Google Archive

$600 Chromebooks are a dangerous development for Microsoft

Among the new hardware launched this week at IFA in Berlin are a couple of premium Chromebooks. Lenovo's $600 Yoga Chromebook brings high-end styling and materials to the Chromebook space, along with well-specced internals and a high quality screen. Dell's $600 Inspiron Chromebook 14 has slightly lower specs but is similarly offering better styling, bigger, better quality screens, and superior specs to the Chromebook space.

These systems join a few other premium Chromebooks already out there. HP's Chromebook x2 is a $600 convertible hybrid launched a few months ago, and Samsung has had its Chromebook Plus and Pro systems for more than a year now. And of course, Google's Pixelbook is an astronomically expensive Chrome OS machine.

These systems should cause ripples in Redmond.

In a way, Google is employing the same tactic Microsoft used to get people hooked on DOS and Windows. Back in the late '80s and early '90s, people wanted the same computer at home as they were using at work, which were DOS and Windows machines. Now, it may be that younger people going off to college want what they were using primary and high school - Chrome OS machines.

Chrome turns 10

Chrome turns 10 this weekend.

Google first released its Chrome browser 10 years ago today. Marketed as a "fresh take on the browser", Chrome debuted with a web comic from Google to mark the company's first web browser. It was originally launched as a Windows-only beta app before making its way to Linux and macOS more than a year later in 2009. Chrome debuted at a time when developers and internet users were growing frustrated with Internet Explorer, and Firefox had been steadily building momentum.

When it was first released as beta, Chrome was a revelation. It was faster than Firefox, and sported a cleaner, simpler UI. I used Chrome from the very first few beta releases, but in recent years the browser has started sucking up more and more resources, and it feels - emphasis on feels - slower than ever before. On Windows, I switched to Edge, which feels a lot faster for me than any other Windows browser, and on my iOS devices I obviously use Safari.

With the new UI redesign coming to Chrome coming Tuesday - I see very little reason to go back.

AP: Google tracks your movements, like it or not

Google wants to know where you go so badly that it records your movements even when you explicitly tell it not to.

An Associated Press investigation found that many Google services on Android devices and iPhones store your location data even if you've used privacy settings that say they will prevent it from doing so.

Computer-science researchers at Princeton confirmed these findings at the AP's request.

Is anyone really surprised by this? Everything tracks you. Your smartphone, your smartphone's operating system, the applications that run on it, the backend services it relies upon, the carrier it uses, and so on. Even feature phones are tracked by your carrier, and of course, even without a phone, countless cameras will pinpoint where you are just fine.

This ship has sailed, and there's nothing we can do about it.

Google Maps says ‘the East Cut’ exists; locals aren’t so sure.

For decades, the district south of downtown and alongside San Francisco Bay here was known as either Rincon Hill, South Beach or South of Market. This spring, it was suddenly rebranded on Google Maps to a name few had heard: the East Cut.

The peculiar moniker immediately spread digitally, from hotel sites to dating apps to Uber, which all use Google's map data. The name soon spilled over into the physical world, too. Real-estate listings beckoned prospective tenants to the East Cut. And news organizations referred to the vicinity by that term.

The swift rebranding of the roughly 170-year-old district is just one example of how Google Maps has now become the primary arbiter of place names. With decisions made by a few Google cartographers, the identity of a city, town or neighborhood can be reshaped, illustrating the outsize influence that Silicon Valley increasingly has in the real world.

The Detroit neighborhood now regularly called Fishkorn (pronounced FISH-korn), but previously known as Fiskhorn (pronounced FISK-horn)? That was because of Google Maps. Midtown South Central in Manhattan? That was also given life by Google Maps.

I never thought about this, but now it seems obvious - Google Maps is so widespread it's basically become the authority on maps. This isn't some new phenomenon, though - cartography has a long history of phantom islands that would appear on maps for decades, sometimes even centuries, even though they weren't real at all.

Whistleblower reveals Google plans for censored search in China

Google is reportedly planning to re-launch its search engine in China, complete with censored results to meet the demands of the Chinese government. The company originally shut down its Chinese search engine in 2010, citing government attempts to "limit free speech on the web". But according to a report from The Intercept, the US tech giant now wants to return to the world's biggest single market for internet users.

According to internal documents provided to The Intercept by a whistleblower, Google has been developing a censored version of its search engine under the codename Dragonfly since the beginning of 2017. The search engine is being built as an Android mobile app, and will reportedly "blacklist sensitive queries" and filter out all websites blocked by China's web censors (including Wikipedia and BBC News). The censorship will extend to Google's image search, spell check, and suggested search features.

In the same vein as before, Google cares about freedom of expression and providing access to information. Unless you're Chinese - then you're shit out of luck.

