Mark Zuckerberg: “The future is private”. Sundar Pichai: ~The present is private~. While both CEO’s made protecting user data a central theme of their conference keynotes this month, Facebook’s product updates were mostly vague vaporware while Google’s were either ready to ship or ready to demo. The contrast highlights the divergence in strategy between the two tech giants.
For Facebook, privacy is a talking point meant to boost confidence in sharing, deter regulators, and repair its battered image. For Google, privacy is functional, going hand-in-hand with on-device data processing to make features faster and more widely accessible.
Everyone wants tech to be more private, but we must discern between promises and delivery. Like “mobile”, “on-demand”, “AI”, and “blockchain” before it, “privacy” can’t be taken at face value. We deserve improvements to the core of how our software and hardware work, not cosmetic add-ons and instantiations no one is asking for.
At Facebook’s F8 last week, we heard from Zuckerberg about how “Privacy gives us the freedom to be ourselves” and he reiterated how that would happen through ephemerality and secure data storage. He said Messenger and Instagram Direct will become encrypted…eventually…which Zuckerberg had already announced in January and detailed in March. We didn’t get the Clear History feature that Zuckerberg made the privacy centerpiece of his 2018 conference, or anything about the Data Transfer Project that’s been silent for the 10 months since it’s reveal.
What users did get was a clumsy joke from Zuckerberg about how “I get that a lot of people aren’t sure that we’re serious about this. I know that we don’t exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now to put it lightly. But I’m committed to doing this well.” No one laughed. At least he admitted that “It’s not going to happen overnight.”
But it shouldn’t have to. Facebook made its first massive privacy mistake in 2007 with Beacon, which quietly relayed your off-site ecommerce and web activity to your friends. It’s had 12 years, a deal with the FTC promising to improve, countless screwups and apologies, the democracy-shaking Cambridge Analytica scandal, and hours of being grilled by congress to get serious about the problem. That makes it clear that if “the future is private”, then the past wasn’t. Facebook is too late here to receive the benefit of the doubt.
At Google’s I/O, we saw demos from Pichai showing how “our work on privacy and security is never done. And we want to do more to stay ahead of constantly evolving user expectations.” Instead of waiting to fall so far behind that users demand more privacy, Google has been steadily working on it for the past decade since it introduced Chrome incognito mode. It’s changed directions away from using Gmail content to target ads and allowing any developer to request access to your email, though there are plenty of sins to atone for. Now when the company is hit with scandals, it’s typically over its frightening efficiency as with its cancelled Project Maven AI military tech, not its creepiness.
Google made more progress on privacy in low-key updates in the runup to I/O than Facebook did on stage. In the past month it launched the ability to use your Android device as a physical security key, and a new auto-delete feature rolling out in the coming weeks that erases your web and app activity after 3 or 18 months. Then in its keynote today, it published “privacy commitments” for Made By Google products like Nest detailing exactly how they use your data and your control over that. For example, the new Nest Home Max does all its Face Match processing on device so facial recognition data isn’t sent to Google. Failing to note there’s a microphone in its Nest security alarm did cause an uproar in February, but the company has already course-corrected
That concept of on-device processing is a hallmark of the new Android 10 Q operating system. Opening in beta to developers today, it comes with almost 50 new security and privacy features like TLS 1.3 support and Mac address randomization. Google Assistant will now be better protected, Pichai told a cheering crowd. “Further advances in deep learning have allowed us to combine and shrink the 100 gigabyte models down to half a gigabyte — small enough to bring it onto mobile devices.” This makes Assistant not only more private, but fast enough that it’s quicker to navigate your phone by voice than touch. Here, privacy and utility intertwine.
The result is that Google can listen to video chats and caption them for you in real-time, transcribe in-person conversations, or relay aloud your typed responses to a phone call without transmitting audio data to the cloud. That could be a huge help if you’re hearing or vision impaired, or just have your hands full. A lot of the new Assistant features coming to Google Pixel phones this year will even work in Airplane mode. Pichai says that “Gboard is already using federated learning to improve next word prediction, as well as emoji prediction across 10s of millions of devices” by using on-phone processing so only improvements to Google’s AI are sent to the company, not what you typed.
