Screenshots of Google’s new Photos app for Android leak

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Google’s new Photos app is coming soon as a separate experience from Google+. Screenshots of the Android version leaked today, courtesy of Android Police, and there is a lot to show.

We’ve heard rumors that Google+’s image functions may be spun out into a standalone photo service since at least August 2014. In March, Sundar Pichai, senior vice president for products at Google, said the company is going to put a renewed focus on photos. “Photos are a big use case,” Pichai said. “So we are going to say this is the stream now.”

Google Photos will likely launch on mobile (Android with iOS likely to follow) and maybe on the Web too at photos.google.com (which currently redirects to plus.google.com/photos). The new Photos app starts up by showing a new pinwheel animation:

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Just like in Google+, the app lets users search (including for specific people, animals, and objects), back up your photos automatically, and manage your photos. Users can view their photos by day or month, as well as in a “comfortable view” which shows photos by day in a staggered grid.

The app also supports the ability to pinch your way into photos, swipe out of them, and even drag to select multiple photos too:

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Auto Awesome (released at Google I/O 2013), a feature that applies special effects to photos and creates new viewing experiences with them, is being renamed to “Assistant.” In addition to the existing feature set, it lets users create albums, movies, stories, animations, and collages.

The editing interface has also been revamped: in addition to the usual still filters and adjustments, the cropping interface has a new rotation wheel and now snaps to various aspect ratios. Last but not least, the new app includes photo and video link sharing with privacy controls.

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We may see Google Photos at Google’s I/O 2015 in just a few days. Since the event is a developer conference though, if the product does launch there, the company will detail how to leverage the new service.

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Google Adds Traffic Alerts To Maps

traffic Just in time for the hustle-and-bustle of Memorial Day Weekend, Google has added traffic alerts to Google Maps. Google has shown traffic conditions for a while now, but this update actually brings with it explanations as to why various routes will be faster, alerts for a blockage or traffic jam up ahead, and of course, alternate routes to each destination. If/When a traffic jam pops up… Read More

Here’s how Google’s Mobilegeddon is hitting SMBs

Google mobile search
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Google’s recent updating of its search algorithm to rank mobile-friendly sites higher in mobile searches was called Mobilegeddon because the possible impact could mean doomsday for some companies.

But the first data on the impact indicates that, while it’s not quite the end of the world, this new mobile pecking order is hurting some businesses — including ones that are complying.

Digital marketing agency Koozai today released what it said is the first survey analyzing the effect of Google’s mobile update on small and medium-size businesses (SMBs).

The bottom line: 41 percent of responding businesses say they saw a drop in rankings of at least three places, with traffic drops that were as much as 50 percent in some cases.

But here’s the kicker: More than half of those seeing a drop — 27 percent of the total respondents — reported they had actually optimized for mobile.

About 12 percent didn’t know whether their websites were optimized for mobile.

“When a business has optimized for mobile [and] then drops three places, it is understandable that they feel angry that they have acted on Google’s warnings and yet have still experienced a negative impact,” Koozai CEO Ben Norman said in a statement accompanying the results.

He told me via email that the drop in ranking for these mobile-optimized companies could be because competitors were better optimized for the other 200+ Google ranking factors.

The ways in which these responding SMBs optimized for mobile included a range of approaches, he added, but most used responsive design that fluidly resizes for mobile screens, instead of adaptive designs that are built for each screen type. Some Google watchers believe the search giant’s algorithm likes responsive design better.

The survey also found that 69 percent thought the most pessimistic prediction of Mobilegeddon’s impact — that some websites could disappear completely from mobile search results — was “overhyped, incorrect, and unhelpful.”

Thirty-seven percent said they were worried the new algorithm could have an impact on their online sales, but 44 percent weren’t — most of their sales are from desktop/laptop computers.

And nearly half — 49 percent — didn’t know if their desktop sales had initial contacts made on mobile. This is a common user path: search on mobile, buy on desktop.

