Friday, April 20, 2018

Google’s support of RCS without end-to-end encryption is irresponsible

Dieter Bohn from The Verge has an exclusive look at Google’s upcoming ‘Chat’ app and its use of Rich Communication Services (RCS). Together, they are the company’s latest attempt to solve the dumpster fire that is text messaging on Android.

RCS is a protocol backed by wireless carriers, and Google is the latest enabler. Here’s why I think it’s irresponsible.

Chat app and Rich Communication Services

Dieter:

Now, the company is doing something different. Instead of bringing a better app to the table, it’s trying to change the rules of the texting game, on a global scale. Google has been quietly corralling every major cellphone carrier on the planet into adopting technology to replace SMS. It’s going to be called “Chat,” and it’s based on a standard called the “Universal Profile for Rich Communication Services.” SMS is the default that everybody has to fall back to, and so Google’s goal is to make that default texting experience on an Android phone as good as other modern messaging apps.

Maybe the app will have more feature parity with iMessage, and that would be great for Android users. But what good is it when you factor in the following?

  1. The traffic path is no different than SMS. It goes phone > carrier > phone. We all know how much carriers love our data, and how easily it can be accessed or even subpoenaed.
  2. Also like SMS, RCS traffic is not encrypted end-to-end.

The above points are the largest problems with all of this. In a day and age where data breaches and the selling or mishandling of personal data are sadly commonplace, unencrypted traffic is simply irresponsible. Public awareness of security and privacy are more at the forefront and can only increase.

Why not replicate iMessage?

As Dieter talks about, Google also has self-imposed limitations because of Android’s openness. You see, they won’t go all in on a purely in-house messaging service (like iMessage), because every text would have to route through them. In essence, Google isn’t empowered to replicate iMessage because they share the Android ecosystem. Whereas Apple is the Apple ecosystem.

One of the major complaints about Apple is how closed off they are. Apparent here, the benefit is tighter integration within their ecosystem of apps, services, and hardware.

Dieter also thinks Apple will adopt RCS, but I don’t see them backing it for a couple reasons:

  1. Aside from lackluster encryption, it competes too directly with iMessage on a feature level.
  2. iMessage is a huge reason people don’t switch to Android.
  3. The entire protocol would have to be encrypted end-to-end and supported by all other manufacturers and their messaging apps. Sure, Apple supports (unencrypted) SMS right now, but only out of necessity and precedence.

I don’t see Apple replacing SMS or introducing RCS simply for the sake of iMessage-like features without the security.

If anything, this further cements iMessage as the texting king.

Update for clarity: my case is essentially for end-to-end encryption, so I made a couple small edits to make it clearer.

Friday, April 13, 2018

How Google identifies who's talking →

From the Google Research Blog

People are remarkably good at focusing their attention on a particular person in a noisy environment, mentally “muting” all other voices and sounds. Known as the cocktail party effect, this capability comes natural to us humans. However, automatic speech separation — separating an audio signal into its individual speech sources — while a well-studied problem, remains a significant challenge for computers.

I hope Apple makes similar advances in this area. Identification by voice will open up so many possibilities.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Apple hires John Giannandrea, Google’s AI chief →

Jack Nicas and Cade Metz for The New York Times:

Apple has hired Google’s chief of search and artificial intelligence, John Giannandrea, a major coup in its bid to catch up to the artificial intelligence technology of its rivals.

Apple said on Tuesday that Mr. Giannandrea will run Apple’s “machine learning and A.I. strategy,” and become one of 16 executives who report directly to Apple’s chief executive, Timothy D. Cook.

And:

“Our technology must be infused with the values we all hold dear,” Mr. Cook said Tuesday morning in an email to staff members obtained by The New York Times. “John shares our commitment to privacy and our thoughtful approach as we make computers even smarter and more personal.”

Now this is a huge hire. Apple must have ponied up big time, but I’m sure a guy like Giannandrea wouldn’t jump ship only because of money. Apple must have let on just enough about what he’s going to be working on for it to be worth it.