Google’s senior director of Android Stephanie Cuthbertson hammered the idea home, noting that “On device machine learning powers everything from these incredible breakthroughs like Live Captions to helpful everyday features like Smart Reply. And it does this with no user input ever leaving the phone, all of which protects user privacy.” Apple pioneered much of the on-device processing, and many Google features still rely on cloud computing, but it’s swiftly progressing.
When Google does make privacy announcements about things that aren’t about to ship, they’re significant and will be worth the wait. Chrome will implement anti-fingerprinting tech and change cookies to be more private so only the site that created them can use them. And Incognito Mode will soon come to the Google Maps and Search apps.
Pichai didn’t have to rely on grand proclamations, cringey jokes, or imaginary product changes to get his message across. Privacy isn’t just a means to an end for Google. It’s not a PR strategy. And it’s not some theoretical part of tomorrow like it is for Zuckerberg and Facebook. It’s now a natural part of building user-first technology…after 20 years of more cavalier attitudes towards data. That new approach is why the company dedicated to organizing the world’s information has been getting so little backlash lately.
With privacy, it’s all about show, don’t tell.
Smartphone sales down 6% as chip shortages begin to impact market – TechCrunch
Canalys reported this morning that global smartphone sales are off 6% this quarter, and it’s not because of lack of demand. It’s due to the worldwide chip shortage.
The pandemic has had a negative impact across supply chains, and chips have been particularly hard hit. Canalys principal analyst Ben Stanton says that manufacturers are trying to keep up as best they can, but the chip shortage is a legitimate roadblock right now. “On the supply side, chipset manufacturers are increasing prices to disincentivize over-ordering in an attempt to close the gap between demand and supply. But despite this, shortages will not ease until well into 2022,” he said in a statement.
What did the market look like this past quarter as a result of these supply chain issues? Well, the usual suspects maintained their market share positions with Samsung holding steady year over year at 23%. Meanwhile Apple saw YoY sales increase 3% to 15% this quarter. Xiaomi held steady in third place at 10% with no change YoY.
Manufacturers have to be concerned at this turn of events, especially as we head into the crucial holiday shopping season. Apple released the new iPhone 13 at the end of September, too late for this quarterly report, but no doubt timed for the shopping season. The chip shortage issues could put a damper on its plans. Even though both Samsung and Apple make their own chipsets for their mobile devices, each company is still feeling the impact of the chip component shortage.
As a result, Stanton says it will be unlikely consumers will see any cost cutting this year, as manufacturing costs continue to spiral upward. Instead, he anticipates that we may see more bundling of phones with other devices as a buying incentive. “Customers should expect smartphone discounting this year to be less aggressive. But to avoid customer disappointment, smartphone brands which are constrained on margin should look to bundle other devices, such as wearables and IoT to create good incentives for customers.”
CNBC reported just yesterday that the consumer chip shortage could persist even longer than Stanton is predicting, perhaps as long as two to three years, according to president of Hisense, Jia Shaoqian, whose company makes devices like home appliances and consumer goods.
Google modernizes US mobile search results with continuous scrolling – TechCrunch
Google announced today it’s changing the way search works on mobile devices, initially in the U.S. Now, when you reach the bottom of a set of search results on your phone, you won’t have to tap to go to the next page. Instead, the next set of results will automatically load so you can continuously scroll down to see more information.
The change will roll out on the mobile web and will be supported on the Google mobile app for both iOS and Android in the U.S. for most English-language searches for the time being. Because it’s a staggered release, you may initially encounter some results which scroll and others that do not.
While most people find what they’re looking for in the first few results, says Google, those who are looking for additional information tend to browse through four pages of search results. That’s why the company is making the change, we’re told. Now, those users will be able to more seamlessly move between pages without having to click the “see more” button at the bottom of the page.
