Google’s Anthos multi-cloud platform gets improved logging, Windows container support and more

Google today announced a sizable update to its Anthos multi-cloud platform that lets you build, deploy and manage containerized applications anywhere, including on Amazon’s AWS and (in preview) on Microsoft Azure.

Version 1.7 includes new features like improved metrics and logging for Anthos on AWS, a new Connect gateway to interact with any cluster right from Google Cloud and a preview of Google’s managed control plane for Anthos Service Mesh. Other new features include Windows container support for environments that use VMware’s vSphere platform and new tools for developers to make it easier for them to deploy their applications to any Anthos cluster.

Today’s update comes almost exactly two years after Google CEO Sundar Pichai originally announced Anthos at its Cloud Next event in 2019 (before that, Google called this project the ‘Google Cloud Services Platform,’ which launched three years ago). Hybrid- and multi-cloud, it’s fair to say, takes a key role in the Google Cloud roadmap — and maybe more so for Google than for any of its competitors. And recently, Google brought on industry veteran Jeff Reed to become the VP of Product Management in charge of Anthos.

Reed told me that he believes that there are a lot of factors right now that are putting Anthos in a good position. “The wind is at our back. We bet on Kubernetes, bet on containers — those were good decisions,” he said. Increasingly, customers are also now scaling out their use of Kubernetes and have to figure out how to best scale out their clusters and deploy them in different environments — and to do so, they need a consistent platform across these environments. He also noted that when it comes to bringing on new Anthos customers, it’s really those factors that determine whether a company will look into Anthos or not.

He acknowledged that there are other players in this market, but he argues that Google Cloud’s take on this is also quite different. “I think we’re pretty unique in the sense that we’re from the cloud, cloud-native is our core approach,” he said. “A lot of what we talk about in [Anthos] 1.7 is about how we leverage the power of the cloud and use what we call ‘an anchor in the cloud’ to make your life much easier. We’re more like a cloud vendor there, but because we support on-prem, we see some of those other folks.” Those other folks being IBM/Red Hat’s OpenShift and VMware’s Tanzu, for example. 

The addition of support for Windows containers in vSphere environments also points to the fact that a lot of Anthos customers are classical enterprises that are trying to modernize their infrastructure, yet still rely on a lot of legacy applications that they are now trying to bring to the cloud.

Looking ahead, one thing we’ll likely see is more integrations with a wider range of Google Cloud products into Anthos. And indeed, as Reed noted, inside of Google Cloud, more teams are now building their products on top of Anthos themselves. In turn, that then makes it easier to bring those services to an Anthos-managed environment anywhere. One of the first of these internal services that run on top of Anthos is Apigee. “Your Apigee deployment essentially has Anthos underneath the covers. So Apigee gets all the benefits of a container environment, scalability and all those pieces — and we’ve made it really simple for that whole environment to run kind of as a stack,” he said.

I guess we can expect to hear more about this in the near future — or at Google Cloud Next 2021.

 

#anthos, #apigee, #aws, #ceo, #chrome-os, #cisco, #cloud, #cloud-computing, #cloud-infrastructure, #computing, #enterprise, #google, #google-cloud, #google-cloud-platform, #ibm, #kubernetes, #microsoft, #microsoft-windows, #red-hat, #sundar-pichai, #vmware

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Bias, subtweets, and kids: Key takeaways from Big Tech’s latest outing on the Hill

There was no fancy Hill hearing room for this all-virtual event, so Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey dialed in from... a kitchen.

Enlarge / There was no fancy Hill hearing room for this all-virtual event, so Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey dialed in from… a kitchen. (credit: Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images)

A trio of major tech CEOs—Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey—once again went before Congress this week to explain their roles in the social media ecosystem. The hearing nominally focused on disinformation and extremism, particularly in the wake of the January 6 events at the US Capitol. But as always, the members asking the questions frequently ventured far afield.

The hearing focused less on specific posts than previous Congressional grillings, but it was mainly an exercise in people talking to plant their stakes. Considered in totality, fairly little of substance was accomplished during the hearing’s lengthy six-hour runtime.

Nonetheless, a few important policy nuggets did manage to come up.

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#alphabet, #congress, #facebook, #google, #hearings, #jack-dorsey, #mark-zuckerberg, #policy, #sundar-pichai, #twitter, #youtube

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Senate votes to issue subpoenas to Facebook, Twitter, Google CEOs

The dome of the United State Capitol Building against a deep blue sky in Washington, DC.

Enlarge / The dome of the United State Capitol Building in Washington, DC. (credit: Getty Images | Phil Roeder)

The Senate Commerce Committee this morning voted unexpectedly to issue subpoenas to the heads of Facebook, Twitter, and Google to compel them to testify in a hearing—most likely before Election Day.

The committee agreed in a unanimous, bipartisan vote to require Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to appear (virtually) after none of the three executives had agreed by today to appear voluntarily.

Zuckerberg and Pichai, along with Apple CEO Tim Cook and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, testified before a House Judiciary subcommittee earlier this year. That hearing, nominally about antitrust issues, instead squeezed two completely disparate realities together into one small room, as Democratic members primarily asked about competition issues and Republican members primarily complained about the Internet’s alleged (and unproven) “bias” against conservative voices.

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#alphabet, #bias, #congress, #facebook, #google, #jack-dorsey, #mark-zuckerberg, #policy, #section-230, #senate, #senate-judiciary-committee, #sundar-pichai, #twitter

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Travel startups cry foul over what Google’s doing with their data

As the antitrust drumbeat continues to pound on tech giants, with Reuters reporting comments today from the US Justice Department that it’s moving “full-tilt” on an investigation of platform giants including Google parent Alphabet, startups in Europe’s travel sector are dialling up their allegations of anti-competitive behavior against the search giant.

Google has near complete grip on the search market in Europe, with a regional marketshare in excess of 90% according to Statcounter. Unsurprisingly industry sources say a majority of travel bookings start as a Google search — giving the tech giant huge leverage over the coronavirus-hit sector.

