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With YouTube Music, Google is holding my speakers for ransom



In under six months, YouTube Music will be Google’s one-and-only music service. Google Play Music is scheduled to shut down at the end of the year, leaving YouTube as Google’s one-stop media brand. As part of this transition, YouTube Music recently added the last great Google Music feature to its lineup: music-library support. After an agonizingly slow rollout, this long-time Google Music user gave the service a whirl and is back to report: this is going to be a mess.

For those that aren’t aware, the “Music Library” feature lets you bring your own purchased music to the service. Google Music launched with the feature back in 2011, which let you upload your MP3s and whatever else to Google’s servers, and then you could stream or download them to your other devices. Google Music has its quirks, but it is a fantastic service for syncing your music collection across multiple devices, backing up your music, and putting your music into the Google Cast ecosystem for easy playback on a Google Home speaker or Android TV. YouTube’s takeover of the service includes an easy one-click library-transfer feature, which works great. The problem with YouTube Music are the restrictive playback rules, which are a major downgrade from Google Music.

I could sit here and complain for days about YouTube Music’s regressions, the maze-like UI, and the weird blending of random YouTube crap and my music collection. But what I really want to shout from the rooftops right now is this: YouTube Music doesn’t respect people who purchase music. If you bought your music, uploaded it to YouTube Music, and expect to be treated like you own the music, this service is not for you. If you bought a Google Home smart speaker or any other Google Cast device, Google’s public position right now is that you’ll need to pay a monthly fee to cast to your speaker once Google Music shuts down.

Buy the music, buy the speaker, and then buy the right to play the music on the speaker

YouTube Music is really only for The Music Renter—someone who wants to pay $10 per month, every month, forever, for “Music Premium.” This fee is to buy a monthly streaming license for music you do not own, and I’d imagine a good portion of it goes to music companies. When you don’t pay this rental fee, YouTube Music feels like a demo app.

I prefer to own my music, and I own a lot of independent music that wouldn’t be covered under this major-record-label-streaming-license anyway, so I have no interest in this service. The problem is YouTube Music also locks regular music-playback features behind this monthly rental fee, even for music you’ve uploaded to the service. The biggest offense is that you can’t use Google Cast without paying the rental fee, but when it’s music that I own and a speaker that I own, that’s really not OK. Google Music did not do this.

Enlarge / The Google Home / Google Nest family of speakers. You need a to pay a monthly fee to use them with YouTube Music.


I would be pretty offended if someone referred to me as a “free” user just because I don’t want to subscribe to Music Premium. I paid good money for plenty of music from all over the Web. I’ve paid hundreds of dollars for Google Home speakers, which (for the normal “medium” size) are $130 a pop. Thanks to the initial slow rollout of basic features to a Google Home, for a long time, music playback across multiple speakers was the only thing a Google Home could do well. When people purchased these speakers, Google Music was the official way to play your music on a Google Home, and of course, it did so without a monthly fee. When Google shuts down Google Music, Google will be taking its line of speakers and telling customers “If you want to continue playing music on your speakers, start paying a monthly fee.”

This seems insane, and it is hard to believe that it will actually happen, but that is how things stand right now. Before publishing this article, I contacted Google PR and tried to get someone to shoot down the idea of suddenly charging a monthly fee to use my speakers, but the company only reiterated that YouTube Music requires a monthly fee for Google Cast.

Google Cast support is built into many music apps and services, and with a single tap, you can send your music to any other Google Cast speakers on your local Wi-Fi network. Google Home speakers do have an alternative Bluetooth mode, where you can pair an arbitrary Bluetooth device to them and beam over music, but this comes with a ton of regressions over casting. First, you can’t use Bluetooth pair on a multispeaker group, only a single speaker. And remember, for a long time, multiroom music playback was a Google Home’s only selling point. Second, managing multiple Bluetooth devices, especially on Android, is a buggy, clunky nightmare, and something I definitely do not want to do. Third, Bluetooth is limited to the range of Bluetooth, while Google Cast works across the entire home network. Fourth, your device needs Bluetooth, so you can’t start music from a computer that doesn’t have Bluetooth. Fifth, you can’t start music playback with a voice command, which is, like, the entire point of a Google Home. Bluetooth playback is not a replacement for casting.

