Google’s Turn

Well, the Twins started well, but it went downhill rather quickly. I think I’ll avoid picking a new team to root for–why jinx somebody?–and just enjoy the spectacle for the rest of the month.

But enough about baseball for now. For now.

In addition to being in Playoff Season, we’re also in New Hardware Season. Apple announced theirs a few weeks ago, and it’s Google’s turn this week.

Spoiler alert: Google didn’t announce a new tablet. They also didn’t announce a “Google Watch”. I find one of these failures disappointing.

As usual, I’m taking my cues from Ars Technica’s coverage of the unveiling and filtering it through my own prejudices.

Google is still talking up their Artificial Intelligence plans. In essence, they aim to make AI omnipresent and indispensable. ‘Nuff said; we’re here for the hardware they’re going to put that AI on.

First up is the Home Mini. Shrink last year’s Google Home down into something that looks like a fabric-wrapped hockey puck. Functionally, it seems to be pretty much the same; presumably, the new voice commands they talked about will be rolled out to all of the gadgets.

Google Home products will be able to interface with Nest’s home security gadgets. The example they gave was asking Google Home to show you who’s at the door, and it’ll not only put the feed from the camera on your TV, but it’ll also use facial recognition to tell you who it is. No thanks. I’m going to say right now that I’m not going to visit anybody who sets this system up. Bad enough Google knows where my phone is, but I don’t want them tracking my face when I go to friends’ houses.

At the opposite extreme from the Home Mini is–surprise!–Home Max. Same brains, but a big speaker for better sound quality. Pardon me. They talked about it’s ability to get loud, but didn’t actually say anything about how good it will sound. Interesting omission, isn’t it?

Then there’s the new Pixelbook. A thin, light laptop running Chrome OS, with support for Android apps. It’s actually a two-in-one: there’s a 360 degree hinge so you can fold the screen back against the keyboard and use it as a tablet. A fourteen inch tablet. Sorry, guys. I see the convenience factor, but fourteen inches and over two pounds is too damn big and heavy for actual tablet usage.

Nor do I find the “Pixel Pen” particularly compelling. It does all the usual stylus things with one unique feature: anything you draw a circle around will be searched on Google. Sounds like a nice convenience–though I hope that’s disabled in your art programs–but not worth the extra hundred bucks they’re going to charge on top of the thousand or more for the computer.

Moving on.

Two new Pixel phones, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. All the usual enhancements for the modern era: better screens, faster CPUs, improved cameras, no headphone jacks. Other than size, supposedly the two are identical.

The Pixel 2s will come with a new version of the Home screen. Google Search will move to the bottom of the screen, making room at the top for your next appointment, traffic, flights, and similar “what’s coming” information. No word on whether that’ll make its way onto older phones eventually.

Also no word on whether “Google Lens” will be a Pixel 2 exclusive forever. Lens is an upgrade to Google Goggles, the visual search tool. Point the camera at something to search on it. Or recognize it, apparently. They said it will identify emails, phone numbers, and addresses. Hopefully it’ll actually do something with them once they’re recognized. I don’t need my phone to tell me “Hey, that’s an email address!” I need it to add the address to my contact list without doing a manual copy/paste.

Moving on again.

An upgrade to the Daydream View. That’s the “use your smartphone as a VR headset” thing. New lenses, new fabric, new higher price.

Nothing to see here. Move along.

And, since there’s no headphone jack on the Pixel 2, you’ll need wireless headphones. So of course there are the Pixel Buds. They’re not totally wireless: there’s a cord connecting the two earpieces. Which actually makes sense to me. I imagine it’ll be a lot harder to lose than the separate Apple buds. One cool feature: live audio translation among forty languages. If it works well in less-than-acoustically-clean settings, that could be very handy. Especially if one of those forty is “Boss”.

Nor is Google neglecting video. Want to let your camera decide when to take a picture? Of course you do! Sign up now for your Google Clips. You just set it down somewhere and it takes a picture or short video clip when it spots something it thinks is photo-worthy.

What’s photo-worthy? Pictures of people you know, apparently. Great if you’re heavily into selfies, I guess, but how is it for landscapes, museums, tourist attractions, and all of the things you don’t see every day?

On the brighter side, it sounds like it’ll make a great stalker cam. Just attach it to your belt and go about your day. Check the photos when you get home.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I hope Google Clips goes straight to the same rubbish bin as the late, not-particularly-lamented Nexus Q.

Bottom line: some interesting goodies and some real trash. If I were in the market for a new phone, I’d give the Pixel 2 serious consideration, for all the usual reasons, but I didn’t see anything so compelling as to make me rush to upgrade my Nexus 5X.

