Will Google Escape a Federal Antitrust Lawsuit Over Web Search?

The end is near! No, we’re not talking about the Mayan apocalypse, but rather the federal government’s nearly two-year antitrust investigation of Internet search giant Google. The Federal Trade Commission and the Web titan are nearing a deal that would end the government’s probe into allegations that Google has used its search market power to harm rival companies unfairly, according to multiple reports. Google is poised to offer a set of voluntary concessions addressing complaints about its search practices, according to a D.C. source familiar with the matter. The agreement, which would mean that the FTC will not file a lawsuit against Google, would represent a huge victory for Google, and a major defeat for those rivals that have accused it of acting unfairly. A resolution to the FTC’s probe could come as early as this week. Google will reportedly announce voluntary changes to the way it uses so-called “snippets” of user reviews in a number of consumer areas including travel and restaurants, in order to address complaints from rivals like Yelp and TripAdvisor, according to Politico. The search giant will also make it easier for its advertisers to use certain data on rival search engines like Microsoft Bing, Politico said. Google and the FTC have been in talks for several weeks about avoiding full-on federal litigation. Google had been facing the prospect of an FTC lawsuit, in what would have been the most dramatic antitrust action taken by the U.S. government against a major technology company since the Department of Justice sued Microsoft in the 1990s. In recent weeks, federal officials have reportedly begun to waver about the strength of a possible antitrust lawsuit against Google. (For more details on the potential weaknesses of the FTC’s case, please see here.) (MORE: Google CEO Meets with Feds as U.S. Senator Blasts FTC Over Antitrust Probe) As Google has come to dominate the Internet search space — with about 70% market share — several of its competitors have urged federal action against the tech giant. The anti-Google coalition includes the FairSearch consortium, which includes several of Google’s

With New Profiles, ‘Following,’ Search & HD Photos, 360 Is Starting To Look Like The Panoramic Instagram

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As great as the allure of its filters may be, Facebook didn’t spend $1 billion on Instagram for its digital photo effects. No, it was because Instagram was mobile-first, growing like a weed, had just launched on Android, and because it had created (with a small team) the first good-looking, mobile-centric social network for photos — location-tagged photos to boot. Launching a major redesign of its panoramic photo-sharing Android app, 360, today, Silicon Valley-based TeliportMe wants to do for the panoramic view what Instagram did for your regular old mobile photos.

Since TeliportMe launched 360 in late 2011, panoramic photos seem to have become the new frontier in the photo-sharing world. With the iPhone 5 and iOS 6, Apple brought support for panoramic photos (and an improved camera) to fanboys and girls worldwide, and, while the functionality has been available to Android users for years, Google got serious about panoramic photography in October with the launch of Photo Sphere, which allows users to stitch their photos together into a 360-degree view and share them to Google+ and Google Maps.

With built-in panoramic capabilities now on iOS and Android, it’s easy to think that TeliportMe’s days are numbered. Then again, a year from now, the vast majority of smartphones will likely have the ability to capture panoramic photos, and that means billions of panoramas being shared every month — every day. What’s more, at launch, Photo Sphere was only available for the Nexus 4.

TeliportMe co-founder Vineet Devaiah says that the coming ubiquity of panoramic images leaves plenty of room for apps like 360, especially if they’re able to add the kind of social networking functionality and “immersive experience” that made Instagram a must-buy for Facebook.

Eventually, the startup wants to be that for both iOS and Android, but it initially it started with the latter, hoping to tackle one of the biggest issues endemic to Android — fragmentation. In other words, Android relies on a long list of device manufacturers, which makes it difficult to build panoramic apps that are, by nature, hardware-centric. So, the founders put in long hours tailoring the app for the specs of each device in attempt to reduce those rendering issues that come from the variety of processing capabilities in each phone.

This has dominated the early development of 360, but thanks to its efforts on the fragmentation front and its improving stitching to make it faster and more OEM-agnostic, 360 is now nearing 1 million users across 150 countries. Of course, it’s got a long way to go if it wants to reach Instagram adoption.

So, since raising a round of seed funding from 500 Startups, Bill Gross and a handful of others, the startup has focused its efforts on building out those “immersive experiences” and today launched a bunch of new features and an overhauled UI that Devaiah hopes will put it on track.

For starters, because one of the biggest limitations to panoramic technology right now is the draining effect it has on your phone’s battery. Most panorama apps let you capture three or four panoramic photos before your battery drops below 50 percent. Even though the technology is improving in more recent generations of smartphones, some Android phones don’t have the processing power to handle much panoramic panning.