More than half a dozen travel startups in Germany are united in a shared complaint that Google is abusing its search dominance in a number of ways they argue are negatively impacting their businesses.

Complaints we’ve heard from multiple sources in online travel range from Google forcing its own data standards on ad partners to Google unfairly extracting partner data to power its own competing products on the cheap.

Startups are limited in how much detail they can provide about Google’s processes on the record because the company requires advertising partners to sign NDAs to access its ad products. But this week German newspaper Handelsblatt reported on antitrust complaints from a number of local startups — including experience booking platform GetYourGuide and vacation rental search engine HomeToGo — who are accusing the tech giant of stealing content and data.

The group is considering filing a cartel complaint against Google, per its report.

We’ve also heard from multiple sources in the European travel sector that Google has exhibited a pattern of trying to secure the rights to travel partners’ content and data through contracts and service agreements.

One source, who did not wish to be identified for fear of retaliation against their business, told us: “Each travel partner has certain specialities in their business model but overall the strategy of Google has been the same: Grab as much data from your partners and build competing products with that data.”

Not ok, Google

This is now a very familiar complaint against Google. Crowdsourced reviews platform Yelp has been accusing the tech giant of stealing content for years. More recently, Genius got creative with a digital watermark that caught Google redhanded scraping lyrics content from its site which it pays to license (but Google does not). As Lily Allen might put it, it’s really not okay.

Last month’s Congressional antitrust subcommittee hearing kicked off with exactly this accusation too — as chair, David Cicilline, barked at Google and Alphabet CEO, Sundar Pichai: “Why does Google steal content from honest businesses?” Pichai dodged the question by claiming he doesn’t agree with the characterization. But for Google and parent Alphabet there’s no dodging the antitrust drumbeat pounding violently in the company’s backyard.

In Europe, Google’s business already has a clutch of antitrust enforcements against it — starting three years ago, in a case which dated back six years at that point, with a record breaking penalty for anti-competitive behavior in how it operated a product search service called Google Shopping. EU enforcements against Android and AdSense swiftly followed. Google is appealing all three decisions, even as it continues to expand its operations in lucrative verticals like travel.

The Commission’s 2017 finding that Google is dominant in the regional search market carried what lawmakers couch as a “special responsibility” to avoid breaching the bloc’s antitrust rules in any market Google plays in. That finding puts the travel sector squarely in the frame, although not yet under formal probe by EU regulators (although they have opened an active probe of Google’s data collection practices, announced last year).

EU regulators are also examining a range of competition concerns over its proposed acquisition of Fitbit, delaying the merger while they consider whether the deal would further entrench Google’s position in the ad market by giving it access to a trove of Fitbit users’ health data that could be used for increased ad personalization.

But so far, on travel, the Commission has been keeping its powder dry.

Yet for around a decade the tech giant has been building out products that directly compete for travel bookings in growth areas like flight search. More recently it’s added hotels, vacation rentals and experiences — bringing its search tool into direct competition with an increasing range of third party booking platforms which, at least in Europe, have no choice but to advertise on Google’s platform to drive customer acquisition.

One key acquisition underpinning Google’s travel ambitions dates back to 2010 — when it shelled out $700M for ITA, a provider of flight information to airlines, travel agencies and online reservation systems. The same year it also picked up travel guide community, Ruba.

Google beat out a consortium of rivals for ITA, including Microsoft, Kayak, Expedia, and Travelport, who relied upon its data to power their own travel products — and had wanted to prevent Google getting its hands on the data.

Back then travel was already a huge segment of search and online commerce. And it’s continued to grow — worth close to $700BN globally in 2018, per eMarkter (although the coronavirus crisis is likely to impact some recent growth projections, even as the public health crisis accelerates the industry’s transition to digital bookings) — all of which gives Google huge incentive to carve itself a bigger and bigger share of the pie. 

This is what Google is aiming to do by building out ad units that cater to travellers’ searches by offering flights, vacation rentals and trip experiences, searchable without needing to leave Google’s platform. 

Google defends this type of expansion by saying it’s just making life easier for the user by putting sought for information even closer to their search query. But competitors contend the choices it’s making are far more insidious. Simply put, they’re better for Google’s bottom line — and will ultimately result in less choice and innovation for consumers — is the core argument. The key contention is Google is only able to do this because it wields vast monopoly power in search which gives it unfair access to travel rivals’ content and data.

It’s certainly notable that Alphabet hasn’t felt the need to shell out to acquire any of the major travel booking platforms since its ITA acquisition. Instead its market might allows it to repackage and monetize rival travel platforms’ data via an expanding array of its own vertical travel search products. 

One of the German consortia of travel startups with a major beef against Google is Berlin-based HomeToGo. The vacation rentals platform confirmed to TechCrunch it has filed an antitrust complaint against the company with the European Commission.

It told us it’s watched with alarm as Google introduced a new ad unit in search results which promotes a vacation rental search and booking experience — displaying property thumbnails, alongside locations and prices plotted on a map — right from insight Google’s platform.

Screengrab showing Google vacation rental ad unit, populated with content from a range of partners

Discussing the complaint, HomeToGo CEO and co-founder, Dr Patrick Andrae, told us: “Due to the monopoly Google has in horizontal search, just by having this kind of access [to the vast majority of European Internet searchers], they’re so top of the funnel that they theoretically can go into any vertical. And with the power of their monopoly they can turn on products there without doing any prior investment in it.

“Anyone else has to work a lot on SEO strategies and these kind of things to slowly go up in the ranking but Google can just snap its fingers and say, basically, tomorrow I want to have a product.”

The complaint is not just that Google has built a competing ad product in vacation rentals but — following what has become a standard colonizing playbook for seemingly any vertical area Google sees is grabbing traffic — its packaging of the competing product is so fully featured and eye-catching that it results in greater prominence for Google’s ad vs organic search results (or indeed paid ad links) where rivals may appear as plain old blue links.

