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IN KILLING INBOX, GOOGLE TAKES ANOTHER SWIPE AT ITS MOST PASSIONATE USERS

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For all its skill and dominance in artificial intelligence, Google can be surprisingly lacking in the natural kind.

In move after move, Google snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. And all because the company’s culture is blind to the value of passionate users.

I’m quite certain that Google watches user numbers and applies analytics to everything it can measure. A radically analytical approach is powerful, but it can blind you to the factors that cannot be measured. Factors such as user passion.

My favorite example is Google+. After an initial surge of usage in the first couple of years, the social network gradually fizzled — smothered by a reputation for low engagement.

That reputation was largely false. But over time it became a self-fulfilling prophecy as Google took repeated action to hide and suppress engagement.

It killed Circle sharing, the best way to discover high-quality active users. It added Communities, which reduced attention aimed at users. Its dumb algorithms flagged (and thereby hid from public view) high-quality comments, while simultaneously failing to flag obvious spam. (Eventually, Google’s algorithms got much better, but only after most users had already abandoned the platform.)

This is a great plan — if your objective is to minimize user engagement.

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Google+ was, and still is, the online playground for Google’s most loyal fans. Google could have brought a billion people into this playground, where Google fans could hold sway and persuade everybody else to share their enthusiasm for Android, Pixel phones, Pixelbooks, Google Search, Google Assistant, Google Home, Gmail, YouTube and all the rest.

Instead, it actively buried or suppressed user engagement until Google+ became a shell of its former self. It has robbed its own most passionate users of audience, demonstrating that it doesn’t understand the value of those users.

And now it’s doing something comparable with email.

Google giveth, and Google taketh away
Google this week announced the end of two email-related products.

The first is the experimental alternative to Gmail called Inbox. The other is a Chrome app for offline Gmail.

The Gmail Offline Chrome app, which Google introduced seven years ago and hasn’t updated for five years, will be removed from the Chrome Web Store on Dec. 3. It has been superseded in functionality by the web version of Gmail, which has supported superior offline capability for years. (You can turn on the offline feature by going into Gmail Settings, choosing the Offline tab and making sure the “enable offline mail” checkbox is checked.)

But nobody cares about the Gmail Offline Chrome app. Good riddance to it. Technically, it never even made it out of beta.

The termination of Google Inbox, on the other hand, is more problematic. Inbox will be killed in March, according to a Google blog post this week.

Inbox, which is officially and oddly branded Inbox by Gmail, was launched as an experimental app in 2014. And probably in a panic.

Back in 2013, Gmail was proudly text-based and largely devoid of significant interface design. The service was popular and growing, and it looked as if Google would rule the email roost indefinitely.

Then catastrophe struck.

In early 2013, a startup announced an app for iPhone called Mailbox. More than a million people signed up to try it before it even launched, based on the innovation and appeal of its user interface.

The key Mailbox innovation — common now but revelatory then — was the use of swiping left or right to move or snooze messages. Mailbox emphasized other interface elements as well, including the containment of elements into boxes or “cards.” The combination of Mailbox features facilitated the quick achievement of “zero inbox” — Mailbox made it easy to skim and process emails.

It’s possible that the interface of Mailbox, and the obvious appeal of it, shocked Google into rethinking its hyper-minimalist design and may have influenced the course of its design language, Material Design, which the company introduced in the summer of 2014.

Google announced Inbox — one of the first Material Design products — a few months later.

Google may have rushed Inbox to market to stave off the loss of users to swipe-centric, card-happy upstarts such as Mailbox and its subsequent imitators.

Alas, poor Mailbox never had a chance. Its fatal flaw was that it wasn’t an email service, but a front end to the email services owned by other companies.

The companies that did control email services, including Google, easily copied the most appealing user interface elements of Mailbox, making them ubiquitous and Mailbox, therefore, worthless.

Dropbox, having acquired Mailbox one month after its launch, killed it in December 2015.

Gmail itself gradually got a Material Design makeover, as well as many (but not all) of the features popular in Inbox, such as Smart Replies.

Gmail still lacks Inbox’s Reminders integration, mobile app inbox swiping to manage messages, message bundling, inbox pinning and what fans call a “cleaner” UI.

Importantly, the overall feel of Inbox and Gmail — and the muscle memory required to use each — are still very different.

