Transitioning the Translation Barrier

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Last month, Skype, Microsoft’s video calling service, initiated simultaneous translation between English and Spanish speakers. Not to be outdone, Google will soon announce updates to its translation app for phones. Google Translate now offers written translation of 90 languages and the ability to hear spoken translations of a few popular languages. In the update, the app will automatically recognize if someone is speaking a popular language and automatically turn it into written text.

Certainly, the technology of changing one language to another is rather difficult. The Skype service also requires a headset and works best if a speaker paused to hear what the other person had said. Sometimes the translation doesn’t work directly from one language to another.

However, those language mistakes are a critical part of how online products get better. The services improve with use, as tinkering with so-called machine learning by computers examines outcomes and adjusts performance. It is how the online spell check feature became dependable, and how search, map directions and many other online services progress.

Just a few thousand people are using the service on Skype. As it learns from them, it will bring in more of the nearly 40,000 people waiting to try the Spanish-English service. Even in these early days, it elicits the possibility of social studies classes with children in the United States and Mexico, or journalism where you can live chat with a family in Syria.

Google says its Translate app has been installed more than 100 million times on Android phones, most of which could receive the upgrade. They have 500 million active users of Translate every month, across all our platforms. With 80-90% of the web in just 10 languages, translation becomes a critical part of learning for many people.

Automatic translation of web pages into some major languages is already a feature on Google’s Chrome browser. There are also 140 languages in which it is possible to change things like Gmail.

Microsoft’s Bing Translation engine is used on Twitter and Facebook. Facebook, which also features communication across the borders of language by operating the world’s largest photo sharing service, also has its own translation efforts. It has also signed up thousands of people to a waiting list for Skype to offer other simultaneously translated languages, like Chinese and Russian.

Feeding the “corpus,” as linguistics engineers call their database of language, has become critical for some countries as well as for the sake of machine learning. Google, which uses human translation to initiate its service, recently added Kazakh after a government official went on television to ask people to help out.

Still, some experts worry as machines look more deeply at individual uses of meaning through things like intonation and humor. What will it mean if, as with our search terms and our Facebook “likes,” these become fodder for advertisers and law enforcement?

Currently, just 1% of consumers consent to having their data recorded. That is what people do when they help machine learning of translation, or when they use voice-based assistants like Siri. Individuals will become better at managing their own privacy, and not outsourcing it to the providers of services. But for now, all kinds of information is surrendered for convenience.

Moving the Dial at CES

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It’s CES time in Las Vegas….the great and the good of consumer electronics get together and announce larger screens, newer gizmos and tech trends. This year there is much hullabaloo around two areas which I don’t think will impact most people and one which will. Let’s dive in.

The Internet of Things has been a hot topic in the investment space for a few years. The idea here is hooking up the devices which surround us to the web and make them smart. If you are running low on milk your fridge could message your smart watch or car to remind you to stock up.

Wearables are the other hot topic. Our clothing is in danger of getting smarter and  our watches are becoming mini computers. Both of these areas are interesting and over time they will no doubt become much more widely adopted. At the moment both suffer from several key handicaps:
  • They are typically on the expensive side….certainly above the price point where they will be adopted wholesale by budget conscious kids.
  • They can be clunky to use and fragile….battery life is an old school problem which dogs these new school products.
  • They lack the killer application which will drive mas adoption…I’m a tech-aholic and I’m not particularly driven to adopt either. I already have a computer in my pocket already and if I need milk I’ll remember…or not.

The announcement which I am super excited by is the announcement by dish that for $20 a month they will enable you to stream things like Hulu and Netflix and a bunch of cable mainstays like CNN and ESPN. It doesn’t include the broadcast giants CBS, NBC, ABC or Fox…but it is interesting to note that both ABC and ESPN are owned by Disney so that may foreshadow future developments. I live in a modern very efficient house with solar and pretty much my most expensive utility bill is for Verizon Fios. I have sons who are in college or early into careers and the hundred bucks a month most households shell out for cable TV has been a very intractable bill for them. Users will still have to get internet service to the house which is widely available for about $15 a month. Add in Sling from Dish TV (which can run on pretty much any streaming device including smart TVs and for $35 many households (especially younger cable cutters) may well be satisfied. That’s a huge saving and the cable giants are going to have a fit.

The Battle For Your Pole

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If you look outside your home window there is a very good chance that you will see a utility pole with lord knows how many cables attached. It may be bringing power, phone, cable, fiber optic or all of the above. Why would this be of relevance to the Google obsessed like myself…well..let’s see.