The survey was conducted online for four days last week, with respondents representing about 2,000 companies, each with 50 or fewer employees.

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Google’s Project Fi Invites To Reach Everyone By Mid-Summer

google-fi Project Fi, Google’s recently announced plans to offer its own wireless cellular service, appears to have a lot of demand – or at least, that’s what an email sent out to potential customers seems to imply. The email informs those who previously registered their interest in trying out the new service that, due to the  number of requests Google has received, it will likely… Read More

Chrome for Android is now ‘almost entirely open-source,’ letting anyone build a Chromium-based mobile browser

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Google has uploaded the majority of the remaining Chrome for Android code into the open-source Chromium repository. In other words, Chrome for Android now matches Chrome for desktop in terms of available open source code, letting anyone examine, modify, and compile the project.

Chromium is the open source Web browser project that shares much of the same code as Google Chrome, and new features are often added there first. Google intended for Chromium to be the name of the open-source project, while the final product name would be Chrome, but developers have taken the code and released versions under the Chromium name. Eventually, browser makers used it as a starting point; Opera, for example, switched its browser base to Chromium in 2013.

Until now, however, Chromium was largely a desktop-only affair. Last week though, the Chrome for Android team held an AMA on Reddit, and we learned the tide would be turning.

Reddit user bongbongyeah asked: “When will we be able to build a fully-fledged Chromium (not Chrome, i mean the Open Source counterpart) for Android?” The answer, courtesy of an Android Technical Program Manager, was straightforward: “Soon!”

That time has now come. A Chrome for Android software engineer posted on Reddit to say that “Chrome for Android is now almost entirely open-source.” The “almost” refers to licensing restrictions: media codecs and some of proprietary Google features can’t be included in Chromium.

Here is the description for the pertinent Chromium code review:

Upstream oodles of Chrome for Android code into Chromium.

This adds plenty of Android-specific code (Java, C++, and resources) in a few new folders:
– chrome/android/java_staging: will be merged into chrome/android/java in the nearish future
– chrome/android/javatests: chrome/android/javatests_shell will be merged into here incrementally as ChromeShell tests are converted to run against ChromePublic
– chrome/test/android/javatests_staging: will be merged into chrome/test/android/javatests in the nearish future

There are two important new build targets: chrome_public_apk and chrome_public_test_apk. chrome_public_apk is similar to chrome_shell_apk, but with even more features.

Expected effect on bot times: The new tests take about 5 minutes to run. Initially they’ll be enabled on an FYI bot, but will soon be moved to the CQ and main bots.

It turns out “oodles” translates to over 100,000 lines of code. That’s a lot of work to open up Android’s most popular browser.

As a result, developers can now create a full-fledged Chromium browser for Android. All they have to do is build the new chrome_public_apk target.

Until now, developers interested in building an Android browser had to base their work off of Firefox, or start with Chrome for the desktop and work their way towards a mobile version. This change means you can expect to see improved, as well as completely new, Android browsers from third-party developers.

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Google fixes racist results in Google Maps, apologizes for ‘mess up’

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Google has issued an apology for showing the White House in Maps search results when people search for a specific racial slur. Variations of the phrase deliver the same results.

The issue was first unearthed earlier this week and has taken Google a two days to resolve. The company says its ranking system is largely to blame — essentially, because some have taken to calling President Barack Obama that “n—– in the White House,” Google Maps added this to its results.

“This week, we had some problems with Google Maps, which was displaying results for certain offensive search queries. Like many of you, we were deeply upset by this issue, and we are fixing it now. We apologize this has taken some time to resolve, and want to share more about what we are doing to correct the problem,” the company wrote in a blog post.

The Google Maps algorithm uses content from around the Web, like blogs and online discussion boards, to serve up relevant results. In this case, offensive search terms automatically turned up in Google Maps because its agnostic ranking system picked up on racist conversations happening around the Web.

The Google Maps team says it’s in the process of changing over its algorithm so that these kinds of results don’t appear.