And I shall remain resolutely free of household automation.

OS Power Up?

My phone is running Android Oreo.

As I type this, my iPad is downloading iOS 11.

And I’m asking myself why. It’s not like either OS introduces new features on my years-old devices. Yes, there are security fixes. Those are important, certainly, and in both cases installing the entire update is the only way to get those fixes.

Okay, yes, some of my current disenchantment is depression brought on by looking at the current news. But still, why do we have to have major OS updates on an annual schedule?

Remember, Android and iOS upgrades are free. Google and Apple aren’t making any money directly off of them, and they’re spending a bundle to tout the new features. Sure, the iOS release is tied to the release of new iPhones, which is where Apple lives. But they’d sell just as many iPhone 8s and iPhone Xs if they came with iOS 10 point something.

For the record, it’s not just phones and tablets. OS X is doing the same thing. Windows is even worse–we’re getting two upgrades a year.

And every time an upgrade comes out, we get reports of bricked phones and scrambled computers, followed by the eternal reminder that “it’s impossible to test every combination of hardware.”

I’m not suggesting the OS vendors should stop upgrading their software. Just thinking the annual upgrade cycle might possibly have more downsides than up.

What about a slipstreamed approach: roll out new features year-round in a series of smaller upgrades that’ll be less likely to break things?

Of course there are problems there. Problems in design, development, and testing. I may not be doing much formal QA these days, but I haven’t forgotten that much about software development. But the approach works well at the application level. It’s worth a try at the OS level.

On a related note, remember a couple of years ago when I griped about software upgrades violating user expectations? I just found a nice example of not doing that in iOS 11.

For the past couple of iOS releases on iPad, swiping up from the bottom of the screen with four or five fingers has brought up the list of running apps. Quick and easy, and I’ve gotten used to it. (Windows users, think “Alt-Tab”.)

In iOS 11, Apple introduced a new “Dock”: a list of frequently-used and currently-running apps. You can pop the dock up over your current program by swiping up with a single finger. And swiping up a second time brings up the new-and-improved list of running apps.

But, and here’s the important thing, the four-finger swipe still works! Even though there’s now a new route to the task switcher, I can still use the old route.

Mind you, I wouldn’t be surprised if the four-finger gestures disappear in a later release, but at least my muscle memory is safe for another year.

SAST 06

I need to close out a few open issues from recent blog posts, so it’s time for a Short Attention Span Theater.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a poor QA/good customer service issue I had with the Project Fi Travel Trolley.

I’m pleased to report that Swyft customer support came through with the promised travel socks. And they’re just as silly as we had hoped.

Let’s be clear: these aren’t the full height compression socks designed to prevent Deep Vein Thrombosis. These are ankle socks. But they have little rubberized bumps on the underside to prevent slippage when you take your shoes off to go through the TSA’s scanners. If you follow the often-quoted advice to take off your shoes on the plane and walk up and down the aisle a couple of times during the flight, they should be fine for that. They even seem rugged enough to wear to bed so you can stagger into the bathroom in the middle of the night without having to hunt for slippers.

Most importantly, though, they’re black, they’re fuzzy–kind of snuggly, in fact–and they’ve got a Project Fi logo on the side. Amusing. And I intend to wear them next time I fly.

And I will test the Travel Trolley again.

Moving on.

Last Thursday, I mused a little about the Mariners’ attempt to get above .500 for the first time this year.

Not only did they win Thursday night behind rookie Andrew Moore, but they also won Friday behind veteran Felix Hernandez.

Friday, they also sent Moore back to the minors. Weird game, baseball.

No, it wasn’t because they were displeased with his performance. Whoever made up the schedule decided the Ms needed two days off this week. Never mind that the All-Star Break is less than two weeks away and will bring almost everyone in the league a four-day holiday.

But with both Monday and Thursday off, the Ms didn’t really need five starting pitchers, so Moore went down to AAA. Chances are he’ll be back with the Mariners sooner rather than later.

But I digress. After that victory Friday the Ms were two games over .500. Celebrations ensued.

Saturday and Sunday, they lost to Houston, the team with the best record in baseball. Tuesday and Wednesday, they lost to Philadelphia, the team with the worst record in baseball.

Just like that, they’re back in familiar territory, two games short of respectability.

But that’s the Mariners for you. Ever since Houston came over from the National League, the Mariners have had trouble beating them. And losses breed.

Even with the losses, though, the Mariners are still only three games out of the Wild Card. Of course, the are eight other teams at three games out or less, so it’s a bit of an uphill climb.