The note about privacy is a stark difference between how Google and Apple handle user data. The perception of Apple as lacking in AI/ML is mostly attributed to their hard privacy stances, whereas Google is more cavalier with user data. It’s going to be a hard problem for Apple and Giannandrea to solve, but all good things come with time. Apple is essentially saying we can have exceptional AI/ML and keep our privacy. That’s exactly what we need.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Google Home can now handle two commands at once →

Taylor Martin for CNET:

While Routines are still nowhere to be found, you can issue up to two commands to Google Home at once. You can say something like, “OK, Google, turn on the TV and what’s the weather?” Your TV with Chromecast ($35.00 at B&H Photo-Video) will power on and Google Home will tell you the weather for your location.

This worked with almost all the commands we tested. Traffic, however, only seemed to work sometimes. Other times Google Home just ignored the traffic request and responded to the second command. This feature is also limited to a string of two commands. Three or more commands will not work.

This is exactly what I asked for of smart speakers/assistants as a whole in this poorly-worded post.

Among the other examples given, for me, this would be extremely helpful to control two lights at once that aren’t exclusively part of a scene.

Previously, Google addressed my other request for adaptive volume with its Night Mode feature that lowers volume during preset times.

Too bad I don’t have a Google Home. Amazon needs to add this to their Echo line and Apple should take note for Siri/HomePod.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Google collects Android users’ locations even when location services are disabled →

Keith Collins for Quartz:

Since the beginning of 2017, Android phones have been collecting the addresses of nearby cellular towers—even when location services are disabled—and sending that data back to Google. The result is that Google, the unit of Alphabet behind Android, has access to data about individuals’ locations and their movements that go far beyond a reasonable consumer expectation of privacy.

Quartz observed the data collection occur and contacted Google, which confirmed the practice.

Explanation by Google:

“In January of this year, we began looking into using Cell ID codes as an additional signal to further improve the speed and performance of message delivery,” the Google spokesperson said in an email. “However, we never incorporated Cell ID into our network sync system, so that data was immediately discarded, and we updated it to no longer request Cell ID.”

Don’t be evil [and get caught]. ™

On a serious note, when location services are disabled, nothing better be using or logging my whereabouts. Furthermore, who is to say the data they collected was really discarded? Caveat emptor.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Pixel Buds sound like more bad design work by Google →

Sam Machkovech for Ars Technica wrote a great review on what sounds like a bad product — the new Pixel Buds, Google’s challenge to AirPods. As I started pulling out quotes to comment on, the common theme we as obvious — Pixel Buds sound like they are badly designed. I haven’t played with them myself, but I can see a trend emerging.

Design isn’t just about looks. It’s about the trade offs you have to make to accommodate underlying function. Here’s a quick parallel before we get into Sam’s review:

AirPods

No touch controls. You can set each pod to perform one function via double-tap. The choices are: Siri, Play/Pause, Next Track, or Previous Track. The input is recognized by a built in accelerometer, not a touch-sensitive pad. By the way, here’s my AirPods review if you haven’t read it.

Trade offs: while there is no way to have access to all functions at once directly from AirPods, the result is a nicer-looking earbud (in my opinion) that doesn’t get in the way. Most of the time, other people don’t even realize I’m wearing mine.

Pixel Buds

On the other hand, one Pixel Bud does have a touch sensitive surface for playback control via gestures.

Trade offs: while you do have access to all playback controls, you have these gaudy, circular pads sticking out of your ear that can be prone to accidental touches (see below). Its sheer obviousness is reminiscent of Google Glass.

Now, here’s a few quotes from Sam that illustrate this theme.

On earbud design:

[…] Instead of a stem extending from the primary earbud unit, Google attaches a larger plastic bubble. Thankfully, this increased size doesn’t add significant weight or bulk when wearing the things, but it also doesn’t seem to add particularly improved battery life or other hardware tweaks. (I also actually think the round design looks surprisingly cool in my ear canal. […]

And:

However, the Pixel Buds lack one of AirPods’ best features: sensing when they’re in your ears. Without this ability, the Pixel Buds’ touch-sensitive right earbud can easily get activated when you’re pulling it out or trying to firmly stick it in the charging case. […]

Sam likes the looks of the round disc, but it’s a hard pass for me. Here’s also what I meant about accidental touches.

On the case design:

But Google’s carrying case is definitively worse than Apple’s version. When you want to charge your Pixel Buds, you have to situate them perfectly into the case’s holes, and this requires fitting them in as if the holes were your ear canals, as opposed to the way the AirPods’ stems just fall into place. This isn’t necessarily difficult, but there is more of a required push-to-confirm feeling, and getting that wrong means you can miss the Buds’ crucial battery-charging connection via little golden connectors.

