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Microsoft continues to build government security credentials ahead of JEDI decision – TechCrunch

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While the DoD is in the process of reviewing the $10 billion JEDI cloud contract RFPs (assuming the work continues during the government shutdown), Microsoft continues to build up its federal government security bona fides, regardless.

Today the company announced it has achieved the highest level of federal government clearance for the Outlook mobile app, allowing U.S. Government Community Cloud (GCC) High and Department of Defense employees to use the mobile app. This is on top of FedRamp compliance the company achieved last year.

“To meet the high level of government security and compliance requirements, we updated the Outlook mobile architecture so that it establishes a direct connection between the Outlook mobile app and the compliant Exchange Online backend services using a native Microsoft sync technology and removes middle tier services,” the company wrote in a blog post announcing the update.

The update will allow these highly security-conscious employees to access some of the more recent updates to Outlook Mobile, such as the ability to add a comment when canceling an event.

This is in line with government security updates the company made last year. While none of these changes are specifically designed to help win the $10 billion JEDI cloud contract, they certainly help make a case for Microsoft from a technology standpoint.

As Microsoft corporate vice president for Azure Julia White stated in a blog post last year, which we covered, “Moving forward, we are simplifying our approach to regulatory compliance for federal agencies, so that our government customers can gain access to innovation more rapidly.” The Outlook Mobile release is clearly in line with that.

Today’s announcement comes after the Pentagon announced just last week that it has awarded Microsoft a separate large contract for $1.7 billion. This involves providing Microsoft Enterprise Services for the Department of Defense (DoD), Coast Guard and the intelligence community, according to a statement from DoD.

All of this comes ahead of a decision on the massive $10 billion, winner-take-all cloud contract. Final RFPs were submitted in October and the DoD is expected to make a decision in April. The process has not been without controversy, with Oracle and IBM submitting formal protests even before the RFP deadline — and more recently, Oracle filing a lawsuit alleging the contract terms violate federal procurement laws. Oracle has been particularly concerned that the contract was designed to favor Amazon, a point the DoD has repeatedly denied.

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Google introduces Pixel Pass, an all-in-one subscription combining phones and premium services – TechCrunch

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Alongside the launch of the new Google Pixel 6 smartphones, the company also introduced a new way to purchase them: Pixel Pass. This all-in-one subscription service allows consumers to purchase a Pixel phone for a low monthly price, rather than paying for it all upfront. The service is available at $45 per month for the Pixel 6 and $55 per month for the Pixel 6 Pro — but it doesn’t just provide access to the phones themselves. Also included with the subscription are Google’s services, like storage, music, YouTube Premium and free apps and games.

Specifically, subscribers will have access to ad-free YouTube, aka YouTube Premium, typically $11.99 per month. This includes YouTube Music Premium, the company’s answer to Spotify and Apple Music, and its replacement for Google Play Music, which was wound down.

Pixel Pass subscribers will also get 200 GB of cloud storage with Google One, Google Store discounts and Google Play Pass — the otherwise $4.99 USD per month or $29.99 per year subscription, which offers a free selection of apps and games without in-app purchase or ads, similar to Apple Arcade.

The subscription additionally includes insurance, with Preferred Care coverage for hassle-free repairs and “life’s little accidents,” says Google. This is Google’s version of something like AppleCare for Apple devices.

The Pixel devices that ship with Pixel Pass are unlocked so they work with all major carriers.

Consumers can buy the service through the Google Store or with a phone plan on Google Fi, the company’s own cell service, Google says.

By paying for Pixel Pass as a subscription, device owners would save up to $294 over the course of two years, Google notes. But if they purchase through Google Fi, you’ll also save an additional $4 off your monthly Fi plan, equaling $414 in savings over the two years.

The subscription is designed for regular updaters who like to always carry the latest devices, but also want access to premium services. It’s clearly aimed to be the Google alternative to Apple’s own iPhone subscription plan, via the iPhone Upgrade Program. But while Apple offers its own set of subscription services separately through its newer Apple One subscription plans, the Pixel Pass bundles them in.

The new Pixel Pass with Pixel 6 is available for preorder today in the U.S. starting at $45 per month on the Google Store or via Google Fi.

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Google’s brand new Android 12 operating system launches today – TechCrunch

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With Android 12, the world’s most-used mobile operating system continues its steady march of carving out its unique selling points and finding differentiators from Apple’s iOS. Available for Pixel 3 and beyond, the new OS beefs up some of the strengths in the operating system, while adding some new features along the way.

When everyone has a phone that looks essentially like every other smartphone ever made, personalization becomes more important. That’s why Google brings the Material You feature to the OS – when you change your wallpaper, the entire Android 12 experience changes to match its colors. The OS includes color extraction algorithms which helps everything looks integrated and slick. Everything is personalizable, including the lockscreen, notifications, settings, widgets and even apps. Material You comes to Pixel first, and will be rolled out to devices from other device makers further down the line.

Fully customizable OS makes your phone look more… you.