“Our team has been working hard to fix this issue. Building upon a key algorithmic change we developed for Google Search, we’ve started to update our ranking system to address the majority of these searches—this will gradually roll out globally and we’ll continue to refine our systems over time. Simply put, you shouldn’t see these kinds of results in Google Maps, and we’re taking steps to make sure you don’t,” the company says.

Sadly, the incident reflects more poorly on humanity than it does on Google’s technology.

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Google and Twitter sitting in a tree, putting tweets in search results for you and me

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In February, Twitter signed a firehose deal with Google to bring tweets right into Google’s search results. This week, that integration started rolling out on mobile, with a promise to also update the desktop version “shortly.”

As I wrote while covering the announcement, Google is hoping to boost its real-time search chops while Twitter is aiming for more users and engagement. Yet at the end of the day, this is one of those rare partnerships that benefit the user first, and the companies later (Twitter is getting an undisclosed amount of money from Google, and Google can potentially monetize tweets with its own ads, but right now it’s unclear if either will be significant).

First and foremost, this partnership means Google users finally have access to Twitter’s stream. Because tweets are often full of timely information, this means searching for anything relatively recent on Google will start bringing up messages sent out on Twitter. Many events often happen on Twitter first, and that’s data that can be incredibly useful to have indexed for users to quickly find.

Twitter’s search engine works, but it’s nothing special. Google is the king of search, and with Twitter data, it’s suddenly about to get even more useful.

Assuming that Google users find the tweets they’re looking for, they will only think more highly of the search engine, and presumably use it more. In this way, Google is next in line as the one to benefit from this new partnership.

You’d think Twitter would be next, but there’s actually one more entity to acknowledge: Twitter users. Yes, we realize there is a big overlap between Google users and Twitter users. Still, if we examine them separately, it’s clear they both win.

Twitter users start to benefit once incoming Google users act on the tweets they find. That can be a favorite, a retweet, or even a reply. If that starts to happen at scale, and Google has plenty of that, Twitter users should see more content on the social network, especially in relation to tweets that Google deems important and relevant.

Last on the list is Twitter itself, if the company can convert all this new traffic into users who keep coming back. Signing up to engage is one thing, but actually choosing to become an active Twitter user is what the company actually needs. That’s not easy feat, and so Twitter’s opportunity to benefit from this partnership requires the most work.

To recap, here’s the order of winners: Google users, Google, Twitter users, and Twitter.

The biggest loser? Google+.

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Google AI researcher: Creating a program than can flirt would ‘probably be quite simple’

Samantha, the OS played by Scarlett Johansson in the 2014 movie "Her"
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Watch out, Scarlett Johansson.

A computer program that can flirt with a person would “probably be quite simple” to make, Geoff Hinton, a prominent figure in the artificial intelligence community who works at Google, told the Guardian in an interview today.

“It probably wouldn’t be subtly flirtatious to begin with, but it would be capable of saying borderline politically incorrect phrases,” Hinton told the Guardian.

That would be a good start towards making something like OS that Johansson played in the 2014 movie Her.

Irony, meanwhile, could prove to be more difficult for machines to master.

“You have to be master of the literal first,” Hinton said. “But then, Americans don’t get irony either. Computers are going to reach the level of Americans before Brits.”

All this talk might sound silly, but it could be the key for companies like Google, Apple, and Microsoft that want to sell as many mobile devices as possible. Personal digital assistants like Google Now, Siri, and Cortana, respectively, have made mobile apps more interactive, and the companies building them are keen to make their systems outperform alternatives.

That’s where AI comes in. Google, Apple, and Microsoft have all been building up AI talent pools — sometimes through acquisitions — especially in an AI field known as deep learning.

Hinton in particular is one of four figureheads of deep learning — the others are Facebook’s Yann LeCun, Baidu’s Andrew Ng, and Yoshua Bengio — who came to Google by way of the tech giant’s acquisition of DNNresearch in 2013. Google is as capable of mimicking human-like communication as much as any other company, so comments from people like Hinton should be thought of as a hint of what’s not that far away in the future.

