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A look inside Gmail’s product development process

By Megan Rose Dickey

Google has long been known as the leader in email, but it hasn’t always been that way.

In 1997, AOL was the world’s largest email provider with around ten million subscribers, but other providers were making headway. Hotmail, now part of Microsoft Outlook, launched in 1996, Yahoo Mail launched in 1997 and Gmail followed in 2004, becoming the most popular email provider in the world, with more than 1.5 billion active users as of October 2019.

Despite Google’s stronghold on the email market, other competitors have emerged over the years. Most recently, we’ve seen paid email products like Superhuman and Hey emerge. In light of new competitors to the space, as well as Google’s latest version of Gmail that more deeply integrates with Meet, Chat and Rooms, we asked Gmail Design Lead Jeroen Jillissen about what makes good email, how he and the team think about product design and more.

Here’s a lightly edited Q&A we had with Jillissen over Gmail.

Google has been at email since at least 2004. What does good email look like these days?

Generally speaking, a good email experience is not that different today than it was in 2004. It should be straightforward to use and should support the basic tasks like reading, writing, replying to and triaging emails. That said, nowadays there is a lot more email, in terms of volume, than there was in 2004, so we find that Gmail has many more opportunities to assist users in ways it didn’t before. For example, tabbed inboxes, which sorts your email into helpful categories like Primary, Social, Promotions, etc. in a simple, organized way so you can focus on what’s important to you. Also, we’ve introduced assistive features like Smart Compose and Smart Reply and nudges, plus robust security and spam protection to keep users safe. And lastly, we’ve made deeper integrations a priority: both across G Suite apps like Calendar, Keep, Tasks and most recently Chat and Meet, as well as with third-party services via the G Suite Marketplace.

How has Google’s hypothesis about email evolved over the years?

We see email as a very strong communication channel and the primary means of digital communication for many of our users and customers for many years to come. Most people still start their workday in email, which is still used for important use cases, such as more formal or external communications (i.e., with clients/customers), for record-keeping or easy access/reference, and for communications that need a little more thoughtfulness or consideration.

Facebook extends coronavirus work from home policy until July 2021

By Natasha Lomas

Facebook has joined Google in saying it will allow employees to work from home until the middle of next year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Based on guidance from health and government experts, as well as decisions drawn from our internal discussions about these matters, we are allowing employees to continue voluntarily working from home until July 2021,” a spokeswoman told the Reuters news agency.

Facebook also said it will provide employees with an additional $1,000 to spend on “home office needs.”

Late last month Google also extended its coronavirus remote work provision, saying staff would be able to continue working from home until the end of June 2021.

Both tech giants have major office presences in a number of cities around the world. And despite the pandemic forcing them into offering more flexible working arrangements than they usually do, the pair have continued to build out their physical office footprints, signaling a commitment to operating their own workplaces. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, given how much money they’ve ploughed in over the years to turn offices into perk-filled playgrounds designed to keep staff on site for longer — with benefits such as free snacks and meals, nap pods, video games arcade rooms and even health centers.)

Earlier this month, Facebook secured the main office lease on an iconic building in New York, for example — adding 730,000 square feet to its existing 2.2 million square feet of office space. Google has continued to push ahead with a flagship development in the U.K. capital’s King’s Cross area, with work resuming last month on the site for its planned London “landscraper” HQ.

In late July, Apple said staff won’t return to offices until at least early 2021 — cautioning that any return to physical offices would depend on whether an effective vaccine and/or successful therapeutics are available. So the iPhone maker looks prepared for a home-working coronavirus long haul.

As questions swirl over the future of the physical office now that human contact is itself a public health risk, the deepest pocketed tech giants are paradoxically showing they’re not willing to abandon the traditional workplace altogether and go all in on modern technologies that allow office work to be done remotely.

Twitter is an exception. During the first wave of the pandemic the social network firmly and fully embraced remote work, telling staff back in May that they can work from home forever if they wish.

Whether remote work played any role in the company’s recent account breach is one open question. It has said phone spear phishing was used to trick staff to gain network access credentials.

Certainly, security concerns have been generally raised about the risk of more staff working remotely during the pandemic — where they may be outside a corporate firewall and more vulnerable to attackers.

A Facebook spokeswoman did not respond when we asked whether the company will offer its own staff the option to work remotely permanently. But the company does not appear prepared to go so far — not least judging by signing new leases on massive office spaces.

Facebook has been retooling its approach to physical offices in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, announcing in May it would be setting up new company hubs in Denver, Dallas and Atlanta.

It also said it would focus on finding new hires in areas near its existing offices — including in cities such as San Diego, Portland, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said then that over the course of the next decade half of the company could be working fully remotely. Though he said certain kinds of roles would not be eligible for all-remote work — such as those doing work in divisions like hardware development, data centers, recruiting, policy and partnerships.

Google to roll out its digital learning platform to 23 million students and teachers in India’s Maharashtra state

By Manish Singh

Google has partnered with one of the largest states in India to provide its digital classroom services to tens of millions of students and teachers, the search giant said today, as it makes a further education push in the world’s second largest internet market.

The company, which recently announced plans to invest $10 billion in India, said it had partnered with the government of the western state of Maharashtra that will see 23 million students and teachers access Google’s education offering at no charge.

Thursday’s announcement follows a recent survey by the Maharashtra government in which it had sought teachers’ interest in digital classroom alternatives. More than 150,000 teachers signed up for the program in less than 48 hours, Google said.

Maharashtra is the worst hit Indian state by COVID-19, with more than 460,000 confirmed cases. The state, like others in India, complied with New Delhi’s lockdown order in late March that prompted schools and other public places to close across the nation.

“All of us had questions regarding the future of education. We have come a step closer to answering these questions due to the pandemic,” said Uddhav Thackeray, chief minister of Maharashtra, in a statement.

Varsha Gaikwad, the education minister of Maharashtra, said the partnership with Google will help her department roll out tech solutions to students in about 190,000 schools.

“Our goal is to make Maharashtra the most progressive state in education by making effective use of online resources, platforms, bandwidth and technology, using the power of the internet to reach out to the masses and bridge the gap in education,” she said.

The pandemic, which has brought several sectors to their knees in the country, has accelerated the growth of startups that operate digital learning platforms in the country. Byju’s, Facebook -backed Unacademy, Vedantu and Toppr among other startups have amassed tens of millions of new students since March this year.

Google is providing students and teachers with a range of services, including G Suite for Education, Google Forms for conducting quizzes and tests, access to Google Meet video conferencing services and Google Classroom, which enables educators to create, review and organize assignments, as well as communicate directly with students.

The company said it has also made Teach from Anywhere, a hub for educators, in Marathi, a very popular language in the state of Maharashtra.

“Our teachers and schools have the huge responsibility in shaping the future of our new generation, and we continue to be honored to play a role in offering digital tools that can enable more teachers to help even more students stay firmly on their journey of learning, during these times and beyond,” wrote Sanjay Gupta, country head and vice president of Google India, in a blog post.

The company has rushed to work with educators in India in recent months. Last month, Google announced that it had partnered with the Central Board of Secondary Education, a government body that oversees education in private and public schools in India, to provide its education offerings to more than 1 million teachers across 22,000 schools in India.

It also unveiled a grant of $1 million to Kaivalya Education Foundation (KEF), a foundation in India that works with partners to provide underprivileged children with education opportunities from Google.org, Google’s philanthropic arm.

Google’s global rival, Facebook, also partnered with CBSE last month to launch a certified curriculum on digital safety and online well-being, and augmented reality for students and educators in the country.