You also can’t download your uploaded music?

Pay money to download the songs you uploaded to us! I am not sure why there is a video option, I guess one or two videos sneaked into this playlist?
Enlarge / Pay money to download the songs you uploaded to us! I am not sure why there is a video option, I guess one or two videos sneaked into this playlist?

The other rental-fee oddity of YouTube Music compared to Google Music: you can’t download your music? Well, sometimes you can. You can download your entire library as a ZIP file on a PC, and you can download a single song in the app, but you can’t download a playlist in the app without paying the music rental fee. It doesn’t make any sense.

On Google Music, downloading your cloud-based music collection is absolutely something you should do if your phone has the space for it. Besides enabling offline playback, which is great to have, it also is just a general performance improvement. Why make a round trip to the Internet when you don’t have to? When new phones have anywhere between 128GB to 1TB of storage, downloading thousands of songs is really not a big deal. Google Music made this a bit difficult: you had to make a playlist of your music collection and then download that playlist, but at least the service would do it. YouTube Music wants to charge a fee.

But again, when I own the music, charging a fee to download it to my phone is not OK. I could just as easily plug in a USB cable and transfer my music over. I’m temporary “downloading” a song every time I stream it anyway—just let me save it. This will save my bandwidth and Google’s bandwidth and will improve performance. Google Music didn’t charge a fee for this.

Does anyone trust Google services anymore?

Right now, YouTube Music feels like a cash grab. Google isn’t just disrupting users by kicking them off a service and asking them to move other to another service—the company is also tightening the screws and hoping to pick up a few more monthly subscribers in the process.

If Google actually keeps these restrictions around when Google Music closes, I will rank it as one of the worst things the company has ever done. Google has been doing an incredible amount of damage to its brand and its ecosystem in recent years by shutting down product after product. Recently, we’ve seen it kill or plan to kill Google Inbox, Google Hangouts, Google+, Google Cloud Print, Google Allo, and YouTube Gaming, and this is on top of painful earlier shutdowns people still remember, like the death of Google Notepad and Google Reader.

The Google Music and Google Home transition is different though. All of those other services were free—or at least ad-supported—products. No money changed hands. When Google Music dies, Google will be taking a hardware product people paid for and bricking the music playback functionality unless they start paying a monthly fee.

I am really hoping the company reverses course on this, but I’m not sure what I’d do if the end-of-the-year comes and hundreds of dollars worth of speakers suddenly stop working.

This move would be up there with the death of the Works with Nest ecosystem, when Google demolished some people’s smart home setups because it wanted to shut down Nest accounts. At least that had the excuse of “not invented here”—Nest was an acquisition. The Google Music shutdown is purely Google’s attention deficit disorder in action. From an outside perspective, the company has no top-down direction and can’t seem to stick with products over the long haul. Google executives seem clueless when it comes to the damage the company is doing to its own brand, and shutdowns like this don’t just affect the individual users—they send a message to the entire tech industry that Google products can’t be trusted and aren’t worth investing your time in. We’re seeing Google reap what it has sown with the launch of Google Stadia—developers and users are staying away from the service because they expect Google to give up on it in a few years.

I would like to point out that YouTube made $15 billion dollars in 2019. The Google division is not struggling for cash. When will it be enough? Just try to do right by your users before you chase them all away.

Listing image by Jericho / Ron Amadeo

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YouTube flags horror video as “for kids,” won’t let creator change rating



Enlarge / YouTube thinks the dark and creepy “Local58TV” series is for kids.

Google’s wonderful content moderation bots are at it again. After previously doing things like including suicide instructions in a children’s video, and the whole Elsagate problem, YouTube is now flagging a horror video as “for kids.” Worst of all, this is against the creator’s wishes. The video was previously flagged as for ages 18 and up, and YouTube decided it was for kids and won’t let the creator restore its content rating.

The video in question is from horror series Local58TV. The creator, Kirs Straub, checked his account over the weekend to find that his not-for-kids content has been spotted by YouTube’s content moderation AI, and automatically marked for kids.

“For kids” in this context means Google has flagged the video for inclusion in the “YouTube Kids” app, which is a separate interface for YouTube that is supposed to only show a “safe” curated slice of YouTube. The “Kids” flag also means the video is forced to comply with US Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), so comments are turned off.