Why killing Inbox is a mistake
Google probably has around 1.3 billion email users by now.

Most of them use only Gmail. A sizable minority uses only Inbox. And lots of people — including yours truly — switch back and forth between the two.

That switching is facilitated by a number of factors. One of these is that filters created in Gmail Settings function inside Inbox.

Many users prefer using Gmail in their desktop browser because they like the granular control over everything, but they prefer Inbox on mobile for the Mailbox-like ease of use.

Google’s thinking appears to be that:

One email system is better than two.
More people use Gmail than Inbox.
Gmail is close enough now to Inbox in interface and features,
And, therefore, it’s time to kill Inbox.

The problem with this thinking is that all users are being treated equally here. If Google were able to measure the passion of users, it would almost certainly realize that far more passionate users are using Inbox.

Which is not to say that passionate Google users don’t use Gmail. They do. Some power users love Gmail because it allows more user control.

Still, many users stick to Gmail because they really don’t care that much. They’re used to it and don’t feel like changing anything.

Inbox users are the users looking for the newest thing, the users who can more quickly adapt to a new way of doing things, the users who jump on all of Google’s newly launched innovations because they trust Google.

The most cynical summary of this history is that Google had Gmail and everybody was happy. Then Google created a more innovative alternative, and its best and most active and engaged users loved that alternative. Then it killed that alternative after its most loyal fans had dedicated countless precious hours mastering it.

This is a great plan — if your objective is to minimize confidence and loyalty among your most passionate users.

And that’s why killing Inbox is a mistake. It’s yet another slap in the face of the passionate minority.

What Google doesn’t understand is that not all users are the same. Passionate users are far more valuable to Google than indifferent users. They try new things. They buy stuff. They persuade the public in Google’s favor.

By mismanaging Google+, killing Reader and now killing Inbox, Google has been making passionate users less passionate.

If it keeps this up, its most passionate users are going to take their passion somewhere else.

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GOOGLE HOME HUB SAYS NO TO SMART-HOME CAMERAS IN YOUR BEDROOM

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The new Google Home Hub sports a 7-inch touchscreen, a fabric-encased full-range speaker, a light sensor and two far-field microphones. But even more interesting is a hardware feature it doesn’t have.

The $149 device has no camera, so you can’t use it for video calls or taking photos.

While that omission at first blush may not seem like a big deal, it raises a handful of thorny questions about how many cameras and microphones people want to have in their connected homes and how much they trust giant tech companies to protect their data and privacy in their most intimate spaces.

The Home Hub, which Google introduced at its Made By Google product launch event Tuesday in Manhattan, is a mashup of a smart speaker and a tablet that’s often called a smart display. It uses the voice-powered Google Assistant to let you play YouTube videos, check your home security camera feeds and control connected smart-home devices like lights.

The device will go up against a growing list of competing smart displays, including the Amazon’s Alexa-powered Echo Show and Echo Spot, the new Facebook Portal, and the Google Assistant-powered JBL Link View and Lenovo Smart Display. All five of those devices include cameras for video chats.

The Hub comes out at time when tech companies are facing greater scrutiny for how they manage users’ data and how much of that information they keep. Just this week, Google shut down its unpopular Google+ social network after the company was forced to disclose a bug that put users’ data at risk. Earlier this year, Facebook sustained a torrent of criticism after the data of millions of people landed in the hands of consultancy Cambridge Analytica, which exploited the information for targeted election ads.

Simultaneously, many of these same companies are asking consumers to add more and more cameras, mics and sensors to control their homes.

So far, smart-home customers haven’t raised persistent concerns about these devices tracking them, instead focusing more on the convenience they can offer. But that dynamic has the potential to quickly change if there’s ever a major breach related to the audio, video and shopping data these electronics can track.

When the Hub comes out on Oct. 22, consumers will get to decide whether they want to make the Hub a bigger success than its many rival camera-toting smart displays. Whether they side more with the privacy of having no camera or the convenience of video features may signal what direction smart home technology will go in the future.

“It’s kind of less is more,” said GlobalData analyst Avi Greengart, who attended the Google event. “They’re omitting a piece of hardware that costs money and does raise some privacy implications.”

Google’s view on going camera-free

While Amazon in particular has pushed full-force into offering smart speakers with cameras, including those marketed for the bedroom, Google took a decidedly different approach with the Hub.