“They create this giant, colorful super CTA [call-to-action], as we call it — this one-box thing — where everything is clickable and leads you into the Google product,” said Andrae. “They explain that it’s better for the user experience but no one ever said that the user wants to have a one-box there from Google. Or why shouldn’t it be a one-box from HomeToGo? Or why shouldn’t it be a one-box in the flight word from Kayak? Or in the hotel world from Trivago? So why is it just the Google product that’s colorful, nice, and showing up?”

Andrae argues that the design of the unit is intended to give the user the impression that “Google has everything there”, on its platform. So, y’know, why go looking elsewhere for a vertical search engine?

He also points out that the special unit is not available to competitors. “You cannot buy it,” he said. “So even if you would like to have this prominent kind of placement you cannot buy that as a third party company. Even if you would like to pay money for it — I’m not talking about being in the product itself, that’s another topic — but just having the same kind of advertisement, because it is what they do — they advertise their own product there for free — and this is our complaint.”

Pay with your data

In 2017, when the Commission slapped Google with the first record-breaking penalty over its search comparison service — finding it had systematically given prominent placement to its own comparison shopping service over and above rival services in organic search results — competition chief Margrethe Vestager disclosed it had also received complaints about Google’s behavior in the travel sector.

Asked about the sector’s concerns now, some three years later, a Commission spokeswoman told us it’s “monitoring the markets concerned” — but declined to comment on any specific gripes.

Here’s another complaint: GetYourGuide, a Berlin based travel startup that’s created a discovery and booking platform for travel tours and experiences, has similar concerns about Google’s designs on travel experience booking — another travel segment the tech giant is moving into via its own eye-catching ad units flogging experiences.

“They want to create experience products now directly on Google search itself, with the aim that ultimately people can book these type of things on Google,” said GetYourGuide CEO and co-founder Johannes Reck. “What Google tries to do now is they try to get [travel startups’] content and our data in order to create new competitive products on Google.”

The startup is unhappy, for example, that a ‘Things to do’ ad product Google shows in its search results doesn’t link to GetYourGuide’s own search page — which would be the equivalent and competing third party product.

“Google will not allow us to link them into our search but only into the details page so the customer sees even less of our brand,” he said. “Or in Maps, for instance, if you go to Eiffel Tower and press to book tickets you don’t see any of GetYourGuide despite us fulfilling that order.”

He also rejects Google’s claim against this sort of complaint that it’s simply ‘doing the right thing for the user’ by not linking them out to the rival platform. “We do know from our data that users convert better and spend more time on our site and have higher engagement rates when we link them into our search and then deeper down into the funnel,” he told TechCrunch. “What Google is saying is not that it serves the user — it serves Google and it serves their profits. Because the deeper down the funnel that you link, the user will either buy or they will bounce back to Google and search for the next product. If you link into searches — if you don’t verticalize as much — then the user will end up in a different ecosystem and might not bounce back to Google.”

“As a partner [of Google] you have limited choice to participate [in its ad products]. You do need to give Google that content and then Google will try to move as many of the customers to them,” Reck added. “I don’t think there ever will be a world where booking.com or Expedia or GetYourGuide will disappear — rather our brands will start to disappear.

“That is something that I think ultimately is bad for the customer and only serves Google, again, because the customer will, in the long run, have no other choice and no other visibility on how he can get to choice than to go through Google because our brands will basically be hidden behind a Google wall. That will turn Google firmly away from what their original mission was… to steer people to the most relevant content on the web… Now they are trying to be completely the opposite; they’re trying to be the Amazon or Alibaba of travel and try to keep and contain people in their ecosystem.”

During the congressional antitrust subcommittee hearing last month Pichai claimed Google faces fierce competition in travel. Again, Reck contends that’s simply not true. “In Europe more than 75% of travellers go to Google to search for travel and all those users are free,” he said. “Everyone else in the travel industry pays Google top dollar… for these queries. Which competition exactly is he referring to?”

“[Pichai] then claimed that they’re not leveraging partners’ content — that’s not accurate. If you look at Google if you want to be in the top results these days you either pay or you give them data so that they can build their own products into search.”

“This dates back ten years now when they acquired ITA software, which is the leading data provider for flights,” Reck added. “They’ve just paved their way into travel. I think their intent is very clear at this point that they have no interest in their partners — or their customers for that matter, who like the choice that’s being offered on Google.”

“What they want to morph into, basically, is to turn Google into the Amazon of travel where everyone else maybe a content provider or a fulfilment agent but the consumer has no choice but to go through Google. I think that is the key intent here. They want to limit consumer choice. And they want to monopolise the space. We don’t want that and we will fight that. And if that means we need to go to the EU Commission to protect our and the customers’ interests then we’ll do that and we’re currently reviewing that option.”

The looming harm for consumers around reduced choice could manifest in poorer customer service, which is an area vertical players tend to focus on — whereas Google, as a platform funnel, does not.

Another German travel startup — Munich-based FlixBus — was also willing to go on the record with concerns about the impact of Google’s market power on the sector, despite not being in the same position as its business is not an aggregator.

Nonetheless, FlixBus Jochen Engert, founder and CEO, called on regional lawmakers to act against what he described as Google’s “systematic abuses” of market dominance.

“We call on the politicians in Germany and the EU to now work for fair competition on the Internet. It must be forbidden that monopolistic companies like Google abuse their market power, especially in times of crisis, and prevent competition for the benefit of the customer due to their dominance,” he told us. “Google systematically abuses its dominant market position to seal off access to customers from competitors and gets away with it time and again. It is only a matter of time before other industries and business models, in addition to travel, hotel and flight bookings, are permanently threatened.