Local58TV has millions of views across its nine videos and is famous enough to have a Wikipedia page. The channel’s about page describes itself as “ANALOG HORROR AT 476 MHz. Unsettling shorts in the found footage/VHS aesthetic from Kris Straub.” The channel’s most popular video, “Contingency,” is a faux public service announcement from the “US Department for the Preservation of American Dignity.” The message, set to an ultra-creepy rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner, declares that America has lost the war and was forced to surrender. Before the occupiers arrive though, you can “take America with you” by murder/suiciding your family. The video continues with instructions. This is obviously not the type of channel that is for kids!

YouTube, this title does not mean what you think it means.
Enlarge / YouTube, this title does not mean what you think it means.

YouTube doesn’t get the Local58TV vibe though. It automatically flagged one episode, titled “Show For Children” as for children. You can see how an AI bot might get its wires crossed from that title, but it immediately says “Not for Children” in the description, and the creator, Straub, originally set the video’s age rating as “18+” when it was uploaded.

The episode is a black-and-white cartoon where a cute cartoon skeleton wanders around a graveyard looking for a cute cartoon girlfriend skeleton, only to find horrifying, more realistic skeletons and other creatures in the open graves. At the end of the video, seemingly from depression, the cute skeleton lays down in a grave and dies, turning into a realistic skeleton. The cartoon is something an AI bot might not understand, but a human could immediately tell the unsettling video is not kid-friendly. YouTube is certainly not hurting for money having done $28.8 billion in revenue last year, but it does not hire a significant number of human moderators.

YouTube not only flagged a video explicitly marked as “inappropriate for kids” as “made for kids” it also won’t let the creator change it back. The video’s content is now labeled “Made for kids (set by YouTube)” and Straub is forced to file an appeal with YouTube to get the video’s age rating corrected.

Even if you’re using robots for moderation, it doesn’t make a ton of sense for YouTube to be in this position. For every single video upload, YouTube asks if a video is kid-friendly or not. Since YouTube already has this data, it’s not clear why it would ever try to automatically categorize videos, especially by lowering an age rating that was explicitly set as “adults only.” For something as delicate and subjective as whether or not certain content should be viewed by a kid, it seems like Google should be erring on the side of caution.

🎵 One of these things is not like the others! One of these things, doesn't belong! 🎵
Enlarge / 🎵 One of these things is not like the others! One of these things, doesn’t belong! 🎵

At press time, Straub went public with the issue 20 hours ago and it hasn’t been resolved. The “Team YouTube” Twitter account said it was “looking into” the complaint nine hours ago. You can tell the video is still flagged for children due to the disabled comments section and the “Try YouTube Kids!” ad at the bottom. You also only get suggestions for other “kids” content, which, at a glance, does not appear to feature as much death as the usual Local58TV content.

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IDC: “All eyes will be on Apple” as Meta’s VR strategy “isn’t sustainable”



Enlarge / The Oculus Quest 2.

A recent media release from market research firm IDC predicts that Meta (the parent company of Facebook) may not be able to compete in the mixed-reality business in the long run if its strategy remains unchanged.

The media release offers a bird’s-eye view of the virtual reality hardware marketplace. In the release, IDC research manager Jitesh Ubrani said that, while “Meta continues to pour dollars into developing the metaverse, [the company’s] strategy of promoting low-cost hardware at the expense of profitability isn’t sustainable in the long run.”

A similar concern was raised by tech industry analyst Ming-Chi Kuo late last month. Kuo predicted that Meta would make moves to scale down investment in virtual reality, creating an opening for Apple and other competitors. He also wrote that Meta’s practice of selling VR headsets at a loss is unsustainable.

Currently, Meta owns 90 percent of the VR headset market, according to the IDC release. In distant second is ByteDance’s Pico, at just 4.5 percent. Overall, VR headset shipments jumped 241.6 percent year over year in the first quarter of 2022. But the industry faced significant supply issues in Q1 2021, contributing to “a favorable comparison” for this year’s Q1.

