The Decline of Civilization–And Google I/O, too.

Today is the first day of Google I/O, the Big G’s annual excuse to shut down a couple of blocks around San Francisco’s Moscone Center. As always, I’ll be giving you my first reactions to their plans for the coming year–at least those plans that they warn us about.

While we’re waiting for the keynote address, though, I wanted to vent about a couple of signs of the encroaching End of Civilization As We Know It. If you’re not in the mood for my curmudgeonly rantings, feel free to skip ahead.

Still here? Good.

According to today’s SF Chronicle, Ross Dress for Less stores has settled a lawsuit brought by 2,400 of their janitors. The suit alleged that Ross and their janitorial contractor, USM Inc., failed to pay the janitors minimum wages and overtime between 2009 and earlier this year.

The settlement? $1 million. That’s right. Each of the janitors will receive a smidgen over $400 to compensate them for as much as five years of missing wages. Rubbing salt in the wound, Ross is also paying $1.3 million to the lawyers who negotiated the settlement.

Two questions: Are Ross and USM facing a criminal investigation into whether they did in fact conspire to cheat their janitors? (The newspaper article doesn’t say anything one way or the other; my guess is no.) And, has anyone checked with the janitors at the lawyers’ offices to see if they’re getting minimum wage and overtime? (Again, my guess is no.)

Moving on.

As I’ve said before, I don’t much care for basketball. Living in the Bay Area, though, it’s hard to avoid getting caught up in the current excitement over the Warriors*. So I watched about fifteen minutes of last night’s game while I was exercising. Mind you, that was about five minutes of actual game time.

* For those of you who don’t have the excuse of headlines screaming “40 YEARS IN THE MAKING” to clue you in, the Warriors are the local professional basketball team. They just made it to the finals, the NBA’s equivalent of the World Series, for the first time since James Naismith crossed the Delaware and brought a burning bush to the basketball-impoverished masses. Or something like that.

The game has changed a lot since I watched it in my misspent youth. Back then, when a team put up a shot, most of the players from both teams converged on the basket to go after a rebound. Today, the offensive team mostly heads for their own basket to play defense, conceding the rebound.

And that’s the other thing that’s changed. Back in my day (Damn kids!), after scoring, the smart teams put pressure on their opponents, making it difficult for them to move the ball into shooting range. Today, they just foul the worst freethrow shooter on the court.

According to the commentators, this is the height of strategy. And why not? It’s the same kind of thinking that figures it’s cheaper to settle a lawsuit than to pay the legally-mandated minimum wage.

Sorry, I don’t buy it. If the rules of the game are structured so that you’re better off breaking the rules than actually playing the game, then your sport needs to be fixed.

It’s an easy fix, too. All you have to do is award five points for a successful free throw. When it’s more expensive to commit a foul than to play the game, teams will stop committing strategic fouls.

Until that happens, though, I won’t be watching any more basketball.

Enough. On to Google I/O.

  • Android M – Lots of bug fixes. Oh, and a few improvements. A couple of them are even interesting.

    Apps will now request permission when they try to do stuff instead of getting blanket permissions when you install them. That means you can block some actions but allow others. Don’t want to let that new game have access to your address book? On the whole, that’s a win for users, but it’ll be interesting to see how developers handle the brave new world where users can block apps’ access to the ad network.

    Apps can “claim” web pages, so if you try to go to a particular website, you’ll get the equivalent app instead. From a user perspective, I think this one’s a step backward. I have the WordPress app installed on my tablet and use it occasionally for managing this blog. That doesn’t mean I want the app to open every time I try to access a WordPress blog–or even my blog.

    Android Pay is getting a facelift. You won’t need to open the app anymore. Whoopie. I hope they’re also improving the reliability. I got so many failures to connect with the terminal that I’ve given up on Android Pay.

    Doze sounds promising: if the tablet doesn’t move for an extended period, it’ll go into a power-saving deep sleep mode. If users can control the timeout, it’ll be big win. And an even bigger one if we can control what happens when it wakes up and all the suspended apps try to grab updates at once…

    Interestingly, the preview of Android M is only available for the Nexus 5, 6, 9, and Player. No Nexus 7. Apparently that “might” come later. Combined with the outrageous delay in bringing Android 5.1 to the Nexus 9, it does suggest that Google’s Android team may be a bit overextended, and that the Nexus 7 is going to be completely unsupported soon.

    I haven’t seen any hints of what the dessert name for M will be. I’d love it to be Marshmallow, if only because I want to see the statue they put on the Google lawn. I suspect we’ll get some hints once people start poking at the developer preview.

  • Brillo & Weave – A slimmed down Android for connected devices and a protocol to tie them together. We’ve talked about the security risks in “Internet of Things” devices before. I’m not sure I really want Google making it easier to create app-enabled locks.
  • Machine Learning/Context Sensitivity – They made a big deal out of this across all their products. Searches that understand pronouns and references to the data you’re looking at. Enhancements to Google Now to be more aware of where you are and what you’re doing–they’re calling it “Now on Tap”. (The example was recognizing that you’ve just landed at the airport and offering a Google Now card to “order an uber”. Given Uber’s recent bad press–quite the antithesis of Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” mantra–is that really a company Google wants users to associate them with?)

    The new Google Photo sounds potentially useful, though. Every picture you store will be automatically tagged so you can search for things like “Photos of my nephew at Folklife last year.” If the recognition works well, the advantages are obvious. If it doesn’t work well, then we’ve got a repeat of Flickr’s recent image tagging fiasco. The fast, simple sharing functions sound good too. As always, the gotchas are in the implementation details (security, security, security!)

  • I’m going to skip most of the rest of the goodies. Many of them are around ease of use. Good to know, but not all that interesting in detail. I did find the announcement that the enhancements to the developers’ tools will include the “Cloud Test Lab”. Google will perform some level of automated tests on your app across multiple devices with different hardware and software configurations. This kind of testing is, IMNSHO, not hugely useful for large, complicated apps, and there are definitely potential security concerns when the app needs to connect back to your corporate network for test data. But it can be useful. If any of my former cow-orkers use the Cloud Test Lab, I’d be interested in hearing how you like it.
  • Of course, Google is also working on a number of other projects: driverless cars, wireless Internet access via balloons, and so on. All part of this nutritious breakfastusing “technology to solve problems for everyone in the world”. That includes a new version of last year’s favorite Google I/O gizmo: Cardboard, the low-cost virtual reality device. The new version supports larger phones and is easier to construct. The software is also supposedly significantly improved. Last year, it took a few days for templates to show up online. If the same holds true this year, all of you with those lovely phablets will have a chance to check out VR on a budget.

Bottom line from my perspective: Google’s making some useful moves, playing some catch-up to Apple, and really only making one dumb move. If Brillo and Weave meet a quick death or get stuck in an endless pre-development stage, I’ll consider this the most worthwhile Google I/O yet.