“For FlixMobility [FlixBus’ parent company] as an internationally positioned market leader with its own platform, technology and our unique content, the situation is more relaxed than for smaller start-ups or those which also aggregate content such as Google. Nevertheless, in our opinion Google should be obliged to list and market its own products in search results on an equal footing with comparable offers. Here regulation must not stand by and watch for too long, but must react before Google irretrievably controls customer access and excludes competition.”

GetYourGuide’s Reck expressed hope that German lawmakers might be able to offer more expeditious relief to the sector than the European Commission — whose competition investigations typically grind through the details for years.

“The German government is actually very alert at this point in time,” he said. “They’re currently working on a new competition legislation that they will put in place probably within the next six months. It’s already in the making — and that will also be addressed to exactly that type of behavior of global, quasi-monopolistic platforms crossing the demarcation line, moving into other fields and trying to leverage their monopoly in order to create synergies in adjacent fields and crowd out competition.”

Asked what kind of intervention he would like to see regulators make against Google, Reck suggests its business should be regulated akin to a utility — advocating for controls on data, including around the openness of data, to level the playing field.

Though he also told us he would be supportive of more radical measures, such as breaking Google up. (But, again, he says speed of intervention is of the essence.)

“If you look at all of the data that Google collects, whether that’s consumer reviews, availability from its partners, all of the content from its partners, all of the information that they have through Android, whether that’s geo-specific data, whether that is interests, whether that is contextual information, Google is training their algorithms day and night on this data, no one else can. But we all have to provide data to Google,” he said.

“That’s not a level playing field. We need to think about how we can have a more open data architecture, that obviously is compliant with our data privacy laws but where developers from anywhere can build products based on the Google platform… As a developer in travel it’s currently very hard for me to access any data from Google so I can build better products for consumers. And I think that really needs to change — Google needs to open us for us to create a more vibrant and competitive ecosystem.”

“At a national or EU level we need to have an updated legal code that allows for quick interventions,” Reck added, saying competition enforcement simply can’t carry on at the same pace as for the markets of the past. “Things are moving way too quickly for that. You need to take a completely new approach.

“As Google correctly pointed out consumer prices have fallen but falling consumer prices is the weapon in tech; offering products for free allows you to gain marketshare in order to crowd out competition, which again leaves less choice for the customer so I think we need to think about how we think about tech and platforms in new ways.”

The Commission is currently consulting on whether competition regulators need a new tool to be able to intervene more quickly in digital markets. But there’s more than a trace of irony that its adherence to process means further delay as regulators question whether they need more power to intervene in digital markets to prevent tipping, instead of acting on long-standing complaints of market abuse attached to the 800lb gorilla of Internet search — with its “special responsibility” not to trample on other markets.

Reached for comment on the travel startups’ complaints, a Google spokeswoman sent us this statement:

There are now more ways than ever to find information online, and for travel searches, people can easily choose from an array of specialized sites, like TripAdvisor, Kayak, Expedia and many more. With Google Search, we aim to provide the most helpful and relevant results possible to create the best experience for users around the world and deliver valuable traffic to travel companies.

During the pandemic, we’ve been working hard with our partners in the travel industry to help them protect their businesses and look toward recovery. We launched new tools for airlines so they can better predict consumer demand and plan their routes. For hotels, we expanded our ‘pay per stay’ program globally to shift the risk of cancellation from our partners to us. And we’ve updated our search products so consumers can make informed decisions when planning future travel, further reducing the risk of cancellation.

The company did not respond to our request for a response to claims we heard that it seeks to secure rights to partners’ content and data via contracts and service agreements.

No relief

In another sign of the growing rift between Google and its travel partners in Europe, German startups in the sector banded together to press it for better terms during the coronavirus crisis earlier this year — accusing the tech giant of being inflexible over payments for ads they’d runs before the crisis hit. This meant they were left with a huge hole in their balance sheets after making mass refunds for travellers who could no longer take their planned trip. But the gorilla wasn’t sympathetic, demanding full payment immediately.

Asked what happened after TechCrunch reported on their concerns at the end of April, Reck said Google went silent for a few weeks. But as soon as the travel market started picking up in Germany — and GetYourGuide decided it needed to start advertising on Google again — it reissued the demand for full payment.

GetYourGuide says it was left with no choice but pay, given it needed to be able to run Google ads.

Reck describes the recovery package Google offered after it made the payment as “a Google recovery package” — as it was tied to GetYourGuide spending a large amount on YouTube ads in order to get a small discount.

The offer would recoup only “fraction” of GetYourGuide’s original losses on Google ads during the peak of the COVID-19 crisis, per Reck. “YouTube obviously is not where we lost the money. We lost the money in search where we had high intent customers, Google customers that wanted to come and shop. So that to us was [another] slap in the face,” he added.

#advertising-tech, #alphabet, #antitrust, #booking-com, #competition-law, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #ecommerce, #europe, #expedia, #flixbus, #getyourguide, #google, #hometogo, #margrethe-vestager, #online-travel, #sundar-pichai, #trivago

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

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 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 that EU competition regulators — for all their heavily publicized talk of properly regulating the digital sphere — have yet to block a single digital tech merger.

It remains to be seen whether that record will change come 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: “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.

#ambient-intelligence, #android, #antitrust, #competition, #digital-advertising, #europe, #european-commission, #european-union, #facebook, #fitbit, #gadgets, #google, #internet-of-things, #margrethe-vestager, #online-search, #operating-system, #policy, #privacy, #privacy-international, #rick-osterloh, #search-engine, #smartphones, #sundar-pichai, #united-states, #wearable-devices, #wearable-technology, #wearables, #whatsapp

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“This is a very dangerous situation:” Big Tech’s day on the Hill

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos testifies (remotely) before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law hearing on "Online Platforms and Market Power" in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on July 29, 2020.

Enlarge / Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos testifies (remotely) before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law hearing on “Online Platforms and Market Power” in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on July 29, 2020. (credit: Graeme Jennings – Pool | AFP | Getty Images)

A bevy of tech’s biggest titans—Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Apple CEO Tim Cook, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg—all took to their remote offices Wednesday to dial into a hotly anticipated Congressional hearing, the latest part of an in-depth investigation into their firms’ behavior that began more than a year ago.