“For us, in general, it’s not about one product or another, just the word camera — hey, put a camera in your bedroom,” Mark Spates, Google’s product lead for smart speakers, said at Tuesday’s event. “It’s a comfort thing. For us, we wanted to make sure that you could use this anywhere in the home.”

Google wanted to give customers that option after finding that people put the Google Home Mini — its most popular smart speaker — in hallways, washrooms, bedrooms and everywhere else in their homes, he said. Looking to build on the Mini’s success and avoid limiting where the Hub can go, he said, Google opted to leave out a camera.

Diya Jolly, Google’s vice president of product management, added that the company saw an opportunity to offer a different kind of smart display, after several competing devices already offered a camera. She said Google was willing to explore adding a camera to a later version, but “we wanted to see how consumers reacted and how they liked” the new Hub.

“We wanted to give users a choice of not having a camera,” she said. “There are many other devices out there that have a camera, but none that doesn’t have a camera.”

amazon-echo-spot
A marketing picture from Amazon of the Echo Spot as a bedroom nightstand clock.Amazon

In stark contrast with the Hub, competing smart displays are heavily promoting their video capabilities. The new Facebook Portal was created especially for Facebook Messenger video calls, and Amazon’s Echo Show and Spot have been marketed for their video call functions. Amazon even included a “drop in” feature that lets people connect automatically with a Show or Spot if they’ve been approved to do so by the device’s owner.

Amazon also created another product called the Echo Look that’s marketed for your bedroom or closet. It uses a camera to take pictures of your outfit choices to give you AI-powered fashion advice. The Spot, too, is marketed as a replacement for your bedroom nightstand clock.

Privacy in focus

In a nod to privacy concerns, Facebook, JBL and Lenovo offer physical privacy shutters for their smart displays’ cameras. Amazon doesn’t, instead offering a button to disable the mic and camera on the Show and Spot.

“Customers have made millions of video calls this year alone, and they tell us that they love the ability to drop in from room to room within their homes or take a photo on our devices, which is why we believe the camera is important,” an Amazon spokeswoman said.

“We also built these devices with privacy in mind from the beginning,” she added, mentioning that when you press the microphone/camera off button, it cuts off power to both pieces of hardware. Also, a red light on the device is used to reinforce the fact that the mic and camera are off. “We will continue to learn from our customers and adapt our products to best meet their needs.”

facebook-portal-plus-messenger-chat-2306
Say hi to the Facebook Portal.James Martin/CNET

Following Facebook’s privacy blunders, the company took pains to emphasize the Portal’s privacy features, including the ability to turn off the mic and camera with one tap and the use of a passcode to unlock the screen.

Both Amazon and Facebook said they don’t record, store or listen to your calls through Facebook’s Portal or Amazon’s Alexa-powered devices.

JBL and Lenovo didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.

By leaving out a camera Google avoids the privacy concerns raised by Amazon’s rival products and prevents a potentially messy video breach from ever happening. Amazon faced criticism for the Look, with one writer for Forbes suggesting its camera may someday be able to identify skin cancer or depression. Amazon strongly denied these claims.

“Amazon is trying something completely different,” Greengart said. “I don’t think it hurts Google to omit it, and for people that do want a camera, there are those options from Amazon and Google’s partners.”

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BING AND YAHOO ARE SUGGESTING OFFENSIVE SEARCHES

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Bing and Yahoo, which is powered by Bing, are both suggesting offensive content within their search features. How-To Geek spotted that Bing’s image search is serving up suggestions for related topics that contain racist terms, the sexualization of minors, and otherwise offensive content. The Verge then found that this problem extends to Yahoo: its homepage search box includes an autocomplete feature that populates racist phrases, and the results often prioritize the company’s Yahoo Answers posts that contain offensive material.

On Bing, the suggestions, called smart suggestion bubbles, appear in a line above the results after conducting an image search. Per How-To Geek’s screencaps, an example search for “Jews” on Bing Images gave smart suggestion bubbles like “dirty Jews,” and “evil Jews.” Clicking through one of those suggested searches recommended additional racist search terms.

Bing’s SafeSearch option is enabled by default, but it failed to block these offensive results. Turning SafeSearch off can deliver other offensive suggestions. Searching images on Bing for “black people are” with SafeSearch off returns suggested follow-up searches of “are stupid,” “are retarded,” and “monkeys.”