Based on their performance so far this season, I expect the Mariners to bounce around .500 for the next few weeks, until they go to Houston July 17. That’ll put them in a short decline. They’ll recover and get back to .500 or a bit more in August, make a serious run at the Wild Card–and then go into a nose dive when the Astros come to Seattle September 4.

Because Mariners.

Moving on.

Apple is promoting the new iPad Pro it introduced earlier this month. The commercials are in heavy rotation during baseball games.

That’s expected. What isn’t is how stereotyped the ads are. The emo girl who hates everything. The power addict who literally explodes with pleasure. The ghost of a dead laptop.

Really, Apple? If you can’t give us a revolutionary computer–and let’s face it, the iPad Pro may be a heck of a good computer, but it’s neither years ahead of the competition nor unique–can’t you at least give us a revolutionary ad or two? One that doesn’t rely on the same easy compartmentalization we’ve seen in the media for far too long?

WQTS 11

Would you believe there’s a WQTS (Who QAed This Shit) story with a happy ending?

I’ll get there. But first, a tale that’s not so much WQTS as WTTWAGI (Who Thought This Was a Good Idea).

I’m calling out the Holiday Inn Express in Sedalia for gross violations of common sense in their handling of technology. And, just to be perfectly clear, I’m not talking about HIE hotels in general. As far as I know, these problems are unique to that particular location.

Let’s start with the hotel Wi-Fi. Finding good Wi-Fi in a hotel is a rare event, one that should be celebrated with parades and (hopefully brief) speeches by elected dignitaries. The Sedalia Holiday Inn Express’ Wi-Fi is not that sort. To be fair, once you get connected, it’s no worse than many other hotels’. It’s just that getting to that point is by far the worst experience I’ve had with, not just hotel wireless, but any public wireless.

Like most such, the SHIE uses a “captive portal” setup: once you connect, a web page launches, allowing you to enter whatever login credentials are needed. Many hotels either ask for your name and room number or a global password which changes periodically. The page is generally simple so it can display cleanly on anything from an old phone to a modern laptop.

SHIE has a huge page filled with text. That’s necessary because it offers three different ways to log in. Three.

There’s the traditional “last name and room number”.

There’s a numeric code. The web page calls it a PIN, but the envelope your room key comes in calls it an “Internet Access Code”. Calling the same thing by different names is just asking for trouble.

And there’s the third method, which requires half-again as much screen space as the other two combined. That’s because it’s only available to Holiday Inn Express Club members, and the portal login page has to explain all of the benefits of club membership, only one of which the ability connect to the Wi-Fi in any HIE hotel with your email address*.

* No password, at least not on the login page–I’m not a HIE Club Member, so I didn’t try to go any further–but the text strongly implied that all you need is your email address. Which means that if you know an HIE Club member’s email address, you can get all the free Wi-Fi you want in Sedalia. Assuming you want hotel-quality Wi-Fi. I wouldn’t want to download illegal images on something that slow, but if I wanted to launch a virus, how better than to do it through a hotel using someone else’s email address?

The login methods, all crammed onto the one login page. Any half-way competent user interface developer or QA engineer will tell you that having multiple methods of doing the same thing risks confusing your users. And indeed, while I was checking in, there was a couple at the front desk asking for help connecting their laptop to the wireless*.

* They were looking for where to enter that Internet Access Code. Remember, the page calls it a PIN. At least on a laptop they could see the whole page. Imagine how much zooming and scrolling they would have had to do on a phone before they even arrived at that level of confusion.

For the record, the desk clerk couldn’t help them. She had to call the “technical expert”. I left before I got to overhear that conversation. Must have been a doozy.

And don’t forget, by the way, that the portal was set up so you had to re-enter your login information every time you reconnected to the Wi-Fi. Go to dinner? Re-enter. Lose signal? Re-enter.

But enough about the wireless. Let’s move on to the computers in the so-called “Business Center” in the lobby. The hotel is very proud to have Microsoft Office on the computers. So proud, they put up a sign advertising it. And, to be fair, it’s a big step up from last year, when the only software on those machines was Windows itself. But let’s face it: Office is the least you can expect to find on the computers in anything that calls itself a Business Center.

I was impressed to see that the computers were running Windows 10. I was rather less impressed to see that they needed a password to use. Why bother? It’s not like the hotel was exercising any control over who uses the machines. I asked for the password at the desk–and note, by the way, that there were no signs telling would-be users how to get the password. Amazingly, the clerk knew it. It’s all lower-case, with no digits or punctuation, and it’s one of the first three words anyone of even moderate intelligence would try–and it’s not “password” or “guest”. I don’t know if they’re supposed to confirm that users are staying in the hotel, but if so, she didn’t.

