Category Archives: Google

A fictionalised conversation between me and a Surface Pro 2 fan

Me: “Surface Pro 2 makes a pretty poor laptop, because of its crazy kick stand and lack of a bundled keyboard. Just buy an ultrabook or MacBook Air.”

SurfaceGuy: “But! What laptop can you just take off the keyboard and use as a tablet?”

Me: “Yeah, but the Surface Pro 2 makes a really poor tablet. It’s too heavy, really hard to use in portrait mode, and you keep being dumped back into the crappy old Windows desktop to do things. Just buy an iPad or good Android tablet, or even a Surface if you like that sort of thing.”

SurfaceGuy: “But! What other tablet can you clip a keyboard on to and have a fully-fledged laptop?”

Me: “But it’s a pretty poor laptop…”

And so it goes, round and round. Point out Surface Pro 2 is a poor laptop, and you get pointed towards the fact it’s also a tablet. Point out it’s a pretty poor tablet, and you get pointed back towards the fact that it’s also a laptop.

Cheap Android phones don’t mean what you think they mean

Benedict Evans ponders the meaning of Android:

As should be obvious, this makes counting total ‘Android’ devices as though they tell you something about Google or Apple’s competitive position increasingly problematic. But to me, pointing out that ‘Android’ doesn’t necessarily competed with iPad is rather boring – what’s really interesting are the possibilities that these new economics might unlock. 

A good example is this – a 2G Android phone wholesaling for $35 (just one of hundreds). Now, stop thinking about it as a phone. How do the economics of product design and consumer electronics change when you can deliver a real computer running a real Unix operating system with an internet connection and a colour touch screen for $35? How about when that price falls further? Today, anyone who can make a pocket calculator can make something like this, and for not far off the same cost. The cost of putting a real computer with an internet connection into a product is collapsing. What does that set of economics enable? 

Benedict picks out what’s really interesting about Android, and it’s absolutely not that “80% market share” pundits keep going throwing around. The kinds of devices that Benedict describes aren’t in the same market as the iPhone: a $35 2G smartphone is as comparable to the iPhone as a Mercedes S-Class is to a Mini. Both do the same thing (carry you around), but no one who’s in the market for one of them will end up walking out of a showroom with the other. 

But what is interesting, as Benedict points out, is what a $35 Internet access device enables. When devices like this are as pervasive as a pocket calculator used to be, what does that allow us to do? Smart devices, network-enabled, which are almost cheap enough to throw away are much more interesting in the long term than expensive (but undoubtedly brilliant) devices like the iPhone. 

What are low end tablets used for?

Ben Bajarin takes a peek into the “white box” segment of the tablet market and finds out what they're being used for:

Nearly all evidence and data we find comes back to a few fundamental things. First, most of these low cost tablets in the category of ‘other’ are being used purely as portable DVD players, or e-readers. Some are being used for games, but rarely are they connecting to web services, app stores, or other key services. I have asked local analysts, local online services companies, app tracking firms, and many many more regional experts, and the answer keeps coming back the same. They affirm that we see the data showing all these Android tablet sales. But they aren’t actually showing up on anyone’s radar when it comes to apps and services in a meaningful way.

Is this even the same market as the iPad? I don't think it really is. Whereas the iPad is being used to effectively replace (or augment) the PC in many homes and businesses, this looks much more like a replacement for the portable DVD player. Think video iPod, not Mac replacement.

How not to do a review

The Verge reviews the new Nexus 7:

So when Google announced the new, $229 Nexus 7, I immediately leapt to the pre-order page. This would solve all my problems! It has a fantastic display, a great processor, all the books and magazines and movies I want, and it’s so small and light it’ll go everywhere with me. Right?

Then I looked over at the Nexus 7 I bought last year, which I loved to pieces. But it’s sat dormant for six months. The battery’s dead, maybe permanently. I scratched the screen pretty good, too. But a year is a long time, and maybe this would be the one. I had to find out.

Someone who runs out on day one and buys a product is highly unlike to admit on day three that they’ve bought a lemon, no matter what faults they find. That’s just human nature, and it’s one of the reasons why, when doing reviews, you get short-term loaners from the company rather than buying your own.

Low end Chromebooks

Bloomberg:

Chromebooks have in just the past eight months snagged 20 percent to 25 percent of the U.S. market for laptops that cost less than $300, according to NPD Group Inc. The devices, which have a full keyboard and get regular software updates from Google, are the fastest-growing part of the PC industry based on price, NPD said.

I’m not surprised at the news that Chromebooks have grabbed up to a quarter of the US market for laptops under $300. If you’re spending that little, a Chromebook will give you a lot more performance for your money than something running Windows or even Linux [1].


  1. As will a tablet with a keyboard, although if you want the best one you’ll have to pay a little more.  ↩

Why buy a Nexus over an iPad?