Google launches the final beta of Android 11

By Frederic Lardinois

With the launch of Android 11 getting closer, Google today launched the third and final beta of its mobile operating system ahead of its general availability. Google had previously delayed the beta program by about a month because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Image Credits: Google

Since Android 11 had already reached platform stability with Beta 2, most of the changes here are fixes and optimizations. As a Google spokesperson noted, “this beta is focused on helping developers put the finishing touches on their apps as they prepare for Android 11, including the official API 30 SDK and build tools for Android Studio.”

The one exception is some updates to the Exposure Notification System contact tracing API, which users can now use without turning on device location settings. Exposure Notification is an exception here, as all other Android apps need to have location settings on (and user permission to access it) to perform the kind of Bluetooth scanning Google is using for this API.

Otherwise, though, there are no surprises here, given that this has already been a pretty lengthy preview cycle. Mostly, Google really wants developers to make sure their apps are ready for the new version, which includes quite a few changes.

If you are brave enough, you can get the latest beta over the air as part of the Android Beta program. It’s available for Pixel 2, 3, 3a, 4 and (soon) 4a users.

UK reported to be ditching coronavirus contacts tracing in favor of ‘risk rating’ app

By Natasha Lomas

What’s going on with the UK’s coronavirus contacts tracing app? Reports in the national press today suggest a launch of the much delayed software will happen this month but also that the app will no longer be able to automatically carry out contacts tracing.

The Times reports that a repackaged version of the app will only provide users with information about infection levels in their local area. The newspaper also suggests the app will let users provide personal data in order to calculate a personal risk score.

The Mail also reports that the scaled back software will not be able to carry out automated contacts tracing.

We’ve reached out to the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) with questions and will update this report with any response. DHSC is the government department leading development of the software, after the NHS’s digital division handed the app off.

As the coronavirus pandemic spread around the world this year, digital contacts tracing has been looked to as a modern tool to COVID-19 by leveraging the near ubiquity of smartphones to try to understand individual infection risk based on device proximity.

In the UK, an earlier attempt to launch an NHS COVID-19 app to support efforts to contain the virus by automating exposure notifications using Bluetooth signals faltered after the government opted for a model that centralized exposure data. This triggered privacy concerns and meant it could not plug into an API offered by Apple and Google — whose tech supports decentralized coronavirus contacts tracing apps.

At the same time, multiple countries and regions in Europe have launched decentralized contacts tracing apps this year. These apps use Bluetooth signals as a proxy for calculating exposure risk — crunching data on device for privacy reasons — including, most recently, Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK.

However in the UK’s case, after initially heavily publicizing the forthcoming app — and urging the public to download it in its daily coronavirus briefings (despite the app not being available nationwide) —  the government appears to have stepped almost entirely away from digital contacts tracing, claiming the Apple -Google API does not provide enough data to accurately calculate exposure risk via Bluetooth.

Decentralized Bluetooth coronavirus contacts tracing apps that are up and running elsewhere Europe have reported total downloads and sometimes other bits of data. But there’s been no comprehensive assessment of how well they’re functioning as a COVID-fighting tool.

There have been some reports of bugs impacting operation in some cases, too. So it’s tricky to measure efficacy. Although the bald fact remains that having an app means there’s at least a chance it could identify contacts otherwise unknown to users, vs having no app and so no chance of that.

The Republic of Ireland is one of the European countries with a decentralized coronavirus contacts tracing app (which means it can interoperate with Northern Ireland’s app) — and it has defended how well the software is functioning, telling the BBC last month that 91 people had received a “close contact exposure alert” since launch. Although it’s not clear how many of them wouldn’t have been picked up via manual contacts tracing methods.

A government policy paper published at the end of last month which discussed the forthcoming DHSC app said it would allow citizens to: identify symptoms; order a test; and “feel supported” if they needed to self isolate. It would also let people scan a QR codes at venues they’ve visited “to aid contact tracing and help understand the spread of the virus”.

The government paper also claimed the app would let users “quickly identify when they have been exposed to people who have COVID-19 or locations that may have been the source of multiple infections” — but without providing details of how that would be achieved.

“Any services that require more information from a citizen will be provided only on the basis of explicit consent,” it added.

Ahead of the launch of this repackaged app it’s notable that DHSC disbanded an ethics committee which had been put in place to advise the NHS on the app. Once development was handed over to the government, the committee was thanked for its time and sent on its way.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s World at One program today, professor Lilian Edwards — who was a member of the ethics committee — expressed concern at the reports of the government’s latest plans for the app.

“Although the data collection is being presented as voluntary it’s completely non-privacy preserving,” she told the program, discussing The Times’ report which suggests users will be nudged to provide personal data with the carrot of a ‘personal risk score’. “It’s going to involve the collection of a lot of personal, sensitive data — perhaps your health status, your retirement status, your occupation etc.

“This seems, again, an odd approach given that we know one of the reasons why the previous app didn’t really take off was because there was rather a loss of public trust and confidence in it, because of the worries partly about privacy and about data collection — it not being this privacy-preserving decentralized approach.”

“To mix the two up seems a strange way to go forward to me in terms of restoring and embedding that trust and confidence that your data won’t be shared with people you don’t want it to be,” Edwards added. “Like maybe insurers. Or repurposed in ways that you don’t know about. So it seems rather contrary to the mission of restoring trust and confidence in the whole test and trace endeavour.”

Concerns have also been raised about another element of the government’s digital response to the coronavirus — after it rushed to ink contracts with a number of tech giants, including Palantir and Google, granting them access to NHS data.

It was far less keen to publish details of these contracts — requiring a legal challenge by Open Democracy, which is warning over the impact of “Silicon Valley thinking” applied to public health services.

In another concerning development, privacy experts warned recently that the UK’s test and trace program as a whole breaches national data protection laws, after it emerged last month that the government failed to carry out a legally required privacy impact assessment ahead of launch.

Google discontinues the Pixel 4, nine months after release

By Brian Heater

Days after announcing the Pixel 4a, Google has quietly discontinued sales of the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL. The move, noted early by the Verge, represents an extremely truncated lifecycle for a Google flagship — around half of the 18 months the company continued to sell its two predecessors.

Google already announced the imminent arrival of the Pixel 5, when it noted the forthcoming handset would be one of two Pixels devices to sport 5G, along with the Pixel 4a 5G.

The company confirmed the move in a statement, noting, “Google Store has sold through its inventory and completed sales of Pixel 4 [and] 4 XL. For people who are still interested in buying Pixel 4 [and] 4 XL, the product is available from some partners while supplies last. Just like all Pixel devices, Pixel 4 will continue to get software and security updates for at least three years from when the device first became available on the Google Store in the US.”

The Pixel 4 was a largely well-received device, owing mostly to impressive camera work. But the handset was hampered by bad battery life — something Google has since addressed in the 4a. The new budget handset also sports an excellent camera for its price point, making the Pixel 4’s  existence somewhat redundant. Though the end of the Pixel 4 XL does leave Google with a larger option.

The company has clearly been dealing with a kind of identity crisis with its smartphones. A recent management shakeup appears to point to a desire for a new direction for the line, which has long suffered from uneven sales. Among other things, Google entered an already saturated market and has had some trouble distinguishing its offerings from other Android handsets.

It remains to be seen whether the Pixel 5 will be the first device to benefit from the division’s new direction.