If you follow the space you will have noted the FCC title II regulation kerfuffle. In short there is a heated (if very inside baseball) debate about whether Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should be regulated like the power companies as a utility as opposed to just another service. If they do end up being regulated that way then they will be limited to the extent that they can do things like charge more for certain kinds of service (like Netflix) or charge differently based on location, usage etc. Predictably the current monopolists like Verizon are fighting this tooth and claw…they hate this idea in the worse way.

Recently the president himself weighed in throwing his weight on the side of the “regulate as power company” faction. Enter Google. They are now arguing that if ISPs are to be treated as utilities then any ISP should have access to utility infrastructure like …the pole outside your window. Why would they want to?…well it’s simple. Google has amassed a huge network of fiber optic cables across the country but they have been stymied in the deployment of same in good part because whilst they have a substantial freeway network they lack the side roads to take that cable the last mile or so.  In many cases the cables which deliver to the household are up that pole. So if Google can persuade the FCC that ISPs are a utility (and as one of the largest lobbyist organizations in the US I think they can) and if they can also make the argument that those poles are a shared utility then instead of Google fiber creeping slowly Midwest town by Midwest town across the US, it might explode almost overnight. Their fiber product is cheaper and much faster than most in the market….which should force prices down and service up. So…fingers crossed!

Apple Gets Slapped With a New Year Lawsuit

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their newest devices – and most-recent operating system. The lawsuit, which takes a specific look at iOS 8 asserts that Apple did not do their customers proper justice by letting them know just how much space the new operating system would take up. The lawsuit especially evaluates those with 8GB or 16GB iPhone’s which quickly become filled and bogged down.

The horror stories when iOS 8 was first released – of users having to delete hundreds of photos, extensive apps, and even being required to get rid of things that would otherwise seem off-limits to traditional storage saving tactics. The complaint says, “To put this in context, each gigabyte of storage Apple shortchanges its customer’s amounts to approximately 400-500 high resolution photographs.” It then goes on to point out that Apple “fail(ed) to disclose to consumers that as much as 23.1 percent of the advertised storage capacity of the devices will be consumed by iOS 8 and unavailable for consumers.”

One major complaint that the lawsuit brings up is Apple’s eagerness to sell “cloud” storage, in exchange for the storage that is ultimately lost due to the operating system. While there isn’t any direct link between the two actions, and Apple has been offering cloud storage at a price for a number of years – it brings some questions to the surface. Specifically, are operating systems being bloated in an effort to get users to buy additional cloud storage?

The complaint says Apple uses “sharp business tactics,” to ultimately trick their users into buying more storage capacity – especially on smaller devices. Looking at the 16GB models of the iPhone 5s, iPhone 6, and iPhone 6 Plus – between 2.9 and 3.3GB of device storage is unavailable to users – which equates to between 18.1 and 20.6% of the device’s total storage space. Interestingly, the iPad, iPad Air, and iPod are all impacted even more. They lose between 3.4 and 3.7GB of storage – which equates to as much as 23.1% of storage space on the device.

The fact that nearly a quarter of the storage in those devices is useless definitely creates issues. Additionally, the change from iOS 7 to iOS 8 was one that is unique in that it required far more space than any other update to date so far. The situation was even worse for smaller 8GB devices, and it would appear as though this lawsuit will quickly be heading for class-action status – as more, and more grow to list of users upset by how much storage is absolutely useless in their new, or old, devices.

Tech Winners and Losers of 2014

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Life’s never dull in the technology space, with company takeovers, new product launches, senior management changes and security breaches occurring on – what feels like – a near daily basis. The past 12 months has seen plenty of these scenarios play out in the IT industry, with devastating consequences for some and positive outcomes for others. With this in mind, these are the tech industry’s winners and losers in 2014.

LOSERS

Wearable technology 2014 look set to be the year where vendors stopped talking up wearable technology products, and actually started releasing some, but it didn’t quite pan out that way.

While Apple and Google both unveiled their first ventures into this area (in the form of the Apple Watch and Google Glass respectively), both products are earmarked for unspecified general release dates in 2015, but precise details are scarce right now. High cost and ugly designs have repeatedly been cited this year as reasons why the wearable tech trend hasn’t quite set the world alight, but there’s always 2015, right?

Sony Pictures The hacking community had a bumper year in 2014 by managing to take down high-profile targets including online auction site eBay and US retailer Target, to name but a few.