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes is really quite impressed by the Nexus 7, going as far as to say that:

If Apple doesn’t raise its game with respect to the iPad, my next full-size tablet could be a Nexus.

I’m going to leave to one side a lot of what Adrian says in support of the Nexus 7, because it boils down to things which are either personal preference or equally applicable to the iPad mini. However, I’m not sure why he makes the statement above: After all, there’s already a nice, big Nexus device which – from the perspective of hardware – matches the larger iPad.

Personally, I haven’t used my Nexus 7 since I bought the iPad mini. There’s nothing in the N7 that’s superior to the mini, apart from the price. If you want a tablet and are on a really tight budget, the N7 will serve you well. But really, if you can afford the extra money for the mini, spend it: you won’t regret it for a moment.

Even if you’re wedded to Google services, the mini is probably the better option. With Gmail, Google Maps, YouTube, Google Drive and pretty-much everything else well supported by apps on the iPad, you’re missing out on almost nothing, and you have a wider variety of apps to choose from (and generally better quality ones too).

Something doesn’t add up in the lastest Washington Post PRISM story

The Washington Post has released additional slides from the PRISM deck, which it has annotated and which have resurrected the “equipment installed at company premises” claim. Some – notably Glenn Greenwald – have claimed this proves the “direct access to company databases” claim from the original story has been verified, despite the vociferous denials of all the companies involved.

But does it? Dig a little deeper, and I think it becomes clear that the WaPo hasn’t got the story it thinks it has.

First, there’s nothing in the released slides themselves which directly corroborates the “installed at company premises” claim, which exists only in the annotations that the reporter, Barton Gellman, has added to the slides. Here’s how the process is described by Gellman:

The search request, known as a “tasking,” can be sent to multiple sources — for example, to a private company and to an NSA access point that taps into the Internet’s main gateway switches. A tasking for Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Apple and other providers is routed to equipment installed at each company. This equipment, maintained by the FBI, passes the NSA request to a private company’s system.

The slides themselves, though, make no mention of much of this. In particular, there’s no reference to company premises in anything on the slides. 

Given that the slides don’t say that equipment is installed at the company, where has this point come from? I think there’s three options:

  1. It’s featured in other, as-yet unreleased slides.
  2. It comes from verbal or written testimony from Edward Snowden or another intelligence source.
  3. It’s an interpretation of something in the released slides.

The first option is possible, but I think we can rule it out. If there was a clear, unambiguous statement that the FBI had equipment installed in company premises on another slide, I can’t see why the WaPo wouldn’t publish that slide, even if it had to do so in heavily redacted form. So that leaves us with the other options.

Is the WaPo relying on unknown third-party sources? If it was, I can’t see why it wouldn’t add an “intelligences sources confirmed…” in the story. It would be a stronger story for it, so why not say? If, on the other hand, it’s Snowden, I can understand why it might avoid naming him as the source. Snowden’s direct testimony has proved to be occasionally exaggerated and sometimes even unreliable – but the WaPo could use “a source familiar with the whole presentation” instead of naming him, which would again strengthen the story.

At this point, I think the onus is on the WaPo be a little transparent and clear this up. If there’s additional evidence, show it – or at least note you’re relying on it.

Which leaves us with the third option: interpretation. And I think this is where WaPo has, at the very least, produced something that’s an epic muddle. The muddle occurs around the box labelled “FBI Data Intercept Technology Unit (DITU)”.

A DITU sounds like a piece of technology. It sounds like the kind of thing that you would install somewhere to do intercepts, and, given the way the diagram is structured, you might well surmise that it was installed on company premises.

 

But it’s not. In fact, the Data Intercept Technology Unit isn’t a piece of technology, something which would sit at the premises of a company. In fact, it’s a department of the FBI, formed several years ago, tasked with data interception of the “packet sniffing” variety (it even has its own Challenge Coin). It’s known to use a suite of packet inspection tools which allow it, from TCP/IP data, to recreate emails, IM, images, web pages and more. Essentially, it specialises in snooping tools which let you find out what someone is doing online without having access to the original servers. Essentially, it will tap data at the ISP level, rather than the server level.

The annotation on the second new is where the waters get really muddy. In a note attached to the box for the DITU, Barton adds:

From the FBI’s interception unit on the premises of private companies… [my emphasis]

Does Gellman think that DITU is the “interception unit”? I emailed him to ask, and initially he confirmed that the “interception unit” referred to in the annotation was the DITU – which would be a fairly major error. However, when I pointed out that this made no sense, he clarified, claiming that by “interception unit” he was referring to the organisation within the FBI, not the equipment. All clear on that?