Sounds like a far cry from the AirPods case.

On audio quality:

With a lot of modern pop music, like the latest Kesha and Taylor Swift albums, these equalization effects add a noticeable “sparkle” to high-gloss production elements […] The issue comes from Google’s desire to emphasize the Buds’ speaker placement, which is split into three little openings—two for normal/higher frequencies, and one for bass resonance.[…]

[…] When the effect appeared to sound the way Google wanted, it was enough to make me say, “oh, these headphones are unique.” But I never felt like they made songs sound better and clearer, and they never drew out particular instruments in compelling ways.They did, at least, appear to find the right bass balance […]

[…] older songs sound decidedly flatter and muddier, and bass tones get lost in the mix. I even found this distinction played out in different decades of hip-hop production. […]

This sounds really bad. I hate when earbuds apply their own audio dressing to my music. I wouldn’t have AirPods if they pulled this crap.

On lack of function:

[…] I held a finger on my right Pixel Bud panel, said “set timer for 30 seconds,” and started pouring hot water. Thirty seconds later, the timer began beeping… but I couldn’t turn it off. Tapping my Pixel Bud did nothing.

Double-tapping will dismiss a timer (among other things) on AirPods.

On the language translation feature:

During a reveal event, Google demonstrated the Pixel Buds’ additional perk: hold a button down on your Buds and talk, and the translation will project from a Pixel 2 phone. Then the other person can speak in the other language, and the resulting translation will be piped directly into the Pixel Buds. Nifty!

Trouble is, that’s not exactly how it works. For one, in this use case, the non-Bud speaker has to be close enough to the phone to hold down an on-screen button and only when he/she speaks, at that. Additionally, when my Pixel 2 was in sleep mode or doing something else, and I held my finger on the right earpiece and said, “help me translate Spanish,” I’d run into Bud-phone sync issues. Either the Google Translate app wouldn’t boot as promised, or the app would boot but with the Pixel Buds not working. This happened a few times in public, often while describing this seemingly wondrous feature to a person at a coffee shop counter, to my utter embarrassment.

This is a really cool feature, but I’m sad to hear it doesn’t work as well as it could.

Here’s the truth: Google is still learning how to design their own hardware. Stemming from issues with Home Mini and Pixel 2 XL, this is just the latest development. Should we give them a pass? No. Do I think they are serious about making their own hardware? Yes. However, time will tell if they have the resolve to deliver without these issues. I hope they do.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Fake WhatsApp on Google Play Store downloaded by over one million →

Swati Khandelwal for The Hacker News:

Yesterday some users spotted a fake version of the most popular WhatsApp messaging app for Android on the official Google Play Store that has already tricked more than one million users into downloading it.

The app maker added a Unicode character space after the actual WhatsApp Inc. name, which in computer code reads WhatsApp+Inc%C2%A0.

However, this hidden character space at the end of the WhatsApp Inc. would be easily invisible to an average Android user browsing Google Play Store, allowing this dodgy version of the app to masquerade as a product of WhatsApp Inc.

According to Redditors, who first spotted this fake app on Friday, the app was not a chat app; instead, it served Android users with advertisements to download other apps.

What a total shit show. Google removed the app from the Play Store, but not before it was downloaded by one million people. Think about how damaging this could be to the WhatsApp brand. I also wonder how vulnerable this makes Google to a lawsuit.

Google has touted advanced malware scanning as a feature of Android 8.0 Oreo, dubbed Google Play Protect. That’s nice and all, but this protection should be baked in to the Play Store for everyone, not only for operating systems with a .2% market share. Turns out the often-complained about walled garden that is Apple’s App Store has its benefits.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Review Roundup: Google Pixel 2

Google’s second-generation Pixel impresses most reviewers, even if the screen quality is less than perfect. Here’s a couple reviews that caught my eye.

David Pierce for Wired on the camera:

I was in New Orleans for the weekend, and I took pictures of drunk people in bars, jazz bands, drunk people outdoors, and gators. All, of course, to put the Pixel 2 through its paces (which is why I will be expensing all my bar tabs, please and thank you). After about a week of using both models, the Pixel 2 and the larger Pixel 2 XL, but mostly the XL, I can safely say the Pixel 2 is the Android phone to buy. Not because it has any particular otherworldly feature: the camera is fantastic, though not a full class above the Samsung Note 8 or the iPhone 8 Plus. As with last year, the Pixel 2 is just the phone that gets the most things right. It has the best, smartest, most reliable software. It’s fast. It’s waterproof. It’s interestingly and attractively designed. OK, fine, it doesn’t have a headphone jack. That sucks. But the Pixel 2’s still the phone I recommend.