The almost six-hour hearing was nominally convened to talk about antitrust enforcement, and it had two core questions at its heart. First: do the biggest, globe-spanning US tech companies have too much power in the market? And second: did they come by the power they do have honestly, or did they somehow cheat to get it?

House Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) focused his opening remarks on how bipartisan the investigation process has been to date before sketching out his belief that all four companies present have behaved anticompetitively, become monopolies, and caused harm both to consumers and the entire democratic project writ large.

Read 68 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#alphabet, #amazon, #antitrust, #apple, #biz-it, #competition, #congress, #facebook, #google, #investigations, #jeff-bezos, #mark-zuckerberg, #policy, #sundar-pichai, #tim-cook

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Telegram hits out at Apple’s app store ‘tax’ in latest EU antitrust complaint

Apple has another antitrust charge on its plate. Messaging app Telegram has joined Spotify in filing a formal complaint against the iOS App Store in Europe — adding its voice to a growing number of developers willing to publicly rail against what they decry as Apple’s app “tax”.

A spokesperson for Telegram confirmed the complaint to TechCrunch, pointing us to this public Telegram post where founder, Pavel Durov, sets out seven reasons why he thinks iPhone users should be concerned about the company’s behavior.

These range from the contention that Apple’s 30% fee on app developers leads to higher prices for iPhone users; to censorship concerns, given Apple controls what’s allowed (and not allowed) on its store; to criticism of delays to app updates that flow from Apple’s app review process; to the claim that the app store structure is inherently hostile to user privacy, given that Apple gets full visibility of which apps users are downloading and engaging with.

This week Durov also published a blog post in which he takes aim at a number of “myths” he says Apple uses to try to justify the 30% app fee — such as a claim that iOS faces plenty of competition for developers; or that developers can choose not to develop for iOS and instead only publish apps for Android.

“Try to imagine Telegram or TikTok as Android -only apps and you will quickly understand why avoiding Apple is impossible,” he writes. “You can’t just exclude iPhone users. As for the iPhone users, the costs for consumers to switch from an iPhone to an Android is so high that it qualifies as a monopolistic lock-in” — citing a study done by Yale University to bolster that claim.

“Now that anti-monopoly investigations against Apple have started in the EU and the US, I expect Apple to double down on spreading such myths,” Durov adds. “We shouldn’t sit idly and let Apple’s lobbyists and PR agents do their thing. At the end of the day, it is up to us – consumers and creators – to defend our rights and to stop monopolists from stealing our money. They may think they have tricked us into a deadlock, because we’ve already bought a critical mass of their devices and created a critical mass of apps for them. But we shouldn’t be giving them a free ride any longer.”

The European Commission declined to comment on Telegram’s complaint.

We also reached out to Apple for comment but the company also declined to provide an on the record statement regarding Telegram’s complaint. A spokesperson did point to a piece of analyst research, from earlier this year, which found iOS had a marketshare of 15% vs Android’s 85%. They also flagged a separate analyst report, which looks at commission rates charged by app and digital content stores and marketplaces — suggesting this shows that rates charged for similar types of stores are generally also around 30%.

So the company’s overarching argument against ‘app tax’ complaints continues to be the claim that: A) Apple can’t have monopoly power, given its relatively small mobile OS marketshare (vs Android); and B) the App Store fee is fair because it’s basically the same as everyone else charges. (On the latter point it’s true Google also takes a 30% cut via the Play Store. However the Android platform lets users sideload apps; whereas, on iOS, users would have to jailbreak their device to get the same level of freedom to freely install apps of their choice).

Apple’s arguments are also now being actively looked into by EU regulators. Last month the Competition Commission announced it’s investigating Apple’s iOS store (and Apple Pay) — saying a preliminary probe of the store had identified concerns related to conditions and restrictions applied by the tech giant.

Specifically vis-a-vis the App Store, the Commission said it’s looking at Apple’s mandatory requirement that developers use its proprietary in-app purchase system, and at restrictions it applies on the ability of developers to inform iPhone and iPad users of alternative cheaper purchasing possibilities outside of the App Store.

The investigation by EU regulators is just the latest in a series of major big tech antitrust probes under the bloc’s current competition chief, Margrethe Vestager — who has also been digging into Amazon and Facebook business practices in recent years, as well as hitting Google with a series of record-breaking antitrust fines.

Over in the US, meanwhile, lawmakers are also actively grappling with competition concerns that have long been attached to a number of tech giants — and are being exacerbated by the pandemic concentrating platform power. Apple is one of the tech giants of concern, though not, seemingly, top of US lawmakers’ target list.

Yesterday, a hearing of the House Antitrust Subcommittee took testimony from four big tech CEOs: Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai — with Pichai, Bezos and Zuckerberg getting the most questions from lawmakers.

Cook did face a number of questions around how the company operates the App Store, though — including about the commission it charges developers and a specific line of enquiry on why it had removed rival screen time apps. Asked whether Apple could ever raise its 30% take on app subscriptions Cook sought to sidestep the question, saying the fee had remained unchanged since the launch of the store.

He then followed up by arguing Apple faces huge competition for developers — citing alternatives platforms such as Windows and Xbox as also fiercely vying for developers, and likening the competition to attract developers as akin to “a street fight for market share”.

The contention from complainants like Spotify and Telegram is that Cook’s claim of Apple facing fierce competition for developers’ wares, from its position as the world’s second largest smartphone OS by marketshare, does not stand up to scrutiny. But it’ll be up to EU regulators to determine how to define the market for smartphone apps and, flowing from that, whether they identify harm or not.