YouTube bans thousands of Chinese accounts to combat ‘coordinated influence operations’

By Devin Coldewey

YouTube has banned a large number of Chinese accounts it said were engaging in “coordinated influence operations” on political issues, the company announced today; 2,596 accounts from China alone were taken down from April to June, compared with 277 in the first three months of 2020.

“These channels mostly uploaded spammy, non-political content, but a small subset posted political content primarily in Chinese similar to the findings in a recent Graphika report, including content related to the U.S. response to COVID-19,” Google posted in its Threat Analysis Group bulletin for Q2.

The Graphika report, entitled “Return of the (Spamouflage) Dragon: Pro Chinese Spam Network Tries Again,” can be read here. It details a large set of accounts on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other social media that began to be activated early this year that appeared to be part of a global propaganda push:

The network made heavy use of video footage taken from pro-Chinese government channels, together with memes and lengthy texts in both Chinese and English. It interspersed its political content with spam posts, typically of scenery, basketball, models, and TikTok videos. These appeared designed to camouflage the operation’s political content, hence the name.

It’s the “return” of this particular spam dragon because it showed up last fall in a similar form, and whoever is pulling the strings appears undeterred by detection. New, sleeper and stolen accounts were amassed again and deployed for similar purposes, though now — as Google notes — with a COVID-19 twist.

When June rolled around, content was also being pushed related to the ongoing protests regarding the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and other racial justice matters.

The Google post notes that the Chinese campaign, as well as others from Russia and Iran, were multi-platform, as similar findings were reported by Facebook, Twitter and cybersecurity outfits like FireEye.

Having taken down 186 channels in April, 1,098 in May and 1,312 in June, we may be in for a bumper crop in the summer as well. Watch with care.

Twitter says Android security bug gave access to direct messages

By Zack Whittaker

Twitter says a security bug may have exposed the direct messages of Android app users, but said that there was no evidence that the vulnerability was ever exploited.

The bug could have allowed a malicious Android app running on the same device to siphon off a user’s direct messages stored in the Twitter app by bypassing Android’s in-built data permissions.

Twitter said, however, that the bug only worked on Android 8 (Oreo) and Android 9 (Pie), and has since been fixed.

A Twitter spokesperson told TechCrunch that the bug was reported by a security researcher through Twitter’s bug bounty platform, HackerOne, a “few weeks ago” and was investigated and fixed.

“Since then, we have been working to keep accounts secure,” said the spokesperson. “Now that the issue has been fixed, we’re letting people know.” Twitter said it waited to let its users know in order to prevent someone from learning about the issue and taking advantage of it before it was fixed — a common approach to reporting security flaws.

The notice sent to affected Twitter users. (Image: TechCrunch)

Twitter said about 4% of users are still running a vulnerable version of Twitter for Android, and will be notified to update the app as soon as possible. Many users began noticing in-app pop-ups notifying them of the issue.

News of the security issue comes just weeks after the company was hit by a hacker, who gained access to an internal “admin” tool, which along with two other accomplices hijacked high-profile Twitter accounts to spread a cryptocurrency scam that promised to “double your money.” The hack and subsequent scam netted over $100,000 in scammed funds.

The Justice Department charged three people — including one minor — allegedly responsible for the incident.

Google updates G Suite for mobile with dark mode support, Smart Compose for Docs and more

By Frederic Lardinois

Google today announced a major update to its mobile G Suite productivity apps.

Among these updates are the addition of a dark theme for Docs, Sheets and Slides, as well as the addition of Google’s Smart Compose technology to Docs on mobile and the ability to edit Microsoft Office documents without having to covert them. Other updates include a new vertically scrollable slide viewing experience in Slides, link previews and a new user interface for comments and action items. You can now also respond to comment on your documents directly from Gmail.

For the most part, these new features are now available on Android (or will be in the next few weeks) and then coming to iOS later, though Smart Compose is immediately available for both, while link previews are actually making their debut on iOS, with Android coming later.

Most of these additions simply bring existing desktop features to mobile, which has generally been the way Google has been rolling out new G Suite tools.

The new dark theme will surely get some attention, given that it has been a long time coming and that users now essentially expect this in their mobile apps. Google argues that it won’t just be easier on your eyes but that it can also “keep your battery alive longer” (though only phones with an OLED display will really see a difference there).

Image Credits: Google

You’re likely familiar with Smart Compose at this time, which is already available in Gmail and Docs on the web. Like everywhere else, it’ll try to finish your sentence for you, though given that typing is still more of a hassle on mobile, it’s surely a welcome addition for those who regularly have to write or edit documents on the go.

Even if your business is fully betting on G Suite, chances are somebody will still send you an Office document. On the web, G Suite could already handle these documents without any conversion. This same technology is now coming to mobile as well. It’s a handle feature, though I’m mostly surprised this wasn’t available on mobile before.

As for the rest of the new feature, the one worth calling out is the ability to respond to comments directly from Gmail. Last year, Google rolled out dynamic email on the web. I’m not sure I’ve really seen too many of these dynamic emails — which use AMP to bring dynamic content to your inbox — in the wild, but Google is now using this feature for Docs. “Instead of receiving individual email notifications when you’re mentioned in a comment in Docs, Sheets, or Slides, you’ll now see an up-to-date comment thread in Gmail, and you’ll be able to reply or resolve the comment, directly within the message,” the company explains.

 

Google Play Music to shut down starting in September, will disappear by December

By Sarah Perez

Google’s plans to wind down its Google Play Music service in favor of the company’s newer YouTube Music have been known for some time. But Google this week has given users a deadline on making the switch. The company says YouTube Music will fully replace Google Play Music in December 2020, at which point Google Play Music users will no longer be able to stream from or otherwise use the Google Play Music app.

Though December is the final deadline for being able to export from the Google Play Music app, your ability to stream from the Google Play Music app will end before then.

In September 2020, users in New Zealand and South Africa will be the first to lose access to stream or use the Google Play Music app. The rest of the world will lose their access in October.

However, Google will continue to make your content available for export through December. Through the transfer tool released in May, Google Play Music users will be able to export their playlists, uploads, purchases, likes and more to YouTube Music. Alternately, users can use the Google Takeout service to export their data and download their purchased and uploaded music.

For those considering making a switch to a rival streaming service, like Spotify, there aren’t official tools available, but there are third-party options, like Soundiiz, TuneMyMusic, MusConv, and others.

Google says it will also be making changes to the Google Play store and Music Manager.

Starting this month, users will no longer be able to make purchases or pre-order music from Google Play Music through Music Manager, nor will they be able to upload and download music.

The company has been preparing YouTube Music in advance of this shift to address complaints Google Play Music users had with earlier versions of the service. This year, Google increased playlist length from 1,000 to 5,000 songs and added support for uploads (up to 100K tracks — 50K more than on Google Play Music). It has also rolled out offline listening, lyrics, and Explore tab for discovery, and a tool for transferring podcast subscriptions and episode progress to Google Podcasts.

YouTube Music offers a variety of playlist options now, too, including collaborative playlists built with friends and new programmed playlists built by editors. Assistive technology now also make personalized suggestions of what to add when you’re building a YouTube Music playlist.

YouTube Music service has expanded its reach across platforms, as well, with support for Android TV, Google Maps (for music while navigating), and via Google Assistant in recent days.

For any user who doesn’t opt to move to YouTube Music, Google says subscriptions will be automatically canceled.

Google’s strategy with music has been overly complicated for some time (not unlike its strategy with messaging and communication apps). When users signed up for YouTube Premium (previously YouTube Red), they’d automatically receive access to Google Play Music, and vice versa. And Google continued to sell YouTube Music as a separate subscription. In other words, Google created a world where it wasn’t only competing against big streaming services like Apple Music, Spotify and Pandora, it was also competing against itself.

