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Bill Bennett

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Google opens door to New Zealand smart home

nest smart homeNest, the smart thermostat maker Google acquired in 2014, is the world’s best-known home automation brand. The company is now selling its smart home products and services in New Zealand.

Smart home technology has been slow to take off around the world. It gets the attention from technology fetishists, but, despite years of hype and marketing, has yet to break into the mainstream. It remains a tiny niche.

Take Nest’s thermostats. They look good. They get rave reviews in technology publications. Users swear they can save hundreds on their power bills with them. Yet Google only sold 1.3 million in 2015.

To put things in perspective, Apple sold 6 million Watches in three months during the same year.

Nest performances disappointing

Some analysts report Google is disappointed with Nest’s performance to date. It looks a long way from recovering the US$3.2 billion it paid for Nest and the US$550 million it paid for Dropcam, which makes home security cameras. The two brands have since been merged.

That doesn’t mean Google’s investment will never pay off. Nest sits alongside Google’s Speaker and Chromecast.

All are part of a “connected home” strategy. The idea is that you can speak to tell Google to turn up the heat and get the devices to display your camera’s security images on your TV via Chromecast. On a good day, it all works.

Smart home still immature

Home automation is still in its infancy. About one in 20 US homes have one or more smart home components. Hardly any have a full suite.

The numbers will be far lower in New Zealand. Apart from anything else, few New Zealand homes have the kind of central heating system that can make full use of a Nest controller.

What’s more the Unisys Security Index shows we’re wary of the Internet of Things. There’s a huge potential for the Internet of Things to make smart home devices even smarter, but for now that’s not happening fast enough.

While companies are quick to embrace the IoT technology that uses sensors, communications, computing and automation to save money or speed processes, doing the same things at home feels like playing with toys.

Your idea of fun?

Make no mistake, home automation vendors are on to this, they often talk about their products being ‘fun’ or use similar language. They also like to use fear to sell. The curious press release from Google about Nest’s New Zealand launch is full of words like ‘worry’, ‘stolen’ and ‘safe’.

Not that there’s anything wrong with home security, but Google lays it on thick.

Nest gets around two of the biggest objections to home automation. First, most smart home products are too expensive to take seriously. Who in their right mind would spend more on an intelligent fridge than a new car?

There are three Nest cameras. With prices between $360 and $550 they are not cheap, you can buy cameras for a tenth of that. Likewise the $220 smoke alarm. You can buy an unconnected one in Mitre 10 for about $10. Yet, these are small investments to get started with home automation.

The second object is that home automation technology is too hard to use or install and the parts don’t tend to work well with each other. Nest gets around this.

Simple, needs to be simpler

When Google wraps the technology in with its Speaker and Chromecast things will be even simpler. Where this leaves households with Amazon or Apple technology is another question.

Perhaps a more pressing question is what are the consequences of huge technology giants like Google owning the home automation market? There will be privacy concerns and the problems associated with technology lock-in, switching from a Google smart home to, say, an Amazon one would be difficult.

Another issue is where is the business model here? Google didn’t spend the thick end of half a trillion dollars to flog home gadgets. It wants more back from Nest than hardware sales. How will that work for the company and, more to the point, how will that business model work for you?

Duck Duck Go versus Google juggernaut

Unlike other search engines, Duck Duck Go doesn’t track your searches. You’ll see advertising based on your search terms, but they don’t relate back to earlier searches. Nor are they based on your recent web activity elsewhere.

This is a different business model to Google which attempts to build profiles based on your activity. Google doesn’t just track your searches; its tentacles are everywhere. By some estimates three-quarters of all websites report your habits back to Google.

Stalker

This explains why some advertisements stalk you as you navigate the web. It can be surreal.

While a lot of people don’t care about privacy in this way, others are concerned.

The vast amounts of data Google collects are enough to identify an individual. Thanks to the ability to read most emails, Google knows where you live, what you do and can make assumptions about how much money you earn, what you spend and who you vote for.

Google reckons

Away from privacy, this approach has another advantage. Because Google thinks it knows about you and what you want, it uses your profile to send customised search results your way.

This can be useful. It can also be a problem. It means Google searches are not neutral. If two people search for a certain term, the may not both get the same answers.

This isn’t always helpful. You might want the best quality information, not what Google think’s you’d like to see. There’s no way of knowing that Google’s filters give you the best. With Duck Duck Go everyone would see the same result.