To address this, TeliportMe added a “Stitch Later” feature that allows users to postpone the stitching until after they’ve returned home after vacation. This also represents the company’s first venture into in-app purchases, as the Stitch Later feature will be available for unlimited use for a buck.

While 360 already offered the ability to share images on Facebook and Twitter as well as view, comment on and “fav” images captured by friends, the new app adds a key missing piece — following. With its new “follow” button, which functions the same way as it does on Twitter and Instagram, users can now follow their friends and view a chronological album of their friends’ most recent panoramic pics. The can see how many followers they have, how many they’re following, etc.

Along with the follow feature, 360 also adds search functionality, which the TeliportMe founder believes will be the most crucial part of the app going forward. The search feature does what you’d expect, allowing users to peruse through the app’s database of hundreds of thousands of panoramas, searching by location or keyword. While Instagram lets you search by user name and hashtag, it still doesn’t do location search, though this is no doubt something that Facebook will be looking to capitalize on, especially given today’s launch of its “Nearby” feature.

Lastly, 360 users now finally have the ability to see in high-def. TeliportMe’s previous sweeping capture process didn’t include the ability to snap HD pics, but the new update takes care of this problem, allowing photographers to capture the highest resolution their phone can muster.

All in all, it may not be enough for the startup to compete toe-to-toe with the massive resources of Apple and Google, which can slowly out-last and out-feature 360 until its developers run out of cash. But the more it’s able to create a fun, immersive and must-have user experience and get increase its engagement and virality coeffiecient, the liklier TeliportMe is to become an attractive acquisition target for one of the big players. Given what we heard when we last reported on the startup, some have already begun to kick the tires.

The Simple Trick To Use Google Maps With Siri

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For all her faults, Siri is a useful companion. Sometimes. But she defaults to Apple Maps. Thankfully it’s rather simple to trick Siri into giving you directions with Google Maps instead. No jailbreak required.

As shown in the video above, instead of saying, “Take me to the nearest Best Buy,” tell Siri “Take me to the nearest Best Buy via transit.” Those two little extra words prompts Siri to open a screen which displays transit apps. Simply click the button next to Google Maps to bypass Apple Maps altogether. It’s that easy.

The Google Maps app hit the Apple App Store last week and instantly shot to the top of the charts. But best of all, Google also released an SDK for its maps, allowing developers to jump back in bed with Google and kick Apple Maps to the curb. Apps that rely heavily on maps are no doubt toiling away to re-implement Google Maps. But for now, users are going to have to utilize workarounds to use Google Maps rather than Apple’s own.

[via Gizmodo]

Ray Kurzweil (the “Singularity” guy) joins Google

Ray Kurzweil, a well-known entrepreneur and futurist, probably best known for propagating the idea of a “technology singularity” (a topic covered in a previous Ars Technicast), has just been hired at Google. The singularity suggests that human history will eventually reach a culmination of biological and technological achievement through genetics, nanotech, robotics, and artificial intelligence.

Starting next week, he will join the company as “Director of Engineering,” and will be working on machine learning and language processing.

“I’ve been interested in technology, and machine learning in particular, for a long time,” he wrote on his website on Friday. “When I was 14, I designed software that wrote original music, and later went on to invent the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, among other inventions. I’ve always worked to create practical systems that will make a difference in people’s lives, which is what excites me as an inventor.”

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Google phasing out ActiveSync push mail for free customers

Calling it “Winter cleaning,” Google has announced that from January 30, 2013, users of Google Mail, Calendar, and Contacts will no longer receive Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) support on their accounts.

EAS provides push mail and synchronization of contacts and calendars to a number of mobile platforms, including iOS, Symbian, and Windows Phone. It’s also one of the protocols that Windows 8’s Metro Mail app uses, as does Outlook 2013.

Currently, users of Google’s services can enable EAS support to use their Google accounts with suitable devices. After the cut off, existing users will continue to be able to use EAS with their devices, but those users won’t be able to add new devices. All future devices will have to use IMAP for their mail, CalDAV for calendar sync, and CardDAV for contact sync. Android and iOS users can use these protocols, but many others will be left high and dry. Push mail, in particular, could be left behind, as many platforms (including iOS) don’t support the IMAP IDLE push mail feature.

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Google Launches Native Maps For iOS, And Here’s The Deep Dive On Navigation, Info Sheets And More

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As we hinted at time and time again, Google has released its native Maps app for iOS…before Christmas. The timing couldn’t come soon enough, as many people have become frustrated with the built-in iOS 6 Maps that Apple offers. Even Apple’s own CEO took it upon himself to apologize for the not-so-polished product, an stand-up act which I actually applauded.