Google notes this could be helpful in particular for searches where people are looking for a variety of ideas or inspiration on a given topic, instead of just quick answers.
However, there are other benefits of this design, as well, which Google did not reference.
For starters, the continuous scroll doesn’t force you to stop at some arbitrary point in your search then tap a link to move forward — a holdover from the desktop era of web search. That “click for more” type of design feels outdated in a world where in-app feeds — like Facebook’s News Feed for instance — present a never-ending stream of information and updates. And by continuing to scroll, Google’s users may end up spending more time in the app where they’ll also see more ads.
The continuous scroll could also give Google more flexibility in terms of ad placement. Instead of limiting ads to the top of a results page, they could be inserted amid the search results as you move down — more like how ads on social networking feeds appear.
While Google didn’t publicly detail its plans for ads with this change, the company told us upon follow up it will redistribute the number of text ads that appear between the top and bottom of pages for U.S.-English mobile queries. Now, text ads will show at the top of the second page and beyond, while fewer text ads will show at the bottom of each page. But, there is no change to how Shopping and Local ads show at this time, we understand.
In addition, as Google Search has become cluttered with info boxes, search suggestions, products to buy, and buttons that take you to other search verticals, like Videos, it’s become more difficult to tap the correct button to move forward in the search results. This is particularly true because Google will shade other buttons darker in hopes of catching your eye and encouraging a click to another destination.
The change to search follows a modern redesign of the results page on mobile announced earlier this year, which focused on making search results easier to read through the use of added whitespace in some areas and color in others; a larger, bolder font (Google’s own, in fact); and a move away from rounded, shaded boxes in favor of straight lines; among other things.
However, that change was more about how the search results looked, not how they functioned.
Google says the new continuous scroll will begin to roll out today in the U.S.
Spotify expands access to its in-car entertainment device ‘Car Thing’ – TechCrunch
Spotify’s in-car entertainment system known as just “Car Thing,” launched this spring on an invite-only basis, is now becoming more broadly available. The company announced today Car Thing will become available to U.S. users who want to purchase the $79.99 device. Previously, Spotify had distributed the product for just the cost of shipping during its limited release testing period, noting that this was Spotify’s first hardware and it wanted to “get things right.”
Now, Spotify says U.S. users who had previously signed up for the Car Thing waitlist will be offered the ability to purchase the device ahead of others. However, any current Spotify user — free or Premium — can sign up for the Car Thing waitlist. The product will roll out to these customers in time.
The device requires a Spotify Premium membership (either an Individual, Family or Student plan). Users will also need a smartphone for the mobile data. But you won’t need a paid subscription in order to enter your name on the waitlist at this time.
The device itself is a lightweight (3.4 oz.), thin (4.6″ x 2.5″ x 0.7″) music and podcast player that offers a combination of voice control, knobs, buttons, and a touchscreen display for navigating its menus and selecting the media you want to hear. Through Car Thing, users can access Spotify’s entire catalog of music and podcasts while in their vehicle.
The idea is to offer a way for vehicle owners without built-in infotainment systems, like Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, to have an easier way to access Spotify’s personalized listening experience.
Car Thing can be mounted inside the car in a number of different ways, thanks to the variety of different mounts that ship alongside the gadget along with a car charger and USB-C cable.
Its main interface features four preset buttons that let you save your favorite content for quick access. By default, these are configured with your Liked Songs and Spotify’s Daily Drive and Morning Commute playlists, with the last preset empty. You can change any of these to match your own preferences.
You can also speak to Car Thing using the “Hey Spotify” voice commands, which the device receives through its four microphones at the top. Currently, Spotify’s policy regarding its use of voice data explains the company will collect recordings and transcripts of what you say along with information about the content it returned to you, and may use the data to improve the feature over time.
Since its limited launch earlier this year, Spotify has already released some software updates aimed at improving the Car Thing experience. The company says it will continue to do so in the future, as well, as the device rolls out to more people.
Spotify did not say how many Car Thing devices have been shipped to date.
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