Duck Duck Go tricks

The search engine has a couple of help tricks up its sleeve. Let’s say you want to know more about someone you meet on Twitter. Type their address into the search bar and you get their profile.

If there is a weakness, sometimes there is not enough depth of coverage. In particular, it doesn’t do a great job of finding New Zealand-specific material.

This hasn’t changed, or if it has changed, it hasn’t changed enough. It can still be frustrating to use at times. You may need to switch back to Google to handle a specific search.

Away from New Zealand searches, Duck Duck Go does well enough. It is better than before.

Google often seems to be more interested in delivering users to sales outlets than information. Duck Duck Go doesn’t have a news filter, so a search can mean wading through lots of sales sites to find more independent information. It would be great if a news search was an option.

Bang Bing

What the search engine does have is something called bangs. This is a shorthand way of restricting a search to a single site or organisation. So, to look on Bloomberg for information about SDNs, type:

!blmb software defined networks 

This doesn’t always work. The search above drew a blank. Trying the same search using The Economist bang, the browser couldn’t open anything, not even a 404 page.

Duck Duck Go still isn’t the best choice for most searches, but it is a more private choice.

Don Christie says global IT giants all take, no give

Don Christie writes in the New Zealand Herald Global IT companies are taking profit here and putting nothing back:

An organisation I co-chair, NZRise, has been looking at the problem. We represent New Zealand owned digital companies who generate jobs and good incomes for tens of thousands of Kiwis. Our research shows Facebook, Google, Amazon and many other global digital companies are engaged in similar tax avoidance schemes to Apple.

Most revenues that accrue to those companies from New Zealand simply don’t get reported. They are the result of an online transaction and the money flies out of the country in the blink of an eye. No tax. No multiplier effect. No 41 per cent investment into our society.

From a business owner’s perspective it also represents a huge disincentive to invest in R&D, which is already at shockingly low levels by international standards. We find ourselves at a disadvantage to our multinational competitors.

Why create software and technical services in New Zealand when we will always be facing uneven tax playing field?

New Zealand has had a problem with multinational companies and transfer pricing for decades.

Yet the problem Christie writes about is on a different scale.

While the old multinational would shuffle money to minimise liabilities in New Zealand, they still paid some tax. They employed people, trained people and contributed to the economy in other ways. They funded university chairs, sports clubs and other worthy causes. If the new breed does any of that, it’s invisible.

Little contribution

The new multinationals pay next to no New Zealand tax. They employ next to no New Zealanders. They contribute little to the economy.

Sure, you can argue that Apple products make New Zealanders more productive and that’s a positive economic contribution. The net positive economic contribution may even be greater than Apple fails to contribute in more direct ways.

That is an argument against banning or boycotting Apple products. No-one is suggesting that.

It is not an argument against taxing Apple.

After all, our roads carry Apple products to market. Our schools give people the skills people need to use Apple products. Our health system keeps Apple’s customers alive and healthy. In some cases our tax dollars buy Apple products.

Google this!

You could argue something similar about Google. Some believe Google software makes workers more productive than they would be with other software. Maybe.

Some think that Google’s activities in the advertising sector has an economic benefit. Try saying that to a New Zealand journalist or someone who works in the media.

Again, these are not arguments against taxing Google.

Google is quite happy to sell its products and services to New Zealand government departments that it doesn’t help fund.

It’s harder to argue Facebook offers any economic benefits to New Zealand. If anything it undermines productivity. It is the digital equivalent of an all-sugar diet.

Christie has a good point

There’s little chance Apple, Facebook and Google will stop selling if we force them to pull their economic weight.

Until recently the problem was limited. Most of the non-contributors were technology companies. That’s changing with services like Uber muscling in on our markets. If things continue, the giants will hollow out our economy. Let’s not allow that to happen.

It’s been said that what the companies do is legal. That’s true. It doesn’t make it right. We have the power to change that. We have left this problem in the too hard basket for too long.

Google Pixel phone, Home speaker sideline New Zealand

New Zealand is not among the first countries to get the Google Pixel phones. The US, UK, Canada, Australia, Germany and India are all ahead of us in the queue.

Google says it plans to sell the phones in more countries, but offers no further details. There’s also no news about when the creepy Google Home speaker will come here.

The marketing says the phones are made by Google. That’s not true. HTC makes them. The company struggles to sell phones under its own name, so the contract will be a relief.

Google Pixel priced like Apple

Google is betting its brand carries as much weight with customers as Apple or Samsung. It asks Apple and Samsung-like prices.

