Category Archives: google

Google Assistant was all over IFA in Berlin. What are the implications?

Last week I attended IFA in Berlin, perhaps Europe’s biggest consumer electronics event, and was struck by the ubiquity of Google Assistant. The company spent big on promoting its digital assistant both outside and inside the venue.

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Mach mal, Google; or in English, Go Google.

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On the stands and in press briefings I soon lost count of who was supporting Google’s voice assistant. A few examples:

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JBL/Harman in its earbuds

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Lenovo with its Home Control Solutions – Lenovo also uses its own cloud and will support Amazon Alexa

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LG with audio, TV, kitchen, home automation and more

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Bang & Olufsen with its smart speakers. No logo, but it is using Google Assistant both as a feature in itself (voice search and so on) and to control other audio devices.

And Sony with its TVs and more. For example, then new AF9 and ZF9 series: “Using the Google Assistant with both the AF9 and ZF9 will be even easier. Both models have built-in microphones that will free the hands; now you simply talk to the TV to find what you quickly want, or to ask the Google Assistant to play TV shows, movies, and more.*

I was only at IFA for the pre-conference press days so this is just a snapshot of what I saw; there were many more Google Assistant integrations on display, and quite a few (though not as many) for Amazon Alexa.

It is fair to say then that Google is treating this as a high priority and having considerable success in getting vendors to sign up.

What is Google Assistant?

Google Assistant really only needs three things in order to work. A microphone, to hear you. An internet connection, to send your voice input to its internet service for voice to text transcription, and then to its AI/Search service to find a suitable response. And a speaker, to output the result. You can get it as a product called Google Home but it is the software and internet service that counts.

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Vendors of smart devices – anything that has an internet connection – can develop integrations so that Google Assistant can control them. So you can say, “Hey Google, turn on the living room light” and it will be so. Cool.

Amazon Alexa has similar features and this is Google’s main competition. Alexa was first and ties in well with Amazon services such as shopping and media. However Google has the advantage of its search services, its control of Android, and its extensive personal data derived from search, Android, Google Maps and location services, GMail and more. This means Google can do better AI and richer personalisation.

Natural language UI

Back in March I attended an AI Assistant Summit in London organised by Re-Work. One of the speakers was Yariv Adan, a Product Lead at Google Assistant.

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I attend lots of presentations but this one made a particular impact on me. Adan believes that natural language UI is the next big technological shift. The preceding ones he identified were the Internet in the nineties and smartphones in the early years of this century. Adan envisages an era in which we no longer constantly pull out devices.

“I believe the next revolution is happening now, powered by AI. I call it the paradigm switch to natural UI. Instead of humans adapting to machines, machines adapt to humans. What we’re trying to create is we interact with machines the same way we interact with each other, in a natural way. Meaning using natural language, showing things, pointing at things, assuming context, assuming a human-like memory, expecting personality, humour, opinion, some kind of an emotional connection, empathy.

[In future] it is not the device changing, it is the device disappearing. We are not going to interact with devices any more. We are starting to interact with this AI entity, an ambient entity that exists everywhere.”

Note: If you ever read Isaac Asimov’s science fiction novels, you will recognise this as very like his Multivac computer, which hears and responds to your questions wherever you are.

“Imagine now that everything is connected, that the entity follows you. That there is no more device that you need to take out, turn on, speak to it. It’s around you, it’s on the TV, it’s in the speakers, it’s in your headphones, it’s in the watch, it’s in the auto, it’s there. Internet of things, any connected device that only has a speaker you can actually start interacting with that thing,”

said Adan.

Adan gave a number of demonstrations. Incidentally, he never uttered the words “Hey Google”. Simply, he spoke into his phone, where I presume some special version of Google Assistant was running. In particular, he was keen to show how the AI is learning about context and memory. So he asked what is the largest castle in the UK where people live. Answer: Windsor Castle. Then, Who built it? When? Is it open now? How can I get there by public transport? What about food? In each case, the Assistant answered as a human would, understanding that the topic was Windsor Castle. “I found some restaurants within 0.4 miles,” said the Assistant, betraying a touch of computer-style logic.