Security and privacy are other themes across the OS. For example, Android 12 enables you to keep your precise location private from apps that, strictly, only need an approximate location to work their magic. You can also see when an app is using your mic or camera, with a new status-bar indicator. And if you want to turn off your camera and mic across the entire OS, you can turn them off in the Quick Settings with a pair of new toggles. The OS also adds additional features to lock down apps you’ve forgotten about, by automatically revoking permissions from apps after several months of lack of use.

The OS also finally divorces the connection between location and Bluetooth. As Google puts it: “While your wireless headphones need to connect to your phone, they probably don’t need to know where you are.” Android 12 makes that possible at long last.

Google introduced a ton of new Android features for Google Lens in previous releases of the OS – you can do optical character recognition on any screen shot, for example. Android 12 adds additional extensions to that functionality, such as ‘scrolling screen shots.” Just because you reach the end of your screen doesn’t mean you need to reach the end of your screenshot. New scrolling screenshots will allow you to capture all the content on the page in one image. Clever!

The new features extend beyond functionality; Android 12 also brings power-saving and better accessibility features. The company is also rolling out hot-updates, so you can keep using an app even while an update for the very same app is downloading and installing in the background. God forbid you’d have to put down Pokemon Go for a couple of minutes.

Google’s Android 12 operating system is rolling out to supported phones starting today.

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Google’s Pixel 6 camera smartens up snapshots with AI tools – TechCrunch

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Google’s latest flagship phones have an impressive set of automated, AI-powered tools to help make your photos look better, with smart blurs, object removal, and skin tone exposure. While we’ll have to test them out to see if they work as advertised, they could be useful for everyone from pixel peepers to casual snapshot takers.

The new cameras themselves are pretty impressive to start with. The main rear camera, shared by the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro, is a 50-megapixel beast with decent-sized pixel wells and an F/1.85 equivalent aperture (no, it doesn’t capture as much light as an F/1.8 on a DSLR, but it’s still good). The ultrawide one, also shared, is 12 megapixels and f/2.2 on a smaller sensor, so don’t expect mind-blowing image quality. The 6 Pro gets a 48-megapixel telephoto with less low light capability but a 4x equivalent zoom. They’re all stabilized and have laser-assisted autofocus.

Basically if you want the best quality in any situation, stick to the main camera, but if you’re sure about your light go ahead and fire up the wide or zoom. It sounds like all the new camera features work on all the cameras, but generally speaking the better the shot to start with, the better the final result.

The simplest tool to use is probably “face deblur.” How many times have you gotten the perfect shot but it’s not quite sharp? The Pixel Camera will automatically always capture multiple exposures (it’s part of the ordinary process of taking a picture now), and combines the main shot from one camera with a clear shot of the face captured with another. To do it, you just tap on a shot in your gallery that isn’t quite sharp and if there’s a “face deblur” option: boom.

Image Credits: Google

OK, it’s definitely kind of weird to have only the face sharp in a blurry photo, as you can see in the sample, but look: do you want the picture or not? Thought so.

Also in the blur department are two new “motion modes.” One is an “action pan” that assists in capturing a moving subject like a passing car clearly, while blurring the background “creatively.” That means it applies a directed zoom blur instead of the handheld blur it would normally have, so it looks a little ‘shoppy, if you will, but it’s a fun option. The other one is a long exposure helper that adds blur to moving subjects while keeping the background clear. Helpful for doing something like headlight streaks without a tripod. These will be found in their own motion mode area in the camera app.

An image on the beach before using 'magic eraser' and after, with background people removed.

Image Credits: Google

“Magic Eraser” is the most obviously “AI” thing here. If you take a picture and it’s great except someone just walked into the background or there’s a car parked in the scenic vista, it’ll help you zap those pesky real-world objects so you can forget they ever existed. Tap the tool and it’ll automatically highlight things you might want to remove, like distant people, cars, and according to the example they provided, even unsightly logs and other random features. Driftwood, though, on the beach…really? Fortunately you can pick which to throw in the memory hole, no pressure, or circle unrecognized objects and it will do its best to dispose of them.

“Speech Enhancement” isn’t for images, obviously, but when you’re in front camera mode you can opt to have the device tone down the ambient noise and focus on your voice. Basically Krisp by Google. If it works anywhere near as well you will probably want to use it all the time.

“Real Tone” is an interesting but potentially fraught feature that we’ll be looking into in more detail soon. Here’s how Google describes it: “We worked with a diverse set of expert image makers and photographers to tune our AWB [auto white balance], AE [auto exposure], and stray light algorithms to ensure that Google’s camera and imagery products work for everyone, of every skin tone.”

Photo of a family with dark skin sitting on the beach.

They look great, sure… but they’re models.

Basically they wanted to make sure that their “smart” camera’s core features don’t work better or look better on certain skin tones than others. This has happened many, many times before and it’s an insult and embarrassment when billion-dollar companies blow it over and over. Hopefully Real Tone works, but even if it does there is the fundamental question of whether it amounts to lightening or darkening someone’s skin in the photo — a sensitive matter for many people. “This feature cannot be turned off nor disabled,” Google says, so they must be confident. We’ll be testing this and talking with developers and photographers about the feature, so look for a deeper dive into this interesting but complex corner of the field.

It’s not entirely clear how many of these features will be available beyond the Pixel line of phones or when, but we’ll let you know what we find out.

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