In the US, the cheapest Pixel costs US$650. That’s the same as the cheapest Apple iPhone 7. Samsung prices are similar.

Google propaganda says it “obsessed over every detail, from the industry design to the user experience” of the Pixels.

The words sound like something Steve Jobs might have said.

Guru

The phones include a 12.3 mega-pixel camera. Google says its “photography gurus” spent a year optimising the camera. There’s also a quick-charge battery that can deliver 7 hours of use on a charge of 15 minutes.

That’s useful if you forget to charge overnight and need to get to work in a hurry.

Google’s latest foray into branded hardware follows earlier failures. Google Glass was a flop. The brief dalliance with Motorola was unhappy. Google bought Nest but failed to capitalise on it.

On the other hand, the earlier Google-branded Nexus phones are among the best Androids.

Not really about hardware

Most of the attention on the Pixel phone announcement centres on yet another Google move into hardware.

The company sees integrating phone hardware and software, in the way Apple does with the iPhone, gives it an edge over other phone makers.

This integration is an idea Google had been quick to dismiss in the past.

It may not have escaped your attention that those other phone makers are supposed to be Google’s partners. They are the companies who make Android phones.

Tension in the Android camp

To suggest this could be a source of tension between Google and the companies making Android phones is putting it mildly.

Relationships between Google and phone makers, especially Samsung, have never been entirely cordial. But this is a stab in the back.

When Microsoft first moved into hardware with the Surface Pro tablets it did not to tread on its partners’ toes. It made soothing noises about its strategy. Officially the Surface was only there to show them the way.

Even today Microsoft chooses not to compete head-on with the big PC maker’s main product lines.

How to win friends and influence them

In contrast Google seems content to trample on partners. One fear is that it wants to displace its Android partners in their relationships with mobile carriers. In Australia Google formed an exclusive relationship with Telstra – that’s moving right in on Samsung’s turf.

At the same time it seems to be undermining the Android value chain.

As you’d expect from Google, the Pixel phones are more about software than hardware.

Google Assistant, an artificial intelligence-based digital assistant, is preloaded on Pixel phones.

Siri competition

On one level Google Assistant is a direct competitor with Apple’s Siri. The phone software is, in effect, a client to back-end services provided by Google. It is a way of tieing the hardware more closely to the search giant.

Google Assistant also cuts rival phone makers out of an important part of the value chain. It links straight back to Google’s data centres. It leaves little room for other Android phone makers to enter the services market.

If phone makers lie awake at night worrying about Pixel, privacy advocates and, perhaps the rest of us, will lose sleep over Google’s surveillance.

Data mining

The new Pixel phones are one part of a strategy to help Google collect more data and more intimate data than ever before.

At the same announcement the company took the wraps off Google Home. It is a home speaker with a built-in microphone. Home includes a voice-activated version of Google Assistant and can link to internet-of-things devices in your home.

Google Home is always listening. It is the ultimate surveillance devices prettied up as a domestic appliance. It would require a near impossible feat of willpower not to feed it with a constant steam of the most personal and intimate data.

When George Orwell wrote 1984 he never dreamed that Big Brother could get citizens to buy the listening devices spying on them. The idea of then earning billions by using it to learn their preferences and selling them more things was beyond belief.

The clever-sounding artificial intelligence Google talks of isn’t there to help you. It’s not to make life better, to ease your burdens. It exists to mine your most intimate data then sell it to retailers who can turn it into gold.

If that doesn’t worry you, nothing will.

Nexus 6P: Huawei and Google show Android potential

Google uses its Nexus brand to show the world how good Android phones can be. The Nexus 6P is Google’s flagship phone. For now it is the best Android phone you can buy.

Like many top phones the Nexus 6P is a 5.7-inch metal-glass slab. There’s nothing plastic about it.

The dimensions make it a big phone, but it doesn’t feel big in the hand. Perhaps it’s thinness helps, the Nexus 6P is just over 7mm thick. It’s also lighter than other big phones at around 180g.

Inside is a Snapdragon 810 octa-core processor, a 12.3-megapixel main camera and an Oled display. It’s QHD which means 2560 by 1440 pixels.

Phone specifications are meaningless to most people when written that way. Let’s cut to the chase. It looks goods and feels like a premium phone. More to the point it looks and feels better than the Samsung Galaxy S6.

