google

Gaming Google

It’s widely understood that news organisations can find the going quite precarious in this digital age, with a reluctance on the part of consumers to pay for news, and advertising alone not bringing in enough revenues. So it’s perhaps not surprising that they should look at whatever advantages they can take, and some of these seem to be at the expense of “gaming” Google.

I’ll highlight a couple of things that do irk me a little. But it’s worth noting that while these work for news organisations, they probably won’t work for anyone else. That’s because Google tends to prioritise news outlets in search results that return news sources.

Generally speaking, if your search result is purely factual and not newsworthy then unless a Google “snippet” appears, the top results will be relevant sites, quite often including results from places like Wikipedia or Quora.

However if the search is about current events, then Google throws recently updated news sites in the mix, andthese will find themselves in a prestigious position near the top of the page. Most of the time, that’s because it’s relevant. Someone searching on a current event probably does want a news site at the top of the list of results, rather than some dated article that contains the same keywords.

But that means that news organisations can game the system a little, and here are two examples.

1. The Google Doodle

As anyone who ever uses Google knows, Google loves to replace its regular logo with doodles on its home page. These celebrate all sorts of things from anniversaries of famous people to major events that are happening. Sometimes the doodles are localised to specific countries or regions, and other times they run globally.

Occassionally there’ll be a really ornate interactive one that offers something like a game or even a musical instrument!

But what happens when you see a doodle that you perhaps don’t understand or that intrigues you?

You click it.

And therein lies an opportunity. Because what that actually does is perform a Google search on whatever the subject matter is.

If you’re a news outlet, you swiftly write a piece on the subject on the doodle, noting that Google is celebrating said subject, and you get it published post haste.

The result is that when user click on the doodle, they get a page of results on, say, clockmaker John Harrison. But near the top of the screen are some links to news sites’ “Top Stories” about the very same.

Sure, the Wikipedia piece is there, but the other stories are hacked together pieces written full in the knowledge that they will generate page views as a result of Google’s doodle.

There’s nothing particularly wrong here, but it does push other relevant search results further down the page.

2. When’s It On?

Another type of gaming that goes on is also based on anticipating what people are Googling. Often these will be based around sports events or TV series.

There’s a big fight this weekend, or a big game in the Champions’ League. Perhaps a really popular TV drama is returning to our screens.

In any of these cases, some people will Google something along the lines of, “When is the Joshua fight?”

Now there is some semblance of information being asked for. They do want a date or a time. Perhaps they want to know what channel it’ll be on, or how they go about getting access to that channel.

Into that void rush news outlets. They quickly author pieces providing that information, but usually padding it out beyond briefly stating the date, time and channel. If I were suspicious I’d suspect that Google’s algorithms downgrade stories that are too short. So they get bulked out. You try writing 500 words on when a football match starts!

To put this into perspective, a search for “What time does the super bowl start” – in quotes – returns 15,400 pages.

Yes, these are questions that people want answers to. But do we really need dozens of “news” stories on them?

Of course, Google can sort of kill this my providing the information itself. In some cases it does that, but it doesn’t stop the news sites offering their own pages.

I probably find the first of these two things more irritating that latter, but you still have to recognise these articles for what they are – cheap traffic drivers that don’t really offer a great deal.

Examining My Facebook Downloads

One very good consequence of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica story is that a lot of people are discovering the surprisingly large amount of data that Facebook holds on them. The BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones was “somewhat shocked” to see what it had on him. And The Verge has a good piece on the subject with particular reference to Android phones.

In essence, Facebook always asks for quite a lot of data when you install its apps, and people seem to be too quick to offer that data when it comes to installing those apps. Only now are they discovering what they’re sharing.

“Yes, yes. Just install and let me get onto Facebook,” seems to be the default thought process.

Now I’m not going to pretend that I’ve always slavishly careful about those permissions myself, but I certainly wanted to see what Facebook holds on me. So I went to the Facebook Settings page and clicked on the Download A Copy link at the bottom.

Facebook first has to prepare the data, crunching it into a Zip file for you. You need to re-enter your password to begin the process, and Facebook promises to email you when the link is ready.

Based on others, I thought it may take a while to compile, but in face it took just 16 minutes. Fast considering the volume of data and the number of users who are perhaps also doing this right now. You have to re-enter your password a second time, and then the file downloads.

I’ve been on Facebook since 2007, and I thought that this could be a big file. In the end it was just over 1.1GB. I’ve uploaded a lot of photos to the service in the past, but particularly in the early years of Facebook, they heavily down-sampled those pictures. (Another reminder that you shouldn’t use Facebook as your only photo backup.)

Anyway, the file extracts easily enough and Facebook has built a fairly intuitive html interface for you to examine your data offline.

My profile data is an interesting place to start. Facebook seems to have detected a single family relationship. While relatively few of my family are on Facebook, some of those who are, were not picked up here as family members. If they don’t have the same surname it might not be obvious to an algorithm.

The interests section is very odd, and not very accurate. When Facebook first started, you just had empty text boxes to fill out. I wrote a general stream of consciousness about music, TV, movies and so on. At various points Facebook has tried to clean that up a little, isolating artists and titles, and linking them to official accounts or lists that it has.

But despite prompts to help them (and help me!), I never really played ball. So there is one novel listed in books, which I think I was probably reading at the time. There is one TV series – one that I absolutely do not recommend. Movies are a little more populated, but with films I may have referenced directly on the service rather than anything else. And music is very limited. Facebook really doesn’t know much about my media consumption.

In general, Facebook would learn a lot more about my media choices if they scanned through this blog!

Otherwise, most of the rest is either groups or people I’ve taken an interest in. I would say that they’ve used Instagram heavily for the latter.

Probably the most contentious area is the list of contacts. And for me, that’s a moment in time, when I did at one point let Facebook into my phone or Gmail account. The list of contacts is old, and while many of those email addresses and phone numbers still work, they’re cast in aspic. Over the years I’ve had any number of phones, and if and when I install a Facebook app, I never give permission for it to see my contacts.

My Timeline is as you would expect – everything I’ve written on Facebook. I link my Twitter account to Facebook, because I’m far more active there. All those Tweets are also captured here. But nothing I wouldn’t expect Facebook to have.

As I mentioned above, I’ve uploaded a number of photos to Facebook over the years. They tend to be more social photos than anything, and Facebook was an easy way to share with friends and work colleagues. Latterly, anything that I’ve cross-posted from Instagram shows up. [Update: A friend – on Facebook – noted that captions for photos are not included]

There are only a limited number of videos, again social, and no surprises.

Messages lists all my Facebook message and Messenger interactions. I loathe Messenger and don’t ever have it permanently installed (On occasion I’ve installed it for a short, but necessary period of time. I uninstall it immediately thereafter). Nontheless, again there were no surprises.

The data supplied by Facebook on “Pokes” (Remember them?) was incomplete. I only had one poke listed!

Security lists a variety of things including devices, and even IP addresses from which I’ve accessed Facebook.

The final two key pieces of note were Applications and Ads. I recently cleared out the list of applications that I allow Facebook links to. It’s always worth doing this on a regular basis. I know precisely which apps are currently linked, and there is a good reason for each of them. There are only five.

Ads are broken into three parts. There’s the list of topics that Facebook thinks you’re interested in. This is a curious mix of very broad things (“Music”) and very narrow things (“Dan Martin (cyclist)”). It’s reasonably fair, although I don’t really have a particular interest in Citroen, nor Motor Sports or Auto racing. And I’ve no idea why “BBC Radio Solent” is one of a handful of radio stations listed as being of interest to me [Update: I worked out that a former work colleague of mine works there now, and I’ve liked some of their activities]. They do at least list my current employer! My previous employer is not listed. It’s possibly that this list is dynamically updated and pruned accordingly.

Ads History claims to list all the ads I’ve clicked on. They only have two listed – both this year – and one without a named advertiser. This is clearly missing data. While I do recall clicking the one named advertiser, and although I rarely click advertisements, I have clicked others in the past. Incredibly, I once actually bought something on the basis of a Facebook ad! Extraordinary, I know.

Finally, perhaps most worrying for me, is a list of “Advertisers with your contact info.” Most of the list is made up of KLM subsidiaries. I once entered a KLM competition on Facebook, and must have agreed they could use my data. I rarely participate in competitions that require much data access for this very reason. Uber, Airbnb, Deliveroo and eBay Canada seem to have my details. But there are a hole bunch of seemingly related “Crowdfunding” companies who have my data. I’ve no idea how they got it, and more importantly, I’ve no idea how to remove it from them. In general it’s quite a contained list.

Notably, Facebook does not have a list of my outgoing or incoming calls, and it’s not had access to any SMS messages I’ve sent. I’ve never given permission, and never wanted to use one of its products as my default SMS app.

