Google at least is somewhat serious about participating directly. That’s in keeping with the premium positioning of its other hardware products, with the Pixel and Pixelbook both targeting the pricier end of their respective categories. And it makes sense if Google wants to avoid merely attracting the lower end of the market as it has largely done with Android, though it will make life even harder for Sonos if both Apple and Google get into the premium segment. (If all this is of interest to you, you might be interested in my column today for Techpinions, which dives rather more deeply into yesterday’s Amazon announcements). Lastly, I heard from a tipster today who suggested Google is also working on a couple of Home devices with screens, and that this was part of the reason it pulled YouTube from the Echo Show – I haven’t been able to confirm that yet, but it’s an interesting thought.
This is just a quick follow-up on yesterday’s item on Google’s second proposed remedy to the finding that its Shopping search feature violates the EU’s competition laws. Google has now begun rolling out the changes that were reported but not officially confirmed by the company, and the EU’s stance is still that it will have to wait and see how the changes pan out before it rules on whether the fix is acceptable. The separation and opening up of bidding to other companies certainly leaves the door open to similar remedies in the other cases pending at the European Commission as well as other areas it may choose to investigate, including Maps, News, and so on, which would create much more far-reaching effects for Google than this change alone. It’s going to be a tough few years for Google in Europe.
Google Pulls YouTube from Amazon’s Echo Show Device (Sep 27, 2017)
Amazon announced last night that Google had pulled its YouTube app from the former’s Echo Show device, the company’s first screen-based voice speaker. YouTube was one of very few video options available on the Echo Show, with Amazon’s own Prime Video being the main alternative. YouTube videos would show up in response to certain searches, especially ones relating to video, and although I doubt anyone bought an Echo Show solely to use YouTube, losing it is a blow to the company. There’s a certain irony that this breach in the relationship between Amazon and Google has occurred in a week when we’ve seen signs of detente between each of these two companies and Apple, with Amazon again selling Apple TV hardware and Apple replacing Bing with Google as the search engine in Siri and OS-level search in its devices. I joked on Twitter that it’s almost as if there’s some universal equilibrium of big tech companies not playing nicely with each other that has to be maintained.
Of course, this is all part of the broader ongoing competitive dynamic between these various companies, which all need each other to varying degrees but often place limits on their interactions in areas where they can afford to do so. Though Amazon says the decision was unilateral and unexplained, Google said the implementation of YouTube on the Echo Show violated its terms of service, which makes you wonder whether the companies launched in a hurry and agreed to settle terms later, or whether Amazon simply built the YouTube app without Google’s input and hoped it wouldn’t mind. My guess is that the ToS violation in question here revolves around the lack of options for managing a YouTube account – I sent my Echo Show back after testing it for a review, but if I recall correctly, many of the standard YouTube features on other platforms were not available there, which was reflective of the Echo Show’s broad limitations on interactivity and functionality, something I pointed out in my review. YouTube was in some ways very much behind a platform wall which Amazon erected in front of it, and it seems Google finally decided it had had enough.
It’s worth remembering that Google and Amazon compete directly across several areas and have limited their cooperation in several others as a result: they compete in voice assistants and devices, for starters, but also in cloud services, in product search, in tablets (albeit indirectly), in grocery deliveries, in TV boxes, and so on. And as a result there have been limits to their cooperation – Amazon stopped selling Chromecast devices a while back and generally doesn’t participate in the Google Shopping feature alongside other major retailers, and appears to have resisted adding Chromecast features to its video apps. It’s possible that Google pulling YouTube was a way to exert pressure to get Amazon to sell Chromecast devices again as it has Apple TV devices – the timing likely isn’t coincidental. And Google certainly has far more leverage in this spat than Amazon – the Echo Show is a meaningless contributor to YouTube’s overall success, but the presence or absence of YouTube on the Echo Show is a much bigger deal for that device and its appeal. I don’t think Google will be in any hurry to settle the dispute unless it’s able to extract some concessions, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that includes Amazon selling Chromecasts again.