Google announces its own security key for stronger logins

Today at the Next conference, Google announced a new product called the Titan Security Key, currently available to Cloud customers and scheduled for general sale in the coming months. The key is used to authenticate logins over Bluetooth and USB, similar to existing offerings from Yubico and other providers. A Google representative said the Titan key also includes special firmware developed by Google to verify its authenticity.

Bloomberg: Fuchsia intended to replace Android in five years

Well, here it is. I've been saying for 18 months now that Fuchsia clearly felt like a whole lot more than "just" a research operating system, and that I believed its developers' ultimate goal is to replace Android, which is a dead end. This Bloomberg article by the usually well-informed Mark Gurman is the clearest indication yet that such is, indeed, the end goal.

But members of the Fuchsia team have discussed a grander plan that is being reported here for the first time: Creating a single operating system capable of running all the company's in-house gadgets, like Pixel phones and smart speakers, as well as third-party devices that now rely on Android and another system called Chrome OS, according to people familiar with the conversations.

According to one of the people, engineers have said they want to embed Fuchsia on connected home devices, such as voice-controlled speakers, within three years, then move on to larger machines such as laptops. Ultimately the team aspires to swap in their system for Android, the software that powers more than three quarters of the world's smartphones, said the people, who asked not to be identified discussing internal matters. The aim is for this to happen in the next half decade, one person said.

CEO Sundar Pichai hasn't signed off on all of this just yet, so it's by no means 100% guaranteed - and a lot can change in five years. That being said, it's getting easier and easier to see which way the wind's blowing.

There's also reports of Fuchsia's security and privacy oriented design getting in conflict with Google's ad-driven business model.

The company must also settle some internal feuds. Some of the principles that Fuchsia creators are pursuing have already run up against Google's business model. Google's ads business relies on an ability to target users based on their location and activity, and Fuchsia's nascent privacy features would, if implemented, hamstring this important business. There's already been at least one clash between advertising and engineering over security and privacy features of the fledgling operating system, according to a person familiar with the matter. The ad team prevailed, this person said.

It's sad to hear that, but in the end, not exactly surprising.

Chrome OS isn’t ready for tablets yet

So this is supposed to be a review of the Acer Chromebook Tab 10, a tablet that was designed explicitly and exclusively for the education market. Acer and Google say teachers really wanted a tablet form factor for the classroom, and they really don't want to have to figure out how to manage an entirely new operating system when they're already all in on Chrome OS. And so here it is, finally: an honest-to-goodness Chrome OS tablet.

Keep this article in mind when you read the next item I'm about to post.

A look at Chrome’s new tab design

Chrome is getting a major redesign soon, and this week new changes have started to land in the Chrome's nightly "Canary" build. Google is launching a new version of Material Design across its products, called the "Google Material Theme," and after debuting in Android P and Gmail.com, it's starting to roll out across other Google's major products. On Chrome, this means major changes to the tab and address bar.

I haven't tried the new redesign yet - I don't use Chrome anyway - but judging by the screenshots, I can't say I'm a fan.

Ambitious browser mitigation for Spectre attacks comes to Chrome

Google's Chrome browser is undergoing a major architectural change to enable a protection designed to blunt the threat of attacks related to the Spectre vulnerability in computer processors. If left unchecked by browsers or operating systems, such attacks may allow hackers to pluck passwords or other sensitive data out of computer memory when targets visit malicious sites.

Site isolation, as the mitigation is known, segregates code and data from each Internet domain into their own "renderer processes," which are individual browser tasks that aren't allowed to interact with each other. As a result, a page located at arstechnica.com that embeds ads from doubleclick.net will load content into two separate renderer processes, one for each domain. The protection, however, comes at a cost. It consumes an additional 10 to 13 percent of total memory. Some of the performance hit can be offset by smaller and shorter-lived renderer processes. Site isolation will also allow Chrome to re-enable more precise timers, which Google and most other browser makers disabled earlier this year to decrease chances of successful attacks.

Talking to Duplex: Google’s phone AI feels revolutionary

At Google I/O, Google demonstrated Google Duplex, an AI-generated voice assistent that can make phone calls for you to perform tasks like making a restaurant reservation or booking a hair salon appointment. After the event, a whole Google Duplex truther movement sprung up, who simply couldn't believe technology could do anything even remotely like this, and who accused Google and its CEO Sundar Pachai of lying on stage.

Today, a whole slew of media outlets have published articles about how they were invited to an event at a real restaurant, where the journalists themselves got to talk to Google Duplex. The journalists took on the role of restaurant workers taking reservations requested by Google Duplex. The results? It works exactly as advertised - better, even. Here's Ars Technica's Ron Amadeo:

Duplex patiently waited for me to awkwardly stumble through my first ever table reservation while I sloppily wrote down the time and fumbled through a basic back and forth about Google's reservation for four people at 7pm on Thursday. Today's Google Assistant requires authoritative, direct, perfect speech in order to process a command. But Duplex handled my clumsy, distracted communication with the casual disinterest of a real person. It waited for me to write down its reservation requirements, and when I asked Duplex to repeat things I didn't catch the first time ("A reservation at what time?"), it did so without incident. When I told this robocaller the initial time it wanted wasn't available, it started negotiating times; it offered an acceptable time range and asked for a reservation somewhere in that time slot. I offered seven o'clock and Google accepted.