The most sensitive data is my list of contacts. But that data is old and is not being updated since the Facebook app on my current phone does not have permission.

As I’ve said repeatedly on this blog, I’ve never found Facebook the most trustworthy company. But on the other hand, there aren’t any surprises to me from what Facebook has in my data.

I think that there are some incomplete aspects of it. I’ve clearly clicked on more ads that Facebook is admitting – but perhaps they delete that data after a period? Less importantly, the list of Pokes was incomplete. I mention that only as it suggests that this might not be a truly complete picture of my Facebook activity.

But I also know that if I carried out the same process for Google, it would be a lot larger. Google has all my email. It has all my contacts. It stores documents, photos and videos for me. I use its browsers multiple times per day. It knows what YouTube videos I watch. It knows what music I listen to. I’ve had phones running its software for years. They know where I go.

In all of that respect, it’s potentially a much scarier proposition.

And yet, I do have more trust in Google than I do in Facebook. Perhaps that’s misplaced? Perhaps not. But in general terms, I think people are clearer in their knowledge of how their Google data is used.

Auditing who knows what about you is important, and we should all be doing this on a regular basis. It’ll be a much bigger job, but it looking at my Google Data might be worth doing too…

[UPDATE]

It’s probably worth highlighting a few things that you don’t get from this data.

  • Likes – Given that a key part of the Cambridge Analytica story is about trying to determine OCEAN psychographic measures from Facebook likes, a record of comments and pages I’ve “liked” is data that’s relevant but not here.
  • Facebook Pixel dataFacebook Pixel is the technology that Facebook uses to determine where users also go. While that could be websites that simply allow you to comment via your Facebook login, it might as well be websites that you never realised had installed the pixel. In effect, when you visit such a site, Facebook knows about it. It gives them some of the data that Google collates about you via its ad networks.
  • Geographic data – Facebook loves to know where you are. I mostly have this turned off, but couldn’t definitively say that this has always been the case. While Google has its Timeline History that tells you where you’ve been, there doesn’t seem to be an equivalent for Facebook’s location data. Incidentally, if you’ve never explored that Google data, I’d urge you to. You’ll be delighted, scared and possibly both. (Note to crime drama and fiction writers: Nobody ever uses this, although I understand it potentially increases the difficulty in plotting your story as mobile phones in general have.)
  • Whatsapp or Instagram data – I’ve noted that some of my Instagram information does seem to have fed through to parent company Facebook’s data. But that doesn’t seem to be the case for WhatsApp. Within the EU, Facebook has been limited quite significantly about how much data it shares. The UK’s Information Commissioner made that very point again recently. But it’s worth noting nonetheless.

Google and Podcasts – Stuck in Draft #3

This is another of my Stuck in Drafts series – where I dig into things I had largely written months or even years ago – and get around to publishing them. This one is a little unusual in that it was penned back in April 2016, and I’ve left it alone. However, I’ve added some extra notes detailing where things have moved on a little, or where they haven’t.

So finally, months after first announcing that they were coming, podcasts have landed at Google Play Music – the inelegantly named platform that Google uses to distribute audio.

As a matter of fact, podcasts have arrived in the US and Canada. For the rest of us, they’re a way off. Nobody quite knows how far off though. December 2017 update: They’re still now here.

So if you live in North America, or can fire up a VPN to make it look like you live in North America, you get a new look Google Play Music website. Actually, everyone gets a new look GPM (can I shorten it to that?) because they’ve adopted a new logo.

Regular readers will know that I use GPM for my general music playing. As well as offering a music store, and a Spotify-a-like £9.99 all-you-can-eat streaming service, they allow you to store your music collection of up to 50,000 tracks in the cloud.

GPM has also adopted Songza quite widely. In the US, you can listen to free “radio” services based on time of day, location and genre of music. Outside the US, these stations are only available to paid subscribers, but they’re smart and are well tailored to what you might be looking for – Party Music on a Friday night, or Soundtracks to get through the work day.

As well as gaining an extra tab on the left labelled Podcasts, North American users now also have a choice of podcast playlists/”radio stations. These might be labelled “Learning Something New” or “Getting Lost in a Story,” and pull together individual episodes of podcasts into a playlist of thematically related material.

You can also subscribe to podcasts as you do regularly with other providers. Discovery of podcasts remains a major issue, with often static iTunes charts being the key way to surface new material. But the range and breadth of podcasts being made is far wider than those charts often show users. So the opportunity for Google to point listeners in new podcasts directions is not to be under-estimated.

That all said, I was a little underwhelmed by the whole thing, and it felt a little like a soft-launch of a product. So while I might be sitting in the UK slightly miffed at not being able to shift to a Google platform just yet, I’m not sure I’d be ready to anyway.

As ever, the real issue with a potentially massive inventory is finding a way to reveal your wares to customers in a way that doesn’t overwhelm them. It’s the same issue that iTunes and Netflix have, and Google hasn’t cracked this nut yet.

Initially you see just a handful of podcasts available. A drop-down reveals a selection of familiar categorisations, each of which reveals a further limited selections of offerings within those categories.

What you quickly notice is that the vast majority of podcasts visible are American.

This is perhaps unsurprising for a number of reasons:

– The majority of podcasts in English are probably American
– The new service is targeted at North Americans
– The portal for podcasters to list their podcasts is geo-blocked to North American IP addresses

Of course that doesn’t mean that there aren’t workarounds including keen non-American podcasters using VPNs to get their shows listed, but it certainly mitigates against the wider world.

Given that most podcasts find significant audiences in North America, that means that American users probably aren’t in a position to migrate to Google from their current suppliers unless they’re happy to have an incomplete experience.

But Google is perhaps looking at the bigger picture and not really trying to replace services that already exist. I couldn’t say with any certainty that I will be ditching PocketCasts as my preferred podcasting solution anytime soon, even if podcasts are made available in the UK, and the “catalogue” is as complete as iTunes’/PocketCasts one one is.

The bigger opportunity is for those who don’t currently listen to podcasts, and find the situation complicated and confusing. For those new users, this might be open up a new world of audio.

And putting podcasts into search could be massive. If a Google search reveals a relevant episode of a podcast, that could be a massive driver of discovery and growth. With speech to text improving all the time, Google might have the ability to index audio and deliver programmes in a smart way.

December 2017 addendum: Podcasts still haven’t found their way into Google Play Music, but there are rumours afoot that that GPM is due a major upgrade and perhaps podcasts will form part of that. There remains a massive opportunity for podcasts were Google to place a standard app on its phones as part of the Android ecosystem. But that’s obviously also a threat for third-party podcast providers.

What Google does now do is surface podcasts in search. If you ask something like a Google Home Mini to play a podcast, it can do so. The same on your phone. It’ll remember where you are and let you continue. It’s by no means a perfect experience, but Google is at least surfacing podcasts for its users, and that can only help even if they’re not really providing a very good overall experience.

This topic deserves a bigger return to it in 2018.

Pixel 2 – Review

Note: I’m calling this a review, but frankly, it’s still early days, and there’ll be lots of things that come out in the wash further down the line. So think of these more as some initial thoughts. Not that any of this stuff prevents other sites posting reviews after less than a week’s worth of use.

I’ve now had this phone well over a month.


As my recent post about the pains of upgrading an Android phone made clear, I’ve recently bought a new phone. The Google Pixel 2.

When Google first started making* their own hardware, they concentrated on both providing a pure Android experience at an affordable price. I have previously owned a Nexus 5 and no fewer than three Nexus 7s. But the Nexus line has sadly long gone, and Google these days is about producing premium devices to show off what they can do.

So what about the Pixel 2?

Well let’s get the first issue out of the way. There is no headphone socket. That’s still a particularly user-hostile thing to do. I use my phone nearly all the time with a pair of headphones. And while I’ve used a variety of wireless headphones over time, they all need regular recharging and invariably you find yourself losing audio when you’re out and about. I actually tend to carry a spare pair of wired headphones just in case. In any event, I’m still enjoying the HTC Hi-Res Earphones that came with my previous HTC 10.

It’s true that the Pixel 2 ships with a headphone dongle, that has a nice snug fit to plug existing headphones into. But this only seems to come in white. I chose a black Pixel 2, and use black headphones. The dongle is white. Which means that after a few weeks sitting in coat, jacket and trouser pockets, it becomes more of a pale grey. I’ve already had to clean mine with an alcohol wipe a couple of times.

The dongle is also quite large. There’s a sizeable bump emerging from the USB-C socket that it plugs into, and it necessarily needs a solid female 3.5mm jack adapter. Combined, these mean that you have unruly lumps and bumps coming out of the phone which can get caught on things when you slide the device into your pocket. Some wired headphones come with 90 degree connectors to allow them to plug in flush to the phone. That’s going to make no difference here. Indeed those headphones are likely to make things worse creating an awkward L-shaped thing to place in your pocket.