via The Verge
After its initial proposal to address the European Commission’s concerns over its Shopping search feature apparently failed to pass muster, it appears Google is now offering to separate its Shopping search business from its core search business in the EU, and force it to bid for ten slots above the regular search results alongside other comparison shopping services. The reporting here from Bloomberg makes it sound like Google might still get more formal approval of its proposal, despite the EU Competition Commissioner’s remarks to Bloomberg last week which suggested that it would have to play things by ear. This solution will certainly seem less fishy than the first proposal, which I said had significant issues, but it’s still not clear whether it will meet the approval of either the EU or Google’s competitors. Certainly, Google is now going to have to bid for slots it previously received for free, which will dramatically change the economics of the Shopping search in the EU. But as long as Google has exclusive rights to its past data about the results from those links in the past, it will continue to have something of an unfair advantage over competitors in knowing what to bid for them in future.
The US Food and Drug Administration has pushed forward with plans to test a fast-track process for approving technological approaches to healthcare problems, and has selected nine companies to be part of its pilot program, including Apple, Fitbit, Samsung, and Alphabet’s Verily life sciences unit. Apple has long said that the need to get FDA approval for health-related products would likely dissuade it from entering that market directly, though it’s managed to serve that market indirectly through partners taking advantage of its ResearchKit and other programs. Both Apple and Fitbit have been pursuing health-related applications for their devices, and Samsung launched a virtual doctor service as part of its Galaxy S8 launch earlier this year, so this is clearly a hot area for these consumer tech companies. The FDA deals mostly with products with diagnostic or treatment applications, which is why so much health and wellness tech tends to stop short of those categories and merely provide data and alerts. But the potential for doing more is already clear, and with faster FDA approval we could well see these companies go deeper into this field. It’s still early in this process, and there might still be other downsides including the potential for leaks while approval is being sought, which is likely to give Apple in particular pause, but this is a positive step for both the industry and for end users.
Apple has quietly switched the search back end for its Siri voice assistant and what used to be called Spotlight search to Google, after relying on Bing for several years. Bing will continue to provide the image search results in Siri, but is otherwise being replaced by Google. That’s a fascinating turn of events after several years of Apple removing Google from various elements of its built-in systems, from switching to its own maps to elimination the YouTube app to offering a variety of alternative default search providers in Safari, to this use of Bing behind the scenes. Although there’s obviously been some speculation that money was a factor here, and it may well have been, I suspect this ultimately comes down to wanting to provide the best possible experience in these various settings, and that means using Google. That’s ultimately the same reason that Apple hasn’t switched away from Google as the default search engine within Safari in Western markets – Google is the gold standard, and everything else still comes up short. I do wonder if this is part of a quiet renewal of the longstanding relationship between the two companies, which always prompts speculation about Apple replacing Google as the default. That certainly seems less likely now, as Apple in its brief public statement on this news has emphasized the need for consistency across experiences within iOS and macOS, suggesting that Google is here to stay as the default search option in Safari. That’s a big win for Google and a big loss for Microsoft, for which Apple’s partnership was a rare bright spot on mobile, while it continues to take decent share on the desktop by virtue of Windows’ dominance there.
Google has announced several new tools for advertisers using its platform to reach users with video ads, and they highlight just how sophisticated the YouTube ad platform is becoming, at a time when Facebook is still struggling with basic formats and helping creators tweak their video formats to work with its ad limitations. There are four parts to the YouTube announcement: custom affinity audiences, which allow advertisers to reach users based on profile-based interests including recent Google searches; customizing video ads by context on the fly using automation; stringing together multiple ads to tell a story or react to user responses; better online-to-offline attribution. To my mind, the custom video ads are the most interesting thing here – they allow advertisers to upload a set of assets and have the system automatically mix and match them to create ads that feel like they’re customized based on the video the user is watching. As this TechCrunch article points out, that’s likely to make the videos more memorable, but it may also cross the “creepy” line for some viewers, and that’s the risk all highly-targeted advertising takes. Various elements of what Google is announcing take advantage of its increasingly strong AI and machine learning techniques as well as the breadth of its tracking of users (for better or worse) across the various properties it owns, and the latter may in future be hampered by increasing limits on this kind of targeting which will come into effect in Europe soon.
Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Google was preparing to offer refunds to advertisers whose ads had appeared on sites with no legitimate traffic but who were nonetheless charged as if there had been traffic. The problem with the refunds was that Google itself could only refund a small portion of the total because much of the money from the advertisers went to ad exchanges also involved in the transactions. Google has now announced the refund program publicly, and said that several major exchanges will also join in offering refunds, which should return a much more substantial part of the total payment. As also reported earlier by the Journal, Google is also going to be participating in a program called ads.txt, which makes it much easier to validate sites claiming to have large amounts of traffic and therefore cuts down on ad fraud, which should be a big help in this specific type of fraud, even as others persist.
This seems like a totally bizarre stance from the EU’s Competition Commissioner in response to Google’s proposed remedy to its alleged abuse of its dominant market position. Google is reported to have offered an auction to fill the Shopping slot it previously occupied exclusively, and Margrethe Vestager says her office won’t approve the remedy as such, but will wait to see whether it works in the market. That’s enormously unfair as an approach because it means Google could act in good faith, believing it’s proposed an adequate remedy, only to find out much later than it hasn’t and is subject to back-dated fines. Given that the European Commission found that Google violated its rules, it should surely also be the arbiter of whether the proposed remedy fixed things or not. And allowing the comparison shopping services that prompted the investigation in the first place to be the judges instead seems particularly unreasonable given that they have a vested interest in continuing to extract concessions from Google. I said when the proposed remedy was reported last week that I thought it unlikely to be sufficient, but to leave Google in legal limbo on this point just isn’t reasonable. It gives the impression that the EU has an axe to grind with Google and wants it to suffer rather than simply providing the legal clarity it should be entitled to.
A key part of the Advertising Sustainability narrative on the site is the issue of two companies’ dominance of online advertising in the US and to a lesser extent other western markets. New data from eMarketer is a useful checkpoint in measuring that dominance – it says that the two companies will suck up 63% of US online ad spend in 2017, an increase from its earlier forecast of 60%. Microsoft comes in third place way behind the top two, with Verizon in fourth for now and Amazon projected to take its place over the next couple of years. Google and Facebook’s dominance is neither surprise nor mystery at this point – the former has the unique combination of timeliness and relevance that search offers, while the latter has created the most powerful combination of audience and native advertising, dominating their respective categories and leaving the dregs for smaller competitors and less effective forms of advertising. Importantly, though, eMarketer doesn’t see the two companies’ share rising dramatically over the next couple of years – it projects just 68% share in 2019, meaning that other companies will still capture nearly a third of the market, and their dollar share of the total will actually rise since the market is still growing rapidly. eMarketer’s blog post with all the numbers is here.
The Financial Times reports that Google is working on an AI-based tool that will help publishers identify possible subscribers for their newspapers. This is a somewhat fleshed-out version of a report from a month ago on Bloomberg, which had fewer details but said Google was testing a number of different approaches. As a reminder, the context here is the tension between news organizations and both Google and Facebook over business models, the increasing power of the internet companies, and the challenges of selling online subscriptions and building brands when search and social serve as channels for so much news consumption. As I’ve said before, Facebook began taking this tension seriously some time ago and pouring oil on troubled waters, but it seems to have taken Google longer to come around, and it’s still mostly at the testing stage in its efforts. Putting AI to work in the service of solving the problem is a classic Google move, but it remains to be seen how effective that will actually be. Certainly, the publishers quoted by the FT seem heartened but not yet won over by Google’s new approach.
via Financial Times