Main specs

The Snapdragon 810 processor is fast. So fast you never think about processor speed. Everything happens smoothly without lag. Geeks might find apps to push the processor beyond its limit, the rest of us won’t. Having 3GB of Ram helps this performance.

Storage starts at 32GB. You can buy 64GB or 128GB models, there’s no expansion option. This has always been how Apple sells phones. Samsung now does the same. It seems nothing quite says premium phone as much as the lack of a memory slot.

Huawei’s 12.3-megapixel camera is OK for casual pictures. It’s not outstanding. If photography is your thing, go and find a different phone.

The QHD Oled display is stunning, but then so is every other top-end phone display these days. We’ve reached the point where phone makers have nowhere else to go with displays.

Huawei’s display shows 551 pixels per inch, that’s more than Apple’s iPhone Retina screens, but I can’t tell the differences. It seems screens can’t get better in any way that a human eye would notice.

A USB-C port supports fast charging, something I’ve not seen on any phone to date. There is a fingerprint reader on the back which works as well as Apple’s Touch ID.

Beyond specs

The specs are important, but something else matters more. Nexus 6P showcases the latest Android version: Marshmallow. You get raw Marshmallow. There are no overlays, crapware or bloatware.

While the Nexus shows off Android, it also shows what Huawei is capable of. The result is a premium smartphone that does more than equal Samsung’s best.

Google’s decision to use Huawei to build its flagship speaks volumes about the phone maker’s status.

Huawei is already China’s top selling phone brand. By most measures it is the worldwide phone maker behind Samsung and Apple.

We’ve already seen a first-rate Huawei phone in New Zealand: the P8. The Nexus 6P marks Huawei’s arrival in the phone premier league.

Premium Android, premium price

It also Huawei’s first significant premium price phone. In New Zealand the 32GB Nexus 6P sells for NZ$1100. NZ$1200 buys a 64GB version. That’s the same price as the 32GB Samsung Galaxy S6, the 16GB iPhone 6S model and Sony’s Xperia Z5 with 32GB.

You can pay more for a phone. The gimmicky Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge is NZ$200 more. A fully laden iPhone 6S Plus is NZ$1800.

Those phones are not directly comparable. Few buyers would weigh up the Nexus 6P against a 128GB iPhone 6S Plus. On the other hand, many considering a Galaxy S6 or Sony Xperia Z5 should consider the Nexus 6P.

Nexus 6P – Android at its best

There’s a contradiction here. The thing that draws me, maybe you too, to the Nexus 6P is the lack of so-called added-value features. Google has packed all the best things in the Android world into a single device, then made it even better by knowing when to stop.

We don’t often see Android at its best because phone makers wrap Google’s operating system in their own software. They also load phones with pointless bloatware.

Marshmallow doesn’t feel like a big departure from earlier Android versions. It does some things smarter. Most users might never notice. A lot of the improvements are in the background.

Marshmallow sips battery life

The software sucks less life out of batteries when you aren’t using the phone, so you get a little more battery life. You get more security when downloading apps or click links.

One reason geeks love Android is they can tinker away for hours fine-tuning everything to their satisfaction. Much of this pointy-headed stuff is impenetrable to everyday users. Worse, fixing wrong fine-tuning choices is an ordeal for most people. Marshmallow does much to hide Android’s complexity for those who don’t want it while keeping it accessible for those who do.

Huawei’s powerful hardware combined with an Android version not sullied by an awful overlay like Samsung’s TouchWiz means everything flies. I never saw a moment’s lag anywhere on the Nexus 6P, this wouldn’t be true on a Samsung. For my money TouchWiz subtracts value.

Now on Tap

The big noticable change in Marshmallow is called Now on Tap. Hold down the home button and the software will look for extra information about whatever is now on display. In theory it will, say, find a phone number to call or an email address if you use it while looking at a company website.

In practice, Now on Tap results are random and sporadic. There’s a reason for that.

Android is, at heart, a data collection point. The more data your phone has the better the results you’ll get from Google services like Now on Tap. Results improve over time as Google collects more data. The downside is you give away your privacy to get there. Many users are comfortable with this. I’m not, but that’s another story.

Is this phone for you?

If you’re looking for a new Android phone this is the one to get. You won’t get a better Android experience. The phone is great for work and productivity apps.

The only worthy rival I’ve seen in recent months is the Sony Xperia Z5. If photography is important choose the Xperia Z5, its camera beats the Nexus 6P by a country mile. You can also get far better sound if you buy the add-on noise cancelling earphones.