The audio quality is excellent, although I don’t think it’s quite as good as my HTC 10 was. Google has dropped the price of these USB-C/Headphone jack dongles from £20 at launch to £9 now (matching Apple’s price for its equivalent Lightning/Headphone Jack dongle), and I’ve already bought a couple of spares because I know these will need them. One of these has already found its way into my cable-case.**

The Bluetooth functionality itself looks good, being Bluetooth 5.0+ LE, although I’ve not fully explored the Bluetooth range. My Beyerdynamic Byron BT headphones seem to work reasonably well, although they do sometimes connect slowly (as they also did with my HTC 10). On the other hand, my Sony MDR-1ABT headphones connect flawlessly, and because both phone and headphones support LDAC, they sound great.

I’ve also recently started using a pair of wireless Zolo Liberty+ Bluetooth headphones. They similarly connect flawlessly, and since both the phone and the headphones use BT 5.0, the connection is stronger than previous small Bluetooth headphones I’ve tried.

Interestingly, I am running into some issues with my Roberts ECO4BT DAB radio that acts as my kitchen radio at home. This is a nice sounding workhorse radio with Bluetooth connectivity, that I never had any problem with connecting to with my previous phone. I still haven’t bottomed out the issue in this instance, since re-pairing the phone will work once. I wonder if the phone is trying to pass audio in a codec that the radio won’t accept as it gets trapped in a reboot/reconnect sequence. I had no other Bluetooth issues, pairing the phone with various headphones and Garmin devices, a Google Home Mini and an Amazon Echo. It also works nicely with my long-in-the-tooth Sony Smartwatch 3.

I really bought this phone because it has the best camera on any smartphone, and I can completely believe that. With 12.2 MP rear camera (the front camera is mostly irrelevant to me), with an F1.8 lens, and capable of shooting 4K video at 30 fps, or slowing down motion to 240 fps (in 720p), this camera ticks many boxes. It uses a combination of optical and electronic image stabilisation, all of which leads to very good imagery coming out of the phone.

The default camera app seems straightforward, without much in the way of bells and whistles. There’s a portrait mode which does all sorts of algorithmic fakery to create bokeh (aka blurriness beyond the subject) that a wide open lens on a camera with a larger sensor would do naturally. The overall thinness of phones, alongside the size of the image sensors and, well, physics, mean that you have to cheat if you want to replicate the effects that larger cameras can create. But the F1.8 lens does mean that it works well in low light.

As important for me is the ability to shoot RAW photos. The default app doesn’t do that, but third party apps do allow it – Lightroom CC Mobile in my case.

There’s also an astonishing smartburst mode that shoots around 10 frames a second continuously. All those shots become available, but software will try to identify the best based on things like people smiling and having their eyes open. I think I only noticed a tiny delay in buffering when I reached 124 shots! And that was only fractional. Fantastic for catching fast moving action.

One small thing I noticed was that if you shoot a short burst of photos, then you can turn them into an animated GIF or video fairly easily. But if you shoot a long series of photos, the app decides that you can’t turn that into a longer GIF or video which is a bit annoying.

However, each regular photo you shoot also comes as a Motion Photo if desired, and you can turn that into a short video as well.

Let it snow…

A post shared by Adam Bowie (@adambowie) on

The camera also has a super slowmo mode allowing you to take high speed footage at either 120fps (1080p resolution) or 240fps (720p resolution).

(NB. The above example was shot in very poor lighting conditions, so does not show off the imagery to the best extent.)

The Augmented Reality (AR) Stickers are silly but, kind of fun too.


“These are not the commuters you’re looking for…”

The phone runs very smoothly with a healthy 4GB of RAM paired with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor. The OLED screen is beautiful, and the resolution means that someone with as many apps as I like to have, can get them into folders across a couple of screens, along with a few choice widgets (mainly weather related). With my HTC 10, the bigger font size meant a limited number of folders could be displayed at any given time, which I found frustrating, as it meant pages and pages of apps. But in fact, the default Android app drawer makes access pretty fast. And apps seem to install very fast indeed.

The full Android Assistant is built into the Pixel 2, and it can be launched in a number of ways. Voice is probably the easiest, or long holding on the home button – which isn’t actually a button. But you can also squeeze the phone in the lower part of it, and it’ll launch. Entertainingly, when I asked the assistant in the Google Store concession in Curry’s PC World on Warren Street (essentially Google’s flagship store in London), they struggled to get it to work. But it does seem to work fine. Whether it’s actually useful is a moot point. In any case, you can set the Google Assistant to launch from any screen including the lock screen. It can also be summoned by a double press of a standard wired headset’s multi-function button.

The fingerprint reader is excellent, and positioned on the back, is much better placed than phones that place them on the home button. It just makes one-handed unlocking very easy indeed. It must have taken me less than 10 seconds to register each finger that I wanted to register. It’s worth going into Settings > System > Languages, input & gestures to turn on Swipe fingerprint for notifications. It’s a quick way to get access to your notifications drawer, and I wouldn’t have found out about it had someone else not pointed it out. It makes it astonishingly handy for one handed use.

It’s also worth noting that double tapping the power button can be set to launch the camera. And if you have multiple camera apps, you can choose which launches.

When I first got the phone, one curious thing I came across was the way the phone seemed to handle WiFi networks that require some further signing in before you have full internet access. I think we’ve all had issues where we’ve taught our phones to use something like BT Openzone or The Cloud, with our phones latching onto the network, only to lose all connectivity until we sign in. It can be very annoying if the phone doesn’t seamlessly login in the background. The default behaviour on my Pixel 2 seems to be to continue to utilise 4G if the WiFi network isn’t offering internet connectivity. This is fine in theory, but can lead to problems when you’re signing into a some networks. My work WiFi network is especially secure, needing both a specific app and a security certificate to access. I found myself turning off mobile data to force the phone to behave properly when signing into such a system. Even opening up the Developer Settings where there’s a switch that should change this behaviour didn’t really work. However, during the course of owning the phone, Google has send out Android 8.1.0, and that seems to have sorted out some of the errant WiFi behaviour.

One thing I hadn’t clocked ahead of time, despite reading reviews, is that the screen is always on, in that it permanently displays that time and date, and depending on your settings, will briefly display notifications. I know other phones do this, but I’ve not had one before. I actually find this very useful. We are just talking about white lettering on a black background that looks otherwise as if the phone is turned off. And importantly, the display does not seem to impact on battery life.

Call quality is good, and it’s nice to discover that the phone alerts you to numbers that it believes are suspected of spam calls (“Were you in an accident…?” “Have you claimed your PPI…”). It’s unclear to me whether this is a Pixel 2 specific thing, or an Android O thing.

I bought the 128 GB model because, sadly, there is no Micro SD card slot on this – or any other Google phone. While I’m only really at about 50% full as I type this, once I’d installed all my apps, downloaded some music for offline listening, and got a full range of podcasts sitting on the device, I know that it’ll fill quickly. Podcasts are my “problem”, since as I’ve written before, I subscribe to more than I can listen to, and I don’t have them automatically delete.

So far, battery life has been exceptional, but since I’m only a few weeks in, that is fairly meaningless. The question will be how close to zero the phone is getting in terms of charge in 18 months’ time. Android O does seem to be quite aggressive in killing background apps that are eating power. And once you drop below the default 15% battery level, you can enable battery saving which places red bars at the top and bottom of the screen to alert you to your reduced power status.

The included 18W charger is very fast recharging the phone, although there’s no wireless charging (something that only seemed to be a “thing” when iPhones started offering it. Nobody seemed very interested when my old Sony Xperia had it).

There have been a few smaller issues along the way. The phone has, at times, randomly rebooted itself. This seems to be a known issue. But it has happened a handful of times that I’ve noticed. Google promised a fix. and at time of writing, I can’t say definitively whether the update to 8.1.0 has fixed it, but I’ve not noticed any more reboots.

And I did have an issue with audio via USB-C on one single occasion when my headphones just weren’t registered by the phone and the sound came out of the phone’s speaker instead. I had to reboot to quickly sort it out (fortunately, reboots are really fast).

I do question how strong USB-C sockets are in the longer term for those who listen to a lot of audio. Say what you like about the 3.5mm jack, but it was a solid and robust fit. Once inserted, the jack had little opportunity for movement, whereas the rectangular shape of USB-C sockets feels like it’ll be less stable in the longer term. Time will tell.

