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Project Loon

Earlier this month, Mike Cassidy, a project director at Google’s high-risk research division X, woke before dawn in the Northwest Brazilian state of Piau . It was already warm and humid. He drove for an hour to a clearing in a rural area and helped his team launch several high-altitude balloons with a payload of Internet connectivity technology-the nub of the project he directs called Loon. Then he jumped into another car to race against the balloons’ flight path, speeding along an unpaved road, dodging chickens and pigs, and finally arriving at Agua Fria, a tiny community on the outskirts of the town Campo Maior. Cassidy pulled up to a rural schoolhouse that had never been able to receive high-quality Internet signals. (Locals sometimes climb trees to try to get a signal for their mobile phones.)

Read the full story at Wired.

nexus7-refreshed

The new Google Nexus 7 is a big improvement over the original with a bunch of additions like LTE and a super high-resolution display – the best in tablets, in fact. And that’s driving a lot of first generation device owners to trade in their old Nexus 7, according to gadget buy-back site Gazelle. There was a 333 percent spike in the number of Nexus 7 tablets traded in compared to the same day last week, for example.

Between Tuesday and Wednesday, that spike was even higher – a 442 percent jump in Nexus 7 tablets happened between the day before Google’s official unveiling of the new model, and the day of. The Nexus 7 trade-in activity spiked so high that it made up nearly a quarter of all trade-ins for non-iPad tablets since the site began accepting them earlier this year.

Wednesday, the day Google made its announcement, was also the biggest Nexus 7 trade-in day at Gazelle to date, beating the next biggest day by 380 percent. That previous record was set when the new Nexus 7 leaked on July 17, which clearly prompted early adopters to take advantage of a small head start ahead of the big reveal.

The news means that Google Nexus 7 owners are probably happy with their devices and eager to grab new ones, by trading in their last-gen devices to fund their purchases, but there’s another stat that tells another side of the story: Gazelle saw no appreciable increase in iPad trade-ins on the new Nexus 7 launch day. That means Google probably isn’t luring iPad owners away from the iOS fold.

It’s probably not surprising to longtime tablet space watchers that the new Nexus 7, with all its apparent merit, isn’t an iPad killer. The Apple camp seems happy where they are, but the tablet market has plenty of room to grow; we’ll see if Google can expand outward, or if it’s mostly eating its own Nexus tail with this new model.

Chromecast

In what is a solid example of the best sort of problem to have, Google’s just-announced Chromecast video streaming dongle is already proving too damned popular for its own good.

At yesterday’s debut, Google announced that buyers of the $35 device would also be getting three free months of Netflix service with their purchase. Just 24 hours later, that deal is off. Sad trombone.

Why? “Overwhelming demand”, says the Googles. Someone had to pay for that service in the end, after all – so if Google can’t even keep these things on the shelves, they can probably get away with nippin’ out the Netflix perks.

With that said, those three free months might have been a non-trivial part of why the device was getting snatched up so quick. A streaming-only Netflix plan costs $8 per month ($24 for three months) and Google’s Netflix deal applied even if you were already a Netflix subscriber. For current Netflix customers (or for anyone who would be down to sign up for 3 months of free service) it brought the effective cost of the (already crazy cheap) Chromecast down to eleven dollars. At that point, there’s not even a decision to make.

If you snatched up a Chromecast before Google killed the deal: don’t worry. The LA Times got confirmation that Google will honor the promotion for all the early buyers, though it’s not entirely clear where they plan to draw the line.

Update: Amazon updated their product page to say they’ll honor the deal for anyone who ordered before 5:31 p.m. yesterday. Sucks for you, 5:32 ers!

[Disclosure: Google loaned me a Chromecast for the week so I can tinker with it. It’s going back (read: I’m not keeping it), but I’d rather disclose too much than disclose too little. Review should be up this weekend.]

app ops

As expected, Google officially confirmed Android 4.3 at its event on Wednesday with Android chief Sundar Pichai. Among the new features/improvements in the update are a redesigned camera interface, Bluetooth Low Energy support, performance improvements such as smoother animations, and multi-user restricted profiles. But there’s apparently something else that Google didn’t talk about. Android Police has unearthed a hidden app permissions manager that allows users to selectively disable certain permissions for apps.

The feature is apparently called App Ops, and lets users toggle app permissions – such as location and the ability to post notifications – on and off for individual apps. Android Police notes that a developer has already created an app (available here on Google Play if you have Android 4.3 installed) that foregrounds App Ops, and has been having a play around with it.

The basic idea of the feature is apparently to give Android users more flexibility over what apps can and can’t do, allowing them to choke off battery draining features, say, or rein in irritating notification behaviour. If Google does decide to fully implement App Ops as a user-facing feature, there are potential big benefits here, from a security and privacy point of view, being as it could give users fine-grained control over what each app can do.

Apps they might otherwise have been tentative about installing could presumably be fine-tuned to fit their tastes now – which may also have some developer benefits, if it helps drive overall installs.

However Android Police notes that while App Ops does work, the feature is clearly not ready for the prime time yet – while testing it with the Facebook app they found certain app permissions only appeared in the permissions list once the app had made use of them, for example. Such messiness likely explains why Google has hidden App Ops and wasn’t ready to talk about it on Wednesday. We’ve reached out to Mountain View to ask for its plans for the feature and will update this story with any response.

Another possible complication attached to the feature is user confusion if a user doesn’t realise that the reason a particular in-app feature isn’t working is because it has been toggled off at source. A similar problem can occur on some Android devices with the quick settings in the notification tray overriding the main setting for things like silencing sounds/ringtones. Add in per app permissions and the potential user confusion is enormous. Android Police notes that one way for Google to get round could be to include some kind of system notifications warning users when App Ops is limiting app permissions. Although that would get old pretty quick if users get nagged every time they open an app with restricted permissions.

It is also possible that the App Ops feature has been created by Google to power the multi-user restricted profiles feature it did announced on Wednesday, which allows for parental controls to be implemented on Android devices.

The Android platform also has the most malware activity associated with it of all the mobile platforms, so the App Ops feature could be something Google is lining up to help bolster security concerns attached to Android. For instance, the feature could allow users to block apps from making calls – to kill off premium rate phone call/SMS malware – or trace which apps have been making calls to identify rogue software.

google_translate

Google likes to create things that gather data, which can be used to determine intent and for all kinds of profitable purposes. There’s no bigger fish in that pond than the Babel fish – that invention of Douglas Adams’ in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series that instantly translates one language to another to make communication seamless. That’s because Google would be processing literally everything a person says to another (at least while travelling), which adds up to a lot of mineable data.

Google is working on exactly that kind of invention, according to a report from The Times today. Hugo Barra, Google’s VP of Android Product Management, told The Times that Google plans to make real-time translation devices that will translate language for simple conversation across language barriers. Already the system is “near-perfect” between some languages, Barra says, especially in environments where there is no background noise to confuse the input detection.

Google already offers Google Translate, which offers text translation, as well as entire webpage translation on the web. The goal now is to make instant back-and-forth conversation translation a practical, usable reality that can make it possible for someone to accomplish everything they need to in an unfamiliar language without learning a lick of it. As with most sci-fi staples, however, Google says this is likely still several years away from becoming a shipping product.

For Google, whose efforts include Google Now, the personal assistant and automated digital planner that aspires to anticipate your every need, building an instant human translation engine is not a surprising move. What’s surprising is that it works “perfectly” in certain conditions right now, and that we could all be walking around talking into one in just a few years time, which means it’ll be here before we know it. Time is an illusion, after all; lunchtime doubly so.