Now it’s hoping to shift its streamers to YouTube Music. The idea came about because YouTube for a long time has been a way to access free music, thanks to a deep catalog of officially licensed music videos, live performances and other music content. So why not upsell YouTube’s freeloading music fans on an ad-free, upgraded music experience? That strategy may have worked to some extent, but it’s more recently being challenged. Last week, Facebook announced deals with record labels to make music videos free on its platform, as well. If user behavior shifts as a result, YouTube’s ability to funnel free music fans into a premium product could be impacted, too.

 

Amazon inks cloud deal with Airtel in India

By Manish Singh

Amazon has found a new partner to expand the reach of its cloud services business AWS in India, the world’s second largest internet market.

On Wednesday, the e-commerce giant announced it has partnered with Bharti Airtel, the third-largest telecom operator in India with more than 300 million subscribers, to sell a wide-range of AWS offerings under Airtel Cloud brand to small, medium, and large-sized businesses in the country.

The deal could help AWS, which leads the cloud market in India, further expand its dominance in the country. The move follows a similar deal Reliance Jio, India’s largest telecom operator, struck with Microsoft last year to sell cloud services to small businesses. The two announced a 10-year partnership to “serve millions of customers.”

Airtel, which serves over 2,500 large enterprises and more than a million emerging businesses, itself signed a similar cloud deal with Google in January this year. That partnership is still in place.

“AWS brings over 175 services. We pretty much support any workload on the cloud. We have the largest and the most vibrant community of customers,” said Puneet Chandok, President of AWS in India and South Asia, said on a call with reporters.

The two companies will also collaborate on building new services and help existing customers migrate to Airtel Cloud, they said.

Today’s deal illustrates Airtel’s push to build businesses beyond its telecom venture, said Harmeen Mehta, Global CIO and Head of Cloud and Security Business at Airtel, said on the call.

Deals with carriers, which were very common a decade ago as tech giants looked to acquire new users in India, illustrates the phase of the cloud adoption in the nation.

Nearly half a billion people in India came online last decade. And slowly, small businesses and merchants are also beginning to use digital tools, storage services, and accept online payments.

India has emerged as one of the emerging leading grounds for cloud services. The public cloud services market of the country is estimated to reach $7.1 billion by 2024, according to research firm IDC.

This is a developing story. More to follow…

Anthony Levandowski sentenced to 18 months in prison, as new $4B lawsuit against Uber is filed

By Kirsten Korosec

Anthony Levandowski, the former Google engineer and serial entrepreneur who was at the center of a lawsuit between Uber and Waymo, has been sentenced to 18 months on one count of stealing trade secrets. 

Levandowski won’t be heading straight to prison, however. Judge William Alsup postponed his incarceration due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He will report to prison at a future date yet to be determined.

Judge Alsup said that home confinement would “[give] a green light to every future brilliant engineer to steal trade secrets. Prison time is the answer to that.”

During court proceedings today, Levandowski also agreed to pay $756,499.22 in restitution to Google and a fine of $90,000.

The U.S. District Attorney’s office had recommended a 27-month sentence arguing in court today that Levandowski had committed the crime for ego or greed, and that he remained a wealthy man. 

“It was wrong for him to take all of these files, and it erases the contributions of many, many other people that have also put their blood, sweat and tears into this project that makes a safer self-driving car,” prosecutor Katherine Wawrzyniak said in her closing statement. “When someone as brilliant as Mr Levandowski and as focused on his mission to create self driving cars to make the world safer and better, and that somehow excuses his actions, that’s wrong.”

Levandowski had sought a fine, 12 months home confinement and 200 hours of community service. 

Levandowski spoke briefly on his behalf: “The last three and a half years have forced me to come to terms with what I did. I want to take this time to apologize to my colleagues at Google for betraying their trust, and to my entire family for the price they have paid and will continue to pay for my actions.”

The sentencing is the latest in a series of legal blows that have seen Levandowski vilified as a thieving tech bro, unceremoniously ejected from Uber, and forced into bankruptcy by a $179 million award against him.

And yet, Levandowski is not skulking away. Even as he faced more than two years in prison, the maverick engineer was plotting a comeback that could see him netting upwards of $4 billion from Uber. 

TechCrunch has learned that Levandowski recently filed a lawsuit making explosive claims against Waymo and Uber that, if proven, could turn his fortunes around with a multi-billion dollar payout. [Whether this is a last-ditch effort by a desperate man whose career has been upended by his own poor choices or a viable claim against a double-dealing tech titan, will be up to the courts to decide.

This new lawsuit, filed as part of Levandowski’s bankruptcy proceedings, mostly focuses on Uber’s agreement to indemnify Levandowski against legal action when it bought his self-trucking company, Otto Trucking. It also includes new allegations concerning the settlement that Waymo and Uber reached over trade secret theft claims. 

“No new comment on this most recent desperate filing,” an Uber spokesperson said in an email.

The quick backstory 

The criminal case that led to Levandowski’s sentencing Tuesday, as well as related civil proceedings and this new lawsuit, are part of a multi-year legal saga that has entangled Levandowksi, Uber and Waymo, the former Google self-driving project that is now a business under Alphabet.

Levandowski was an engineer and one of the founding members in 2009 of the Google self-driving project, which was internally called Project Chauffeur. Levandowski was paid about $127 million by Google for his work on Project Chauffeur, according to the court documents.

In 2016, Levandowski left Google and started Otto with three other Google veterans: Lior Ron, Claire Delaunay and Don Burnette. Uber acquired Otto less than eight months later.

Two months after the acquisition, Google made two arbitration demands against Levandowski and Ron. Uber wasn’t a party to either arbitration. However, under the indemnification agreement between Uber and Levandowski, the company was compelled to defend him.

While the arbitrations played out, Waymo separately filed a lawsuit against Uber in February 2017 for trade secret theft and patent infringement. Waymo alleged in the suit, which went to trial but ended in a settlement in 2018, that Levandowski stole trade secrets, which were then used by Uber.

Under the settlement, Uber agreed to not incorporate Waymo’s confidential information into their hardware and software. Uber also agreed to pay a financial settlement that included 0.34% of Uber equity, per its Series G-1 round $72 billion valuation. That calculated at the time to about $244.8 million in Uber equity.

Startling allegations in new lawsuit

This history matters because it is at the center of this new lawsuit that Levandowski filed in July.

He claims that the terms of the Uber-Waymo settlement – which have never been made public – included an agreement that Uber would never hire or work with him again. Levandowski says that resulted in Uber also reneging on its promises to support his trucking business. 

At closing of the Otto acquisition, an earnout plan would have given its owners “a percent interest of billions in profit for Uber’s new trucking business,” the lawsuit alleges. Levandowski would be made a non-executive chairman and control the new trucking business. Alternatively, Uber could decline to close on the transaction but instead grant Levandowski an exclusive license to Otto’s and Uber’s self-driving technology.

The lawsuit says that neither occurred, and that Uber “threatened to leave the transaction in limbo and force Mr. Levandowski to engage in protracted litigation to enforce his rights under the Otto Trucking Merger Agreement.” Uber then “coerced Mr. Levandowski to resign from Otto Trucking and to sell his interest in the company at a significant discount,” the lawsuit alleges.