Android 8.0 seems to have added lots of little bits and pieces here and there. WiFi can be set to turn on automatically when you’re in a particular area. This is useful when you’ve turned off WiFi for some reason and forget to turn it back on. You can also turn on “Now Playing” which lets the phone silently identify music playing in the background at any time. It’s like Shazam without actually having to open the Shazam app. The song details come up on the lockscreen (Obviously, there are potentially privacy issues with having your microphone “live” pretty much all the time). Many of these features will be available to any phone if and when they get Android 8.0. That in itself is an issue with Android of course, with phone manufacturers and network operators being responsible for pushing out updates. My phone is unlocked and not tied to a contract to avoid these things.

Overall, I’m very satisfied with my purchase. The camera alone makes it worthwhile. The phone isn’t a giant compared to today’s monsters. But that means I can use it one handed, and it will fit in my pocket comfortably. It actually feels very slightly smaller than my previous HTC 10. However, there is no getting away from the fact that losing the headphone socket is a terrible thing.

* They don’t really make phones of course. They outsource them to third parties. In this instance, the Pixel 2 is made by HTC, while the Pixel 2 XL comes from LG. Google recently announced that they were effectively “buying” part of HTC’s smartphone team, so perhaps future devices will all be manufactured by HTC.

** I must write about this at some point.

Premier League TV Rights – 2019-2022

The new Premier League TV rights auction for the UK has just got under way, with bids due in at the end of January, and the results announced in early February. Such are the scale of these rights now, that the announcement tends to be made to accommodate the stock market. If a PLC is spending several billion pounds on something, this is “of note.”

Where do we stand, and where are we likely to go?

At first glance, there really doesn’t feel like an enormous growth left in the UK market. Last time around, the value of UK live rights rose a colossal 70%, from £3bn to £5.1bn!

This increase in cost didn’t come without consequences. Subscribers to both Sky and BT have seen increases in their subscriptions, while Sky in particular (who’s packages increase the most in value), has cut costs elsewhere, reducing some coverage – notably tennis.

But different players have different needs from Premier League football.

Sky

As the bid from 21st Century Fox for complete ownership of Sky continues to navigate regulatory hurdles, Rupert Murdoch himself is selling out to Disney. While the Disney deal itself will need to overcome any US regulatory concerns, the general feeling is that it will get through unscathed (While it shouldn’t involve the US President, Trump is reportedly more concerned about the future of Fox News than anything else, and Murdoch keeps ownership of that). Meanwhile, the prospect of Sky News being a Disney property rather than a 100% Murdoch owned, is probably more palatable to more people. The separation organisationally from the unsavoury practices at Fox News is probably helpful too. There perhaps remains a question of when the various deals go through, so that waving the Sky deal through before the details of the Disney deal have been finalised might be problematic.

But returning to the Premier League, for Sky the rights are an important – not to say critical – part of its overall offering. Sports also remain an important part of Disney’s offering.

ESPN has for many years been a substantial revenue generator, but of late it has began to suffer. So-called “cable cutters” don’t all want ESPN. It had been regularly bundled into all basic cable offerings, taking a substantial share of a household’s monthly cable bill, regardless of whether that household actually wanted to watch sport. As such, it became a cash cow. That’s still the case, but as younger subscribers choose their digital offerings in a piecemeal way – Netflix here, HBO Now there – ESPN was beginning to miss out. It was losing overall subscribers, and has of late announced a series of redundancies to cut costs.

In part to bolster that, Disney has picked up Fox’s regional sports networks as part of the Fox acquisition, qne they provide very solid ratings revenues.

The problem with all sports for broadcasters is that in large part, they are not actually owned by the networks. Every few years, the rights are put out to tender, and the rights owners tend to expect big increases.

That extends from the Premier League to the NFL, the IOC, the ICC, the NBA and so on. Sport has become disproportionately important because for the most part, the value is in live rights, and an audience that advertisers love being unable to skip the built-in advertising.

Sky needs the Premier League, and it has to pull out all the stops to maintain the crown jewels of the packages offered. But at some level there will be a red line beyond which it doesn’t make sense to bid.

BT

BT is in a slightly different position, as it built its TV offering as much as anything to support its broadband proposition. This has developed further when BT trumped Sky to buy Champions’ League and Europa League rights. Unlike previous minority rights holders of Premier League football, BT was clearly a serious player with serious cash available. By offering sport initially free, and later at a discount to its broadband customers, it was able to stem the flow to other broadband providers.

In TV terms, BT does still feels like a smaller player in the wider marketplace.

There may be a slight shift at BT now, as it develops a stronger TV offering built around IP delivery, but the company is really in the business of running wires and cables into your home.

Sky and BT Making Up

Interestingly, Sky and BT have recently reached an agreement to properly wholesale their packages to each others’ customers. While BT Sport has been available to Sky customers since launch, viewers had to deal separately with BT to view the channel on their Sky box. The new agreement will make it easier for Sky customers to add BT Sport to their existing Sky package, buying it directly through Sky. In return, BT will make available Sky’s Now TV offer via its own BT TV platform. That effectively provides a mechanism for BT to offer the full range of Sky Sports channels through its platform.

Commentators have suggested that the pair have reached this agreement in part to mitigate the chances of the pair outbidding one another in the upcoming auction. While I doubt they’d collude (which may be illegal anyway), it’s likely that the status quo would suit both parties just fine. The pair do potentially face some opposition however…

Sidenote: One curious consequence of the Disney takeover of Fox (and in turn Sky), is that BT currently has a deal with ESPN for much of its US sports programming. In essence this leaves Disney with at least a small foot in both camps.

The Packages

Note: This is based on published information. Precise details of first picks is likely to appear in the tender documents which aren’t ordinarily made publicly available.

Under this contract, we will be up from 168 matches to 200 of the 380 total Premier League fixtures being broadcast live on UK TV.

Previously, there were five packages of 28 games, and two packages of 14 games. BT won the rights to 28 Saturday 1730 fixtures, as well as a further 6 midweek matches and 8 Saturday matches. Sky won all the remaining fixtures.

This time around the seven packages are built somewhat differently, with Saturday evening primetime being added into the mix, as well as some intriguing midweek packages.

2019-2022 Packages
Package A: 32 matches on Saturdays at 12:30
Package B: 32 matches on Saturdays at 17:30
Package C: 24 matches on Sundays at 14:00 and eight matches on Saturdays at 19:45
Package D: 32 matches on Sundays at 16:30
Package E: 24 matches on Mondays at 20:00 or Fridays at 19:30/20:00 and eight matches on Sundays at 14:00
Package F: 20 matches from one Bank Holiday and one midweek fixture programme
Package G: 20 matches from two midweek fixture programmes

Packages A and B are the same as before, but increase from 28 to 32 games. Package C had previously been exclusively 2pm fixtures, but now has eight primetime Saturday night games.

Package D tends to be the most valuable package, in the past containing the majority of first picks (in other words, broadcasters can put the biggest matches in this slot, other considerations such as police advice notwithstanding).

Package E now gets some 14:00 Sunday games as well as Monday and Friday night football.

But, beyond an overall increase in fixtures and the Saturday night slot opening up, it’s packages E and F that see the biggest changes. Previously these were a mix of mid-week and Bank Holiday fixtures throughout the season. But under this auction they will account for four individual programmes. For example, when there’s a full midweek fixture list, all games are usually played on a Tuesday and Wednesday. But by offering rights to all these games in a given week, any one viewer can only really watch two of them, since multiple games take place simultaneously. So while there are 40 games in total across the two packages, there are potentially only 8 opportunities for a viewer to watch a game, with the other 32 happening during one of those 8 timeslots

So while it’s technically innovative, you wouldn’t expect this package to go for a vast amount of money compared with the others. It’s fewer games than other packages for starters. But it also seems squarely aimed at getting streaming services involved.

Both Sky and BT would be able to offer this choice – they both did or do similar things with Champions’ League group stages. But a decent number of the games are not fixtures a broadcaster might ordinarily choose to televise – think of those matches towards the end of an average edition of Match of the Day.

But if this is aimed at getting digital players involved, it would seem to require an awful lot of marketing for just 8 opportunities to watch on as few as 7 individual days.

The Premier League can only really show all its fixtures in midweek slots because there’s a blackout during Saturdays at 3pm to support the wider football world. But I wonder whether by 2022, we’ll see every Premier League game played outside the 3pm Saturday window? That would enable all matches to be shown live, and perhaps a 2pm Sunday slot having the majority of fixtures.

Potential New Entrants

A bit like the broadcasters, different digital groups have different reasons to use video. Are they looking to increase dwell time on their services, are they looking to grow their user numbers, or are they looking for something else altogether?

Sport isn’t out the question with streaming services, bringing with it loyal fans. But it also brings issues with having a robust technical backbone, and excludes those who don’t have solid broadband.

Furthermore, only UK rights are being sold. While the UK remains an important market for most of the big players, being able to offer streaming to multiple territories is preferable to global operators. The Premier League, of course, sees greater value in selling international rights in different territories to different operators rather than bundle them all together.

