Google undermines US carrier RCS initiative by launching its own

Less than a month after the four US MNOs announced a joint RCS initiative for Android, Google has decided to launch its own.

Google was conspicuously absent from the announcement of the Cross Carrier Messaging Initiative by AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile US and Sprint last month. Considering it was all about championing RCS on Android you have to assume there had been some dialogue between the operators and Google, but the omission of the latter from the press release indicated progress had been slow.

Now, having not done anything significant about RCS in the US for over a decade, Google has suddenly found the motivation to upgrade all SMS messaging on Android to RCS. In a brief blog post Sanaz Ahari, Product Management Director at Google, explained all the cool new things US Android users will now be able to do via the text function. It could almost have been a CCMI press release.

It’s hard to see this as anything other than a direct attempt to undermine the nascent CCMI project. The US operators saw Google’s RCS apathy as an opportunity to add some value themselves, so Google acted quickly to pull the rug out from under them. It could be that some of the features operators reckon they’re able to uniquely offer, such as keeping user data out of Google’s hands, might still give them an advantage, but this looks like a major setback for them.

Android beat Windows mobile because of antitrust distraction – Bill Gates

Bill Gates has suggested if it wasn’t for the costly and prolonged antitrust lawsuit in 1998, Microsoft would be the dominant player in the mobile OS world not Google.

This lawsuit, which lasted roughly three years, proved to undermine the Microsoft dominance on the technology world. With the playing-field levelled for competition, Microsoft gradually fell back into the chasing peloton, though founder Bill Gates suggested there was a much bigger impact for the business.

“There’s no doubt that the antitrust lawsuit was bad for Microsoft, and we would have been more focused on creating the phone operating system,” said Gates at the DealBook Conference in New York. “Instead of using Android today, you would be using Windows Mobile.

“We were so close. I was just too distracted that I screwed that up because of the distraction. We were just three months too late with the release that Motorola would have used on a phone. It’s a winner take all matter for sure, now no-body here has ever heard of Windows Mobile, but oh well.”

Some might dismiss Gates’ proclamation, the OS did launch after all and was not in the same league as Android, though it is an interesting idea.

If Microsoft had not been spending so much time defending its PC software business, more attention and investment could have been directed to the mobile OS. The transition from home computer to the smartphone was after all one of the contributing factors to Microsoft’s decline from power.

Interestingly enough, Gates also claims that if he hadn’t had to defend the business in such an intense antitrust case, he wouldn’t have retired so early.

While Microsoft is now recapturing its dominant position, thanks to a focus on the cloud computing segment, it spent years lurking in the shadows as an also-ran in the technology segment. This was still a very profitable company, but it had fallen from the dizzy heights of the 80s and 90s. The world moved from the home computer to mobile, and Microsoft was slow to react.

On the other side of the equation, Google acquired Android and entered the mobile world. This is perhaps one of the smartest bits of business ever, as Google reportedly acquired Android for as little as $50 million. Without this OS, Google would not have dominated the mobile world and would not be anywhere near as profitable as it is today.

Gates might be exaggerating with his claims here, though the world certainly look a lot different if Microsoft had won the mobile OS race.

Google forms alliance with some Android security specialists

The App Defense Alliance brings together Google, ESET, Lookout, and Zimperium to combat baddies on Android.

Considering how huge and diverse the Android ecosystem is it’s surprising how few malware catastrophes it has had. Maybe that thanks in part to the work of companies like Lookout, that offer freemium security apps on the Play Store. Google has apparently decided to be a bit more proactive on the security front itself, but without undermining all the good work that has already been done, hence the creation of the App Defense Alliance.

Working closely with our industry partners gives us an opportunity to collaborate with some truly talented researchers in our field and the detection engines they’ve built,” blogged Dave Kleidermacher, VP, Android Security & Privacy. “This is all with the goal of, together, reducing the risk of app-based malware, identifying new threats, and protecting our users.”

The clever bit involves integrating the Google Play Protect detection systems with each partner’s scanning engines. This will result in several pairs of eyes having a close look at apps that are in the queue for publication on the Play store and, in theory, resuce the chances of any of them containing any moody code.