So if you’re not limiting usage, why put passwords on them? If you want to exercise enough control to keep kids from tying the up all day playing games, just have the clerks glance in that direction occasionally. The computers sit in the lobby, no more than ten feet away from the front desk.

And it’s not like the password prevents people from mistreating the machines. I couldn’t use the first one I tried because some prankster had changed the password and locked everyone out of the machine. On the other machine, someone had created his own account, presumably so he wouldn’t have to remember the hotel’s password.

On many public computers, the USB ports are disabled to keep people from installing malware. Well-designed Business Centers have heavy-duty virus protection, but allow you to use the USB ports to transfer your work from your laptop to the computer. SHIE found a different security method: they put the computers under the desk, forcing users to crawl around on the floor to plug in a thumb drive. OK, so it’s not totally effective security, but it’s better than nothing.

The final blow? There’s no printer in the Business Center. Instead, there’s a networked printer hidden somewhere behind the front desk. Can you imagine what your corporate information security team is going to say about you using that printer to run off last-second changes to your presentation about buying the Holiday Inn chain?

sigh

OK, ready for that happy ending? This one really is a WQTS story.

This time last year, I wrote about Project Fi and how pleased I was with it.

I’m still happy with Project Fi, and when I heard about the Project Fi Travel Trolley shortly before my Sedalia trip I was totally charmed.

The Trolley, in case you haven’t already heard about it, is a glorified vending machine set up in several major airports around the US. It’s stocked with small items that might be of use to travelers: USB cables, luggage tags, sleep kits, playing cards, and–the real prize–fuzzy travel socks. Project Fi customers can get a free goody just by tapping their phone against the kiosk. The kiosk and your phone use NFC to validate your Fi account and generate a QR code. The kiosk then scans the code and dispenses the prize you wanted.

That’s the theory. In practice, somebody missed a bug.

Either there’s a hidden problem in the kiosk’s NFC reader, or nobody thought to test the scenario where a customer has more than one account on their phone.

Maggie and I both have two accounts on our phones. When we tried to use the Trolley, instead of getting QR codes, we got an endless series of browser windows opening, each of which informed us that we were logged into the wrong account. Logging into Google with the correct account did no good. Neither did any of several other methods we tried to convince the system we were Project Fi customers.

No fuzzy travel socks for us.

Our trip wasn’t ruined. Somehow we soldiered onward, cold toes notwithstanding. (For the record, temperatures in Sedalia were in the high eighties. Frostbite was not a significant concern.)

The happy ending?

I reported the problem to Project Fi support, who referred me to Swyft, the company that manufacturers and supports the Travel Trolley kiosks. Within minutes, I received an apology for the “bad experience,” an assurance that the issue will be investigated, and a promise to send us socks.

Now, it might just have been a bedbug letter. We’ll find out next time I fly through an airport with a Travel Trolley–I fully intend to see if they’ve come up with a fix. One can never have too many sleep masks and earplugs, after all.

But I’ll take a Happy Ending For Now–as long as I really do get my socks.

Google I/O 2017

So, yeah, Google I/O again. Are you as thrilled as I am? You’re not? But they’ve announced such exciting things!

Well, OK, when you come right down to it, they really only announced one thing: Google’s focus is changing from “Mobile first to AI first”. And let’s be honest here: that’s pretty much what they said last year, too.

But what does AI first look like?

For starters, Gmail will start doing “Smart Reply”. This is the same idea as in last year’s Allo text messaging app: pre-written, context-sensitive messages. I haven’t used Allo–anyone want to comment on whether the smart replies are any more accurate than the word suggestions when you’re typing?

Potentially more exciting is their application of image recognition technology. Their example is being able to take a picture of a flower and have your phone tell you what kind it is and whether it’s going to trigger your hay fever. Since I’m sitting here sniffling despite massive doses of anti-histamines, I have to admit that actually sounds like a good use of technology. Presumably over time, the tech will learn about non-botanical parts of the world.

Yes, I’m kidding. It can also recognize restaurants and show Yelp reviews. That’s nice, but not nearly as useful. Ooh, and it can translate signs. (Their demo showed Japanese-to-English translation. I want to know if it can handle Corporate-to-English.) If there are dates on the sign–for example, an ad for a concert–it can add the event to your calendar. It can even ask if you want it to buy tickets.

Basically, it’s playing catchup with Alexa–including adding third-party programmable actions and voice calling–with a few little steps ahead of Amazon.