What is certain is that the Premier League is desperate for one or more of these companies to enter the market. If Sky and BT would be prepared to stick with the status quo and only offer modest increases in their bids compared with last time, it would take a third party entering to push bids upwards. The only possible existing TV group who might be persuaded would be Discovery via its Eurosport channel. But it’s just not clear that the rights make sense for that brand. While Discovery has spent big on the Olympics, it doesn’t have much of a UK footprint at all in football beyond various secondary UEFA and FIFA competitions.

Facebook

Facebook notably did bid for Indian Premier League cricket rights for a large number of territories, but the deal the IPL eventually did with Star India (also being sold to Disney as part of the Fox deal) included global streaming rights, so they lost out.

You wouldn’t count out Facebook from bidding for Premier League football, but the challenge for them is that these are UK rights. While Premier League football potentially offers increased dwell time on the platform, assuming that the games are broadcast free to viewers, there’s relatively little in it for Facebook in terms of gaining new subscribers.

However Facebook is investing in premium video, and they have money to burn, so a bid isn’t out of the question.

Google/YouTube

YouTube has bought sports rights in the past – cricket immediately springs to mind. Google is constantly evolving its offerings, with a rumoured reversioning of its music offering in both audio and video terms, due to be launched soon.

As with Facebook, Google doesn’t face any problems in being able to afford rights, but it’s not clear what it really gains for them. YouTube is already phenomenally successful, and Google’s reach is nearly complete.

Again, that doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t bid, it’s not entirely clear why they would.

Apple

Apple is also making a play to develop a premium video offering, but it hasn’t as yet entered the sports arena. It’s platform is much less developed in the UK, and if made available exclusively via Apple apps or devices, any bid would curtail audiences a bit.

It seems much less likely that Apple would bid compared with other digital players.

Amazon

Amazon may be interested. Their model is slightly different, and they’ve not yet achieved the prestige in the video marketplace that others have. They’re certainly jealous that Netflix has developed stronger video brands than they have. The recent acquisition of The Lord of the Rings rights shows their ambition in this area – spending $250m on the rights alone to make a series, before they spend a single cent on production.

Notably they have now bought a range of tennis rights, outbidding Sky for the men’s ATP tour rights, as well as buying US Open rights. However we should be careful here. The entire ATP rights package cost Amazon less than Sky pays for a single Premier League fixture.

Tennis feels like a toe in the water for Amazon. They also stream Thursday night NFL games – something Twitter did previously, but outside the US you may not have noticed (games happen after 1am local time in the UK, and 2am in central Europe). It should also be remembered that Thursday night NFL is the least valuable package, and Amazon shares the rights with CBS and NBC in broadcast.

Amazon certainly has the technology to offer streaming, both via its Amazon Prime Video platform, as well as Twitch, potentially allowing it to reach a younger audience.

As such, it feels the likeliest bidder of all the digital platforms, even if the strange nature of packages F and G don’t really seem to make sense for anybody.

Twitter

Twitter has played with live streaming, offering everything from an alternative election night programme with Buzzfeed, to eSports and, as mentioned above, some NFL games last season.

Of all the digital players, it feels like Twitter perhaps has the most to gain in terms of getting new sign-ups from something like this. However it’s not trivial to get Twitter video onto your TV set.

As a company, Twitter is a scale lower than other digital businesses (see also Snapchat, who I’ve not even considered here), and so cost may be an issue.

Netflix

This feels to be the least likely digital bidder. Their business has not been built on sport, and as mentioned above, the real problem with sport is its lack of repeat-ability. If you’re paying £10m+ for a property, then they want to sweat that asset over a number of years. The value of a live match is a one-time thing, and really doesn’t seem to fit their model.

Outcome

We’ll find out the answers to all these questions in a couple of months’ time. Would the Premier League leave Sky and/or BT without games or a severely reduced offering? If the money was right, then yes. How would pubs show games “broadcast” on Twitter? Someone’s phone hooked up to a TV set?

Just because these businesses have the cash, it doesn’t mean that it makes sense for them to bid for rights. There has to be a reason. It might be adding value to a wider package such as Amazon Prime; it might be growing the number of users, or increasing a site’s dwell time. But many of these services are doing quite nicely already.

I can’t see BT and Sky increasing their bids at anything near the level they’ve previously managed. The value just isn’t there. Sky has managed to diversify its offering with originals and exclusive deals with providers like HBO. Renewing that HBO deal feels almost as important as doing another Premier League deal.

In the end, it’s probably best not to second guess these things too much. All will become clearer in February when consumers will discover just how many subscriptions they need to get the full range of Premier League football on television.

Facebook, Amazon and the Premier League

It’s nearly time for the money-go-round… sorry, merry-go-round, that is the Premier League rights auction for seasons 2019/20-2021/22. We’ve just started the second season of the current deal where Sky and BT between them have spent £5.1bn for the current round of rights. Recall that last time around, this represented a colossal 71% increase in revenues.

That money, allied with ever-increasing overseas TV rights, fuels the UK game. But there were questions about how much further rights could increase next time around. Sky and BT represent the only “broadcasters” who are likely to bid next time around, and assuming that each is broadly happy with its lot, you wouldn’t expect rights to increase substantially.

Indeed, it seems as though the current set of rights have caused some real pain to the broadcasters. Sky has broadly speaking cut back its sports coverage, losing men’s tennis, and reducing rugby union coverage. Anecdotally, it seems that more coverage is coming from Sky’s studios rather than sending production teams to events.

One way or another, Sky has tried to avoid massive increases to consumers, although prices are going up.

So if Sky and BT are fairly maxed out, how do Premier League clubs get some big increases next time around?

Today The Guardian reports that Manchester United vice-chairman Ed Woodward says that Amazon and Facebook will get into the game.

As far as everyone is concerned, these companies bring untold wealth. They could be game-changers – pardon the pun.

Well of course Woodward would say that. And I’m sure that Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple will run the numbers. But at over £10m a match under the current contract, they’d need a compelling case. With the possible exception of The Crown, that blows all top TV dramas out of the water in terms of costs.

A lot has been made of Amazon taking on ATP Men’s Tennis in the UK from next year. They’re paying around £10m – the same price as a single Premier League match – for a year’s worth of tennis. Sky is said to have wanted to pay less than last time around, so it was to all intents and purposes giving up on the sport. They’d already dropped their US Open coverage.

For Amazon, tennis is a bit of a trial. Perhaps it’ll get them new Prime memberships, or make current members happier. But it’s not a massive cost. It’s not a multi-billion, multi-year commitment.

That’s not to say that one of GAFA won’t buy rights, but that’s a much bigger step. And what does that really get you?

All of this is before considering whether every football-loving household in the UK has enough internet bandwidth to support a live HD (or 4K) stream.

I could be wrong. But I’m not convinced just yet.

Amazon Echo – A Longer Term Test

Amazon Echo

I bought my Amazon Echo on its official UK release back in September last year. I wrote about it at the time, but I thought it might be worth checking back in here to see exactly how I’m using it. Right off the top, I’ll note here that I use Alexa multiple times a day, every day.

The first thing I’ll detail is how I have my Echo(s) setup. My original Echo sits in my living room. In fact it rests fairly close to the television. But interestingly, because of the direction of the TV speakers, the Echo will still hear me even with the TV on in many cases.

But more recently I also bought an Echo Dot to go in my bedroom. I have a very old hifi system there which still sounds amazing and has a single Aux socket. Until buying the Dot, I had a Chromecast Audio device dangling from the socket, since Chromecast serves most of my audio needs. I keep music on Google Play Music, and apps like iPlayer Radio and PocketCasts both support Chromecast.

I was faced with a dilemma when I got the Dot though. I wanted the audio from that to come through my speakers as well, but I obviously didn’t want to be plugging and unplugging wires every time I wanted to switch device. A single Aux socket, with the device permanently switched to that presented a problem.

The solution was a small mixer. This might seem like overkill, but it allows you to plug two (or more) audio sources into a single auxiliary socket and hear audio from both sources at the same time. So I can play music from Google Play Music via Chromecast, while also checking the weather via the Echo Dot. The only downside is some extra kit (and attendant audio cables), and that my mixer has quite bright LEDs (I used some LightDims tape to darken them. Yes, they are expensive, but I’ve used them on a couple of gadgets around the house).

With two Echo devices, it’s interesting to see them work together. If I stand in my hallway, I’m within range of both the Echo in living room, and Dot in the bedroom. But the two Echo devices decide between themselves which one should handle the request, and the other will go silent. In practice, this means I don’t actually have to worry which device I speak to.