However, the largest, most wide-ranging and – potentially – the most damaging was the one involving Sony Pictures in November. Members of the self-styled Guardians of Peace hacking collective breached the firm’s computer network, stole company documents and emails by the hundreds and then proceeded to dump them on torrent sites.

North Korea has been cited as the source of the attack, after the hackers made repeated references to Sony Pictures’ forthcoming comedy film The Interview, the story of which centers on a fictional assassination plot involving North Korean leader Kim-Jong Un. The hack took an even more sinister turn earlier this month, with the perpetrators threatening “9/11-style” attacks on cinemas that showed the film, prompting Sony to pull its release altogether.

HP While its five-year turnaround plan continues apace, the tech giant has faced some tough decisions this year to safeguard the company’s future, resulting in widespread job cuts. In October, HP announced plans to hive-off its PC and printing business from its wider enterprise hardware and services arm at a cost of another 5,000 jobs. The move came as a surprise to many, given the backlash it suffered several years ago when former CEO Leo Apotheker proposed a similar move.

Uber While the number of people downloading the Uber taxi finder app has sky-rocketed this year, the company, its senior management and its operating methods have all come under fire. Thousands of black cab drivers took part in an hour-long protest against Uber’s method of working out the cost of fares that saw central London brought to a standstill in June.

The company has also garnered complaints about the way it treats journalists, after one of its executives suggested hiring a team of researchers to “dig up dirt” about those who write bad stories about the firm. And, if all that wasn’t bad enough, Uber faced a monumental backlash in December after its surge pricing system, whereby the cost of fares grows in line with demand, kicked in during the Sydney hostage crisis. This meant people using its service to escape the scene were charged around four times the normal fare.

Samsung After wowing smartphone buyers with its flagship Samsung Galaxy S3 and S4 handsets in 2012 and 2013, respectively, the South Korean tech giant was widely expected to replicate the sales figures notched up by these devices with the S5. Despite a striking re-design, the introduction of biometric security, a heartrate monitor, and a wealth of other bells and whistles that garnered favorable reviews, sales of the S5 fell short of analyst expectations.

Just to round off a bad year for the firm, December saw analyst house Gartner unveil its latest smartphone market tracker, which also revealed Samsung had lost 8 per cent of its global market share because of a fall in demand for its products in China.

iCloud Cloud security worriers were gifted a fairly credible reason about the integrity of off-premise storage this year, after hackers managed to side-step Apple’s iCloud log-in procedures and leak naked pictures of a host of female celebrities online. The fallout from it prompted Apple to issue assurances in September 2014 that it was tightening up security around its flagship cloud storage service.

WINNERS

Blackberry After what can only be described as a disastrous 2013 for BlackBerry, the past 12 months have been considerably better for the Canadian smartphone maker. While the previous year saw the firm hit with multi-million inventory charges, senior management changes, and an abortive attempt to acquire the firm by its largest shareholder, 2014 has seen it embark on a concerted push to reconnect with enterprise users to very positive effect.

This has resulted in the release of the eye-catching BlackBerry Passport, which has chalked up better-than expected sales, and lofty predictions about a return-to-growth for the firm in the not too distant future.

Mojang Even if hadn’t been acquired by Microsoft, it’s highly likely games developer Mojang would have made it on to our 2014 winners list, based on the continued popularity of its flagship offering Minecraft. The game is said to have 100 million registered users, and saw its user base widen considerably this year with its release on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles.

Microsoft coughed up $2.5 billion for Mojang earlier this year to safeguard the game’s availability on Windows PCs and phones in the future, and – we assume – ensure Mojang’s senior management enjoys a very nice Christmas.

WhatsApp It’s fair to say WhatsApp’s 450 million-plus users were a little skeptical about how honorable Facebook’s intentions were when news first broke that it was planning to buy the IM service in February. With fears abounding that Facebook might opt to shut the service down and incorporate it into its own Messenger service, or even start charging users to send missives to each other, the WhatsApp user base wasn’t happy.

In response, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg promised users the service will operate as it always has done and continue to do so as a standalone entity. And since the $22 billion deal was finally waved through by regulators in October 2014, he’s shown no signs of backtracking on this.

Hackers 2014 has certainly been a busy one for the hacking community, with a series of high-profile attacks on the likes of Sony Pictures, iCloud and eBay causing massive disruption to their operations and – not to mention – reputations.

While vendors and industry types often predict cyber-attacks will grow in complexity and sophistication as time goes on, these three provide solid evidence that this is a trend that’s already occurring.