The upshot: Levandowski believes and claims in the lawsuit that he should be awarded earnouts associated with the profits of Uber Freight  — the new name of Otto Trucking  — an amount that “should be at least $4.128 billion.” Uber made Uber Freight a separate business unit in August 2018. It has since set up a headquarters in Chicago and pursued an aggressive expansion even as it suffers losses. Bloomberg recently reported Uber Freight was seeking investment at a valuation of $4BN. In short, Levandowski wants the whole company. 

In addition, Levandowski hopes to force Uber to pay the $179 million sum that was awarded to Google in arbitration. (Google, for its part, is keen for Levandowski to prevail. A filing it made in the new lawsuit states: “[Levandowski] cannot come close to fully repaying Google (or his other creditors) in this bankruptcy without recovering on his indemnification claim against Uber.”)

The lawsuit also contains the remarkable accusation that Levandowski may not have been the only Google employee to take the company’s self-driving car secrets with them when they left. It notes an independent expert found that Uber’s self-driving software contained problematic functions that might require it to enter into a license agreement for use of Waymo’s intellectual property. 

The lawsuit claims that Levandowski did not work on software at Google or Uber, and thus “those trade secrets did not come from Mr. Levandowski, but rather a different former Google employee.” It goes on to claim that Waymo and Uber “settled issues relating to theft of trade secrets by individuals who are not Levandowski.” It does not identify any such person. 

“No new comment on this most recent desperate filing,” an Uber spokesperson said in an email. 

Crime and punishment

In August 2019, the U.S. District Attorney charged Levandowski alone with 33 counts of theft and attempted theft of trade secrets while working at Google. The charges disrupted Levandowski’s most recent project and prompted him to step down as CEO from a startup he co-founded called Pronto.ai that is developing an advanced driver assistance system product for trucks.

Levandowski and the U.S. District Attorney reached a plea deal in March 2020 that allowed him to avoid a protracted legal fight and a potentially lengthy prison sentence. Under the plea agreement, Levandowski admitted to downloading thousands of files related to Project Chauffeur. Specifically, he pleaded guilty to count 33 of the indictment, which is related to taking what was known as the Chauffeur Weekly Update, a spreadsheet that contained a variety of details including quarterly goals and weekly metrics, the team’s objectives and key results as well as summaries of 15 technical challenges faced by the program and notes related to previous challenges that had been overcome, according to the filing.

Levandowski said in the plea agreement that he downloaded the Chauffeur Weekly Update to his personal laptop on or about January 17, 2016, and accessed the document after his resignation from Google, which occurred about 10 days later.

In a victim impact statement, Waymo wrote that Levandowski’s “misconduct was enormously disruptive and harmful to Waymo, constituted a betrayal,” and requested that his sentence include “a substantial period of incarceration.” 

With no end to the COVID, it is possible that Levandowski’s latest lawsuit will be resolved before he even reports to jail. He may have been sentenced as a bankrupt, but he could enter prison a billionaire. 

Parental control app Boomerang repeatedly blocked from Play Store, losing business

By Sarah Perez

Apple isn’t the only one accused of kicking out competitive solutions from its App Store. Google did the same — for over a month at least — or so alleges parental control app maker Boomerang. The company’s product competes with Google’s own Family Link solution for controlling screen time and children’s use of mobile devices. The company claims Google repeatedly removed its application from the Play Store for a variety of issues, including violations of Google’s “Deceptive Behavior Policy,” which relates to users’ inability to easily remove the application from their Android device.

The issue itself is complicated and an indication of how poor developer communication processes can make an existing problem worse, leading developers to complain of anti-competitive behaviors.

Like Apple, Google also has a set of rules developers have to agree to in order to publish apps on the Google Play store. The difficulty is that those rules are often haphazardly or unevenly enforced, requests for appeals are met with no replies or automated responses and, at the end of the day, there’s no way for a developer to reach a human and have a real discussion.

You may recall a similar situation involving screen time apps hit a group of screen time app makers last year. Apple then had suddenly removed a host of third-party screen time and parental control apps, shortly after introducing its own Screen Time solution within iOS 12. The company’s move was brought up during last week’s antitrust hearings in Congress, where Apple CEO Tim Cook insisted Apple’s decision was due to the risk to user privacy and security these apps caused.

The case with Boomerang is not that different. A developer gets kicked out of the Play Store and seems to have no way to escalate the appeal to an actual human to discuss the nuances of the situation further.

The Boomerang Ban

For starters, let’s acknowledge that it makes sense that the Play Store would have a policy against apps that are difficult to uninstall, as this would allow for a host of malware, spam and spyware applications to exist and torment users.

However, in the case of a parental control solution, the reality is that parents don’t want their kids to have the option to simply uninstall the program. In fact, Boomerang added the feature based on user feedback from parents.

Google itself puts its Family Link controls behind a parental PIN code and requires parents to sign into their Google account to remove the child’s account from a device, for instance.

Boomerang’s app required a similar course of action. In “Parent Mode,” parents would toggle a switch that says “prevent app uninstallation” in the app’s Settings to make the protection on the child device non-removable.

Image Credits: Boomerang

But despite the obvious intended use case here, Boomerang’s app was repeatedly flagged for the same “can’t uninstall app” reason by the Play Store’s app review process when it submitted updates and bug fixes.

This began on May 8th, 2020 and took over a month to resolve. The developer, Justin Payeur, submitted the first appeal on May 11th to test if the ban had just been triggered by Google’s “app review robots.” On May 13th, the app was re-approved without any human response or feedback to the appeals message he had sent to Google.

But then on June 30th, Boomerang was again flagged for the same reason: “can’t uninstall app.” Payeur filed a second appeal, explaining the feature is not on by default — it’s there for parents to use if they choose.

On July 6th, Boomerang had to inform users of the problem, as they had become increasingly frustrated they couldn’t find the app on Google Play. In a customer email that didn’t mince words, Boomerang wrote: “Google has become evil.” Complaints from users said that if the app didn’t offer the “prevent uninstall” feature, it wouldn’t be worth using.

On July 8th, Boomerang received a reply from Google with more information, explaining that Google doesn’t allow apps that change the user’s device settings or features outside the app without user’s knowledge or consent. Specifically, it also cited the app’s use of the “Google Accessibility Services API” in a manner that’s  in violation with the Play Store terms. Google said the app wouldn’t be approved until it removed functionality that prevented a user from removing or uninstalling the app from their device.

This requirement, though rooted in user security, disadvantages parental control apps compared with Google’s own Family Link offering. As Google’s help documentation indicates, removing a child’s account from an Android device requires parents to input a passcode — it can’t simply be uninstalled by the end user (the child).

Boomerang later that day received a second violation notification after it changed the app to be explicitly clear to the end user (the child) that the Device Administrator (a parent) would have permission to control the device, mimicking other apps Boomerang said were still live on Google Play.

After two more days with no reply from the Appeals team, Boomerang requested a phone call to discuss the situation. Google sent a brief email, saying it was merging the two active Appeals into one but no other information about the Appeal was provided.

On July 13th, Boomerang was informed Google was still examining the app. The company replied again to explain why a parental control app would have such a feature. The same day, Boomerang was alerted that older versions of its app in its internal testing area in the Play Console were being rejected. These versions were never published live, the company says. The rejections indicated Boomerang was “degrading device security” with its app.

The next day, Boomerang informed its user base that it may have to remove the feature they wanted and emailed Google to again point out the app now has clear consent included.

Image Credits: Boomerang; Email complains of “material impact” to business

Despite not having made any changes, Google informed Boomerang on July 16th it’s in violation of the “Elevated Privilege Abuse” section of the Google Play Malware policy. On July 19th, the company removed the additional app protection feature and on July 21st, Google again rejected the app for the same violation — over a feature that had now been removed.