I’d be tempted to get a further device for my kitchen where I have a very decent DAB and BlueTooth equipped radio. A fullsize Echo feels like overkill, yet a Dot really needs an auxiliary speaker to function. We’ll have to see. And as I said in my original review, the sound from the Echo itself isn’t great, in that it’s not the best standalone Bluetooth speaker ever. It’s slightly perverse that my much cheaper Echo sounds so much better because audio from it is passed to a decent pair of speakers with good stereo separation. So music does sound good on it.

But how about some specific use cases?

Radio

There’s no getting away that the Alexa environment is fantastic for listening to the radio. It’s just so easy to say “Alexa, play Radio 4” or “Alexa, Play 6 Music” and hear the station at a moment’s notice. As I mentioned previously, the default radio service is TuneIn, and it can very occasionally get muddled, but in general terms it works well. I installed the RadioPlayer “skill” (adding “skills” is the means to adding specific additional functionality to Alexa, and something done through the Alexa app or website), but it’s unquestionably more wordy to say something like, “Alexa, ask RadioPlayer to play Absolute Radio.” Yet, it is more likely to work.

At the weekend I asked Alexa to play TalkSport during a football match, and for some reason I got what I assume is TalkSport’s ex-UK streaming feed via TuneIn since it didn’t contain football. Going via RadioPlayer fixed it, although then I went back to the default TuneIn version and that seemed to be working too. Strange.

One thing you don’t seem to be able to do is simulcast radio (or other music) throughout your home on multiple Alexa devices. So if I start listening to the radio in my bedroom, I can’t seamlessly continue listening in my living room. I can start up a stream there, but it will be out of sync. In essence I have to stop the bedroom stream and start a living room stream.

I’m not aware that I can stream the same music throughout the home either. On the other hand Google Chrome does allow this, by creating groups of speakers you can send a single audio source to. And of course, this is famously a major selling point of Sonos.

I think that these Voice User Interface controlled devices will undoubtedly drive additional radio listening, since tuning into a station is so easy. But there is the qualifier that people need to know and remember your service in the first place. My DABs radios at home receive upwards of 120 radio services, and I can’t remember them all. I can browse them fairly easily though, and I might stumble upon something I like, similar to the way you might scan through stations in a car. With Alexa, you need to know what you want in the first place. That favours big brands.

Lights

This is the real game-changer for me. I have a Hue Bridge and bulbs, controlling the lighting in my hallway and living room, and it’s still wonderful to get Alexa to turn lights on and off. Hue allows you to group lights together as “rooms” or groups of rooms. For my set-up I have two lights in the “Hall,” and three in the “Living Room.” Together they are know as the “Flat.” But I do need to annunciate properly to get them to work. If I drop the “H” on “Hall” (I’m a north Londoner after all), it won’t work. Sometimes I concatenate “Flat lights” to “Flatlights” and that won’t work either. I just have to moderate my voice a little. But overall it’s wonderful.

Alarms and Timers

I realise that I’m using some very expensive technology to do something that a £5 Casio watch is quite capable of, but it’s still really nice to be able to say just before settling down at night, “Set alarm for 7am.” And for cooking you can just shout, “Set timer for 20 minutes” when you slam the oven door shut on something. I confess that it was actually an Apple Siri advert that made me realise I could do this!

I will admit that I’ve asked it on more than one occasion what the time is. Yes, I wear a watch. But no, it’s not always on my wrist. And when you’re rushing around in the morning, barking out a command to Alexa is surprisingly useful.

Weather

I use Alexa’s weather forecasting all the time. “What’s the weather?” “What’s the weather tomorrow?” Yes I have weather apps on the homescreen of my phone. And breakfast radio and TV is full of weather forecasts. But it’s nice to have, and it’s highly localised.

The only issue I had was with my precise location. In the app, you enter a postcode and that determines your location. I live in a town, but five miles up the road from me is a tiny village. For whatever reason, Alexa was convinced I lived in that village. Now the weather in both places will be identical, but having Alexa say, “The weather in Botany Bay is 5 degrees…” was just annoying. I ended up giving an alternative local postcode to get it to say the name of my town correctly.

News

I use Alexa a certain amount to give me the news headlines. There is now a reasonable selection of news in there from the default Sky News, to a selection of BBC national and World Service offerings.

The one thing I would say is that not everyone wants quite the same type of news. There is a world of difference between Radio 1’s Newsbeat and a BBC World Service summary. While at the moment, there is a reasonable range of offerings (try BBC Minute for something a little different), in audio terms, one size doesn’t fit all.

Sport

Sport remains a real shortcoming for the Alexa environment. When I first got my Echo, I was shocked to discover that the only British teams I could add as favourites were English Premier League clubs. What’s more, the only data that Amazon seemed to be taking was from the Premier League. No other clubs or competitions existed. And while we’re at, no other sport existed either.

Even very recently, when I looked again, there were no Championship sides, Scottish Premier League sides, or indeed anyone outside of the 20 clubs in the Premier League.

Looking today, I see that finally Amazon has added additional football clubs. A quick search suggests that there’s a pretty full range of football clubs that can be selected – right down to some non-league sides. But it still seems to be an exclusively football selection. I couldn’t find any cricket, rugby union or rugby league sides. I can’t find a favourite tennis player, an F1 team or track and field athlete either. Amazon at least needs to add other major UK team spots to Alexa to give a proper rounded offering.

They do at least seem to have more data sources that they subscribe to. I can get the latest Champions’ League scores for example – something that was missing back in September when I first bought the device.

A lot of work still required, and therefore I mostly rely on apps to deliver me accurate and up to date sports scores.

Music

Oddly enough, despite this being a killer application of Alexa, it’s probably the functionality that I’ve used least. You can choose from “My Music Library”, “Prime Music” and “Spotify” as music sources (curiously, they also list TuneIn in the app), while you can also have “Amazon Music Unlimited” (Amazon’s Spotify competitor) if you subscribe to it. Despite lots of imploring to give it a test-ride, and the ability to get a cheaper subscription for a single Echo device, I’ve not bothered. Similarly I only very rarely use the free Spotify service. My music is stored in the cloud on Google Play Music, and locally on a NAS drive. As a result, I mostly use Google Play Music via a Chromecast device to listen at home.

That said, I’ll occasionally try something from Amazon’s “Prime Music” offering. The problem is that I simply don’t know what’s in the Prime music catalogue and what isn’t. So rather than be disappointed, I’ll look elsewhere.

It’s worth noting that “My Music Library” is largely made up of any music you’ve bought via Amazon as either digital tracks or auto-ripped CDs. You are also able to upload a 250 tracks from iTunes which hardly feels generous. I can add a quarter of a million more for a further £21.99 a year. I’d be tempted were it not for the fact that Google lets me store 50,000 tracks free of charge.

The other thing to consider is that you need to know what you want to hear to launch it. That means remembering an artist, or playing a favourite playlist. It’s not so great for discovering new music or exploring the outer reaches of a music collection.

Bluetooth Speaker

I found it to be a fairly painless process to pair my smartphone with my Echo, and it will usefully let you switch that connection on and off by voice. “Connect to device,” or “Disconnect from device” will do the trick. The only thing I’m not sure about is how many devices you can set-up to be connected to an Echo, and more importantly can you make sure the right device is connected?

The advantage of having this connection of course is that audio that won’t work with Alexa can be played through its speaker. In general terms, I’ll still use Chromecast ahead of Alexa for this, especially since the speakers I have my Chromecast dongles plugged into, sound much better. But it’s nice to be able to connect.

Travel

Alexa is keen to get you to detail your commute so that it can provide travel information. But by default, it assumes that a “commute” is a car journey, and the only information it will give you relating to said commute is traffic information. That’s great if your commute is a drive, but useless if you use public transport.

The National Rail skill is an essential add-on for me. While navigating it to work out a specific train journey can be difficult, it is fairly straightforward to set up a commute. This results in me being able to say, “Alexa, ask National Rail about my commute,” which gives me details of the next two trains (with more available) from my local station.

There are also third party tube skills to allow you to check the status of your preferred London Underground line, and I’ve recently used Bus Stop which also uses the Transport for London API to query my local bus stop. Every London bus now has GPS and every stop a unique code meaning that TfL can generate real-time data for when your next bus will be at your nominated stop. Again, useful for timing departure from your home.

Now it’s not as though there aren’t mobile apps and websites that can give me all this data, but in the morning when you’re rushing around trying to leave on time for work, the voice interface is perfect for giving you up-to-date information.

Podcasts

In truth, I don’t use Alexa for podcasts. It’s not that it won’t play them. It will. However the selection is based on what TuneIn supplies. But for my personal use, I need an interface with PocketCasts which is my preferred podcasting app. I have both the Android and web apps, and between them, they keep me in sync with what I have and haven’t listened to. I can pause a podcast on my mobile app, and pick-up on a laptop. For me to use a podcast app on Alexa, it would need to take account of all of that.