Judging by an interview Kleidermacher gave Wired, from Google’s perspective this is all about coordinating the security efforts of a bunch of previously autonomous players. What’s in it for the other partners isn’t so obvious. In the Wired article they said all the right things about being greater than the sum of their parts, but we wouldn’t be surprised if a bit of Google cash helped persuade them too.

Google pushes further into hardware world with Fitbit purchase

Google has announced it has entered into a definitive agreement to acquire wearables brand Fitbit as it further explores its options in the hardware segments.

While wearable fitness devices are certainly a long-slog away from Google’s core competencies, it has already shown it is able to gain traction in the hardware segments with the success of its smart speaker. With the Pixel smartphones, smart speakers, Chromebook, the Nest Thermostats and now Fitbit, Google is certainly spreading its wings.

“Three and a half years ago, I joined Google to create compelling consumer devices and services for people around the world,” said Rick Osterloh, SVP of Devices & Services.

“Our hardware business is still relatively young, but we’ve built a strong foundation of capabilities and products, including Pixel smartphones and Pixelbooks, Nest family of devices for the home, and more.

“Google also remains committed to Wear OS and our ecosystem partners, and we plan to work closely with Fitbit to combine the best of our respective smartwatch and fitness tracker platforms. Looking ahead, we’re inspired by the opportunity to team with Fitbit to help more people with wearables.”

Although this has been a rumour which has been circulating for a while, it certainly looks like a sensible move for the internet giant. This is another example of Google doing what Google does; throws money at an idea which it likes.

The core Google business model is a relatively simple one. Its services are some of the best available, however to continue growth it needs to ensure these services are being pushed into new ecosystems. For example, it started as a desktop application, before buying Android and dominating the mobile space, then when the voice user interface started to gather steam, it brought out a range of smart speakers. Each of these moves takes the core Google services into a new domain, and Fitbit is no different.

The wearables segment has constantly promised the world but delivered only a fraction, though there does seem to be gathering momentum. Smart watches and other wearable devices are becoming more popular, and it does offer Google another opportunity to interact with the consumer in a different environment.

Google currently has a voice assistant which allows for the voice user interface, Fitbit devices will soon enough be powered by Google’s Wear OS, while it has been doing some promising work in gesture control also. These elements would all link back to Google’s other services, such as the Mapping product or search engine. Fitbit looks like an attractive investment because it offers Google another opportunity to make money in another domain.

Despite being an incredibly sound brand, Fitbit has been suffering in recent years. It found fame and success in delivering a niche wearable device for fitness enthusiasts, though as the wearables segment slowly evolved, it did not. Other more complex devices evolved to offer fitness elements, stealing some of the shine from the Fitbit. Its own attempts to create smart watches have been hit and miss.

Fitbit does need to evolve its product beyond the niche fitness devices which it produces today, but to develop something which is competitive in a market with the likes of Apple, it will take cash. Fortunately, this is something Google can contribute with abundance. However, Google will have to make sure it lets Fitbit be Fitbit.

Google will have to make sure it leaves the Fitbit team on its own to hire the right people and design the right products. Google’s heritage is in software after all and wearables need to marry substance and style. We suspect a horde of software engineers might not be the best suited to get too involved.

Should Google leave the Fitbit team to create an excellent product, just like it left Nest on its own, and marry the devices to its wider service ecosystem, this could be a very crafty acquisition.

Australia sues Google for misleading users over location data

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has taken Google to court over allegations that it misled consumers over the collection of their location data.

The ACCC reckons that from 2017 at the latest Google broke the law when it made on-screen representations to Android users that it alleges misled consumers about the location data Google collected or used when certain Google Account settings were enabled or disabled. In short the ACCC is claiming Google gave users insufficient information to ensure their location data wasn’t collected if they didn’t want it to be.

“We are taking court action against Google because we allege that as a result of these on-screen representations, Google has collected, kept and used highly sensitive and valuable personal information about consumers’ location without them making an informed choice,” said ACCC Chair Rod Sims.