Despite repeated emails, Boomerang didn’t receive any message from Google until an automated email arrived on July 24th. Again, Google sent no response to the emails where Payeur explains the violating feature had now been removed. Repeated emails through July 30th were also not responded to.

After hearing about Boomerang’s issues, TechCrunch asked Google on July 27th to explain its reasoning.

The company, after a few follow-ups, told TechCrunch on August 3rd that the issues with Boomerang — as later emails to Boomerang had said — were related to how the app implemented its features. Google does not allow apps to engage in “elevated privilege” abuse. And it doesn’t allow apps to abuse the Android Accessibility APIs to interfere with basic operations on a device.

Google also said it doesn’t allow any apps to use the same mechanism Boomerang does, including Google’s own. (Of course, Google’s own apps have the advantage of deep integrations with the Android OS. Developers can’t tap into some sort of “Family Link API,” for example, to gain a similar ability to control a child’s device.)

“We recognize the value of supervision apps in various contexts, and developers are free to create this experience with appropriate safeguards,” a Google spokesperson said.

More broadly, Boomerang’s experience is similar to what iOS parental control apps went through last year. Like those apps, Boomerang too bumped up against a security safeguard meant to protect an entire app store from abusive software. But the blanket rule leaves no wiggle room for exceptions. Google, meanwhile, argues its OS security is not meant to be “worked around” like this. But it has also at the same time offered no official means of interacting with its OS and own screen time/parental control features. Instead, alternative screen time apps have to figure out ways to basically hack the system to even exist in the first place, even though there’s clear consumer demand for their offerings.

Boomerang’s particular case also reveals the complexities involved with of having a business live or die by the whims of an app review process.

It’s easy enough to argue that the developer should have simply removed the feature and moved on, but the developer seemed to believe the feature would be fine — as evidenced by prior approvals and the approval received upon at least one of its appeals. Plus, the developer is incentivized to fight for the feature because it’s something users said they wanted — or rather, what they demanded, to make the app worth paying for.

Had someone from Google just picked up the phone and explained to Boomerang what’s wrong and what alternative methods would be permitted, the case may not have dragged on in such a manner. In the meantime, Boomerang likely lost user trust, and its removal definitely impacted its business in the near-term.

Reached for a follow-up, Payeur expressed continued frustration, despite the app now being re-approved for Play Store distribution.

“It took Google over a month to provide us with this feedback,” he said, referencing the forbidden API usage that was the real problem. “We are currently digesting this” he said, adding how difficult it was to not be able to talk to Google’s teams to get proper communication and feedback over the past several weeks.

Boomerang has begun collecting the names of other similarly impacted apps, like Filter Chrome, Minder Parental Control and Netsanity. The company says other apps can reach out privately to discuss, if they prefer.

More thoughts on growing podcasts

By Walter Thompson
Julian Shapiro Contributor
Julian Shapiro is the founder of BellCurve.com, a growth marketing team that trains startups in advanced growth, helps hire senior growth marketers and finds vetted growth agencies. He also writes at Julian.com.

We’ve aggregated many of the world’s best growth marketers into one community. Twice a month, we ask them to share their most effective growth tactics, and we compile them into this Growth Report.

This is how you stay up-to-date on growth marketing tactics — with advice that’s hard to find elsewhere.

Our community consists of startup founders and heads of growth. You can participate by joining Demand Curve’s marketing training program or its Slack group.

Without further ado, on to our community’s advice.


More thoughts on growing podcasts

Insights from Harry Morton of Lower Street.

Podcast growth is all about relationships. To increase your listenership, consider partnering with:

  1. Other podcasters. Do an episode swap where you play an episode of your show on theirs, and vice versa. Make sure the two podcasts share similarly minded audiences.
  2. Curators. Every podcast aggregator has someone responsible for curating their featured content. Look them up on LinkedIn. Reach out via email. Be their friend. Send them only your best stuff.
  3. Subscribers. You rise in Apple’s podcast charts (which account for 60% of podcast listenership) by having a subscriber growth spurt in a concentrated period of time (24-48 hours). So, when you release an episode, immediately run your audience promotions aggressively and all at once.

Increasing referral incentives might not increase referrals

Decrypted: How a teenager hacked Twitter, Garmin’s ransomware aftermath

By Zack Whittaker

A 17-year-old Florida teenager is accused of perpetrating one of the year’s biggest and most high-profile hacks: Twitter.

A federal 30-count indictment filed in Tampa said Graham Ivan Clark used a phone spearphishing attack to pivot through multiple layers of Twitter’s security and bypassed its two-factor authentication to gain access to an internal “admin” tool that let the hacker take over any account. With two accomplices named in a separate federal indictment, Clark — who went by the online handle “Kirk” — allegedly used the tool to hijack the accounts of dozens of celebrities and public figures, including Bill Gates, Elon Musk and former president Barack Obama, to post a cryptocurrency scam netting over $100,000 in bitcoin in just a few hours.

It was, by all accounts, a sophisticated attack that required technical skills and an ability to trick and deceive to pull off the scam. Some security professionals were impressed, comparing the attack to one that had the finesse and professionalism of a well-resourced nation-state attacker.

But a profile in The New York Times describes Clark was an “adept scammer with an explosive temper.”

In the teenager’s defense, the attack could have been much worse. Instead of pushing a scam that promised to “double your money,” Clark and his compatriots could have wreaked havoc. In 2013, hackers hijacked the Associated Press’ Twitter account and tweeted a fake bomb attack on the White House, sending the markets plummeting — only to quickly recover after the all-clear was given.

But with control of some of the world’s most popular Twitter accounts, Clark was for a few hours in July one of the most powerful people in the world. If found guilty, the teenager could spend his better years behind bars.

Here’s more from the past week.


THE BIG PICTURE

Garmin hobbles back after ransomware attack, but questions remain

Google-Fitbit deal to be scrutinized in Europe over data competition concerns

By Natasha Lomas

In a set-back for Google’s plan to acquire health wearable company Fitbit, the European Commission has announced it’s opening an investigation to dig into a range of competition concerns being attached to the proposal from multiple quarters.

This means the deal is on ice for a period of time that could last until early December.

The Commission said it has 90 working days to take a decision on the acquisition — so until December 9, 2020.

Commenting on opening an “in-depth investigation” in a statement, Commission EVP Margrethe Vestager — who heads up both competition policy and digital strategy for the bloc — said: “The use of wearable devices by European consumers is expected to grow significantly in the coming years. This will go hand in hand with an exponential growth of data generated through these devices. This data provides key insights about the life and the health situation of the users of these devices.Our investigation aims to ensure that control by Google over data collected through wearable devices as a result of the transaction does not distort competition.”

Google has responded to the EU brake on its ambitions with a blog post in which its devices & services chief seeks to defend the deal, arguing it will spur innovation and lead to increased competition.

“This deal is about devices, not data,” Google VP Rick Osterloh further claims.

The tech giant announced its desire to slip into Fitbit’s data-sets back in November, when it announced a plan to shell out $2.1BN in an all-cash deal to pick up the wearable maker.

Fast forward a few months and CEO Sundar Pichai is being taken to task by lawmakers on home turf for stuff like ‘helping destroy anonymity on the Internet‘. Last year’s already rowdy antitrust drum beat around big tech has become a full on rock festival so the mood music around tech acquisitions might finally be shifting.