 

The Legal Road to Driverless Cars

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Just last week, Google had announced their “first real build” of a self-driving vehicle. Driverless cars could save thousands of lives a year in the U.S. alone and also provide significant economic and environmental advantages. But the road to these benefits is full of technological and regulatory curves.

In its announcement, Google has said the vehicle it previously revealed in May was an “early mockup.” This version brings together all the elements of the car in what is the first fully functional form of the vehicle. While Google hopes to have the new cars on the streets of California next year, the California DMV recently acknowledged it will miss a year-end deadline to adopt rules for this new form of transportation due to safety concerns.

In the last several years, 17 states including D.C. have considered legislation authorizing self-driving cars, but only California, Florida, Nevada, and Washington, D.C. have enacted any form of law. While seven other companies are testing driverless cars, Google “is largely the force behind much of this self-driving legalization movement” according to HG.org. In September, the CA DMV issued testing permits for three companies to test 29 vehicles on public roads, with humans behind the wheel in case of computerized error or poor decision making. These permits acted to formalize a process that was already underway, as Google has logged around one million driverless miles of testing in recent years.

DMV officials say the public won’t be permitted to use self-driving cars until it can be certified they don’t pose “an undue risk.” With the technology being so new, part of the problem is that regulations don’t have safety standards to abide by — as of yet there aren’t any federal safety standards or independent safety testing organizations.

The California DMV has three main enforcement paths it could pursue:

It could follow the current U.S. system, in which manufacturers self-certify their vehicles; it could opt for a European system, in which independent companies verify safety; or the state could (implausibly) get into the testing business.

Some of the questions that need to be addressed include determining which traffic laws must be enforced, what happens if and when computers freeze up or are hijacked, and how to manage alternating control between the car and the human driver. There’s also the question of whether a person needs to be in the vehicle at all, let alone a licensed driver. Despite these concerns, there is a general consensus that driverless cars should be safer than human-driven vehicles.

California is a leader in transportation and vehicle regulation. Their policies are often adopted at the national level, as has been the case with many fuel standards. In this instance the state is trying to get out ahead of a potentially revolutionary shift in transportation methods, as opposed to playing catch-up as many regions are now doing with rideshare services like Uber.

There may also be some climate and environmental benefits of driverless cars should they come to rule the road. Self-driving cars are highly efficient, could be powered by alternative forms of energy, and are deferential to pedestrians and people on bikes, which could help boost those forms of transportation. However, driverless cars could also make urban sprawl more appealing as cheaper, more convenient rides could encourage lower-density living and even hinder or reverse investment in public  transportation infrastructure. Nonetheless, a recent study by the Rocky Mountain Institute found that when self-driving vehicles are combined with car sharing methods and new vehicle materials, overall CO2 emissions could drop “by up to 95 percent, even when considering the CO2 emitted from the electricity generation.”

Did the US Shut Off Internet for North Korea?

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North Korea’s connection to the public Internet went down Monday, after U.S. officials promised a “proportional response” to the nation’s alleged cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Matthew Prince, chief executive of Cloudflare, a network and security company that monitors global Web access, said it’s conceivable. His engineers confirmed North Korea started losing its Internet connection to the outside world early Monday East Coast time, and was still down at mid-day.

Dyn, which monitors Internet performance, said its tests found North Korean Internet addresses unreachable since 11:15 a.m. ET. But Prince said there are more likely scenarios. Here are three:

Option One: North Korea shut off its own Internet access. Sounds crazy by U.S. standards but tightly controlled regimes, such as Syria, have a history of severing connections during tense moments on the world stage. Doing so would prevent the few North Koreans with Internet access from reading about the current crisis over the Sony hack and would block any incoming cyberattack from the U.S. or its allies.

Option Two: China shut off North Korea’s Internet access. North Korea gets its Internet access through China Unicom, the mainland telecommunications giant, in Shenyang, China. U.S. officials have said they are reaching out to China to pressure North Korea over its alleged involvement in the Sony hack.

Option Three: Someone is interfering with North Korea’s Internet traffic. Since North Korea has just one main connection to the global Internet, it would be possible for an outsider such as a foreign government or mischievous hackers to overload North Korea’s broadband connection with malicious traffic.

What do you guys think happened to North Korea’s internet access?