The problem is that Android has multiple settings that need to be adjusted if you don’t want your location data collected and the ACCC is alleging that Google didn’t flag up all of them. That will have resulted in some consumers thinking their location data wasn’t being collected when it still was. At the very least it seems Google has been insufficiently clear in communicating with Android users about this stuff.

Underlying a lot of the current wave of litigation towards internet giants is the desire by regulators and governments to retrospectively address the personal data land grab that characterised the first decade or so of the modern mobile device. Free services such as Android and Facebook have always sought payment in kind through the collection of personal data but have usually been very opaque in the ways they have gone about it. Regulators are now trying to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Google reportedly bids to acquire Fitbit

As Apple continues to progress in the wearables market, Google parent Alphabet is rumoured to be looking at buying Fitbit.

The goss comes courtesy of Reuters, which has been hanging out with people who reckon they have inside knowledge of the matter. The story had almost nothing else to say on the matter, other than it not being a done deal yet and somewhat redundantly stressing that it’s sources are anonymous because they don’t want to be sacked for leaking stuff.

Stories like this often come from official, but clandestine channels with one or both of the companies in question. One reason for the acquiring company to do such a things is known as a trial balloon, in which it leaks a rumour to see how the market reacts. In this case Fitbits shares were up 27% at time of writing, but that’s probably just in anticipation of the typical premium paid for an acquisition. Perhaps more telling is the fact that Alphabet’s chares are up 2-3% on the rumour.

Google tends to buy device companies to contribute to the associated ecosystem around them, rather than a strategic aim to develop that line of business as a profit centre in its own right. The Android wearables market seems to have stalled, while Apple makes steady progress, so maybe Google had decided it’s time to intervene. Then again this could be a false alarm, in which case anyone who flogged their Fitbit stock today will be feeling pretty smug.

Google claims quantum computing breakthrough, IBM disagrees

Google says it has achieved ‘quantum supremacy’, as its Sycamore chip performed a calculation, which would have taken the world’s fastest supercomputer 10,000 years, in 200 seconds.

It seems quite a remarkable upgrade, but this is the potential of quantum computing. This is not a step-change in technology, but a revolution on the horizon.

Here, Google is claiming its 53-qubit computer performed a task in 200 seconds, which would have taken Summit, a supercomputer IBM built for the Department of Energy, 10,000 years. That said, IBM is disputing the claim suggesting Google is massively exaggerating how long it would take Summit to complete the same task. After some tweaks, IBM has said it would take Summit 2.5 days.

Despite the potential for exaggeration, this is still a breakthrough for Google.

For the moment, it seems to be nothing more than a humble brag. Like concept cars at the Tokyo Motor Show, the purpose is to inflate the ego of Google and create a perception of market leadership in the quantum computing world. Although this is an area which could be critically important for the digital economy in years to come, the technology is years away from being commercially viable.

Nonetheless, this is an impressive feat performed by the team. It demonstrates the value of persisting with quantum computing and will have forward-thinking, innovative data scientists around the world dreaming up possible applications of such power.

At the most basic level, quantum computing is a new model of how to build a computer. The original concept is generally attributed to David Deutsch of Oxford University, who at a conference in 1984, pondered the possibility of designing a computer that was based exclusively on quantum rules. After publishing a paper a few months later, which you can see here if you are brave enough, the race to create a quantum computer began.

Today’s ‘classical’ computers store information in binary, where each bit is either on or off. Quantum computation use qubits, which can either be on or off, as well as being both on and off. This might sound incredibly complicated, but the best way to explain is to imagine a sphere.

In classical computing, a bit can be represented by the poles of the sphere, with zero representing the south pole and one representing the north, but in Quantum computing, any point of the sphere can be used to represent any point. This is achieved through a concept called superposition, which means ‘Qbits’ can be represented by a one or a zero, or both at the same time. For example, two qubits in a single superposition could represent four different scenarios.

Irrelevant as to whether you understand the theoretical science behind quantum computing, the important takeaway is that it will allow computers to store, analyse and transfer information much more efficiently. As you can see from the claim Google has made, completing a calculation in 200 seconds as opposed to 10,000 years is a considerable upgrade.

This achieved can be described as ‘quantum supremacy’, in that the chip has enabled a calculation which is realistically impossible on classical computing platforms. From IBM’s perspective, this is a step forward, but not ‘quantum supremacy’ if its computer can complete the same task in 2.5 days.

If this still sounds baffling and overly complex, this is because quantum computing is a field of technology only the tiniest of fractions of the worlds’ population understand. This is cutting-edge science.

“In many ways, the exercise of building a quantum computer is one long lesson in everything we don’t yet understand about the world around us,” said Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

“While the universe operates fundamentally at a quantum level, human beings don’t experience it that way. In fact, many principles of quantum mechanics directly contradict our surface level observations about nature. Yet the properties of quantum mechanics hold enormous potential for computing.”

What is worth taking away here is that understanding the science is not at all important once it has been figured out by people far more intelligent. All normal people need to understand is that this is a technology that will enable significant breakthroughs in the future.

This might sound patronising, but it is not supposed to. Your correspondent does not understand the mechanics of the combustion engine but does understand the journey between London and South Wales is significantly faster by car than on horse.

But what could these breakthroughs actually be?

On the security side, although quantum computing could crack the end-to-end encryption software which is considered unbreakable today, it could theoretically enable the creation of hack-proof replacements.

In artificial intelligence, machine learning is perfect area for quantum computing to be applied. The idea of machine learning is to collect data, analyse said data and provide incremental improvements to the algorithms which are being integrated into software. Analysing the data and applying the lessons learned takes time, which could be dramatically decreased with the introduction of quantum computing.

Looking at the pharmaceutical industry, in order to create new drugs, chemists need to understand the interactions between various molecules, proteins and chemicals to see if medicines will improve cure diseases or introduce dangerous side-effects. Due to the eye-watering number of combinations, this takes an extraordinary amount of time. Quantum computing could significantly reduce the time it takes to understand the interaction but could also be combined with analysing an individual’s genetic make-up to create personalised medicines.

These are three examples of how quantum computing could be applied, but there are dozens more. Weather forecasting could be improved, climate change models could be more accurate, or traffic could be better managed in city centres. As soon as the tools are available, innovators will come up with the ideas of how to best use the technology, probably coming up with solutions to challenges that do not exist today.

Leading this revolutionary approach to computing is incredibly important for any company which wants to dominate the cloud industry in the futuristic digital economy, which is perhaps the reason IBM felt it was necessary to dampen Google’s celebrations.

“Building quantum systems is a feat of science and engineering and benchmarking them is a formidable challenge,” IBM said on its own blog.

“Google’s experiment is an excellent demonstration of the progress in superconducting-based quantum computing, showing state-of-the-art gate fidelities on a 53-qubit device, but it should not be viewed as proof that quantum computers are “supreme” over classical computers.”

Google measured the success of its own quantum computer against IBM’s Summit, a supercomputer which is believed to be the most powerful in the world. By altering the way Summit approaches the same calculation Google used, IBM suggests Summit could come to the same conclusion in 2.5 days rather than 10,000 years.

Google still has the fastest machine, but according to IBM the speed increase does not deserve the title of ‘quantum supremacy’. It might not be practical to ask a computer to process a calculation for 2.5 days, but it is not impossible, therefore the milestone has not been reached.

What is worth noting is that a pinch of salt should be taken with both the Google and IBM claims. These are companies who are attempting to gain the edge and undermine a direct rival. There is probably some truth and exaggeration to both statements made.

And despite this being a remarkable breakthrough for Google, it is of course way too early to get exciting about the applications.

Not only is quantum computing still completely unaffordable for almost every application data scientists are dreaming about today, the calculation was very simple. Drug synthesis or traffic management where every traffic signal is attempting to understand the route of every car in a major city are much more complicated problems.

Scaling these technologies so they are affordable and feasible for commercial applications is still likely to be years away, but as Bill Gates famously stated: “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.”

Study suggests its quite easy to hack smart speakers

German security research consultancy Security Research Labs has dropped a security bomb on Amazon and Google, questioning the competence of security features and reviews.

As with all these revelations, the vulnerabilities were shared with the two companies prior to being made public. The hacks which have been discussed this week have now been addressed by Amazon and Google, though it does demonstrate the awareness consumers need to acquire should these devices maintain their presence in the living room.

“Alexa and Google Home are powerful, and often useful, listening devices in private environments,” the firm said in a blog entry.

“The privacy implications of an internet-connected microphone listening in to what you say are further reaching than previously understood. Users need to be more aware of the potential of malicious voice apps that abuse their smart speakers. Using a new voice app should be approached with a similar level of caution as installing a new app on your smartphone.”

Although there is no such thing as 100% secure anymore, the competency of Amazon and Google has been called into question here. Vulnerabilities are nothing new in the digital economy, though the simplicity of some of these hacks are a little bit embarrassing for the internet economy’s poster boys.

The first hack is quite remarkable in the sense it is so simple. Security Research Lab created an application using the normal means and even submitted the application for review by the Amazon and Google security teams. Once the application had been green lit, the team went back in and changed the functionality, which did not prompt a second review from either of the review teams.

In this example, Security Research Lab created a fake error message to replace the welcome message to make the user think the application had not started properly, for example ‘this application is not available in this country’. After forcing the speaker to remain silent for an extended period of time, another message is introduced requesting permission for a security update. During this second message, the user is prompted to change his/her password, which is then captured and sent back to the Security Research Lab.

It is often said the simplest ideas are usually the best, and this is the same in the hacking world. Phishing is one of the most simplistic means to hack an individuals account via email, and this approach from Security Research Lab is effectively a phishing campaign translated to the voice user interface.

Amazon or Google would of course never ask a user for their password in this manner, but we suspect there are many users who would simply go with the flow. According to a Symantec security report, 71.4% of targeted attacks involved the use of spear-phishing emails so the approach clearly works. And now it can be applied to the voice interface.

While losing your password is a worry, the second hack unveiled by Security Research Lab is a bit more nefarious.

Once again, the application designed for the smart speakers are altered after the review from the security teams at Amazon and Google, however it is to do with when the speakers actually stop listening to the user. By introducing a second ‘intent’ which is linked to a command for the smart speaker to halt all functionality, the session can be extended.

In short, the device continues to listen and record its surrounding, before sending the data back to the attacker. This is obviously a very simplistic explanation, for more detail we would suggest following this link to the Security Research Lab blog.

Both of these examples are remarkably simple to introduce as the security review function of both Amazon and Google looked to be nothing more than a box-ticking exercise. Changes are seemingly ignored once the application has been passed the first time, offering a lot of freedom to the hacker. Both Amazon and Google will now have introduced new processes to block such attacks and improve the security review system, though it does appear to be a massive oversight.

Aside from the inadequacies shown here by Amazon and Google, Security Research Lab is perhaps demonstrating some of the biggest dangers of the digital economy; a lack of awareness by the general public. Most people download apps without checking the security credentials or reputation of the developer, and the same assumption could be made for growing ecosystem for smart speakers.

Google launches a bunch of hardware

Internet giant Google has launched the latest version of its own smartphone, together with a bunch of other stuff, as it continues to expand its hardware offering.

The tagline for the Pixel 4 smartphone is that it’s the most helpful version yet. On the surface this is a reference to Google Assistant, which has been beefed up with even more AI power to ensure it knows what you want before you do, thus sparing you the pain and indignity of having to do things like choose, decide, think, etc.

On those rare occasions when the phone feels the need to consult its owner about their best interests, it’s further assisted by improved speech recognition, which is now largely processed locally. This feature also enables a new voice recorder app that will be able to transcribe in real time – very handy for lazy journalists.

Other than that the Pixel 4 seems to come with all the expected bells and whistles; an improved camera, better chips, etc. You can possibly find out a bit more in the first of the videos below, we’re not sure if the motion sensor will be more help or hinderance. It will ship globally on October 24, costing $799 for the regular one and $899 for one that’s a bit bigger.

On top of that Google also launched some new BlueTooth ear buds, a smart speaker called the Next Mini, a wifi router incorporating the Next Mini called Next Wifi and a new laptop called the Pixelbook Go. Goole has been generous with its YouTube videos for this launch so we’ll let them do the rest of the talking.