Since news of Google’s plan to grab Fitbit dropped concerns about the deal have been raised all over Europe — with consumer groups, privacy regulators and competition and tech policy wonks all sounding the alarm at the prospect of letting the adtech giant gobble a device maker and help itself to a bunch of sensitive consumer health data in the process.

Digital privacy rights group, Privacy International — one of the not-for-profits that’s been urging regulators not to rubberstamp the deal — argues the acquisition would not only squeeze competition in the nascent digital health market, and also for wearables, but also reduce “what little pressure there currently is on Google to compete in relation to privacy options available to consumers (both existing and future Fitbit users), leading to even less competition on privacy standards and thereby enabling the further degradation of consumers’ privacy protections”, as it puts it.

So much noise is being made that Google has already played the ‘we promise not to…’ card that’s a favorite of data-mining tech giants. (Typically followed, a few years later, with a ‘we got ya sucker’ joker — as they go ahead and do the thing they totally said they wouldn’t.)

To wit: From the get-go Fitbit has claimed users’ “health and wellness data will not be used for Google ads”. Just like WhatsApp said nothing would change when Facebook bought them. (Er.)

Last month Reuters revisited the concession, in an “exclusive” report that cited “people familiar with the matter” who apparently told it the deal could be waved through if Google pledged not to use Fitbit data for ads.

It’s not clear where the leak underpinning its news report came from but Reuters also ran with a quote from a Google spokeswoman — who further claimed: “Throughout this process we have been clear about our commitment not to use Fitbit health and wellness data for Google ads and our responsibility to provide people with choice and control with their data.”

In the event, Google’s headline-grabbing promises to behave itself with Fitbit data have not prevented EU regulators from wading in for a closer look at competition concerns — which is exactly as it should be.

In truth, given the level of concern now being raised about tech giants’ market power and adtech giant Google specifically grabbing a treasure trove of consumer health data, a comprehensive probe is the very least regulators should be doing.

If digital policy history has shown anything over the past decade and where data is concerned it’s that the devil is always in the fine print detail. Moreover the fast pace of digital markets can mean a competitive threat may only be a micro pivot away from materializing. Theories of harm clearly need radically updating to take account of data-mining technosocial platform giants. And the Commission knows that — which is why it’s consulting on giving itself more powers to tackling tipping in digital markets. But it also needs to flex and exercise the powers it currently has. Such as opening a proper investigation — rather than gaily waving tech giant deals through.

Antitrust may now be flavor of the month where tech giants are concerned — with US lawmakers all but declaring war on digital robber barons at last month’s big subcommittee showdown in Congress. But it’s also worth noting EU competition regulators — for all their heavily publicized talk of properly regulating the digital sphere — have yet to block a single digital tech merger.

And it remains to be seen whether that record will change by December.

“The Commission is concerned that the proposed transaction would further entrench Google’s market position in the online advertising markets by increasing the already vast amount of data that Google could use for personalisation of the ads it serves and displays,” it writes in a press release today.

Following a preliminary assessment process of the deal, EU regulators said they have concerns about [emphasis theirs]:

  • “the impact of the transaction on the supply of online search and display advertising services (the sale of advertising space on, respectively, the result page of an internet search engine or other internet pages)”
  • and on “the supply of ‘ad tech’ services (analytics and digital tools used to facilitate the programmatic sale and purchase of digital advertising)”

“By acquiring Fitbit, Google would acquire (i) the database maintained by Fitbit about its users’ health and fitness; and (ii) the technology to develop a database similar to Fitbit’s one,” the Commission further notes.

“The data collected via wrist-worn wearable devices appears, at this stage of the Commission’s review of the transaction, to be an important advantage in the online advertising markets. By increasing the data advantage of Google in the personalisation of the ads it serves via its search engine and displays on other internet pages, it would be more difficult for rivals to match Google’s online advertising services. Thus, the transaction would raise barriers to entry and expansion for Google’s competitors for these services, to the ultimate detriment of advertisers and publishers that would face higher prices and have less choice.”

The Commission views Google as dominant in the supply of online search advertising services in almost all EEA (European Economic Area) countries; as well as holding “a strong market position” in the supply of online advertising display services in a large number of EEA countries (especially off-social network display ads), and “a strong market position” in the supply of adtech services in the EEA.

All of which will inform its considerations as it looks at whether Google will gain an unfair competitive advantage by assimilating Fitbit data. (Vestager has also issued a number of antitrust enforcements against the tech giant in recent years, against Android, AdSense and Google Shopping.)

The regulator has also said it will further look at:

  • the “effects of the combination of Fitbit’s and Google’s databases and capabilities in the digital healthcare sector, which is still at a nascent stage in Europe”
  • “whether Google would have the ability and incentive to degrade the interoperability of rivals’ wearables with Google’s Android operating system for smartphones once it owns Fitbit”

The tech giant has already offered EU regulators one specific concession in the hopes of getting the Fitbit buy green lit — with the Commission noting that it submitted commitments aimed at addressing concerns last month.

Google suggested creating a data silo to hold data collected via Fitbit’s wearable devices — and where it said it would be kept separate from any other dataset within Google (including claiming it would be restricted for ad purposes). However the Commission expresses scepticism about Google’s offer, writing that it “considers that the data silo commitment proposed by Google is insufficient to clearly dismiss the serious doubts identified at this stage as to the effects of the transaction”.

“Among others, this is because the data silo remedy did not cover all the data that Google would access as a result of the transaction and would be valuable for advertising purposes,” it added.

Google makes reference to this data silo in its blog post, claiming: “This deal is about devices, not data. We’ve been clear from the beginning that we will not use Fitbit health and wellness data for Google ads. We recently offered to make a legally binding commitment to the European Commission regarding our use of Fitbit data. As we do with all our products, we will give Fitbit users the choice to review, move or delete their data. And we’ll continue to support wide connectivity and interoperability across our and other companies’ products.”

“We appreciate the opportunity to work with the European Commission on an approach that addresses consumers’ expectations of their wearable devices. We’re confident that by working closely with Fitbit’s team of experts, and bringing together our experience in AI, software and hardware, we can build compelling devices for people around the world,” it adds.

Apple’s 27-inch iMac gets a processing and graphics boost

By Brian Heater

Apple sold a lot of Macs last quarter — a record, in fact, for Q3, jumping a full 21%, year over year. Given the state of the world, with most office workers moving to a remote setup, there’s little surprise the company’s desktop and laptops moved at such an impressive clip. For that reason alone, there’s probably no better time to offer a substantial refresh to the company’s perennial favorite all-in-one.

This morning, Apple took the wraps off the latest version of its 27-inch iMac. The changes are, notably, almost exclusively under the hood, but there are a number of key updates as it eyes its longtime bread and butter creative pro clients that it previously courted with the iMac Pro and Mac Pro.

Top-level changes here include the addition of the 10th-gen Comet Lake processors that Intel revealed back in April. The six and eight-core versions of the chips will come as standard configurations, upgradable all the way up to a 10-core i9, which starts to push into the low-end of iMac Pro territory. Per Apple’s numbers, there’s up to a 65% CPU performance increase on-board, particularly noticeable on creative pro apps like Logic and Final Cut Pro.

Graphics, naturally, are getting a boost, as well, at up to 55% faster than previous models, courtesy of the AMD Radeon Pro 5000 series — similar to what’s currently found on the 16-inch version of the MacBook Pro. The RAM is configurable all the way up to a hardy 128GB of DDR4. SSD storage is finally standard across all iMacs, as well. Here the base is 256GB, configurable up to 8TB. The system also now sports the company’s proprietary T2 security chip, as well as an optional 10GB Ethernet connection.