Case in point: Google Assistant, the brains behind “OK, Google” is getting more smarts and the ability to hold a typed conversation. So you’ll get a running record of your interaction, so when you realize you’ve been following one association after another, you can scroll back and check the answer to your original question. Could be handy, especially if you get stuck on TV Tropes.

Moving on.

AI first also means Google Photos is getting added smarts, starting with something Google calls “Suggested sharing”. Yup. It’ll nag you to share your photos with the people in them. 95% of the pictures I take seem to be of the cats. Is it going to create Google accounts for them so I can share the photos? Or do they already have accounts?

More seriously, if Google knows who the people are, but they’re not in my address book, will it still urge me to share the photos? Sounds like that’s an invasion of privacy just waiting to happen.

Moving on.

Android O (no name announced yet, naturally. They’ll undoubtedly wait until release time for that) is getting the usual slew of features and tweaks. Picture-in-picture, notifications on Home screen icons, improved copy/paste. That last will not only let you select an entire address with a single tap, but offer to show it in Maps. I’d rather it offered to add it to my contacts for future reference, but maybe that’s just me.

Google also made a point of stressing that all of these new “AI first” features happen on your device, without any communication back to Google. That’s actually reassuring. I’m sure the results are reported back–your phone will tell Google you were checking on the hay fever potential of that weird flower that appeared in your back yard, but at least the actual picture won’t wind up in Google’s archives waiting for a hacker to drop by.

There’s also going to be an Android O lite. Called Android Go, it’ll be stripped down to work on cheap phones with limited memory. I wonder if that means they’ll start offering it for popular but abandoned devices that can’t handle recent Android versions. Nexus 7, anyone? Nexus 9, for that matter?

Moving again.

Yes, the rumors are true: Google is working with third-parties to launch a VR headset that doesn’t need a separate phone. Hey, anyone remember how big 3D was a few years ago? How long before VR is as critical to the entertainment experience as 3D?

And one last move.

Ever used Google to find out what movies are playing nearby? Soon you’ll be able to use it to find out what jobs are available nearby. Searching by title, date, and commute time. Why do I think the popularity of that last filter is going to be very strongly geographically linked?

Honestly, I’m not seeing anything here that gives me a major “gosh-wow” feeling. Some interesting possibilities and appeals to niche markets, yes, but most of what they’ve announced are obvious extensions of last year’s announcements. We can give them points for consistency, I suppose.

Listen Up!

I love the Internet’s response to new forms of advertising.

Specifically, I’m talking about Burger King’s recent attempt to hijack TV viewers’ cell phones and Google Home devices.

In case you missed it, BK ran–and is still running–an ad that deliberately uses the “OK Google” activation phrase to trigger any gadget in earshot to start reading the Wikipedia page about their Whopper burger.

The response? The page in question was almost immediately edited to describe the burger as “cancer-causing” and to list cyanide in its ingredients.

Allegedly, a senior BK executive tried to change the page to something more complimentary, only to have his edits removed.

So, yeah, I think that’s the perfect response. Google, who apparently were not warned about the ad in advance, modified their software’s response to ignore the ad. While I’m sure many people appreciate that, it does raise a few questions.

Let’s not forget that most of Google’s billions of dollars come from advertising. Suppose BK had come to Google and said, “Hey, we want to tie a TV ad to your devices. Here’s a stack of money.” Does anyone think Google’s response would have been “Buzz off”? I’m guessing it would have been more along the lines of “How big is the stack?”

And then there’s the privacy aspect. This contretemps should serve as a reminder that “OK Google” does not use any kind of voice recognition to limit requests to the device’s owner. Nor can the phrase be changed. I’ve complained about that before: not only does it lead to multiple devices trying to respond to a single request, but it also makes it simple for outright malicious actions.

Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft are equally guilty here–Alexa, Siri, and Cortana have fixed, unchangeable triggers too.

And now, perhaps, we’re seeing why none of the manufacturers want to let users personalize their devices’ voice interaction. If we could change the trigger phrase, or limit the device to taking instructions from specific people, then the manufacturers wouldn’t be able to sell broadcast advertising like this.

If the only way you can prevent random strangers from using your phone is to turn off the voice feature, then you don’t own your phone.

Microsoft is making it harder and harder to turn Cortana off. Microsoft is also putting more and more ads in Windows. Do you sense a connection?

How long will it be before you can’t turn Siri and Google off?

And editing Wikipedia pages will only get us so far in defending ourselves.

Google was able to turn off the response to BK’s ad-spam. But they could just as easily have changed the response to read from an internally-hosted page or one housed on BK’s own servers. Either way, Internet users wouldn’t be able to touch it, at least not without opening themselves up to legal liability for hacking.