If PocketCasts were to build an Amazon skill then I’d be there. But PocketCasts is paid-for software, and I’m not sure whether currently Amazon Skills can be sold, or whether the developer is working on something.

Other

I do wish the Alexa app was better. It’s slow to load – perhaps because it’s checking to see whether it’s in range of devices or not. And some key functionality is buried a little deep within the menu structure. For example, to change news sources, you have to go into the Settings. It’s not a top level menu item.

The addition of IFTTT was nice, and opens up a wealth of potential. However, so far, I’ve not used it properly on my device.

There are a number of really bad skills that you can install, and Amazon probably needs to do a slightly better job in highlighting useful skills and downgrading poor ones with limited functionality, often feeling like they’re the result of people hacking together personal tests.


Amazon Echo Speaker Grill

Alexa Summary

Amazon sends out a weekly email newsletter highlighting new skills or phrases to try. Sometimes these are themed, or include jokes, which is fun. The reality is that you will get more out of Alexa the more time you spend with it. You need to recall specific key words and phrases to get the desired results. It can be frustrating if you forget how to do something.

The key to having a good experience is for Alexa to respond in an appropriate manner to your request. If you have to think too hard about how to frame a question for Alexa, then you won’t do it.

It would be nice if Alexa had a more flattened structure. Currently it seems to work with a number of base level skills built in, but for more complex requirements you have to remember to invoke a particular skill.

So if I ask, “Alexa, how’s my commute,” it will ask me to set up my drive to work. I then have to remember to say, “Alexa, ask National Rail about my commute,” which gets me the response I wanted.

I’d like Alexa to intelligently realise that I invoke the National Rail skill far more than the similar sounding built in skill, and to therefore answer me with what I really wanted. Think of it as a kind of audio auto-complete.

And Alexa needs to understand context a bit better. If I’ve just asked one thing, then the next question might be in response to the answer I’ve just received. Outside of specific skills, Alexa treats most questions in complete isolation. Google Home does seem to achieve this better, allowing you to string a series of questions and answers together in a more natural manner. Speaking of which…

Google Home

We know that Google Home’s UK launch is around the corner. In many respects, from demos I’ve seen and from what I’ve read, the skillset of Google and Amazon’s devices are actually very similar. The difference is perhaps the backbone of Google Assistant which lies behind Google’s voice interface. It can use everything Google already knows about me to deliver more personalised responses. Google has a distinct advantage here. It already knows my football teams, the locations I travel to, the news I want to follow and my appointments calendar.

Furthermore, I’ve invested in the Chromecast ecosystem, and have my music on Google’s servers (Although I don’t pay for Google Play Music Unlimited, and as a consequence, frustratingly I don’t get all their playlists built around the technology they bought from Songza. This, despite that being available to US users.).

Maybe in time, I will transition across to Google? Google Assistant will be built into future devices. Whether it comes to my HTC10 (now running Nougat) I’m not sure. But I’m led to believe it will be coming to the Nvidia Shield which I use for a lot of streaming. But always listening microphones do come at a power cost, and excess battery power is not something many phones have right now.

Conclusions

What I do know is that I’m satisfied where I am at the moment, and Amazon’s technology works well, some specific shortcomings notwithstanding.

Do I have privacy concerns with all of this? Absolutely. If it were shown that either Amazon or Google was uploading audio outside of when I specifically asked it a question, then it would be leaving my home instantly. But they seem to have been good to their word thus far.

As I was finishing up writing this piece, I read two separate pieces from writers who think Alexa has been oversold: a very contrary view from a Forbes writer, and another from Quartz. Both writers are frustrated that Alexa isn’t smarter than it currently is, that it can’t understand language better, and that generally is should be better out of the box. Another complaint is that Alexa doesn’t handle context too well, and that you have to utilise skills properly to get the best out of Alexa. I agree with both writers on some issues, but to my mind Alexa is extraordinary out of the box. It’s certainly not a “glorified clock radio” as the Quartz writer puts it. It will clearly get better over time.

Addressing a couple of specific concerns: I’ve certainly had no issues with transport details – I use the separate skills that I noted above. More importantly I’ve not ordered nor accidentally ordered anything so far from Amazon with the Alexa. In fact, I’m not convinced that it’s a terribly useful way to do shopping aside from a few staples – the kind of things I’m unlikely to use Amazon for regardless (Grocery shopping on Amazon in the UK really isn’t a great experience just yet, and I’ve got better options using a UK supermarket to fulfill such shopping).

Terms like Artificial Intelligence (AI) get bandied around far too much right now, when what they really mean is that the business is adopting algorithms to help with personalisation and the like. But beyond that, there is machine learning or deep learning, and that is meant when the term “AI” is used. But this isn’t AI as in the Spielberg film – autonomous thinking robots or whatever.

However the deep learning techniques do mean that speech recognition is improving in leaps and bounds, and the current range of devices should grow with it. The Echo, after all, is broadly speaking a speaker, some microphones, and an internet connection. While some work is done locally, the heavy lifting is in the cloud. These things will improve.

Five months in, and I’m very happy with Alexa, and use it a lot.

Failing to Optimise This Site

Over the past few days, Google has been pushing users to try running its Test My Site With Google service. In particular, it’s trying to help sites see how mobile friendly they are.

I dutifully entered the details of this site, and waited for the report.

I host this site quite cheaply, so wasn’t expecting any great shakes. But it’s running an up to date implementation of WordPress, and the theme I’m running is pretty responsive.

The report gives you three scores, marked out of one hundred – for mobile friendliness, mobile speed and desktop speed.

Mobile Friendliness came in at 98/100.

I’ll take that. The theme I’m using seems to work well on mobiles, with the only small issue being “tap targets” – the ease with which people can use their fingers to navigate the site. If the buttons are too small, then people may struggle to navigate with their fingers.

Then came the bad news.

Mobile Speed was just 14/100. And Desktop Speed came in at 0/100!

This is worrying because Google does base your ranking in part on your site’s speed. You would think that 0/100 for desktop means the site’s not loading at all, yet that’s simply not the case.

What is true is that some third-party hosted elements are slow loading – namely Flickr and Vimeo. But I “outsource” those for a reason. It keeps my costs down by hosting those elsewhere, and I can ensure that viewability is maintained by those companies’ development. Self-hosted videos or pictures can be a bit of a nightmare, and of course my hosting fees would ramp up.

However, Google was giving me big red marks against “Optimise Images” and “Eliminate render-blocking JavaScript and CSS in above-the-fold content.”

For the latter, I killed some JavaScript that WordPress loads for emoji. That’s redundant on this site as far as I’m concerned. But while that seems to remove the red mark against JavaScript, “Optimise Images” is still there. And I still score zero for desktop speed.

At this point I’m a little stuck.

Let me explain how I use images on this site. Here’s an example of a photo from Flickr embedded into this site:

Through the Woods - December 28, 2016

I use Flickr’s own embed code, choosing the “Large” 1600 width image. The reason for that is that on desktop, I want the photo to look nice and big. While it’s not full-width, it’s pretty wide. And if you have a retina-style display, the photo should appear nice and big.

The embed code uses some Flickr JavaScript to ensure that the image is resized appropriately in a “responsive” manner. In other words, rather than being a fixed width, it will display smaller for smaller or mobile screens.

The problem remains, however, that in the background a 1600 px width image is loading. That’s slow and is impacting on Google’s assessment of my site.

I could embed a smaller width image. The one below is 800 px wide.

Through the Woods - December 28, 2016

But this is going to look a bit rubbish on a smaller screen.

I can also adjust the embed code so that JavaScript isn’t loaded.

Through the Woods - December 28, 2016

But while that helps with lessening the amount of JavaScript and is perhaps something I’ll do in the future, it still doesn’t help with reducing the size of the base image (1.2MB).

And if you’re viewing this on mobile, then all three images will probably look identical. But that’s the problem. You only need to see, perhaps a 600 px image.

I’d love to be able to load only large images when the display is big, but a smaller version if the display is more modest. And while there are plugins for WordPress that allow this (e.g. WP Retina 2X), they’re based on loading from your WordPress install, and not a third-party location like Flickr.

So I’m a bit stuck. My site, but it’s nature, will have large photos embedded, but I can’t find a way to make them look nice on large displays, but in particular, shrink the page-loads for those viewing on smaller screens.

[Update] Thanks to Em in the comments below, I’m trying to use srcset to see if that helps. See my next post here.

Search Engines in Film

wile-e-coyote-acme-products-catalog

In the Road Runner cartoons, Wily E Coyote often needed to buy various bits of equipment and products to try to stop said Road Runner. Invariably those anvils et al, were supplied by the Acme Corporation, a fictional company with a curious catalogue of products. It was always fun seeing what Acme was producing next. But we all knew it was a fictional company, and that was part of the gag.