The display is essentially the same as the previous model, though it now features Apple’s True Tone technology for a more natural color balance based on ambient light in the room. There’s also an option for the nano-texture technology found on Apple’s Pro Display XDR, which promises to reduce glare by better scattering light — a nice upgrade for video editors, especially those now working from home with less than ideal lighting situations. Speaking of remote work, the webcam and mic system have been upgraded. The camera is 1080p, coupled with a similar microphone system as the one found in the 16-inch MacBook, featuring two in the system’s “chin” and one in the back.

Contrary to all of the rumors, there’s no redesign here. While it seems entirely plausible — even likely — that a major one is on the way, you’ll have to wait for that. Ditto for the upcoming in-house ARM-based chips. Apple, of course, previously announced that the transition process would take two years to complete — and that there were still Intel Macs in the pipeline. It remains to be seen, however, if the 27-inch iMac will be the last of its kind of that front.

Apple has also noted that it will continue to support Intel Macs for “years to come,” though it’s easy to imagine plenty of folks simply holding off on an upgrade, unless their needs are more dire. And there are probably a number of people in the latter camp, as well, as the reality of working from home doesn’t appear to be ending any time soon (not, for instance, Google’s recent decision to push things back to next July).

The 27-inch still starts at $1,799 and is available starting today. The iMac Pro, meanwhile, now features a 10-core processor (up from 8) as the default configuration, at the same price of $4,999, while the 21.5-inch line (which offers SSDs across the board, as per the above) starts at $1,099.

Facebook doubles down on work-from-office with massive NYC lease near Penn Station

By Danny Crichton

We’ve had huge debates about the future of work — are we going to be working from home, working from the office, or perhaps, working from anywhere?

Well, Facebook has put its wager down, and it’s work from office.

In a flurry of articles in the local press overnight, The New York Times and others confirmed that Facebook has secured the main office lease on the James A. Farley Building, located one block south of Penn Station in western Midtown Manhattan. The company’s lease was for 730,000 square feet, which will be added to the company’s existing 2.2 million square feet that includes 770 Broadway, TechCrunch’s nominal NYC headquarters as well as those of our parent company Verizon Media.

The exterior of The James A. Farley Post Office Building. (Photo by Ben Hider/Getty Images)

It’s a statement on the future of the Farley Building, which today is the hub of the Postal Service’s operations in New York. The building has long been central to the schemes for renewing Penn Station, with its gorgeous facade abutting Eighth Avenue that many planners believed could be the locus for a new competitor to Grand Central Station after the original Penn Station was torn down decades ago. After decades of debate, a new Amtrak and Long Island Rail Road passenger hall and platform is planned for opening in 2021.

Facebook joins several other tech companies in the neighborhood. Google’s New York City headquarters is just down the street on Eighth Avenue in Chelsea, which was a similarly massive transaction when Google bought the former Port Authority building in one of the largest real estate deals in New York City history back in 2010. Datadog, one of New York City’s best-performing IPOs, is just up the street on Eighth Avenue in The New York Times headquarters building. Meanwhile, Amazon has its headquarters just a few blocks east.

While certainly a strong indication that New York City’s tech scene remains vibrant, the move is curious, given the tech industry’s broad movement toward remote work over the past few months. Facebook itself has said that it is going to allow remote work well into the future, and also will build more regional hubs in cities like Dallas. From our article in May, “The Facebook CEO estimated that over the course of the next decade, half of the company could be working fully remotely.”

Rumors about Facebook taking the Farley building have persisted since last year, and even Apple was believed to be eyeing the location to expand its … Big Apple presence.

Office space of this size and caliber is hard to find, which is likely why Facebook pulled the trigger now instead of waiting for more information related to the long-term effects of COVID-19 on the future of work. Nonetheless, the company seems clear in its mentality: workers are going to have more space to come into work, perhaps with some more flexible working arrangements on the side.

Google signs up six more partners for its digital banking platform coming to Google Pay

By Sarah Perez

Google is expanding its plans to offer digital banking services in the U.S. The company announced today it’s partnering with half a dozen more banks to offer digital checking and savings accounts to Google Pay users in the U.S., starting sometime next year. The new partners include Bank Mobile, BBVA USA, BMO Harris, Coastal Community Bank, First Independence Bank and SEFCU. They join Google’s existing partners Citi and SFCU, announced earlier, for a total of now eight banks lined up for the project.

News of Google’s big move into banking and personal finance through an effort known internally as “Project Cache” was first reported by The Wall Street Journal in November. Much like the mobile banking services offered today by a number of startups, Google will provide the consumer-facing front-end to the digital banking services it makes available, while the accounts themselves will be held by the FDIC-backed partner institutions.

However, unlike with mobile banking startups, which tend to note their banking partners only in the fine print, Google is giving the banks a co-branded experience. In addition, Google explains that by working with a range of partners from large, global banks down to smaller credit unions with deep community ties, it will be able to do a better job building products that meet its customers’ diverse set of needs.

“We had confirmed earlier that we are exploring how we can partner with banks and credit unions in the U.S. to offer digital bank accounts through Google Pay, helping their customers benefit from useful insights and budgeting tools, while keeping their money in an FDIC or NCUA-insured account,” a Google spokesperson says. “We are excited that six new banks have signed up to offer digital checking and savings.”

The company says it plans to add even more U.S. financial institutions over time.

Google today operates its digital payments service Google Pay and complementary Google Wallet product to serve its customers’ financial needs. But today, more consumers — and particularly younger people — are moving away from brick-and-mortar banking institutions to instead manage their money online. Apple already tapped into consumer demand for digital banking with the launch of its co-branded Apple Card credit card with Goldman Sachs. But it has not yet offered a full banking service, only Apple Cash — a service where you store your “cashback” credits from Apple Card use, payments from friends or the cash you transfer in from a connected bank.

Google’s plans are more extensive. Though it won’t host the bank accounts, it will be able to draw on data to offer customers financial insights and other budgeting tools. For the partners, the service gives them a way to market their brand to consumers in an increasingly mobile-first, online-only market.

“Being able to support our customers’ financial lives in more places where they’re spending their digital time is important to helping them be successful,” said Brett Pitts, chief digital officer for BMO Financial Group, in a statement about BMO’s partnership with Google. “Collaborating to launch this new BMO digital product accelerates our ability to deliver financial advice to our customers and is an innovative step in the evolution of how we serve them.”

For BBVA, the collaboration is another step forward for its BBVA Open Platform, which allows the bank to acquire customers by embedding its financial products within other apps and services.

“BBVA has focused for decades on how it could use digital to advance the financial industry, and in so doing, create more and better opportunities for customers to manage their financial health,” said BBVA USA President and CEO Javier Rodriguez Soler. “Collaborations with companies like Google represent the future of banking,” he added.

The accounts are expected to launch in 2021, several banks said in their announcements. Google has not provided a more specific time frame for the launch.

Even as cloud infrastructure growth slows, revenue rises over $30B for quarter

By Ron Miller

The cloud market is coming into its own during the pandemic as the novel coronavirus forced many companies to accelerate plans to move to the cloud, even while the market was beginning to mature on its own.

This week, the big three cloud infrastructure vendors — Amazon, Microsoft and Google — all reported their earnings, and while the numbers showed that growth was beginning to slow down, revenue continued to increase at an impressive rate, surpassing $30 billion for a quarter for the first time, according to Synergy Research Group numbers.

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