#android, #antitrust, #apple-inc, #apps, #competition-commission, #competition-law, #europe, #european-commission, #european-union, #facebook, #google, #ios, #ios-app-store, #ipad, #iphone, #jeff-bezos, #lawsuit, #margrethe-vestager, #mark-zuckerberg, #pavel-durov, #play-store, #smartphones, #spotify, #sundar-pichai, #telegram, #tim-cook, #united-states

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Google’s Sundar Pichai grilled over “destroying anonymity on the Internet”

Google’s Sundar Pichai faced an awkward line of enquiry during today’s House Antitrust Subcommittee hearing related to its 2007 acquisition of adtech platform DoubleClick, and how it went on to renege on an original promise to lawmakers and regulators that it would not (nor could not) merge DoubleClick data with Google account data — automagically doing just that almost a decade later.

By linking Internet users’ browsing data, as harvested via the DoubleClick cookie, to Google accounts it was able to join the dots of user identities, (Gmail) email data, search history, location data and so on (Google already having collapsed the privacy policies of separate products, to join up all that activity) with its users’ wider Internet browsing activity — vastly expanding its ability to profile and target people with behavioral ads.

Agency for Google users to prevent this massive privacy intrusion, there was none.

Rep. Val Demings contended that by combining DoubleClick cookie data and Google account data Google had essentially destroyed user privacy on the Internet. And — importantly, given the domestic antitrust scrutiny the company now faces — that that had only been possible because of the market power Google had amassed.

“When Google proposed the merger alarm bells were raised about the access to data Google would have — specifically the ability to connect a user’s personal identity with their browsing activity,” said Demings, before zooming in to hammer Pichai on another tech giant broken data privacy promise.

“Google… committed to Congress and to the antitrust enforcers that the deal would not reduce user privacy. Google chief’s legal advisor testified before the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee that Google wouldn’t be able to merge this data. Even if it wanted to, given contractual restrictions. But in June of 2016 Google went ahead and merged this data anyway — effectively destroying anonymity on the Internet,” she explained.

Demings then pressed Pichai on whether he personally signed off on the privacy-hostile move, given he became CEO of Google in 2015.

 

Pichai hesitated before attempting a bland response — only to be interrupted by Demings pressing him again: “Did you sign off on the decision or not?”

“I — I reviewed at a high level all the important decisions we make,” he said, after a micro pause.

He then segwayed in search of more comfortable territory, starting into Google’s usual marketing spiel — about how it “deeply cares about the privacy and security of our users”.

Demings was having none of it. The U-turn had enabled Google to combine a user’s search and browsing history, location data and information from emails stored in Gmail, she said, blasting it “absolutely staggering”.

She then referenced an email from a DoubleClick exec who had told the committee it was “exactly the kind of user reduction in privacy that users’ founders had previously worried would lead to a backlash”.

“‘They were unwavering on the policy due to philosophical reasons. Which is Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] fundamentally not wanting users associated with a cross-site cookie. They were also worried about a privacy storm, as well as damage to Google’s brand’,” she said, quoting directly from the email from the unnamed DoubleClick exec.

“So in 2007 Google’s founders feared making this change because they knew it would upset their users — but in 2016 Google didn’t seem to care,” Demings went on, before putting it to Pichai that what had changed between 2007 and 2016 is that Google gained “enormous market power”.

“So while Google had to care about user privacy in 2007 it no longer had to in 2016 — would you agree that what changed was Google gained enormous market power?” she asked.

The Alphabet and Google CEO responded by asking for a chance “to explain” — and then rattling off a list of controls Google offers users so they can try and shrink how it tracks them, further claiming it makes it “very easy” for people to control what it does with their information. (Some EU data regulators have taken a very different view of Google’s ‘transparency’, however.)

“We today make it very easy for users to be in control of their data,” claimed Pichai. “We have simplified their settings, they can turn ads personalization on or off — we have combined most of activity settings into three groupings. We remind users to go do a privacy check up. One billion users have done so.”

Demings, sounding unimpressed, cut him off again — saying: “I am concerned that Google’s bait and switch with DoubleClick is part of a broader pattern where Google buys up companies for the purposes of surveilling Americans and because of Google’s dominance users have no choice but to surrender.”

She went on to contend that “more user data means more money” for Google.

Pichai had a go at denying that — starting an answer with the claim that “in general that’s not true” before Demings repeated the contention: “So you’re saying that more user data does not mean the more money that Google can collect?”

That was easier for Pichai to sidestep. “Most of the data we collect is to help users and provide personalized experiences back”, he shot back, neatly avoiding the key point that the access Google has given itself to people’s data by cross linking their web browsing with Google IDs and product activity enables the tech giant to generate massive profits via targeting them with creepy ads, which in turn makes up the vast majority of Alphabet’s profit.

But with that Demings’ five minutes were up — although the hearing continues. You can tune in here.

#adtech, #advertising-tech, #alphabet, #behavioral-ads, #congress, #doubleclick, #gmail, #google, #larry-page, #privacy, #sergey-brin, #sundar-pichai

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Google to invest $10 billion in India

Google said on Monday that it plans to invest $10 billion in India in the next five to seven years as the search giant looks to help accelerate adoption of digital services in the key overseas market.

Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Google, today unveiled Google for India Digitization Fund through which the company will be making the investments in the country.

“We’ll do this through a mix of equity investments, partnerships, and operational, infrastructure and ecosystem investments. This is a reflection of our confidence in the future of India and its digital economy,” he said via video conference at the company’s annual event focused on India.

Investments will focus on four areas:

  • First, enabling affordable access and information for every Indian in their own language, whether it’s Hindi, Tamil, Punjabi or any other
  • Second, building new products and services that are deeply relevant to India’s unique needs
  • Third, empowering businesses as they continue or embark on their digital transformation
  • Fourth, leveraging technology and AI for social good, in areas like health, education, and agriculture

India is a key overseas market for Google, where a range of its products and services including Search, YouTube, and Android have made inroads with much of the entire online population.

More than 500 million people in India, the world’s second most populous nation with 1.3 billion people, are online today and more than 450 million smartphones are in active usage in the country.