Like Kuo a couple of weeks ago, IDC research director Ramon Llamas said that “all eyes will be on Apple as it launches its first headset next year.” Apple’s headset is expected to be much more expensive than Meta’s offerings, driving up the average unit price for the product category across the board, and Llamas believes Apple’s offering “will appeal primarily to a small audience of early adopters and Apple fans.”

In other words, don’t expect the first Apple headset to ship vastly more units than Meta’s Oculus Quest 2 right out of the gate. It’s just a first step in a long-term plan to own the mixed-reality market. As several reports over the past couple of years have noted, that plan will ultimately involve low-cost AR glasses and other products that will seek to broaden the user base for mixed-reality hardware.

Apple and Meta are not the only companies working on mass-market mixed-reality hardware products. We reported in April that Amazon posted several job listings soliciting candidates who can help the company build an “advanced” AR/VR product. And in December, we learned from job listings that Google plans to build a new augmented-reality device and operating system.

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How to turn off Gmail’s new sidebar (and other ways to deal with New Gmail)



The new desktop Gmail design started rolling out this weekend. If you use the default theme, you’ll know it has arrived when your entire Gmail interface turns blue. Gmail’s new design first entered an opt-in preview in February, and after gathering feedback and fixing a few things, Google is pushing the design out to everyone. Everyone dislikes Gmail changes, so let’s talk about what’s different and how to turn it back.

A few things have changed between now and the February preview. The most striking change is the all-blue color scheme. Google’s blog post says: “You’ll notice the new navigation now features Material You, our updated, fresh look and feel for your Google apps.” “Material You” launched with Android 12 as a color-coordinated theming system that matched your OS color scheme with your wallpaper. There’s no color-matching with Gmail’s “Material You,” though, just the blue color scheme.

Gmail still has a theme system, so you can change the color to whatever you want. Click on the settings gear in the top right and then under the “theme” section, click “view all.” The background closest to Old Gmail is the solid “soft grey” background option. To truly match the Old Gmail background, you would want “white,” but that’s not an option. (You can also pick from your Google Photos collection via a “my photos” link at the bottom, and I tried uploading a solid-white background, but trying to apply it only brings up an error message). This “theme” screen is also where you can apply Gmail’s weirdly hidden dark mode: Just pick the black background option, and everything will switch over to light text on a dark background.

The other change you might want to make involves fixing our biggest complaint with New Gmail: that new, giant sidebar. Google has long had the strategy of shoving whatever new products it wants to promote into Gmail, and the new Gmail design comes with a big, full-height sidebar featuring only four icons: one for Gmail, two for Google Chat (Google’s latest messaging app), and one for Google Meet (Google’s version of Zoom meetings). Gmail already has a sidebar, but this new design adds a second sidebar, which feels like a big banner ad for Google’s other communication apps. Thankfully, in between the February preview and this on-by-default rollout, Google apparently listened to feedback and added the option to turn off the sidebar.

This new “no-sidebar” option isn’t very obvious, but you can kill the Gmail sidebar by turning off Google Chat and Google Meet. Just head to the settings gear, then the “Customize” link under “Chat and Meet.” Un-tick both checkboxes, and the sidebar will disappear, allowing you to reclaim a lot of screen real estate. It’s strange that New Gmail works this way when Old Gmail put Gmail controls, Google Chat, and Google Meet all in a single, adjustable sidebar, but that’s what Google chose to do.

Turning off the two-sidebar layout not only makes New Gmail look a lot more like Old Gmail—it also makes the regular Gmail sidebar work the way it used to. With the two-sidebar layout, clicking the hamburger button to collapse the sidebar only shows the app switcher and not any of the Gmail controls—you see links for Google Chat and Google Meet instead of “Inbox,” “Stars,” “Spam,” etc. When you turn off Google Chat and Meet, though, collapsing the Gmail sidebar once again shows Gmail controls inside Gmail! Huzzah.

If you really don’t like the new Gmail, you still can, for at least a little while longer, opt out of the new design. Click the settings gear, and you should still see a “Go back to the original view” option. This won’t last forever, though, and you’ll have to get used to New Gmail eventually. The original version was rough, but Google seems to have listened to the complaints about the second sidebar. If you tick the right settings boxes, you’ll see that there is no longer much difference between New Gmail and Old Gmail.

Listing image by Google

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