WaPo DITU

This, though, makes the annotations even more puzzling. Why would you use the phrase “interception unit on the premises” to refer to the organisation within the FBI? Clearly, the organisation isn’t on the premises – the equipment (supposedly) is.

The other option is that Gellman is using “interception unit” to mean both the DITU and the equipment, which would be – at the very least – pretty poor writing. So what exactly does Gellman mean? Perhaps understandably, he declined to answer further questions.

None of this means that the WaPo doesn’t have a story. We now know that the FBI’s DITU can be tasked by the NSA to conduct live surveillance on the data of identified (and 51%-certain-foreign) targets. The NSA can also request data from previous FBI DITU surveillance. These specifics weren’t known before, so Gellman and the WaPo should get credit for a scoop.

But it isn’t the scoop they think it is, because the slides don’t confirm either the direct server access that Greenwald is crowing about or the presence of on-premise equipment at Google, Apple, and the rest. There’s simply nothing in the slide which states that equipment is on-site, and there’s no alternative source for this claim. There’s no way I can see to interpret anything on the slides as putting that “interception unit” inside the premises, accessing data on demand without any company oversight. 

A more likely scenario, particularly given the DITU’s heritage as data tappers, is that the equipment taps into Internet backbones – something that’s supported by one of the original slides, which referred to how much of the world’s comms data flowed through the US. Why bother with a slide like that if you’re tapping directly into Google’s servers?

The WaPo story isn’t proof of mass warrantless surveillance of US citizens, or (as it stands) of in-house equipment at Google, Apple, Microsoft and the rest. Unless it has more evidence which hasn’t been published that explicitly shows this, not much new controversial information has been added to what we know about the NSA and its activities.

Google may be bidding for Waze

Bloomberg:

Google Inc. (GOOG), maker of the Android operating system, is considering buying map-software provider Waze Inc., setting up a possible bidding war with Facebook Inc. (FB), people familiar with the matter said.

Waze is a really great service, and it would be a shame to see it go to Google. For Google, Waze would be an “acqui-hire” aimed at securing some great mapping engineering talent: it’s unlikely that the service would be kept running separately to (and competing with) Google Maps. At Facebook, on the other hand, Waze would be more likely to end up like Instagram: a semi-autonomous, but linked, service.

Apple is winning. Google is winning. Can we shut up now please?

Ben Thompson on the Google we always wanted

Android did its job: Google’s signals have unfettered access to users on every mobile platform. Microsoft is in no position to block them, and Apple, for all its bluster, isn’t interested.

Chrome is doing its job: Google’s signals sit on top of an increasing number of PCs, slowly making the underlying OS irrelevant.

Google+ is doing its job: Every Google service is now tied together by a single identity, and identity is the key to data collection on mobile.

This is the thing that people often don’t get: while Google and Apple appear to be competing with each other, because both companies sell a mobile platform, in fact they have entirely different aims and objectives. This means that it’s perfectly possible for both to “win” by their own criteria.

Apple wins by selling the best devices, ensuring no one can stop them delivering the best user experience and making a profit from them. Google wins by improving its advertising products and ensuring that no other company can lock it out, depriving it of potential audience. 

This is why the occasional talk of Google pulling or handicapping its iOS products (see the comments here) is laughable. Google doesn’t care if you’re using an iPhone or an Android phone. It cares if you’re using Google services or not. And the best way to get iOS users to use more Google services is to produce better products for iOS, rather than expect them to buy a new mobile phone. 

Cheap tablets and baked beans

Jared Newman reviews the Hisense Sero LT 7in tablet, currently selling for $99 in Walmart:

But there’s one big caveat with the Sero 7 LT, not listed on Walmart’s product page: According to Engadget, TechRadar and others, this tablet will only last for about four hours on a charge. Most other tablets last at least twice as long. Even if you’re not planning on hours of consecutive use, a big battery allows you to keep your tablet lying around for days at a time, using it on and off throughout. With a four-hour battery, you’ll need to be extra mindful about plugging the tablet in when it’s not in use.

Also, keep in mind that while the Sero 7 LT’s microSD slot compensates somewhat for the measly 4 GB of built-in storage, it’s not a cure-all. Some Android apps and widgets can’t be installed to a microSD card, and juggling two sources of storage can be a hassle.

So in other words, it’s a tablet which has a battery which makes it certain not to last through the day, tiny amounts of storage, and a dual core processor which is likely to make it feel sluggish. It has no roadmap for future software upgrades. Essentially, it’s barely useable for the kinds of purposes that any family would want to use a tablet for. 

Yes, it’s cheap, but in the way that 10p tins of beans used to be cheap: you’d open them up, and find a third of the can was thin watery sauce, with some tough, tasteless beans nestled at the bottom. You’d eat them, because they were the only thing you could afford: but if you could afford anything better you’d buy that instead.