“Thank you you’re awesome,” says Adan. “Not a problem”, responds the Assistant. This is an example of personality or emotion, key factors, said Adan, in making interaction natural.

Adan also talked about personalisation. “Show me my flight”. The Assistant knows he is away from home and also has access to his mailbox, from where it has parse flight details. So it answers this generic question with specific details about tomorrow’s flight to Zurich.

“Where did I park my car?” In this case, Adan had taken a picture of his car after parking. The Assistant knew the location of the picture and was able to show both the image and its place on a map.

“I want to show how we use some of that power for the ecosystem that we have built … we’re trying to make that revolution to a place where you don’t need to think about the machine any more, where you just interact in a way that is natural. I am optimistic, I think the revolution is happening now.”

Implications and unintended consequences

An earlier speaker at the Re-Work event (sorry I forget who it was) noted that voice systems give simplified results compared to text-based searches. Often you only get one result. Back in the nineties, we used to talk about “10 blue links” as the typical result of a search. This meant that you had some sort of choice about where you clicked, and an easy way to get several different perspectives. Getting just one result is great if the answer is purely factual and is correct, but reinforces the winner-takes-all tendency. Instead of being on the first page of results, you have to be top. Or possibly pay for advertising; that aspect has not yet emerged in the voice assistant world.

If we get into the habit of shopping via voice assistants, it will be disruptive for brands. Maybe Amazon Basics will do well, if users simply say “get me some A4 paper” rather than specifying a brand. Maybe more and more decisions will be taken for you. “Get me a takeaway dinner”, perhaps, with the assistant knowing both what you like, and what you ate yesterday and the day before.

All this is speculation, but it is obvious that a shift from screens to voice for both transactions and information will have consequences for vendors and information providers; and that probably it will tend to reduce rather than increase diversity.

What about your personal data? This is a big question and one that the industry hates to talk about. I heard nothing about it at IFA. The assumption was that if you could turn on a light, or play some music, without leaving your chair, that must be a good thing. Yet, having a device or devices in your home listening to your every word (in case you might say “Hey Google”) is something that makes me uncomfortable. I do not want Google reading my emails or tracking my location, but it is becoming hard to avoid.

For most people, Google Assistant will just be a feature of their TV, or audio system, or a way to call up recipes in the kitchen.

From Google’s perspective though, it is safe to assume that the ability to collect data is a key reason for its strong promotion and drive behind Google Assistant. That data has enormous value. Targeted advertising is the start, but it also provides deep insight into how we live, trends in human behaviour, changing patterns of consumption, and much more. When things are going wrong with our health, our finances or our relationships, it is not implausible that Google may know before we do.

This is a lot of power to give a giant US corporation; and we should also note that in some scenarios, if the US government were to demand that data be handed over, a company like Google has no choice but to comply.

Personalisation can make our lives better, but also has the potential to harm us. An area of concern is that of shared risk, such as health insurance. Insurers may be reluctant to give policies to those people most likely to make a claim. Could Google’s data store somehow end up impacting our ability to insure, or its cost?

Personalisation is always a trade-off. Organisation gets my data; I get a benefit. I shop at a supermarket and this is fairly transparent. I use a loyalty card so the shop knows what I buy; in return I get discount points and special offers.

In the case of Google Assistant it is not so transparent. The EU’s GDPR legislation has helped, giving citizens the right to access their data and the right to be forgotten. However, we are still in the era of one-sided privacy policies and in many cases the binary choice of agree, or do not use our services. This becomes a problem if the service provider has anything close to a monopoly, which is true in Google’s case. Regulation, it seems to me, is exactly the right answer to the risks inherent in putting too much power in the hands of a business entity.

For myself, I am happy to cross the room and turn on the light, and to find my flight in my calendar. The trade-off is not worth it. But if Adan’s “ambient entity” comes to pass (which is actually most likely Google) I am not sure of the extent to which I will have a choice.

Adan’s work is terrific and the ability for machines to converse with humans in something close to a natural way is a huge technical achievement. I have nothing but respect for him and his team. It is part of a wider picture though, about data gathering, personalisation, and control of information and transactions, and it seems to me that this deserves more attention.