Suing Google

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Google is a fierce and capricious God, swift to anger and once angered impossible to placate. A rash of recent law suits speaks to this issue very clearly.  The problem is this: Google has long complicated and exhaustive rules for publishers displaying their ads. Those rules allow them to ban any publisher for pretty much any or no reason and once banned that publisher can has no chance of getting paid on the ads it had generated revenue on.

The Poster Child for this problem is Pubshare.com. These guys racked up over a million dollars of Adsense revenue which Google refused to pay because Google claimed that they had breeched their Ts and Cs. Pubshare is suing to get paid. Part of the problem is that Google has allowed various of these publishers to accumulate a very large exposure before shutting them down and refusing to pay. One might think that given the level of attention and automation common at Google they might have some robots tasked to look for just these problems. Google has long since made it more or less impossible to syndicate their actual search ads but AdSense (meager tho it often is) has represented a way for sites of all sizes to generate some revenue in addition to what ever banner inventory they may have.

These kinds of cases are understandably devastating to the businesses involved but of minimal concern to Google because their Ts&Cs essentially grant them all the power they could possibly need. The problem Google has is that the law of the land may not agree with that power and this kind of horrible publicity is likely to make some people with really good traffic to think twice before putting all their revenue eggs in the Google basket. For now the judge involved is letting the case continue it will be interesting to see where it ends up.

The right to search?

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It’s a weird thing, how we have come to think of search as some kind of inalienable human right…like life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s not.  There is no God given right for anything to be indexed or made search-able and there is no right or requirement to put any result anywhere. This issue has been a recurring theme throughout this year. Although the authorities in the US have consistently ruled on the side of Google against those calling foul over monopoly various European bodies have continued to attempt to fine Google or force them to return results differently. Perhaps the highest profile of these spats was the “right to be forgotten” and only this week Google unceremoniously booted all Spanish news content from its news index (although much of it can still be found in the main Spanish search).

Google is not touting a “buy it now” feature on its shopping search to retailers to allow end users the kind of one click ordering straight from the search results page which would be similar to what we have come to know and love from Amazon. Google has also been layering other kinds of offers around and above the inevitable Amazon result for almost any shipping search you care to carryout. No sooner has this feature come to light then the usual suspects are once again are yelling monopoly.

I have nothing against Amazon, I’m a constant Prime user, but I wouldn’t be offended if the Amazon result was pushed down in the search result…because I know I can always go straight to Amazon. Search is notoriously tough to do well and love them or hate them Google does it very well. Having said that it’s also voluntary…if various world governments want to force Google to publish their algorithms or force them to pay for news snippets I expect Google to respond as they did this week by simply shutting down that part of the service in that part of the world.

Google is too big to be stopped and on the whole does an amazing job. Are they an evil monopoly…maybe…but they are very good at being that. This year coming I expect to see either a bunch of potential trade disputes over search to gently fade away or a bunch of countries loosing access to the best search out there. It will be interesting to see who blinks first.

Hold the Front Page

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Google is locking Spanish publishers out of its popular Google News service in response to a new Spanish law that imposes fees for linking to the headlines and news stories on other websites.

Besides closing Google News in Spain, Google Inc. also is blocking reports from Spanish publishers in the more than other 70 other international editions packaged by Google News. Google News’ exile of Spanish publishers begins Dec. 16, a couple weeks before the start of a Spanish intellectual-property law requiring news publishers to be paid for their content, even if they are willing to give it away.

That means people in Latin America, where Spanish news organizations have sought to boost their digital audiences, won’t see news from Spain via Google News. Also set to disappear are reports in English from Spanish publishers like Madrid’s leading El Pais newspaper.

The lost access to Google News will likely make it more difficult for people to keep afloat on what it is happening in Spain. Spanish publishers also may lose a valuable source of traffic to their websites. Google says its main search engine and other services generate more than 10 billion monthly clicks that send Web surfers to other news sites throughout the world. Google News accounts for about 10 percent, or 1 billion clicks, of that worldwide volume.

Spain’s new law is designed to create a new source of revenue for the country’s publishers, who, like most of their peers around the world, have been hard hit as more readers and advertisers have abandoned printed editions for digital alternatives during the past decade.

The shift has hurt news publishers because digital ads aren’t nearly as lucrative as print ads. But the linking fees could now backfire if the lost access to Google News diminishes the traffic to Spanish news publishers, making it even more difficult for them to sell digital ads.

Even though Google News doesn’t display ads, it still helps Google make more money by deepening people’s loyalty to its products. The ads that Google distributes through its other services and other websites, including those run by news publishers, account for most of the company’s projected revenue of $66 billion this year.