The most annoying part of this whole debacle is that now I’m craving a hamburger. I won’t be getting one at Burger King, though.

SAST 3

I seem to be fever-free, which is nice. My attention span has improved. I haven’t gotten lost in mid-sentence in almost two days!

The cough is still distracting, however. Writing is a race to get words on the page before I drape my lungs over the keyboard.

Sorry about that image. But it is the only way to accurately describe the sensation.

So, another day of short notes, as I write a bit, cough a bit, lather, rinse, repeat.

Daylight Savings Time, how I loathe thee.

It’s not the lost hour of sleep Saturday night. It’s not the next several days of disrupted sleep. It’s not even the need to reset the non-Internet-connected clocks*–or the confusion to the Backyard Bunch, who are suddenly getting their dinner an hour earlier according to their stomachs.

* The stove. The microwave. The thermostat. The answering machine. The car. Half-a-dozen wall and table clocks. Hey, I just gained two wall outlets by unplugging a clock radio instead of resetting it!

No, what really pisses me off is that I’m suddenly getting up before sunrise again. I like having daylight when I stagger upstairs to say good morning to Rufus and take my first look at e-mail. Why should I have to turn on a light for that?

Mr. Trump, if you want to boost your approval rating, do away with Daylight Savings Time. That’s something both parties and the independents can get behind.

I’ve been following “Jim’s Random Notes” for several years. It’s an interesting mix of computer, wood carving, and cycling geekery. A post last week, North Dakota Mexican Food, amused the heck out of me.

You’ve played the game where one person recreates a drawing based on somebody’s description of the original, right? An NDMF is the culinary equivalent: someone describes a dish, and someone else thinks “Hey, that sounds interesting. Let me see what I can do.”

Is there anyone out there who doesn’t have a NDMF experience? I can think of three right off the top of my head:

  • The Mexican restaurant that thought fajitas were a stew.
  • The diner whose barbeque sauce was red-eye gravy with a couple of chili flakes.
  • The Mexican restaurant that served Saltine crackers instead of chips.

Maybe the Internet will make the NDMF less common. But really, it’s never been particularly hard to find a cookbook…

Moving on.

Google and Apple have been in the news around here lately over their new campuses. Most of the press has been positive, but I’ve noticed they’re both taking a ding in the letter columns because neither company has included housing in their developments.

Excuse me? Yeah, OK, finding housing in the Bay Area can suck. You don’t have to tell me horror stories about extended commutes, thanks; I’ve got plenty of my own.

But do we really want to return to the days of the company town, where your boss owns the factory, the house you live in, the store you shop at, the air you breathe, the booze you drink, and everything else?

Aside from anything else, if the company owns your apartment, it’s a five minute walk from your office, and they own the phone you’re required to carry, are you ever going to get any down time? Or are you going to be unofficially (or officially!) on call twenty-four/seven/three-sixty-five?

I think it would have been wonderful if Apple and Google had included some subsidized affordable housing for non-employees in their construction. Didn’t happen, but would have been great. But captive housing for employees? Bad idea.

Moving on.

Let’s wrap this up with a positive note. I write a lot–a hell of a lot, actually–about useless gadgets full of security holes and loaded with disappointment.

So it’s a real pleasure to write about a gadget that looks like it does exactly what it’s designed to do without putting your money and privacy at risk.

Take a look at the Fidget Cube.

Pretty slick, huh? Everybody fidgets differently, and the Fidget Cube is designed to offer fidgeting options for anyone.

I’ve carried a fingering stone in my pocket for decades. I’ll turn it around in my hand or rub the smooth side with my thumb when I’m on a phone call. Much less distracting than fiddling with the phone cord and quieter than tapping my pen on the desk.

The Fidget Cube’s got me covered with a smooth curve for rubbing on one side. A trackball for spinning. A joystick for sliding.

And several other goodies that I might never use, but somebody else will find addictive. Click-wheels. Toggle switches. Push-buttons. Spinners.

And it looks to be solid enough to stand up to a pocket full of keys, nail clippers, and thumb drives.

Would it replace my rock? Maybe not; it’s hard to top the appeal of a natural object shaped by wind and water. But who says it needs to replace the rock? Why not try some two-handed fidgeting?

OK Really, Google?

Sometimes one just has to make tough decisions. Tuesday was one of those times for me. I hope you all agree I made the correct choice in talking about the MLB playoffs, rather than Google’s latest hardware announcements.

However, I recognize that some of you may disagree with my call. You may have different priorities. And that’s OK. You are, of course, entitled to hold to your own beliefs.

If you are one of those people who holds to a different belief system than I, here’s the post you would have rather seen on Tuesday. Feel free to pretend it’s Tuesday today.