Google announces Cloud Build: CI/CD for the Google Cloud Platform

Google Cloud Next is under way in San Francisco, and yesterday saw the announcement of Cloud Build, Continuous Integration and Continuous Deployment for the Google Cloud Platform.

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Cloud Build runs a series of automated build steps and then optionally pushes built images to Googles container registry. It is a natural fit with Kubernetes but can be used with both containerised and direct deployments.

You can create your own build steps or use a prebuilt one. The prebuilt steps are:

  • bazel: runs the bazel tool
  • curl: runs the curl tool
  • docker: runs the docker tool
  • dotnet: run the dotnet tool
  • gcloud: runs the gcloud tool
  • git: runs the git tool
  • go: runs the go tool
  • gradle: runs the gradle tool
  • gsutil: runs the gsutil tool
  • kubectl: runs the kubectl tool
  • mvn: runs the maven tool
  • npm: runs the npm tool
  • wget: runs the wget tool
  • yarn: runs the yarn tool

Note that dotnet is in there so you can use this immediately with .NET Core.

There is also an option to  build locally. For example, you could build locally and only after a successful local build, invoke Cloud Build.

Cloud Build integrates with GitHub:

With this new integration, you can easily set up CI through Cloud Build and automate builds and tests as part of your GitHub workflow.

I doubt Google celebrated when Microsoft acquired GitHub but it is good to see GitHub continuing to support diverse platforms.

Overall this is an important feature as Google races to extend its cloud platform to match what is on offer from its key competitors, AWS and Microsoft Azure.

Microsoft’s strong financials, and some notes on Azure vs AWS and the risks of losing in mobile

Microsoft delivered another strong set of figures in its latest financial results, for the period April-June 2018. Total revenue of $30.085 million was up 17% year on year, and all three of the company’s sectors (Office, Azure and consumer) showed strong growth.

What’s notable? Largely this is more of the same. A few things to note. Linked in revenue increased 37% year on year – an acquisition that seems to be making sense for the company. Dynamics 365 revenue grew by 65%. The Dynamics story is all about cloud synergy. As an on-premises product Dynamics CRM (the part of the suite I know best) was relatively undistinguished but as a cloud product the seamless integration between Office 365 and Dynamics 365 (and Azure Active Directory) makes it compelling.

Windows 10 is doing OK, possibly as more businesses heave themselves off Windows 7 and buy new PCs with OEM licenses as they do.

Even areas in which Microsoft is far from dominant did well. Gaming was up 39%, Surface 25% and Search advertising up 17%.

The biggest growth in the quarter, according to the breakdown here, was in Azure. up 89%. This growth is not without pain; the Register reports capacity issues in the UK South region, for example, with users getting the message “Unfortunately, due to high demand for virtual machines in this region, we are not able to approve your quota request at this time.” You can still create VMs, but not necessarily in the region you want.

Will Microsoft outpace AWS? My take on this has not changed. AWS does very little wrong and remains the pre-eminent cloud for IAAS and many services by some distance. What AWS does not have is Office 365, or armies of Microsoft partners helping enterprise customers to shunt more and more of their IT infrastructure into Azure. Microsoft makes more money from licensing: Windows Server, SQL Server, Office 365 and Dynamics seats, and so on. AWS does more business at a lower margin. These are big differences. I see it as unlikely that Azure will overtake AWS in the provision of essential cloud services like VMs, containers, cloud storage and so on. AWS also has a better reliability track record. However, the success of Azure means that enterprise customers no longer need to go to AWS to get the benefits of cloud. Perhaps the more interesting question is the extent to which AWS (or Google) can persuade enterprise customers to shift away from Microsoft’s high-margin applications.

Longer term, there is significant risk for the company in its retreat from mobile. We are now seeing Google work hard in the laptop market with Chromebooks alongside Android mobile. Coming sometime is Google Fuchsia which may be a single operating system for both. It is worth recalling that Microsoft built its success on winning users for its PC operating system; and that IBM lost its IT dominance by ceding this to Microsoft.