In some cases, the top images that are returned are also offensive. According to How-To Geek, the problem is prevalent in Bing’s video search as well. The Verge was able to replicate some of the results, but not all. The problem also extends to searches around other ethnicities.

How-To Geek says that Bing also recommended terms that sexualize minors. When searching for “gril,” Bing then suggested a search for “cute girl young 16.” Clicking through suggested searches for “little girl modeling provocatively,” “cute girls young 13,” and “cute girl young 10.”

These autocomplete suggestions don’t appear when making a regular search through bing.com. However, Bing also powers Yahoo’s search, and the same offensive suggestions that appear in Bing Images show up on Yahoo’s main page.

Additionally, since Yahoo appears to prioritize the community-driven question-and-answer website Yahoo Answers in its search results, the top result for an offensive search can come from an untrustworthy source. Upon searching the first auto-suggested phrase for “black people ar,” The Verge found that the top result is a Yahoo Answers page titled “Are Black People Born Stupid” that contains numerous racist comments. Yahoo then suggests a follow-up search, saying, “Also try: black people are stupid and violent.”

Other search engines like Google have had their brushes with inadvertently promoting offensive content. In 2016, Google addressed the very same issue of autocomplete suggesting “are Jews evil.” That same year, the company faced backlash when the top result for the query “did the Holocaust happen?” came from a white supremacist website. In response, Google changed its Search Quality Rater Guidelines in 2017 in order to tamp down on the spread of offensive or inaccurate search results. A few months later, Google came under fire again for highlighting an offensive meme in the search results for query “gender fluid.”

Google has outlined its policy on inappropriate content for autocomplete, along with a way to report violations. While Bing isn’t as forthcoming, a blog post from Bing in 2013 specifically states that its search auto-suggest tries to remove offensive content. “In addition to processing suggestions,” it says, “we are also running parallel algorithms that filter spam, detect adult or offensive content, check for spelling errors and classify the type of search you are attempting across categories.”

Last year, Bing added fact-checking labels to search results, and Microsoft (which owns and operates Bing) announced new AI features for Bing that are meant to, among other things, better recognize the content of images. The Verge has reached out to Microsoft for comment.

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ASTRONAUTS MAKE EMERGENCY LANDING AFTER RUSSIAN SOYUZ LAUNCH EXPERIENCES FAILURE

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A NASA astronaut and Russian cosmonaut had to make an emergency landing on Earth this morning, after the Russian Soyuz rocket carrying them into orbit experienced a failure during launch. The two crew members — astronaut Nick Hague and cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin — safely landed on the ground in Kazakhstan less than an hour after liftoff and are in “good condition,” according to NASA.

The crew took off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 4:40AM ET. A few minutes after launch, Russia’s state space corporation Roscosmos said that there was a problem with the booster during the flight. The failure prompted the crew to make a ballistic reentry, when the Soyuz capsule enters Earth’s atmosphere at a steeper angle than normal. Rescue teams have reached the landing site and the crew is out of the Soyuz capsule.

Ballistic reentries can be intense for astronauts, because they experience higher G forces. With a normal Soyuz landing, crews riding in the vehicle usually pull around 4 Gs. That can double for ballistic reentries. In 2008, a Soyuz experienced a malfunction during landing, prompting a ballistic reentry that reached up to 8 Gs. “I saw 8.2 G’s on the meter and it was pretty, pretty dramatic,” former NASA astronaut Pegg Whitson, who was on the flight, said in a statement, according to Wired. “Gravity’s not really my friend right now and 8 G’s was especially not my friend. But it didn’t last too long.”

Roscosmos has announced that it is forming a state commission to investigate the failure. The Russian state corporation says it is already studying the data from the launch. However, Roscosmos said it would not hold a press conference today.

The failure could have significant repercussions for NASA’s human spaceflight program moving forward. It’s unlikely that Russia will launch a crewed Soyuz mission until it has figured out what exactly went wrong during this flight. However, the Soyuz is NASA’s only means of getting astronauts to the International Space Station at the moment. Two private US companies — SpaceX and Boeing — are developing vehicles to ferry NASA astronauts to and from the ISS as part of the Commercial Crew Program. However, the first crewed flights of that program are not slated to occur until summer next year at the earliest.

Developing…

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