Yes, Google did announce a number of upcoming hardware releases. Before we get into the details, I’d like to address the hardware announcement they didn’t make: there was no tablet announcement. No replacement for the aging Nexus 9 and, worse still from my point of view, no next generation Nexus 7. As I said a little while ago, I’m in no hurry to pick up a new tablet, but I strongly feel that seven inches is exactly the right size for a light entertainment device–something that fits into the space between a phone you can hold to your ear and a TV you watch from across the room. I’m deeply disappointed to learn that Google apparently doesn’t see that as a viable niche.

Moving on.

Mobile is so last week. The new hotness is, Google says, “AI first”.

In practical terms, that means their new target with Android is to out-Siri Siri. Voice control, learning about the user to become more useful over time, interfacing with the real world, and, of course, omnipresent.

To make that possible, they’re changing focus to give hardware equal priority with software. And to mark the change, they’re doing away with the name “Nexus”. Google hardware will now be “Pixel”. They’ve been using that name for their high-end hardware for a little while. Clearly the rebranding is intended to convey that all hardware bearing the Google name is high end. And the prices certainly bear that out. The Pixel starts at $649 and goes up from there.

Interestingly, even though the Pixel won’t start shipping until November, the Nexus 5X and 6P have already been removed from the Google Store. If you want the current generation of Google phones, you’ll need to get ’em through Project Fi, which is still selling them.

Even though mobile is passe, they still began the reveals with new phones. They’ll come with Android 7.1, which adds a number of UI improvements (or, for those of us who are naturally cynical, “UI changes-for-the-sake-of-change”) intended to streamline workflow. They’ve got new cameras with image stabilization and the fastest capture times ever. Unlimited Google Photos storage for photos and video. Improved battery life. The screens, by the way, are five and five and a half inches. Apparently Samsung is the only company that still believes in the phablet form factor. Hallelujah!

Part of the hardware boost the Pixel phones have over the last generation of Nexus phones is to support Google’s Virtual Reality push. The phones will work with a new VR headset.

I presume that Google has rolled what they learned from the ill-fated Glass initiative into the new Daydream View. If so, what they’ve learned is that the mention of VR makes people want to put a bag over their heads. Or at least, strap one over their faces. Makes sense to me.

Google says it’s “soft and cozy.” I don’t know that I like the sound of that. To me, soft and cozy sounds more like sleepwear than something I’d expect to be able to use for work. Or play, for that matter: the spotlight release title is a game based on J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Note that there’s no word on whether the game removes the absolutely tone-deaf misappropriation and misrepresentation of Native American cultures.

Moving on.

All the AI in your phone and VR streaming is going to require a solid Wi-Fi connection, so Google is introducing “Google Wifi,” a modular router/access point. Need wider coverage? Add another module. I find this amusing: the device will ship in December, with preorders opening in November–but you can get on a waiting list now. Right. A waiting list to preorder. ‘Scuse me while I go bang my head against a wall.

Moving on again.

Since you’re beefing up your Wi-Fi, you might as well soup up your Chromecast as well. To be fair, the first- and second-generation Chromecasts were starting to show their age a little. They’ve never supported 5GHz Wi-Fi, and they max out at 1080p. Enter the new Chromecast Ultra. Up to 4K video, “major Wi-Fi improvements,” and–in case even your new Google Wifi doesn’t give you enough bandwidth–there’s an ethernet port, so you can connect it to your wired network. You do have a network switch behind your TV, right?

Of course, all this technology needs to be tied together. To save you the agony of pushing buttons or the horror of taking your phone out of your pocket, you’ll want a “Google Home.” Yup, that’s Google’s answer to Amazon’s Alexa.

As best I can tell, it’s powered by the same AI engine Google is touting for Android 7.1–and answers to the same “OK Google”* alert that phones have been using for several years now.

* Google really needs to make the trigger customizable. I don’t know about anyone else, but it ticks me off when I ask my tablet a question and a moment later a muffled voice from my phone says, in essence, “Speak up, Stupid. I can’t hear a damn thing from inside your pocket.” Yeah? If you can’t hear me, why did you trigger on the alert phrase? It’s only going to get worse when there’s a Google Home on the bookcase–or several of them scattered around the house. They say “Only the device that hears you best will respond.” I’m dubious. I’d really rather say “OK Alton” for the kitchen device, “OK Dewey” for the one in the library, and “OK Peter” in the bedroom.

Google Home will handle all of the usual questions you ask your phone now. It’s optimized for music. It’ll communicate with various home automation devices*. And the underlying AI will be exposed to third-party developers so they can integrate their apps into the ecosystem.