From the human end, Duplex's voice is absolutely stunning over the phone. It sounds real most of the time, nailing most of the prosodic features of human speech during normal talking. The bot "ums" and "uhs" when it has to recall something a human might have to think about for a minute. It gives affirmative "mmhmms" if you tell it to hold on a minute. Everything flows together smoothly, making it sound like something a generation better than the current Google Assistant voice.

One of the strangest (and most impressive) parts of Duplex is that there isn't a single "Duplex voice." For every call, Duplex would put on a new, distinct personality. Sometimes Duplex come across as male; sometimes female. Some voices were higher and younger sounding; some were nasally, and some even sounded cute.

And The Verge's Dieter Bohn:

Duplex conveyed politeness in the demos we saw. It paused with a little "mmhmm" when the called human asked it to wait, a pragmatic tactic Huffman called "conversational acknowledgement". It showed that Duplex was still on the line and listening, but would wait for the human to continue speaking.

It handled a bunch of interruptions, out of order questions, and even weird discursive statements pretty well. When a human sounded confused or flustered, Duplex took a tone that was almost apologetic. It really seems to be designed to be a super considerate and non-confrontational customer on the phone.

All calls started with Duplex identifying itself as an automated service that would also record the calls, giving the person on the receiving end of the line the opportunity to object. Such objections are handled gracefully, with the call being handed over to a human operator at Google on an unrecorded line. The human fallback is a crucial element of the system, according to Google, because regardless of permission, not every call will go smoothly.

Google Duplex will roll out in limited testing over the coming weeks and months.

‘Machina’ brings support for running Linux on top of Fuchsia

One of the greatest struggles of creating an entirely new OS, especially today, is the chicken-and-egg problem. Without good apps, why would consumers buy a product? And conversely, with no consumers, why would developers make apps?

We've looked, time and time again, at the possibility of Fuchsia getting Android compatibility, but what if it didn't stop there? If Fuchsia is to be a full-fledged laptop/desktop OS, shouldn't it also have some compatibility with apps for a traditional OS?

This is where the 'Guest' app becomes relevant. Guest allows you to boot up a virtual OS, inside of Fuchsia. Officially, Guest supports Zircon (Fuchsia) and Linux-based OSes (including Debian), but there’s also evidence that suggests it's being tested to work with Chrome OS. At the time of writing, I've only been able to successfully test Guest with a simple version of Linux.

Fuchsia is clearly so much more than just a research operating system. There's also a slightly older article from a few months ago looking at the various layers that make up Fuchsia, as well as various other articles about Google's new operating system.

It looks like Google is readying the Pixelbook to run Windows 10

Google's Pixelbook is some beautiful, well-built hardware, but its use of Chrome OS means that for many people, it will be too limited to be useful. Although Chrome OS is no longer entirely dependent on Web applications - it can also be used to run Android applications, and Linux application support is also in development - the lack of Windows support means that most traditional desktop applications are unusable.

But that may be changing due to indications that Google is adding Windows support to its hardware. Earlier this year, changes made to the Pixelbook's firmware indicated that Google is working on a mode called AltOS that would allow switching between Chrome OS and an "alternative OS," in some kind of dual-boot configuration. A couple candidates for that alternative OS are Google's own Fuchsia and, of course, Windows.

The Pixelbook is a nice piece of kit, but Chrome OS simply isn't good enough for me personally. The ability to run Windows would make it more desirable, but since it's not even available in The Netherlands - or in most other places, for that matter - I doubt this will attract any new buyers.

Google to remove ability to sideload Chrome extensions

We strive to ensure choice and transparency for all Chrome users as they browse the web. Part of this choice is the ability to use the hundreds of thousands of extensions available in the Chrome Web Store to customize the browsing experience in useful and productivity-boosting ways. However, we continue to receive large volumes of complaints from users about unwanted extensions causing their Chrome experience to change unexpectedly - and the majority of these complaints are attributed to confusing or deceptive uses of inline installation on websites. As we've attempted to address this problem over the past few years, we've learned that the information displayed alongside extensions in the Chrome Web Store plays a critical role in ensuring that users can make informed decisions about whether to install an extension. When installed through the Chrome Web Store, extensions are significantly less likely to be uninstalled or cause user complaints, compared to extensions installed through inline installation.

