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Google Pixel phone, speaker sideline New Zealand

New Zealand is not among the first countries to get Google’s 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 from Google 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.

Google tweaks Google+ mix removes Photos, Streams

Mike Murphy gets to the point for Quartz when he writes Google will strip Google+ for parts.

Stripping for parts is a delicious metaphor — the tech industry just can’t get away from car analogies.

The deal is this: Google will pull the Photos and Streams components from Google+ and set them up as two new products.

… and Google Hangouts?

There’s talk elsewhere the company will do the same for Hangouts. I’ve never had success with Hangouts but I know many readers love the application and prefer it to alternatives like Skype and FaceTime.

In some ways Google+ is a better social media tool to use than either Facebook or Twitter. It has a clean interface and offers greater flexibility.

I’ve found engagements with others can be more enlightening than the terse 140 character limit Twitter imposes. And there’s a higher signal to noise ratio than you’ll find on Facebook.

Google+ easy to read, navigate

Best of all, you can quickly read back through discussion threads. That can get tricky on Twitter when talks take off in multiple directions. And, of course, being Google means you can find things fast.

The problem is that Google+ never managed to get past the feeling that there’s tumbleweed blowing down empty streets.

Google says there are billions of accounts. That’s sort of true. Signing up for the service is more or less mandatory if you use other Google products or even an Android device.

Yet estimates say there are only a few million active users. That’s about two percent of Facebook’s active users and, maybe, five percent of Twitter’s.

Twitter grumble

There’s a joke that you go to Twitter to listen to people grumble, go to Linkedin to listen to people pretending to work hard, go to Facebook to watch people play and go to Google+ to see what Google employees are up to.

Google+ wasn’t Google’s first attempt at social media. You may remember Buzz and Wave. Both were awful, but they had fans. Google+ was a better experience, the basic idea and code were sound enough. It’s just that Google never seems to have got social media.

Commentators are writing Google+ obituaries. That may be premature, although one never knows with Google. This is a company that has no compunction about taking lame horses behind the stable for shotgun practice.

What is clear is that Google+ will change.

Word processor software still geared to print

Word processors need to get out of the 1990s.

It’s a long time since I used a word processor to create a printed document. You are probably the same.

Yet word processors are still made as if the goal is a sheet of paper.

Take Microsoft Word:Mac 2011. It offers six ‘views. All of them pay homage to print. At least three of the views go out of their way to reproduce what looks like a printed page on-screen along with cheesy skeuomorphic designs. You can’t use Word for long before coming up against page breaks.

What an antiquated idea that is.

Ancient and modern

Apple’s Pages 5.0 feels more modern, yet it still offers a line across the screen to tell me where a page break might fall on a printed page. And depending on the settings paragraphs move around to accommodate those page breaks.

It gets worse. The default setting of the standard Pages 5.0 template assumes you’ll want to have page headers and footers. I haven’t used headers or footers since WordPerfect 5.1 — kids ask your grandparents.

Google Docs has its faults, but at least there is an option to not show pages. Google can’t quite bring itself into the 21st century though. Google Docs‘s default setting is what it calls the ‘paginated view’.

Distraction free word processor

I would like to see Apple and Microsoft offer non-paginated views. Perhaps they do. I can’t find them in any documentation or support forums.

On one level this is just a grumble. I prefer minimal writing interfaces, the less distraction the better. A page line might not be much distraction, but I’d still rather not see it.

There’s a deeper complaint. The fact that word processor developers are so conservative that they feel the need to include paper-like views and make those views the default, tells me they are too conservative full stop.

Gmail: Resistance is futile

There’s nothing private about mail. Google’s Gmail sees to that.

Benjamin Mako Hill hosts his own mail. You might think that would keep him free of Google’s privacy-invading clutches. Yet he points out, more than half his mail comes from or goes through a Google account. Which means the bots get to read most of his stuff.

Despite the fact that I spend hundreds of dollars a year and hours of work to host my own email server, Google has about half of my personal email! Last year, Google delivered 57% of the emails in my inbox that I replied to. They have delivered more than a third of all the email I’ve replied to every year since 2006 and more than half since 2010.

Google Has Most of My Email Because It Has All of Yours | copyrighteous.

ChromeBooks: Where dumb, limiting, simple are good

Two years ago Google showed off the first Chromebooks. It’s taken that long for New Zealand to get a reasonable supply of the devices from a range of computer makers.

Now Chromebooks are here in volume.

Chromebooks are laptops that run Google’s Chrome operating system. This makes them quite different from Windows or Mac laptops.

The browser is the computer

While the version of Chrome inside a Chromebook is an operating system in the sense that it handles normal OS tasks, it is also a web browser. Everything you do with Chrome – strictly that should read almost everything you do – is done in the browser.

If you’ve used the Chrome browser on another computer, you’re fully training in the Chrome OS. That’s about all there is to it.

Being a browser, Chrome is mainly used to run web apps. That is applications hosted somewhere on the internet in the cloud. Most of the heavy lifting is done by distant computers in vast datacenters.

Chromebooks in the cloud

In addition to web apps, Chromebooks can run apps that are essentially browser extensions. Although they link back to the cloud, some can do minimal local processing. Among other things this means you can write using Google Docs while not connected to the internet.

All of this means Chromebooks are limited in comparison with Windows or Apple OS X computers.

Or maybe not. There are things you can’t realistically do well with Chrome that are doable on those machines – but far fewer tasks than you’d imagine.

Chrome isn’t great for creating audio or video content. It’s not the best tool for building web sites. Developing software is hard going.

Dumb terminal

In effect a Chromebook is a dumb terminal – most of the computing is done at the other end of the line somewhere on a server in the bowels of a Google datacentre.

Dumb, but in a good way, because it makes computing simple.

That may sound strange – for the first 25 years after the first PCs appeared the computer industry mainly went out of its way to make computing more complicated. Each time Microsoft launched a new operating system or new applications, there would be a long list of new features. They were promoted as reasons to buy – sometimes they were – but they also made computers more complicated and bloated.

Some like it complex

Complexity and bloat is music to the ears of a certain breed of hardcore computer user. To everyone else it sounds like bad news. Most people just want to get things done – without worrying too much about the technology.

Fast forward to when Apple introduced the iPad in 2010. It scored precisely because it was a computer pared down to its essentials. It could only do 80 to 90 percent of what can be done with a PC, but for most people those are the only tasks that matter.

Suddenly the myth that everyone wanted complexity was burst. ChromeBooks are a different take on the same idea. Being dumb, limited and simple can mean a better focus on the work in hand, which in turn means better productivity. There’s less scope for fiddling with settings and so on – although having a browser connected to the web means there’s still plenty of distraction.

Safety first

There are other advantages. Because web apps store documents on remote servers, there’s no question of losing everything if there’s a hardware problem. You don’t even have to worry about making back-ups. On the other hand, you run the risk that every spy – and possibly Google – can read all your documents whenever they choose.

Chromebooks are not for everybody. You can pay the same money and get basic Windows devices with the potential to handle a wider range of tasks – pay another $200 or so and you’ll get considerably more computer.