* Great. I can just see a tech-savvy smash-and-grab artist driving down the street with his car stereo blaring “OK Google, unlock the front door” over and over, while his confederate follows, testing the doors to see which ones are open.

Welcome to the next stage of Our Connected World As Seen By Google.

Oopsie!

Let’s get the obligatory disclaimer out of the way, shall we?

I’m not in favor of piracy. IMNSHO, information does not want to be free. And, while I believe the music, movie, and publishing industries, have, to varying degrees, bobbled the transition to a digital-dominated marketplace*, I don’t believe that justifies an attitude that all audio, video, and written material can be “shared”, guilt-free.

* Especially when it comes to the methods they use to enforce copyright.

That said, I had to laugh when I saw this story. You read it correctly. Warner Bros. issued DMCA takedown requests against its own websites because the content violated its own copyrights.

To be fair, the requests didn’t come from WB directly, they came from Vobile, a company whose homepage claims their goal is to “Protect, Measure, Monetize the best movies and TV content in the world” Advertising mis-capitalization aside, that’s a remarkably elitist statement, isn’t it? Do they decide whether your content is among “the best” when you engage with them, or–as seems likely–is the fact that you want them to work their PMM magic sufficient evidence that your content is superior?

Regardless, they use the usual sort of digital “fingerprint” technology to identify their clients’ content–and then, apparently fire off a barrage of DMCA takedown requests with little-to-no human oversight. “Fair use? What’s that?” “Verification? Never heard of it.” Yeah, I’m putting words in their mouths.

Hey, do you suppose Warner has told Vobile that they should stop searching for unauthorized distributions of “Happy Birthday”? After all, the song was only placed in the public domain seven months ago…

Anyway, it’s a nice bit of gander sauce.

Moving on (briefly).

Rumor has it that Google is preparing to release a successor to the extremely popular Nexus 7 tablets. Ars, among many other tech venues, suggests that it’ll be announced at Google’s big October 4 launch party, along with new phones, Chromecast, and VR hardware.

If it’s true, I’m very glad to hear it. The world needs more seven-inch tablets. It’s an excellent size for reading, it’s large enough that watching video and playing games isn’t an exercise in annoyance, and it’s small enough to be carried easily.

I don’t expect to be getting one immediately–I’m still quite satisfied with my $50 Amazon Fire tablet for reading and my Nexus 9 for anything that needs a larger screen–but if the new “Pixel 7” (or whatever they decide to call it) is as affordable as Google’s earlier seven-inchers, I’d give it a strong recommendation to anyone who is in the market for a tablet.

The Name Game

So it’s official: Android N is “Nougat”.

Good on Google for hearkening back to the early days of “Cupcake” to choose a reasonably generic name–and one with a bit of an international flair.

There are only two things that comes to mind when you hear “Honeycomb”: the waxy thing made by bees and the overly-sweetened thing made by Post Foods. They both have their fans, but they’re definitely niche markets.

Unless you’re a Bay Area resident or dedicated It’s-It fan, “Ice Cream Sandwich” probably only suggests one thing: two pieces of vaguely cardboard-flavored cookie around a blob of sorta-vanilla, kinda-creamy substance. You know, one of these. Don’t get me wrong: sometimes those things are absolutely the perfect dessert. I’ve been known to stash a box of them in the freezer for hot days when it’s too much effort to go out in search of real ice cream. But they don’t inspire the kind of world-wide love you really want in a product name.

Nougat, on the other hand… Well.

As TfoAHK reminds us, there are three different kinds of nougat, with very different flavors and textures. Some varieties use whole or chopped nuts, some go with finely ground nuts. Dried fruit, honey, and even melted marshmallow* sometimes show up as ingredients. Something for everyone, right?

* Hmm. I wonder if the GoogleFolk who made the final name decision were aware of that variation. After all, Android Nougat wasn’t written from scratch; Android Marshmallow has to be a major ingredient in Nougat.

For whatever it’s worth, Google’s new statue shows that their version of Nougat contains plenty of coarsely-chopped peanuts.

Probably their way of saying “Nuts to you,” to the schmucks who used the name-suggestion website to suggest such tasty treats as “Nazi” and other, even less-printable, words.

The name website, by the way, hasn’t been updated as of this writing. It’s still promising that the name will be announced “soon”. Maybe the person responsible for updating the site ate too much nougat at the announcement celebration and is too sick to work?

Naming quirks notwithstanding, Android Nougat will be released sometime in the third quarter, much to the delight, I’m sure, of anyone who has a phone whose manufacturer will approve an update.