Here is the breakdown by segment, such as it is:  

Quarter ending June 30th 2018 vs quarter ending June 30th 2017, $millions

Segment Revenue Change Operating income Change
Productivity and Business Processes 9668 +1140 3466 +575
Intelligent Cloud 9606 +1784 3901 +990
More Personal Computing 10811 +1576 3012 +826

The segments break down as:

Productivity and Business Processes: Office, Office 365, Dynamics 365 and on-premises Dynamics, LinkedIn

Intelligent Cloud: Server products, Azure cloud services

More Personal Computing: Consumer including Windows, Xbox; Bing search; Surface hardware

Chromebooks get more useful as Linux comes to Chrome OS

At Google’s IO conference under way in San Francisco, the company has announced the ability for a Chromebook to run Linux applications.

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“Support for Linux will enable you to create, test and run Android and web app for phones, tablets and laptops all on one Chromebook. Run popular editors, code in your favourite language and launch projects to Google Cloud with the command-line. Everything works directly on a Chromebook,” says product manager Ton Buckley. “Linux runs inside a virtual machine that was designed from scratch for Chromebooks. That means it starts in seconds and integrates completely with Chromebook features. Linux apps can start with a click of an icon, windows can be moved around, and files can be opened directly from apps.”

Squinting at the screen in Google’s photo, above, it looks like the Linux VM runs Debian.

Coupled with the existing ability to run Android apps, the announcement makes Chromebooks more attractive for users (and I am one of them) who would previously have found the operating system too restrictive.

Buckley presents the new feature as primarily one for developers. You will be able to build and test Android applications directly on the Chromebook. Given the operating system’s native support for Android, this should be an excellent machine for Android development.

One of the first things I would install would be Visual Studio Code, presuming it runs OK. Thanks to .NET Core, ASP.NET development should work. The LAMP stack running locally would be great for  PHP development.

Personally I would not only use it for coding though. The ability to run LibreOffice would be great, for example. There are also a ton of handy Linux utilities for admins.

Top feature: security

The key attractions of Chromebooks (aside from low prices from OEM vendors) is security. They are popular in education for this reason. They require less management than PCs because the operating system is locked down and self-patching. The new feature should not compromise security too much, because Linux runs in a VM and in the worst case resetting the VM should clear any malware – though access to user documents could make malware running in the VM quite disruptive.

Apple’s iPad Pro is another capable device with a locked down OS, but does not run Linux applications.

What about Windows? Microsoft has tried and so far failed to lock down Windows in a manner acceptable to its customers. Windows RT was the first attempt, but users found it too restrictive, partly because the Windows 8 app ecosystem was so weak. Windows S is another attempt; but progress is slow. Microsoft has also weakened the security of its modern app platform to make it more capable, even to the extent of allowing desktop applications into the Windows Store. The approach taken by Apple and Google, to design a new secure operating system and make it gradually more capable, is more viable than Microsoft’s work in the opposite direction.

Quick thoughts on Salesforce and Google Cloud Platform alliance

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Yesterday Salesforce and Google announced a strategic partnership:

1. Salesforce named Google Cloud as “a preferred public cloud provider”. Salesforce says it “continues to invest in its own data centers”. However it will use public cloud infrastructure “for its core services” as well, especially in “select international markets.” Why is Google Cloud Platform (GCP) just a preferred partner and not the? Well, “AWS is a great partner”, as the release also notes.

2. New integrations will be introduced between Salesforce and G Suite (Gmail, Docs, Google Drive and Calendar for business), and there is a promotional offer of one year’s free G Suite for Salesforce customers. Note that the release also says “restrictions apply, see here”, with the see here link currently inactive.

3. Salesforce will integrate with Google Analytics.

Google has also posted about the partnership but adds little of substance to the above.

Why this alliance? On Google’s side, it is keen to build momentum for its cloud platform and to catch up a little with AWS and Microsoft Azure. Getting public support from a major cloud player like Salesforce is helpful. On the Salesforce side, it is an obvious alliance following the public love-in between Adobe and Microsoft Azure. Adobe competes with Salesforce in marketing tools, and Microsoft competes with Salesforce in CRM.