Today is about Google Maps, though. The company has spent the past seven years refining its offering, making its internal systems run quickly to keep up with as many detours, traffic conditions and new apartment complexes that it can. All of that hard work paid off with this app, it’s absolutely gorgeous, runs as smooth as a video game and is a complete user experience overhaul from any Google Maps experience you’ve ever had. The new swipe gestures to bring up menus, as well as the great detail in which information is displayed are clear as soon as you open the app. Good thing, because 50% of the Google Maps usage comes from mobile devices, obviously.

Now here’s the bad news on this version of Google Maps, there are no biking directions, offline mode (although as soon as you get a route, it is cached on your device), indoor maps or offers as of yet. This would seem to be incomplete, but clearly the team wanted to put together a fantastic Maps app that serves the need of iOS users right this moment. Yes, Google didn’t want to pack everything in too tightly until the world had a chance to play with it. Fair enough, but some of these things would have been nice.

But yes, overall, it’s that good. I took it for a spin yesterday and was able to figure out its new UI immediately. Basically, the map is the UI. All of the menus are neatly tucked away, pulled up and out with gestures that are masterfully designed for iOS. If Apple had only waited a bit longer, this could have been the experience that shipped with iOS 6. It also complete with a brand new SDK so that developers can start integrating it into their apps.

I spoke with Google Maps for Mobile Director, Daniel Graf, and while he said that Google didn’t hold out as long as it possibly could to release this, I would say that waiting until Apple’s infamous Holiday App Store freeze says otherwise. Even Google won’t turn down a chance to be on all of those shiny new gifted devices.

Here’s what you’ve been waiting for

As I mentioned, the UI is unlike what you saw previous to iOS 6, which used Google Maps exclusively. It’s also nothing like you’ve seen on Android, either. The team really hunkered down and pushed out something that utilizes all of the available design elements and gestures built into iOS. Since the app is built on OpenGL, it’s extremely snappy.

Graf told me “It’s been an interesting half year”, clearly referring to Apple’s decision to go out on its own when it comes to maps.

The result? A completely new app from scratch with a progressive user experience:

You’re not going to see any menu here, the map is the UI. The map is completely vector based, very fast, and we have the search box on top. Those are the two things Google is familiar with, speed and search. Panning around is super fast, labels appear quickly. You Zoom in, you can pan down with gestures for 3D.

Another nice feature is that you don’t have to tap on small location pins anymore to get information, all you have to do is swipe through a new feature for Maps called the “info sheet”.

The info sheet

Swiping up from the bottom of the app brings up an “info sheet” that displays information brought in from Google+ Local. You can still see the map while the info sheet is up, which makes navigating from place to place a snap. Say you want to check out a few bars, simply swipe through some of the suggestions based on the search you just performed.

There’s a “look around” mode that shows photos that people have taken, as well as 3D modeling inside of venues. Those things, seemingly very graphic intensive, load quick as hell. You’ll also find reviews that people have submitted via Google+ Local, which is now tied into Zagat. It’s pretty comprehensive, and could even get a bit social, even though Google+ isn’t fully integrated as of yet. I think that it will follow pretty quickly though.

Navigation

Once you find a place that you want to go to, and sadly this doesn’t include air travel yet, another one of those things that Google simply must include in a future version, you pick your location, pick your starting point, and then you see all of your options. All of the routes are of course dependent upon current real-time traffic conditions, so you might find that you should take a way to work that you’ve never taken before. It takes trust, but once you use the app a little bit, it should come naturally.

Naturally, this is all voice guided, much like you’d find on Android devices using the Navigation app. It’s Siri-like, yes, but the voice will be familiar to you from Google Now. At the bottom of the route, while travelling, simply tap the time and miles to cycle through to see where you on your trip, something that’s difficult to do in iOS 6 maps right now. Basically, I’ve found that you have to start your route all over to see an updated destination time.

Tap the three dots on the right to bring up routing information, such as list view, or simply do a two fingered swipe to the left.

Here’s a quick look of how smooth the navigation is from picking a destination to actually starting your trip, and it’s true to life:

Public Transportation and Walking Directions

The thing that bugged me, and others, the most about iOS 6 Maps is that they dropped native support for transit directions. Basically, Apple decided to give you the opportunity to download other apps from developers who were focused on tackling that problem. Only one problem, have been no stand-out apps to date that really nail the experience that Google’s version of Apple Maps gave us pre-iOS 6.

Graf told me:

Google covers over a million transit spots in the world. If you’re close to your destination, the app will recommend that you should just walk, or you can take the train if you want to, with pricing shown. You can wwipe through different alternatives at the bottom, bring up the details. We show you the stop lines for public transit.