The impressive picture quality of the Pixel 2’s camera is a recurring theme amongst reviewers. Even though iPhone has typically been regarded as the industry benchmark, I gotta give it up for Google here for iterating so quickly on the Pixel’s original camera.

Dieter Bohn for The Verge on the screen:

The screen, especially on the 2 XL, has been polarizing. Google opted to tune the display to sRGB (the Galaxy S8, by comparison, offers four gamut options), so it looks a little more like the iPhone’s screen. But more than that, on the 2 XL the colors look muted in a way that many Android users I’ve shown it to found distasteful (even with the “vivid colors” setting turned on). I think many Android phones, especially from Samsung, are so vivid as to be phantasmagoric, so Google’s choice was to make this more “naturalistic.”

Part of the issue, Google says, is that Oreo is the first version of Android to have proper color space control. So until now, Android developers really didn’t have a way to control precisely how their colors would look on screens. The Pixel 2 is part of an effort to fix that, but even so, the more “naturalistic” color tuning on the Pixel 2 XL (and, to a lesser extent, the smaller Pixel 2) just looks a little off. The problem gets much worse when you look at the screen from angles, the color swings simply because that’s what pOLED does.

OLED itself isn’t perfect, but it’s damn nice, even if most people don’t like the pentile pixel arrangement typically found in these screens. iPhone X is confirmed to have such an arrangement, but Apple also said its the first OLED panel “worthy of iPhone”, so it will be interesting to see how it differs from Samsung’s normal offerings. pOLED, what LG makes and is in the Pixel 2, is even further behind and will require more iteration to catch up.

In my opinion, the screen is the most important part of a phone, especially in an age where the phone is essentially becoming the screen. For it to be anything less than stellar is unfortunate.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Google will ‘permanently remove’ Home Mini feature that led to constant recording →

Jacob Kastrenakes for The Verge:

Google has decided to “permanently remove” the feature that led to a “small number” of Home Mini units accidentally recording thousands of times a day, instead of just when a user triggers it. In a statement released today, the company said that it made the decision because “we want people to have complete peace of mind while using Google Home Mini.”

Google had seemingly hoped to return the top button functionality to the Home Mini at a later date, but now the company seems to have given up on that — either because it couldn’t figure out a way to do it, or simply out of an abundance of caution. (I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s both; the potential for the Mini to turn into a constant surveillance device would be a huge liability.) Either way, it’s not the biggest loss, but it’s not great to see such a major issue come up right as a product is about to ship.

With the top button gone, the Home Mini now has to be activated entirely by voice, which isn’t really a huge limitation since it’s designed to be a voice assistant. The Mini’s left and right buttons will continue to work for adjusting the volume.

I’m guessing most people rarely use a similar button on the full-size Google Home or Echo devices, but the fact that this basic functionality had to be completely disabled is a monumental screw up. Google is learning the hard way that making your own hardware isn’t as easy as it seems.

As Jacob alludes to, the optics of this aren’t great either, as Google is a company that profits mainly off user data.

All in all, this really is an unfortunate misstep — the smart home market’s maturity will depend on increased competition as a result of successful products. I quite like the fabric top, too. To me, it’s more aesthetically pleasing than the all-business-looking Echo Dot.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Google Home Night Mode will lower volume and lights during specified times →

Corbin Davenport for Android Police:

Google created a preview program for the Google Home back in August, allowing users to test upcoming features. A new option has appeared for Homes on the preview – Night Mode. With this, you can set a time span (and even specific days) for the Home to reduce its volume automatically and dim the speaker’s lights. In addition, you can also enable a new Do Not Disturb mode, which blocks sounds from reminders and other broadcasted messages. Alarms and timers will still be heard when DnD is turned on, just like on Android.

This is great, and the volume lowering addresses one of the feature requests I wrote about in a terribly-titled article a few months ago. Hopefully similar options come to Alexa and especially Siri, since HomePod is launching this December.