Google will also hope to win customers from Microsoft Exchange, Office and Office 365. However Salesforce knows it has to integrate nicely with Microsoft’s email and productivity tools as well as with G Suite. The analytics integration is a bigger deal here, thanks to the huge reach of Google’s cloud data and tools.

Nokia 8: a phone from the new Nokia brand that you might actually want

This morning I attended Nokia’s press breakfast here in Berlin, where the main product on show is the Nokia 8 smartphone. It is not quite a new launch – there was an event in London a couple of weeks ago – but it was my first look at HMD’s first flagship device.

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HMD Global Oy was founded in May 2016 as a new company to exploit the Nokia smartphone brand. The company is “owned by Smart Connect LP, a private equity fund managed by Jean-Francois Baril, a former Nokia executive, as well as by HMD management,” according to the press release at the time. Based in Finland, the new company acquired the right to use the Nokia trademark on smartphones as well as “design rights relating to Microsoft’s Feature Phone Business” (what feature phone business, you may ask).

HMD made the decision to market a pure Google form of Android. I find it intriguing that a Nokia-branded smartphone was once powered by Symbian, then became a Windows device, and now has Google deeply embedded. The two companies are now “joined at the hip,” according to an HMD spokesperson this morning. Though it is a rather unequal relationship, with HMD having fewer than 500 employees and relying on outsourcing for much of its business.

A UK release of the Nokia 8, together with operator deals, will be announced on September 6th, I was told. The unsubsidised price might be around £600 (or Euros, the currencies being of nearly equal value in these Brexit days).

So why might you want one? Well, it is a decent phone, based on an 8-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chipset, 2560 x 1440 display, 4GB RAM, 64GB storage, up to 256GB MicroSD, fingerprint reader and so on.

There are a couple of special features. The most obvious is that both front and rear 13MP cameras can be used simultaneously, enabling what Nokia inevitably calls “bothies”.

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Is this a feature worth having? It is problematic, partly because taking good selfies is difficult without a selfie stick which most of the time you do not have with you, and partly because the view behind you is typically less interesting than the view you are trying to photograph.

I am not sure whether this matters though. It is a distinctive feature, and in a crowded market this is important.

I am more interested in another feature, called OZO audio. OZO is a professional cinema camera made by Nokia and the system in the phone is based on OZO surround sound algorithms. The phone has three microphones, and using OZO you can apparently capture a simulated surround effect even though the output is two-channel.

Although it seems counter-intuitive, I do believe in the possibilities of simulated surround sound; after all, we only have two ears. OZO works in conjunction with the phone’s video camera so you can capture more atmospheric audio. The demo was impressive but this is something I will need to try for myself before forming a judgement.

The other aspect of the Nokia 8 which is attractive is the company’s attitude towards Android modifications and bundled apps. Essentially, you get Android as designed by Google, plus Google apps and not much else. Operators will not be able to bundle additional apps, I was told (though I am not sure I believe it).

While I do not like the way Google constantly gathers data from users of its software, I do think that if you are going to run Android, you might was well run it as designed, rather than with additional and often substandard “enhancements”.

I hope to do a full review and will look carefully at the audio performance then.

Dear Google, since you provide no contact options, here is my problem

For many years I have used the Adsense program provided by Google to serve ads on websites that I run. In fact I was one of the earliest users. I have not earned a huge amount but have seen a regular flow of income, more than enough to provide my hosting costs.

Today I received a disturbing email, from a “no-reply” address. It reads as follows:

Hello,

This is a warning message to alert you that there is action required to bring your AdSense account into compliance with our AdSense program policies. We’ve provided additional details below, along with the actions to be taken on your part.

Affected website: sifa********.com

Example page where violation occurred: http://sifa********.com/drafted/enderby-filipina-teen-video/

Action required: Please make changes immediately to your site to follow AdSense program policies.

Current account status: Active

My first thought was that the email was not really from Google. However the email headers check out. And when I went to my Adsense dashboard I saw this:

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OK, I thought, maybe my site has been hacked. But the domain is not mine. Nor does the IP no resolve to one that is anything to do with me. I looked up the domain, of course it is impossible to contact the registrant:

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I traced the IP no to an ISP (UK based) and considered emailing its abuse email. However I have not visited the site and do not know if the content is legal or illegal, nor do I have any intention of visiting the site.

What about Adsense? Well, although I have this warning, the only site that shows up in my performance reports is itwriting.com. And the only domain authorized to serve ads is itwriting.com:

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What do do then? Clearly I cannot fix the issue as it is not mine to fix. Possibly the owner of the site has entered my email address or other details as their own; I cannot prevent that.

So I need to contact Google’s Adsense team. But I cannot. In fact, I cannot contact anyone at Google. There is not even an email address I can use (I suppose the abuse email might reach someone). There are telephone numbers for the London office but all the options cut you off unless you can provide an account number as an advertiser. The people who run the websites on which many of the ads appear? Google does not care.

I am therefore taking the only option available to me, which is to post this in public.

Dear Google, the website referenced in your warning is nothing to do with me. I have no control over it. I cannot therefore take any action about it; and in fact I am offended by the implicit accusation in your email and the warning in my Adsense dashboard.

I am also disappointed that you provide no means of contact beyond a useless peer-to-peer help forum that for all I know is not even monitored by Google employees (a brief glance shows no replies from them).

I suggest that you remedy this with some emergency option for longstanding business partners.

And if this is the end of our partnership, because of my inability to respond, so be it.

Update: The problem has been mysteriously marked as “Resolved”:

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Blocked from Google search: agree our terms or else go away

Late last week I encountered behaviour from Google that I had not seen before. It was related to my habit of not signing into Google automatically; I only sign in when I want to use Google+ (I know; but I have quite a few followers there and use it from time to time). Nor do I always use Google for search; I have Bing set as default, but Google is better for some kinds of searches – such as the kinds of searches admins and developers make when trying to fix a problem – so I use whichever one I think will get me the best results.

I therefore hit Google, only to find that I could not proceed. The only thing on the page was a notice stating that I could only continue using Google services if I “review key points” of Google’s Privacy Policy.

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The word “review” turns out to be misleading. The next banner you see asks you not only to review but also to click “I agree” to a range of statements including delivering “ads based on your interests”.

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If you click “Other options” you find that there are none, other than a list of minor tweaks you can make to your settings on a per-browser basis.

In my experience these do not work well anyway. I have opted out of every interest-based ad that I can, but I still see many ads that are obviously “interest based”, such as ads that mysteriously match recent searches on ecommerce sites.

Once you have reviewed these options, you have to go back and click “I agree”, or give up using Google search.

Most web sites in the EU now have at least some form of cookie consent banner, but in my experience it is rare that a site blocks you completely. Some simply state that by continuing you implicitly agree to their terms. Some let you dismiss the banner with an x, leaving ambiguity about whether or not you agree. Google has gone for the nuclear option: unless you specifically agree, no search for you. I found the same banner both on Google.co.uk and Google.com.

My immediate question was in what circumstances Google chooses to block search (and other services) until you agree its policies. I asked Google, but have yet to receive a reply; if and when I do, I will update this post.

It seems that some others also noticed this change of behaviour. Privacy advocate Aral Balkan tweeted about it.

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Google is doing the right thing here, if it is not willing to let you use search or YouTube, for example, unless you agree its policies. No doubt it is trying to stay the right side of the law, especially in the EU.

At the same time, I do for some reason find this disturbing. Agreements like this are one-sided; there is no use in my trying to get Google to change some clause or other because I do not agree. Further, the extent to which I have choice in the matter is limited. Perhaps I can do my job without Google search, but without *any* Google services? What if I want to report on a conference where the sessions are on YouTube? Google has not created this content, but does deliver it. Is it reasonable for me to tell people, sorry, I cannot report on that, because it is on Google and I do not agree with its privacy policy, that feeds me pestilential interest-based ads and records my data in ways I cannot control?

You have choice but not that much choice; and the same applies to Facebook, where you may information that requires log-in and cannot easily be obtained elsewhere. I am sure that to most people putting something on Facebook is exactly equivalent to putting it on the Internet, but it is private property and there is a distinction.

Google’s official Android Studio is at version 1.0

Google has released version 1.0 of Android Studio.

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This Java/Android IDE has been in preview/beta since Google IO in May. It is based on the excellent JetBrains IntelliJ IDEA.

You can get Android Studio here. It is now the official Android IDE and developers using Eclipse are encouraged to migrate – like it or not.

One of the key features is a new build system based on Gradle. Another notable features is a visual layout designer; you can toggle between visual and text modes.

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Presumably one reason for Google developing its own Android IDE is to integrate more tightly with its cloud services. There is a Google Cloud Module on offer in the IDE.

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Android development has its hassles. I seem to spend far too much time in the Android SDK Manager downloading new versions of the SDK, which is frequently updated.

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Another annoyance is that the Intel Emulator Accelerator (HAXM) is incompatible with Hyper-V, the official Windows hypervisor. You either have to uninstall Hyper-V,  or put up with a slow emulator. I would prefer it if Google/Intel/JetBrains used the standard Windows component.

Android apps on Chrome: how it works and what it may become

Google announced at its I/O conference in June 2014 that Android apps are coming to its Chrome OS. Earlier this month product managers Ken Mixter and Josh Woodward announced that the first four Android apps are available in the Chromebook app store: Duolingo, Evernote, Sight Words and Vine.

I delayed posting about this until I found the time to investigate a little into how it works. I fired up an Acer C720 and installed Evernote from the Chrome web store (in addition to Evernote Web which was already installed).

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When you install your first Android app, Chrome installs the App Runtime for Chrome (Beta) (ARC) automatically.

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Incidentally, I found Evernote slightly odd on Chromebook since it is runs in a window although the app is designed to run full screen, as it would on a phone or tablet. This caught me out when I went to settings, which looks like a dialog, and closed it with the x at the top right of the window. Of course that closes the app entirely. If you want to navigate the app, you have to click the back arrow at top left of the window instead.

But what is the App Runtime for Chrome? This seems to be an implementation of the Android runtime for NaCl (Native Client), which lets you run compiled C and C++ code in the browser. If you browse the parts of ARC which are open source, you can see how it implements the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) for arch-nacl: a virtual processor running as a browser extension.

Not all of ARC is open source. The docs say:

Getting Started with ARC Open Source on Linux

=============================================

A small set of shared objects can be built which are part of ARC currently.

A fully running system cannot currently be built.

It is early days, with just four apps available, ARC in beta, and developers asked to contact Google if they are interested in having their Android apps run on Chrome OS. However, an independent developer has already ported ARC to desktop Chrome:

ARChon runtime lets you run unlimited number of Android APKs created with chromeos-apk on Chrome OS and across any desktop platform that supports Chrome.

The desktop version is unstable, and apps that need Google Play services run into problems. Still, think of it as a proof of concept.

In particular, note that this is Android Runtime for Chrome, not Android Runtime for Chrome OS. Google is targeting the browser, not the operating system. This means that ARC can, if Google chooses, become an Android runtime for every operating system where Chrome runs – with the exception, I imagine, of Chrome for iOS, which is really a wrapper for Apple’s web browser engine and cannot support NaCl, and Chrome for Android which does not need it.

Imagine that Google gets ARC running well on Windows and Mac. What are the implications?

The answer is that Android will become a cross-platform runtime, alongside others such as Flash (the engine in Adobe AIR) and Java. There has to be some performance penalty for apps written in Java for Android running in an Android VM in the browser; but NaCl runs native code and I would expect performance to be good enough.

This would make Android an even more attractive target for developers, since apps will run on desktop computers as well as on Android itself.

Might this get to the point where developers drop dedicated Windows or Mac versions of their apps, arguing that users can just run the Android version? An ARC app will be compromised not only in performance, but also in the way it integrates with the OS, so you would not expect this to happen with major apps. However, it could happen with some apps, since it greatly simplifies development.