“There’s still more work to do in order to make the internet affordable and useful for a billion Indians…from improving voice input and computing for all of India’s languages, to inspiring and supporting a whole new generation of entrepreneurs,” said India-born Pichai.

Google, like every other American tech giant, though makes only a fraction of its revenue from the world’s largest internet market. But that does not appear to be a priority for any American or Chinese tech giant in India that are currently searching for their next hundreds of millions of users in developing markets.

Facebook, which rivals with Google and Amazon in India, made a $5.7 billion investment in Reliance Jio Platforms, the top telecom operator in the nation in April this year to digitize 60 million mom and pop stores in the country.

Reliance Jio Platforms, a four-year-old subsidiary of India’s most valued firm Reliance Industries, has raised more than $15.7 billion since the second half of April from 12 high-profile investors.

During his visit to India early this year, Jeff Bezos said Amazon plans to invest an additional $1 billion in India, totalling the company’s to-date commitment to $6.5 billion.

Google’s announcement today also comes at a time when India appears to be shutting its door for Chinese firms. New Delhi last month banned 59 apps and services developed by Chinese companies. Among those that have been banned include ByteDance’s Tencent, Alibaba Group’s UC Browser, and Tencent’s WeChat. Some industry players believe that this ban would help American tech giants further expand their tentacles across India as they would face less competition.

In April this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government also amended its foreign direct investment policy to require all neighboring nations including China with which it shares a boundary to seek approval from New Delhi for their future deals in the country.

For dozens of Indian unicorn startups in India including unicorns Zomato, Swiggy, and Paytm that count Chinese investors as some of their biggest backers, New Delhi’s move is likely to result in additional difficulties in raising future capital.

Google has backed a handful of startups in India to date, including Bangalore-headquartered hyperlocal delivery service Dunzo. In May, Financial Times reported that Google was in talks with Vodafone Idea, the second biggest telecom operator in India, to acquire a 5% stake in the company.

Sanjay Gupta, the head of Google in India, said the company’s new $10 billion commitment to India today shapes the future of many of its products ands services in the country. “We are recommitting ourselves to partner deeply and support India in becoming a truly digital nation,” he said.

One of the ways Google, which began operations in India in 2004, has extended its reach in India is through partnerships with local smartphone vendors to produce low-cost handsets that receive timely and more frequent updates.

Without disclosing much details, Caesar Sengupta, GM & VP of Payments and Next Billion Users at Google, said today that the company will focus on “enabling more high-quality low-cost smartphones so that more people can access the internet to learn, grow and succeed.”

 

#apps, #asia, #google, #google-india, #india, #sundar-pichai

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Affirming the position of tech advocates, Supreme Court overturns Trump’s termination of DACA

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that President Donald Trump’s administration unlawfully ended the federal policy providing temporary legal status for immigrants who came to the country as children.

The decision, issued Thursday, called the termination of the Obama-era policy known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals “arbitrary and capricious.” As a result of its ruling, nearly 640,000 people living in the United States are now temporarily protected from deportation.

While a blow to the Trump Administration, the ruling is sure to be hailed nearly unanimously by the tech industry and its leaders, who had come out strongly in favor of the policy in the days leading up to its termination by the current President and his advisors.

At the beginning of 2018, many of tech’s most prominent executives, including the CEOs of Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Google, joined more than 100 American business leaders in signing an open letter asking Congress to take action on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program before it expired in March.

Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Sundar Pichai who made a full throated defense of the policy and pleaded with Congress to pass legislation ensuring that Dreamers, or undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children and were granted approval by the program, can continue to live and work in the country without risk of deportation.

At the time, those executives said the decision to end the program could potentially cost the U.S. economy as much as $215 billion.

In a 2017 tweet, Tim Cook noted that Apple employed roughly 250 of the company’s employees were “Dreamers”.

The list of tech executives who came out to support the DACA initiative is long. It included: IBM CEO Ginni Rometty; Brad Smith, the president and chief legal officer of Microsoft; Hewlett-Packard Enterprise CEO Meg Whitman; and CEOs or other leading executives of AT&T, Dropbox, Upwork, Cisco Systems, Salesforce.com, LinkedIn, Intel, Warby Parker, Uber, Airbnb, Slack, Box, Twitter, PayPal, Code.org, Lyft, Etsy, AdRoll, eBay, StitchCrew, SurveyMonkey, DoorDash, Verizon (the parent company of Verizon Media Group, which owns TechCrunch).

At the heart of the court’s ruling is the majority view that Department of Homeland Security officials didn’t provide a strong enough reason to terminate the program in September 2017. Now, the issue of immigration status gets punted back to the White House and Congress to address.

As the Boston Globe noted in a recent article, the majority decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts did not determine whether the Obama-era policy or its revocation were correct, just that the DHS didn’t make a strong enough case to end the policy.

“We address only whether the agency complied with the procedural requirement that it provide a reasoned explanation for its action,” Roberts wrote. 

While the ruling from the Supreme Court is some good news for the population of “dreamers,” the question of their citizenship status in the country is far from settled. And the U.S. government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has basically consisted of freezing as much of the nation’s immigration apparatus as possible.

An Executive Order in late April froze the green card process for would-be immigrants, and the administration was rumored to be considering a ban on temporary workers under H1-B visas as well.

The President has, indeed, ramped up the crackdown with strict border control policies and other measures to curb both legal and illegal immigration. 

More than 800,000 people joined the workforce as a result of the 2012 program crafted by the Obama administration. DACA allows anyone under 30 to apply for protection from deportation or legal action on their immigration cases if they were younger than 16 when they were brought to the US, had not committed a crime, and were either working or in school.

In response to the Supreme Court decision, the President tweeted “Do you get the impression that the Supreme Court doesn’t like me?”