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Google just made YouTube ads shoppable

TrueView shop
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Google is introducing a new feature to its YouTube video ad offering that allows users to shop featured products.

The new feature, called TrueView ads for shopping, will allow users to shop an ad by clicking on a banner in the video ad. It will also serve up a list of individual product cards beneath the video ad, which will direct viewers to a place where they can buy the item. The new feature integrates with existing ad products, according to a blog post from Google.

“TrueView for shopping enables advertisers to scale the manual process of connecting individual products with individual videos. Thanks to the first-ever integration of the Google Merchant Center into video ads, advertisers need only connect their campaign with a Merchant Center feed to dynamically add products to their in-stream videos, customized for each user through contextual and audience signals like geography and demographic info.”

Google first released its cards platform in April. The company originally launched the platform as a way for advertisers to include more information about a product or company outside of the actual advertisement using interactive cards. The idea was that users would be able to discover more content around a given advertisement. At the time Google had promised that the cards would be even more functional later this year.

Ad revenue has been slowing for the search giant in recent quarters, which means the company will need to build more value into its ad-products going forward in order to keep its ad business growing.

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YouTube live streams now support HTML5 playback and 60fps video

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YouTube today announced it is enabling HTML5 playback for live streams. At the same time, live streams can now be viewed at 60 frames-per-second.

A few puzzle pieces had to come together to make this possible. On October 29, YouTube quietly turned on 60fps support for videos uploaded on that date and later. While clips uploaded before that date remain at 30fps, new videos shot at 60fps suddenly started playing back at their proper framerate.

The 60fps option requires using YouTube’s HTML5 player. In January, YouTube ditched Flash for HTML5 by default.

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YouTube says 60fps live streaming is “an early preview” that only works on HTML5-compatible browsers (if you’re on the latest version of Chrome, IE, Firefox, Safari, or Opera, you should be fine). We asked, and this is no coincidence. “60fps live streams are indeed only supported in the HTML5 player,” a YouTube spokesperson told VentureBeat. “With live streaming in general, we’re focusing on the HTML5 player, as we think it provides the best experience.”

Because YouTube live streams require using an HTML5 player in supported browsers, variable speed playback has now also been made possible. You can skip backward in a stream while it’s live, or even watch at 1.5x or 2x speed to catch back up.

YouTube now automatically transcodes live streams into 720p60 and 1080p60. If that sounds like too much for your device, don’t worry. YouTube also plans to make live streams available in 30fps on devices where high frame rate viewing is not yet available.

Gaming, esports, and Twitch

60fps is great for fast-action videos, but it’s particularly awesome for video games. YouTube says as much: “We know high frame rates are especially important for gaming streams, so we’ve worked with Elgato and XSplit on new versions of Elgato Game Capture, XSplit Broadcaster, and XSplit Gamecaster that support 60fps live streaming to YouTube, available for download starting today.”

Developers will also be happy to learn that any app using YouTube’s live streaming API can add a new high frame rate flag to enable 60fps streaming. For those interested, that’s the cdn.format, which lets you specify the format of the video stream that you are sending to YouTube.

Twitch is the live streaming king in gaming and esports right now. Amazon bought Twitch for $970 million in August, following months of rumors that Google would snatch it up.

Today’s feature additions are clearly an attempt to bolster Google’s offering when compared to Amazon’s. Just yesterday, Twitch added on-demand videos to its mobile app.

After the Twitch deal fell apart, new rumors started to circulate that YouTube was planning a renewed push for its live streaming platform, unsurprisingly focusing on the hottest market: gaming and esports. When it comes to live streaming, Twitch essentially has a monopoly on both.

YouTube didn’t reveal anything along those lines today, though the Google-owned company did say “there are plenty” more live streaming improvements on the way. We may see more about YouTube’s strategy at Google’s I/O developer conference later this month, but given that today’s news easily could have waited till next week, we’d wager E3 (June 16 to June 18) is the more likely candidate.

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