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Google reportedly offered Android changes to EU in 2017

July 22, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The European Union may have characterized its $5 billion Android antitrust fine as punishment for an intransigent Google, but the practical reality might be different. Bloomberg sources have claimed that Google offered to make changes to its Android policies in August 2017, not long after it received an EU antitrust penalty for its product search practices. Although Google didn’t dive into specifics, it had offered to “loosen restrictions” in Android contracts and had considered distributing its apps in “two different ways.”

The EU wasn’t having it, according to the sources. Officials reportedly said only that a settlement was “no longer an option,” and that Google’s offer was “too little too late.” It couldn’t even mention the possibility of paying a fine as part of an agreement — regulators had effectively locked in their course of action. Google had tried to talk about ending the probe considerably earlier than that, according to the tipsters, but regulators supposedly either stonewalled or said it was too early to negotiate. If so, there may have only been a brief window of opportunity for a truce.

The revelations, if accurate, ultimately leave Google in the same boat: it’s now facing a giant fine and significant changes to its mobile strategy if its appeal doesn’t succeed. They do suggest that the penalty wasn’t inevitable, though, and that Google might well have implemented Russia-style changes months sooner if the EU had wanted to bend.

Tech News

Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter unite to simplify data transfers

July 20, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

Dean Mouhtaropoulos via Getty Images

Four of the biggest technology companies are banding together to make it easier for users to download and transfer their data between services. Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter formally announced The Data Transfer Project (DTP) today, an open-source initiative to create new tools that “enable people to freely move their information across the web,” Damien Kieran, Data Protection Officer at Twitter explained. It’s early days, but the group has published a white paper that details its vision for an easier, more flexible “data portability ecosystem.” The group says it wants an open dialogue with developers and users alike moving forward.

At its core, the DTP will use a series of “adapters” that can unravel propriety APIs into easily understandable data packets. Adapters will come in two types: import and export data adapters, and authentication adapters for verifying and protecting users. In practice, a person could transfer their Instagram photos to Flickr, or Google Photos, without having to mass-download and upload their library. Once it’s finalized, the new system should cover all types of data including email, contacts, calendars and tasks. Individual data types, called Data Models, will be grouped together under Verticals. A service like YouTube Music, for instance, could have Data Models for playlists and music videos under its music Vertical.

The challenge for Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Twitter, of course, will be getting everyone to adopt and maintain the most popular Data Models.

The DTP is still in development and not available to the wider public. There are, however, a couple of GitHub-hosted methods that curious engineers can try out right now. The end-goal is to get companies outside of the current contributors to embrace the new system. That way, users will have true flexibility over the services they use and the amount of data each one holds. You might have all your running data on Strava, for instance, and suddenly discover a new app with a superior service. Or decide that actually, you would prefer to do all of your social networking on Google+.

The announcement follows the introduction of GDPR in the EU. The legislation adds a number of consumer-focused protections inside the European Union, including the requirement that all companies offer some kind of data download tool. The DTP is meant for everyone — not just the EU — but has likely been accelerated because of the new regulations. “This will take time but we are very excited to work with innovators and passionate people from other companies to ensure we are putting you first,” Kieran added. “Fundamentally this is about pushing towards a more open and dynamic internet.”

Tech News

Google AI experiment compares poses to 80,000 images as you move

July 19, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

Google

Google released a fun AI experiment today called Move Mirror that matches whatever pose you make to hundreds of images of others making that same pose. When you visit the Move Mirror website and allow it to access your computer’s camera, it uses a computer vision model called PoseNet to detect your body and identify what positions your joints are in. It then compares your pose to more than 80,000 images and finds which ones best mirror your position. Move Mirror then shows you those images next to your own in real time and as you move around, the images you’re matched to change. You can even make a GIF of your poses and your Move Mirror matches.

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“With Move Mirror, we’re showing how computer vision techniques like pose estimation can be available to anyone with a computer and a webcam,” Google said in a blog post. And if you’re worried about what’s happening with your image when you use Move Mirror, Google assures that it’s not being stored or sent to a server. Because Move Mirror is powered by TensorFlow.js, all of the pose tracking is done directly in your browser.

Other Google AI experiments have allowed users to type in statements or questions and get related book passages in response, or get rhymes based on what objects are in front of their cameras.

You can try out Move Mirror here and read more about how it was made here.

Tech News

Waze now works with Android Auto's phone display

July 19, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

AOL

Last July, Waze finally integrated with Android Auto, but the service was limited. Android Auto has two parts: What you can see on the car’s display unit and what is available on your phone’s screen. Previously Waze was only available through the car’s screen, but Android Police noticed you can now access it as an option on phones as well.

The Waze app has long been available for Android phones. This new update, however, is specifically referring to Waze on Android Auto on phones. This means you don’t need a car display unit to be able to use Waze on Android Auto.