Later this summer, inline installation will be retired on all platforms. Going forward, users will only be able to install extensions from within the Chrome Web Store, where they can view all information about an extension's functionality prior to installing.

Am I the only one who's assuming this will eventually allow Google to remove all adblockers from Chrome?

AI at Google: our principles

Sundar Pichai has outlined the rules the company will follow when it comes to the development and application of AI.

We recognize that such powerful technology raises equally powerful questions about its use. How AI is developed and used will have a significant impact on society for many years to come. As a leader in AI, we feel a deep responsibility to get this right. So today, we’re announcing seven principles to guide our work going forward. These are not theoretical concepts; they are concrete standards that will actively govern our research and product development and will impact our business decisions.

We acknowledge that this area is dynamic and evolving, and we will approach our work with humility, a commitment to internal and external engagement, and a willingness to adapt our approach as we learn over time.

It honestly blows my mind that we've already reached the point where we need to set rules for the development of artificial intelligence, and it blows my mind even more that we seem to have to rely on corporations self-regulating - which effectively means there are no rules at all. For now it feels like "artificial intelligence" isn't really intelligence in the sense of what humans and some other animals display, but once algorithms and computers start learning about more than jut identifying dog pictures or mimicking human voice inflections, things might snowball a lot quicker than we expect.

AI is clearly way beyond my comfort zone, and I find it very difficult to properly ascertain the risks involved. For once, I'd like society and governments to be on top of a technological development instead of discovering after the fact that we let it all go horribly wrong.

Google plans not to renew its contract with the US military

Google will not seek another contract for its controversial work providing artificial intelligence to the U.S. Department of Defense for analyzing drone footage after its current contract expires.

Google Cloud CEO Diane Greene announced the decision at a meeting with employees Friday morning, three sources told Gizmodo. The current contract expires in 2019 and there will not be a follow-up contract, Greene said. The meeting, dubbed Weather Report, is a weekly update on Google Cloud’s business.

Google would not choose to pursue Maven today because the backlash has been terrible for the company, Greene said, adding that the decision was made at a time when Google was more aggressively pursuing military work. The company plans to unveil new ethical principles about its use of AI next week. A Google spokesperson did not immediately respond to questions about Greene's comments.

A good move, and it shows that internal pressure can definitely work to enact change inside a corporation.

How a Pentagon contract became an identity crisis for Google

Dr. Li's concern about the implications of military contracts for Google has proved prescient. The company's relationship with the Defense Department since it won a share of the contract for the Maven program, which uses artificial intelligence to interpret video images and could be used to improve the targeting of drone strikes, has touched off an existential crisis, according to emails and documents reviewed by The Times as well as interviews with about a dozen current and former Google employees.

It has fractured Google's work force, fueled heated staff meetings and internal exchanges, and prompted some employees to resign. The dispute has caused grief for some senior Google officials, including Dr. Li, as they try to straddle the gap between scientists with deep moral objections and salespeople salivating over defense contracts.

"Don't be evil" and drone strikes simply don't mix. There's not much more to it, and it makes perfect sense that Google employees are having issues with this. How Google handles this will mark an important turning point for the company.

Google’s Duplex will warn that calls are recorded

Since Google revealed a robo-caller that sounds eerily human earlier this month, the company has faced plenty of questions about how it works. Employees got some answers this week.

On Thursday, the Alphabet Inc. unit shared more details on how the Duplex robot-calling feature will operate when it's released publicly, according to people familiar with the discussion. Duplex is an extension of the company's voice-based digital assistant that automatically phones local businesses and speaks with workers there to book appointments.

At Google’s weekly TGIF staff meeting on Thursday, executives gave employees their first full Duplex demo and told them the bot would identify itself as the Google assistant. It will also inform people on the phone that the line is being recorded in certain jurisdictions, the people said. They asked not to be identified discussing private matters. A Google spokesman declined to comment.

This is a good step, and while the technology is awesome, I'm still quite reluctant about whether or not we really need this. Aside from the very legitimate use cases for people with disabilities, to whom this technology could be life-changing, I'm wondering just what regular users get out of it.

Selfish Ledger is an unsettling vision of Google social engineering

Google has built a multibillion-dollar business out of knowing everything about its users. Now, a video produced within Google and obtained by The Verge offers a stunningly ambitious and unsettling look at how some at the company envision using that information in the future.

The video was made in late 2016 by Nick Foster, the head of design at X (formerly Google X), and shared internally within Google. It imagines a future of total data collection, where Google helps nudge users into alignment with their goals, custom-prints personalized devices to collect more data, and even guides the behavior of entire populations to solve global problems like poverty and disease.

This is exactly as dystopian and deeply creepy as you think it is. My biggest concern is not that this video exists or that companies such as Google are thinking about this - my biggest concern is that a whole generation of people already seem to accept this as the new normal even before it's a reality.