 

 

#adroll, #advisors, #airbnb, #amazon, #apple, #att, #brad-smith, #cisco-systems, #congress, #donald-trump, #doordash, #ebay, #etsy, #facebook, #ginni-rometty, #google, #hewlett-packard-enterprise, #ibm, #immigration, #intel, #jeff-bezos, #linkedin, #lyft, #mark-zuckerberg, #meg-whitman, #microsoft, #obama, #paypal, #president, #salesforce-com, #sundar-pichai, #supreme-court, #tc, #techcrunch, #tim-cook, #trump-administration, #twitter, #u-s-government, #uber, #united-states, #upwork, #verizon-media-group, #white-house

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Google outlines plan to get some employees back to the office

In a blog post, Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai gave an overview of the company’s plan to return its workforce to some semblance of normalcy—or at least a new normal.

Google will begin opening some of its office buildings in various cities starting on July 6, allowing a small amount of its employees who need a physical workspace “the opportunity to return on a limited, rotating basis.” The idea is to rotate employees in for a day every few weeks to keep facilities at only around 10 percent occupancy.

If all goes well in its initial efforts, Google will scale that 10 percent up to 30 percent around September “which would mean most people who want to come in could do so on a limited basis, while still prioritizing those who need to come in” according to Pichai.

In contrast with bold shifts to all-remote work from companies like Facebook and Twitter, Google’s top executive eschewed sweeping statements about the future of its workforce in favor of encouraging employees who are interested in relocating to speak with their managers and to review guidelines around taxes and health coverage.

Pichai predicted that Googlers will have “more flexibility and choice” in how they work, while still waxing nostalgic about the company’s iconic office complexes, long a symbol of what makes work in the tech sector distinct from more traditional jobs.

“Our campuses are designed to enable collaboration and community—in fact, some of our greatest innovations were the result of chance encounters in the office—and it’s clear this is something many of us don’t want to lose,” Pichai wrote.

“At the same time, we are very familiar with distributed work as we have many offices around the world and open-minded about the lessons we’ll learn through this period.”

Pichai still expects that the majority of Google’s workforce will be mostly working from home through 2020. To help Googlers adapt to the different needs of a home office, the company will allocate $1,000 in expenses to help employees buy furniture and home office equipment.

As a portion of employees do return to the office, Pichai warned that the company’s physical spaces will “will look and feel different than when you left” as Google implements necessary precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

#covid-19, #google, #logistics, #remote-work, #sundar-pichai, #tc

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Desperate to exit, a $10B price tag for Magic Leap is crazy

Augmented reality headset maker Magic Leap has struggled with the laws of physics and failed to get to market. Now it’s seeking an acquirer, but talks with Facebook and medical goods giant Johnson & Johnson led nowhere according to a new report from Bloomberg’s Ed Hammond.

After raising over $2 billion and being valued between $6 billion and $8 billion back when it still had momentum, Hammond writes that “Magic Leap could fetch more than $10 billion if it pursues a sale” according to his sources. That price seems ridiculous. It’s the kind of number a prideful company might strategically leak in hopes of drumming up acquisition interest, even at a lower price.

Startups have been getting their valuations chopped when they go public. The whole economy is hurting due to coronavirus. Augmented Reality seems less interesting than virtual reality with people avoiding public places. Getting people to strap used AR hardware to their face for demos seems like a tough sell for the forseeable future.

No one has proven a killer consumer use case for augmented reality eyewear that warrants an expensive and awkward-to-wear gadget. Our phones can already deliver plenty of AR’s value while letting you take selfies and do video chat that headsets can’t. My experiences with Magic Leap at Sundance Film Festival last year were laughably disappointing, with its clunky hardware, ghostly projections, and narrow field of view.

Apple and Facebook are throwing the enduring profits of iPhones and the News Feed into building a better consumer headset. Snapchat has built intermediary glasses since CEO Evan Spiegel thinks it will be a decade before AR headsets see mainstream adoption. AR rivals like Microsoft have better enterprise experience, connections, and distribution. Enterprise AR startup Daqri crashed and burned.

Magic Leap’s CEO said he wanted to sell 1 million of its $2300 headset in its first year, then projected it would sell 100,000 headsets, but only moved 6,000 in the first six months, according to a daming report from The Information’s Alex Heath. Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai left Magic Leap’s board despite Google leading a $514 million funding round for the startup in 2014. Business Insider’s Steven Tweedie and Kevin Webb revealed CFO Scott Henry and SVP of creative strategy John Gaeta bailed in November. The company suffered dozens of layoffs. It lost a $500 million contract to Microsoft last year. The CEOs of Apple, Google, and Facebook visited Magic Leap headquarters in 2016 to explore an acquisition deal, but no offers emerged.

Is AR eyewear part of the future? Almost surely. And is this startup valuable? Certainly somewhat. But Magic Leap may prove to be too little too early for a company burning cash by the hundreds of millions in a market newly fixated on efficiency. A $10 billion price tag would require one of the world’s biggest corporations to believe Magic Leap has irreplicable talent and technology that will earn them a fortune in the somewhat distant future.

The fact that Facebook, which does not shy from tall acquisition prices, didn’t want to buy Magic Leap is telling. This isn’t a product with hundreds of millions of users or fast-ramping revenue. It’s a gamble on vision and timing that looks to be coming up snake eyes. It’s unclear when the startup would ever be able to deliver on its renderings of flying whales and living room dinosaurs in a form factor people actually want to wear.

 

One of Magic Leap’s early renderings of what it could supposedly do

With all their money and plenty of time before widespread demand for AR headsets materializes, potential acquirers could likely hire away the talent and make up the development time in cheaper ways than buying Magic Leap. If someone acquires them for too much, it feels like a write-off waiting to happen.

#apple, #augmented-reality, #daqri, #facebook, #fundings-exits, #gadgets, #google, #hardware, #johnson-johnson, #magic-leap, #microsoft, #microsoft-hololens, #startups, #sundar-pichai, #tc, #wearables

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