This news comes on the heels of Apple’s announcement that iOS will finally open CarPlay to third-party maps with iOS 12. Waze and Google Maps will likely both be available when the new OS version launches this fall.

Tech News

Voice assistants still have problems understanding strong accents

July 19, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

Devindra Hardawar/AOL

Cultural biases in tech aren’t just limited to facial recognition — they crop up in voice assistants as well. The Washington Post has partnered with research groups on studies showing that Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant aren’t as accurate understanding people with strong accents, no matter how fluent their English might be. People with Indian accents were at a relatively mild disadvantage in one study, but the overall accuracy went down by at least 2.6 percent for those with Chinese accents, and by as much as 4.2 percent for Spanish accents. The gap was particularly acute in media playback, where a Spanish accent might net a 79.9 accuracy rate versus 91.8 percent from an Eastern US accent.

A second study showed how voice assistants would frequently mangle interpretations when people read news headlines out loud. American accents wouldn’t always get it right, but even the slightest whiff of a non-American accent (say, British) would lead to bizarre reconstructions of what people said.

The companies are aware of these issues, but promised in statements that they were improving. Amazon noted that Alexa was improving the more it heard “certain speech patterns” and “certain accents.” Google, meanwhile, said it would “continue to improve” voice recognition as its database gets larger.

Problems with accents and voice recognition are far from new — they’re the stuff of comedy routines. And it’s important to stress that the tests didn’t cover a full range of accents, or other assistants like Siri, Bixby and Cortana. The formal studies help quantify the problem with accents, though, and also suggest that a lack of diversity is a serious problem in voice assistant testing. That drop in accuracy for pronounced accents could effectively rule out smart speakers and other voice-aware devices for many people whose only ‘mistake’ was not growing up in the States (or even a particular region of the States). If voice assistants are going to become ubiquitous, they can’t just account for different languages — they have to account for different backgrounds.

Tech News

Google's Fuchsia OS could start replacing Android in five years

July 19, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

Reuters/Stephen Lam

Google has been willing to acknowledge the existence of its Fuchsia operating system for a while, and has made rough versions available on everything from mobile devices to PCs. But is it just an experiment, or are there grander ambitions? We might have a better idea. Bloomberg sources have asserted that Fuchsia is ultimately intended to replace the company’s existing platforms, including Android and Chrome OS. While executives haven’t formally committed to roadmaps, engineers reportedly want to put Fuchsia on connected devices (like Home speakers) within three years, move on to “larger machines” like laptops, and put it on smartphones in the “next half decade.”

As we’ve seen through previous software clues, the OS would represent Google’s chance to start from scratch and eliminate the baggage that comes with existing software. Both Android and Chrome OS are based on Linux, for example, which carries technology that Google might no longer need. Android in particular still has some elements of Java (currently through OpenJDK) that Google might want to jettison in light of its ongoing legal battles with Oracle. Fuchsia is also expected to scale more consistently across device types, include better hooks for voice commands and provide faster security updates than on Android.

It’s far from certain that Google would make that timetable. It’s a daunting feat to ask Samsung and other hardware brands to throw out legacy app compatibility, rewrite custom software and otherwise pour massive amounts of time and money into supporting an untested platform. Just ask Microsoft how well things went when Windows Phone 7 rendered existing Windows Mobile know-how obsolete. Google would have to both ensure a rich catalog of Fuchsia-native apps and convince manufacturers that the OS is worth using on mainstream devices that would attract wide audiences. It wouldn’t be shocking if Fuchsia took much longer than five years to completely supplant Android, if just because the existing platform is so deeply entrenched.

Tech News

Hey Google, Android actually does stifle competition

July 19, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

Sundar Pichai knows that the choice of mobile OS nowadays boils down to Android or iOS. He published a blog post yesterday in response to the European Commission’s competition decision against Android, which opens saying, “If you buy an Android phone, you’re choosing one of the world’s two most popular mobile platforms.” That’s not very many options, but it’s also not Google’s fault.

Although, the rise of Android did arguably force operating systems like Symbian, BlackBerry OS, Palm OS, Windows Mobile and even upstarts like Firefox OS, out of the ecosystem. Still, Pichai contends that Android has expanded the choice of phones available around the world, while the Commission believes that Google’s dominance and the restrictions it reportedly imposes are detrimental to competition, particularly with regards to the software on those phones.

As a refresher, the European Commission announced on Wednesday that it’s fining Google €4.34 billion (about US$5.1 billion) for “breaching EU antitrust rules.” According to the news release, “Google has imposed illegal restrictions on Android device manufacturers and mobile network operators to cement its dominant position in general internet search” since 2011. Google intends to appeal the decision, Pichai said.

I’m not going to get too deep into the details of the Commission’s contentions and Google’s arguments. The gist is that the Commission believes Google required manufacturers to pre-install certain apps like Chrome and Google Search, either by paying them or making it a condition for licensing the Play Store. The Commission also believes that Google blocked manufacturers from selling devices running alternative versions of Android without its approval.

When I asked Google whether these claims are true, the company’s reps directed me to Pichai’s blog post. In it, he didn’t directly address these statements, although he explained some of the practices (sort of). He acknowledged that with Android, the company can “offer phone makers the option of pre-loading a suite of popular Google apps…, some of which generate revenue for us.”

He also said that companies aren’t obligated to pre-install those apps, and that they’re free to bundle competing options alongside Google’s own. In that situation, Pichai said the company only makes money if its apps are installed and used instead of the alternatives.

AOL

But his biggest point, which he made at the beginning of his piece, is that Android provides choice — that “there are more than 24,000 devices, at every price point, from more than 1,300 different brands.” So technically you can choose from thousands of different Android phones.

Here’s the thing, though: manufacturers don’t have all that much choice. Of all the viable mobile platforms available today, Android and iOS are the only ones with enough users to even be a consideration. But Apple is the only company that can make iOS devices, so hardware makers are really only left with Android. Now, of course, under the Android umbrella, they can choose from the regular flavor or the lightweight Go version. That’s great, but it’s still a Google game. Manufacturers have to meet certain technical requirements (admittedly for a better overall user experience in general) and play by Google’s rules. That means installing the apps Google suggests, just to keep it happy.

When a phone already comes installed with browser, messaging, email and other apps from Google, bundling competing options just adds to software bloat, which turns most users off. Not only is there no incentive to create better alternatives, then, but there’s compelling reason for manufacturers to not create their own apps. Also, people are lazy — they likely won’t go to the trouble of installing a new browser and setting it as their default. So, if what the Commission contends is true, and Google is making pre-installing Chrome and Search prerequisites for access to the Play Store, then it is stifling competition.

That’s not just limiting for phone makers, but could lead to fewer meaningful choices for consumers as well. Every Android phone is more or less the same — a Galaxy S9 is a nicer LG G7 ThinQ with better cameras minus the AI photographer, for example. Companies fighting to differentiate in hardware is why we end up with iterative performance upgrades every year, or features like more cameras with more megapixels. Some of these can be truly innovative, like in-screen fingerprint readers. But for the most part, we’re getting things like motorized pop-up selfie cameras, stronger-than-usual haptic motors or two-tone gradient finishes.

Even just within the realm of competing Android skins, we’ve seen the benefits of an abundance of choice. Developers have come up with useful features like Night mode and lock-screen shortcuts that have now become baked into the major operating systems. What if software makers were encouraged to develop their own OSes — what changes could they come up with?

Nowhere do we see this stagnation more clearly than with Wear OS watches. Sure, there may be dozens of variants available from brands like Huawei, LG, Fossil, Michael Kors, Kate Spade, Casio and a ton more. But each of these smartwatches is basically the same skeleton. Imagine trying to pick a new teammate from an offering of clones of the same person wearing different clothes. Some of them have better features, like built-in GPS, longer lasting batteries and brighter displays, but ultimately they do the same things.

Don’t get me wrong, Google has done a lot of good for app developers and consumers. Android is a fine operating system (good riddance to Symbian) and has helped deliver strong competition for Apple. And to Google’s point, which it illustrated with a hilarious step-by-step GIF complete with timer, uninstalling a preloaded app is quite easy and takes about 10 seconds (if you’re slow).

Android has also freed up Google’s partners so they can innovate on hardware, which admittedly gives us a variety of options from the likes of Samsung’s Galaxy line to the OnePlus phones or even the BlackBerry KeyTwo. That range of choices allows the market to cater for a wide-ranging set of users. But while Android has fostered healthy handset competition, it may have stifled the same for software. Google already has Microsoft as an example to look to — the Windows maker avoided hefty fines by complying with the EU and letting users pick third-party default browsers more easily. Of course, it’s ridiculous that Apple gets away with pre-installing Safari (among other things) because, as the Commission argues, it is “exclusively used by vertically integrated developers,” while Microsoft and Google are punished for working with hardware partners.

But the point is that Google does work with many other manufacturers, who shouldn’t be forced into pre-installation decisions they wouldn’t otherwise make. They should have the choice to bundle Chrome if they want, without being threatened with losing access to app stores. There should also be a level playing field for people who want to make competing apps. Google should be more concerned with making the best available product that users would install when their phones don’t already come with one. Ultimately, by arguing that it has fostered healthy handset diversity, Google is not only nitpicking, but also neglecting the control it has over mobile platforms.

Tech News

Alphabet's Loon internet balloons are making their way to Kenya

July 19, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

Stephen Lam / Reuters

Alphabet has announced Loon’s first commercial deal in Africa merely a few days after the former X lab experiment finally became a full-fledged company. According to Reuters, the new subsidiary will deploy internet-relaying balloons in Kenya starting next year in partnership with local provider Telkom Kenya. The partnership will bring high-speed internet access to rural communities in the country, particularly those in remote locations ISPs can’t service.

Loon’s technology works by receiving wireless internet signals from a telcom partner on the ground. The balloon that receives that signal then relays it across the network of balloons in the region, which then beams it down to users on the ground. Those balloons are solar-powered, fly at an altitude of 60,000 feet above sea level and are capable of delivering a connection with LTE speeds. Kenya’s authorities are hoping that the technology can help the country achieve full internet coverage, one people can rely on even if they live far from cities.

While it remains to be seen whether Loon can connect all of Kenya, its previous tests prove that its technology works. Back when the company was still part of the X lab, it successfully provided over 100,000 people in Puerto Rico with basic internet connectivity after Hurricane Maria. It wasn’t perfect, since the island’s infrastructure suffered massive damage, but it was definitely a huge accomplishment for what was once considered a crazy X lab experiment.

Tech News

YouTube begins embracing the hashtag

July 19, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

youtube-hashtag.jpg

yurii_zym via Getty Images

When you visit YouTube on Android or the web, you might come across something you probably associate more with Twitter or Facebook: hashtags. The video platform now allows uploaders to add hashtags to their descriptions and video titles to make it easier for viewers to find their channels and content. Like in other places on the internet, YouTube’s hashtags are clickable and will bring up a results page with other videos tagged with the same thing. The website will even display the top three hashtags at the bottom of the video and above its title.

Android Police has spotted Google’s support page detailing the rules behind new feature. YouTube’s policies prohibit creators from adding misleading tags, as well as those meant to harass or humiliate an individual or a group. Hashtags that promote violence or hatred and anything sexual or explicit are also not allowed on the platform. YouTube says it will pull down videos that violate those policies.

[Image credit: Android Police]

We’re not seeing any hashtags in both our Android app and the web at the moment, so the feature might still be in the midst of rolling out or available only in the US and other select locations. One thing’s for sure, though: it won’t be making its way to YouTube’s iOS app just yet.

Tech News

Congress' social media hearing was a ‘stupid’ sideshow

July 18, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

Tuesday marked another chapter in the “Tech Companies go to Congress” story, with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube testifying before the House Judiciary Committee. The hearing, titled “Examining the Content Filtering Practices of Social Media Giants,” was supposed to shed light on how these companies are keeping their sites safe for users by filtering out toxic content. But, instead, we learned very little. Executives from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube simply echoed what they’ve been saying in other congressional hearings since 2017. They talked about how they’re using a combination of artificial intelligence and human reviewers to fight fake news, bots and toxic content like hate speech.

Those are efforts we were already aware of, though we did find out out that Facebook, apparently, can’t decide when it should ban offensive pages like InfoWars. But the fact that the latest hearing was another wasted opportunity, just like Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance before Congress in April, isn’t completely Facebook, Twitter or YouTube’s fault.

Throughout yesterday’s session, US House Representatives from both sides of the aisle seemed to be more interested on their personal agenda. Republicans like Rep. Smith (TX) talked about how he felt conservatives were being censored, accusing Google of blocking his searches for “Jesus, Chick-fil-A and the Catholic religion.” Democrats, on the other hand, said the committee should be having hearings on Russian election interference and Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin instead. “This committee needs to proceed with hearings involving the question of the Russian intrusion and stealing of the 2016 election,” Rep. Lee (D-CA) said. “And I’ve come to a conclusion now that it was truly stolen. Dealing with these engines that have been effective for the United States on that issue seems to be a stretch and inappropriate.”

Rep. Lieu (D-CA) went as far as calling the hearing “dumb” and “stupid,” saying there were more important issues the House Judiciary Committee should be focusing on. “I served on active duty in the US military, I never thought I would see the American Commander-in-Chief deliver the talking points of the Kremlin. Are we having a hearing on that? No.” he said. “As we sit here today there [are] nearly three thousand babies and kids ripped away from their parents by the Trump administration, they have not been reunified yet. Are we having a hearing on that? No.” Instead, he added, “we’re having this ridiculous hearing on the content of speech of private sector companies. It’s stupid because there’s this thing called the First Amendment — we can’t regulate content. The only thing worse than an Alex Jones video is the government trying to tell Google not to do it, to prevent people from watching [it]. “

Meanwhile, Chairman Goodlatte (R-VA) asked Facebook, Twitter and YouTube why the shouldn’t be regulated as non-utilities like hotels or clubs, which at a certain point have a legal liability for how consumers use their services. Goodlatte’s concern is that these social media giants