Now I know that films and television do a terrible job of representing things that nearly everyone viewing knows about on a day to day basis. People sat at computers don’t use the mouse or trackpad on film because that’s not as exciting as someone beavering away on a keyboard.

When characters get sent text messages (at least until Sherlock changed all that), we saw curious screens with MASSIVE LETTERING that didn’t look any text messages or phones any of us had ever experienced.

Newspaper headlines often, but not always, appear on fake newspapers. However, even when they appear on real ones, they are particularly expository in tone – clearly written by someone who’s never been near a newsroom and has no idea how to write a headline.

The list goes on.

But if there’s something today that annoys me more most, it’s the fake search engine.

The drama you’re watching requires a character to do some research, perhaps look up another person. They naturally hit the internet. They open up a laptop (usually a real, branded laptop), and do an online search. On a fake website.

They don’t use Google. They don’t even use Bing.

Someone has had to create a fake search engine, that’s not already a real domain, and then make it look a little like Google, but not very much.

Why do they do this?

It’s incredibly distracting for the audience, because the entire watching audience has used Google. So by not using Google, you’ve drawn our attention out of the story and into wondering why the character is using AcmeSearchEngine.com or whatever.

Put it this way. The phone the character is using is probably an Apple or a Samsung. We know that because we can see the logo. If the producers made a fake handset and put, ooh, a “Banana” logo on it, we’d think they were going mad.

Similarly, everyone drives real cars. Real, branded, cars. They’re Fords, or Audis, or Range Rovers or whatever. Nobody goes out and designs a totally different car for their character to drive, because if they did, we’d all be sitting there saying, “What on earth is that car they’re driving?”

I realise there’s a whole host of dramas that won’t even use real operating systems. I’m not talking about SF, where it’s understandable, but productions set in the present day. They’re not using Windows, and they’re not using OSX. They’re not even using Linux. Some graphic designer has mocked up a bunch of screens and they’re using that. And we’re all sitting there thinking: “That’s not like an computer I’ve ever used.”

So why do filmmakers use fake search engines?

Probably the main reason is explained on this, now slightly old BBC site:

Products, Logos & Brand Names

All products, logos, brand names and trademarks that are featured prominently in your film need to be cleared for use by the manufacturers or businesses concerned. It’s often worth getting someone you know/your art department to create fictional brands instead to avoid the hassle. If you do use real products find out who to talk to at the manufacturers via the press office. Some of the clearances can be done in pre-production, (if you have an art department they should have an idea of which products they want to use), but there will always be new products that come up on a daily basis. If the product, logo, brand name or trademark is non-distinctive in the background, you most likely (but not definitely) do not need permission to film it. For instance, if you are filming an exterior street scene and the BMW car logo happens to be in a showroom behind the action and no reference is made to BMW as a company, then you are likely not to need their permission. As a general rule though, you should avoid filming or referring to any product, logo, brand name and trademark that shows a company or its product in a detrimental way. This is essential as many companies that own the rights or trademark in brands, logos and names will have the money to pursue infringement actions against you, and may follow a strict policy of taking action against infringers to protect their brand.

And there are obviously slightly different rules that apply in different countries. So the easy thing to do is not include any brands at all.

But if you follow that through to its logical conclusion, no real brands would ever get used. Yet if a gang of villains in a drama use a black Range Rover to carry out an armed robbery, does Range Rover get to complain? Or if a character uses an iPhone to negotiate a drug deal, can Apple stop the production. Indeed if a character shoots an unarmed bystander at point blank range with a replica Glock, is that OK? There is branding to one extent or another on all of those, and in any case, the design is also trademarked.

I realise that there’s a whole history of fake and real products on the internet. In Coronation Street, Rover’s Return regulars are famously fans of the fictional Newton & Ridley beer. Eastenders similarly has a fake brand. But in both soaps, the convenience stores tend to be stocked with real products, and while the camera doesn’t linger, nobody has blacked out the Kellogg’s logo as they might on Blue Peter build.

Set against fake products, there is product placement, where brands pay for their products to be used in shot. In the UK, that’s regulated by Ofcom, and you’ll see a logo in programmes that use it. Serious dramas, as a rule, don’t tend to use it, although some soaps on commercial channesl do. In the US, the credits normally alert you to any product placement. Although if it’s done badly enough, you’ll know yourself. Music videos can be particularly egregious in this field.

But there is another sort of “placement” – prop placement or prop provision. This is acceptable in the UK and elsewhere. Essentially there are middlemen who accept payment for supplying productions with props.

If your production needs a bank of computers for a particular scene, then you phone up a prop provision company and they’ll help kit your set out for you. Need to borrow a luxury car for your lead character to drive but your budget won’t quite extend to hiring one? They may be able to supply one free.

And it turns out that there is a whole industry that will also supply productions with fake websites. Thanks to Dave Walters for pointing me to Search-Wise.net, in fact a domain owned by a company called Compuhire, a company who specialise in in-vision graphics. So as well as fake search engines, the design fake graphics for computer screens, and ensure that those screens don’t cause flicker (for example with older CRT displays, the refresh rates of on-screen monitors need to be compatible with the number of frames per second your production is filming in to ensure that you don’t get strange banding effects on the screen).

But it’s not just search engines that this fakery happens for. Consider the simple newspaper. You want your character reading a non-specific newspaper in a scene? Well Hollywood has got you covered. Indeed Slashfilm has a great piece detailing a single prop-newspaper that has been repeatedly used over the years in a vast range of productions – from Married with Children through to Modern Family. It’s clearly a copyright free and brand free paper.

Slashfilm suggests it might be a playful gag from prop-handlers in a similar way to the inclusion of the Wilhelm Scream. But the real reason is that the papers are supplied by a Hollywood props company called Earl Hays Press, who specialise in printed props, and this is just a cheap standby standard. Note that in this instance, these are papers that aren’t used for close-ups.

I know that it is possible to use brands without permission in productions. Consider, for example, The Social Network, about the founding of Facebook. That film was made without the permission of Facebook, and had to employ lots of trademarked material. Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, was reported as not being happy at its production at the time. But I suspect in any case, that lawyers were heavily involved from the script stage onwards. See also the recent Danny Boyle/Aaron Sorkin film on Steve Jobs.

But what about the 1985 comedy The Coca-Cola Kid? The film begins with a big scrolling-text disclaimer:

Coca-Cola-Kid-Disclaimer

Yet the entirely fictional film, dealing with an American trying to sell more Coca-Cola to Australians, undoubtedly includes many many references to copyrighted and trademarked products. The filmmakers had to be explicit in their unauthorised status, but the branding is there in the film throughout, and according to IMDB, the filmmakers still had to clear the film’s title with Coca-Cola, who one would assume, insisted on the disclaimer.

And then there was the case of the indie film, Escape From Tomorrow, notable for having been shot almost entirely at Disney World without the permission the Disney company. At the time it was made, there was a belief that Disney might attempt to stop the film being distributed, but in the end they didn’t perhaps believing that the Streisand Effect might have given the film more press than leaving a small indie film alone might otherwise generate.

However a good piece by Tim Wu at The New Yorker explains that the film is probably protected by US copyright law which allows for commentary and parody.

In researching this piece, I did ask a lawyer friend of mine, why production companies were so careful at not including real brands. They told me that while many car brands, for example, won’t be cleared, it comes down to the three Rs – risk, reward and resource.

Production teams have limited resource and will decide whether or not to seek approval based on the perceived risks in using that brand. How prominent will it be in the production, and who is the audience. The brand will find out that it’s been used one way or another, so will they pursue the production company at a later date?

If the use of the brand is considered derogatory, damaging or inappropriate, then the production company can expect a cease and desist letter with intellectual property infringement claims.

There are also other considerations including the launch of new products, or even rebrands that might be happening. Notably Google recently changed its logo, and it might prefer to keep its old brands from appearing in the media.

I’ve no knowledge of whether Google is or isn’t especially litigious in this regard, but my friend did mention the recent comedy The Internship. I’ve not seen this film, but this Vince Vaughan alleged comedy scores a mighty 34% at Rotten Tomatoes.

This film was clearly made with a great deal of assistance of Google. And because of that, it’s actually possible that Google is under an obligation to chase unauthorised use of its brand elsewhere because of financial considerations made elsewhere. This can be part of agreements for product placement too, with brands contractually obliged to protect their assets.

So there you go. It seems like fake search engines, and fake social media networks for that matter, are likely to be here to stay. It seems a shame, because otherwise realistic portrayals are suddenly very fake in the viewer’s eyes, but producers usually prefer not to take a risk.

Finally, here’s a supercut of fake websites, including a number of search engines and social media sites. Obviously none of these stand out as fake at all…