What does this mean? You won’t have to have multiple apps open, along with a web browser, trying to cobble together when your train will come, and how many stops you have to wait on to get off. This is helpful if you’re trying to make sure you don’t get on a bullet train or bus that skips stops. This has happened to me, and I had to get off and back on the other way, it’s annoying.

Walking directions are solid from what I could tell, something that is key if you live in a dense city, like New York or San Francisco. I’ve found that iOS 6 Maps gets very confused when I’m walking amongst buildings, underpasses and pretty much anywhere that has multiple levels or close blocks. It just sucks.

Here’s an “in the wild” demo:

What took so long?

I asked Graf a few questions about the app itself and why it felt like it took a while to see the light of day:

TechCrunch: How long have you been working on this app?
Daniel Graf: Longer than you can imagine, the reason is that a mapping app is not a regular app with displays and images. It’s like a game, its OpenGSL, there’s a huge team here, we worked on it for quite a while. In terms of timing, there wasn’t any plan, to wait a bit. We wanted to get it ready, the team worked day and night and we want to give our users the best experience possible.

User experience was the hardest thing in making the app, and the most important. It solves a lot of use cases, and we didn’t want to add just another menu button.

TechCrunch: How does Google feel about Apple now allowing another Maps app to be the default and Safari clicks not opening up Google Maps?
Daniel Graf: We want our native Chrome and Search apps to give you the opportunity to jump into Google Maps. With our new SDK, this is up to the developers to integrate into their apps if they like. Safari is out of our control.

———

Is the app absolutely perfect? No, nothing is. But when you think about just how much data Google has at its disposal and then think about how fast its being transferred to your device over 3G, LTE or WiFi, then you can see just how impressive this first stab at the Maps app is. Is it better than Apple’s current offering? Absolutely. That doesn’t mean that Apple isn’t continuing to work on its own map product, though. It will take some time to catch up, especially after this release. Especially since Graf tells me that the mobile team plans to iterate quickly, meaning that we could potentially see an update sometime after the new year.

If you have feedback on a traffic route or the app itself, simply shake the app no matter where you are in it and the feedback window comes up. It even takes a screenshot of where you are so that Google can have context along with your feedback or traffic routing suggestions. You’ll notice that it has the Google sync functionality that will save your last Maps search on your desktop when you’re logged in. It’s handy when you’re running out of the door, a situation where I’ve had to email myself a link to directions or the address I’m going to itself.

Many thought that Apple wouldn’t approve a Google-branded native iOS app for Maps, for competitive reasons. That’s clearly not the case, and never was the case. What is true though is that for some, it’s time to finally update their iPhone to iOS 6.

Google provides teachers $99 Chromebooks through charity

Google has found a way to get its Chromebook notebooks into classrooms—by letting someone gift one to a favorite teacher for Christmas at a fraction of the regular price. The company has partnered with DonorsChoose, a “crowd-funding” charity site that applies the Kickstarter model to equipping public classrooms.

According to a blog post by Google Chromebook Group Product Manager Rajen Sheth, Google is offering up Samsung Series 5 Chromebooks for $99. But teachers and schools can’t directly purchase the Chrome OS based notebook computers themselves for that price; they must request them through DonorsChoose. When their request gets funded by donors, Google will provide them with a Chromebook.

The picture in the project description leads us to believe that the deal applies to the older version of the Series 5 Chromebook. On Amazon, this one costs $479.99 for the 3G model, but is out of stock for the Wi-Fi-only model. Google has the device priced starting at $430.

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Google Gets In The Festivus Spirit With Its Latest Holiday Easter Egg

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There’s no question that Google has an affinity for silly easter eggs, but the search giant may have just outdone itself this year. If you have a few seconds to spare today (and look fondly upon kooky 90s sitcoms), do a Google search for “Festivus” and you’ll be treated to that most wondrous of holiday sights: an unadorned aluminum pole running down the side of your list of search results.

This is, of course, Google’s tribute to Festivus, the secular winter holiday that featured prominently in a classic episode of Seinfeld from 1997. There’s no word yet on whether or not Google plans to indulge in any further Festivus festivities like the annual airing of grievances, or if CEO Larry Page will wrestle an employee of his choosing as per Festivus tradition.

On a slightly more serious note, this isn’t the first time that the search giant has invoked the show about nothing. Longtime readers may recall that when Google officially pulled back the curtain on its Google Wallet mobile payments system, it did so with the help of a chuckle-worthy Seinfeld clip that featured George Costanza and his amazing exploding wallet. Sadly, Google has made that original video (called, simply, “Our first Google Wallet customer”) private on YouTube, but as Google itself proves every day, nothing on the Internet ever really disappears: