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Google gives up on Google Allo, hopes carriers will sort out RCS messaging

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It's time for another chapter in the saga of Google's messaging mess. This latest news comes from The Verge, which reports that Google will be abandoning its most recent messaging app failure, Google Allo, in favor of a renewed push for the carrier-controlled RCS (Rich Communication Services) protocol.

Google Allo was Google's attempt at a WhatsApp clone, and it launched just a year-and-a-half ago with a laundry list of deficiencies. It used a phone-centric login system and didn't support using a Google account. It only worked on one device at a time and didn't have an interface for desktop or laptop computers. Distribution wasn't great either, as Allo wasn't one of the mandatory Google apps included in every Android phone. None of this really mattered since Allo didn't support sending SMS messages, so there was no one to talk to anyway. Google's other chat service, Google Hangouts, was better in nearly every way.

With such a half-baked launch, the real unknown for Google Allo was what kind of resources Google would throw at it. Like Android, which also entered a market late in the game, Allo needed a massive amount of resources to catch up to the competition. Instead, we were treated to an absolutely glacial development pace that mostly focused on new sticker packs. It took a full year before Allo addressed one of its biggest flaws—not working on a desktop—and even then, login was handled by a janky QR code pairing system that only worked on one extra device at a time. Google users expect a Google account-based login that works on all devices all the time, just like Hangouts.

At least we won't have to worry about Allo anymore. The Verge report says Google is "pausing" Allo development and "transferring almost the entire team off the project and putting all its resources into another app." Allo will continue to work for the foreseeable future, but new features won't be arriving any time soon.

Rich (and fragmented) Communication Services

What everyone wants from Google is an iMessage clone: an over-the-top messaging service that would run on all devices and platforms, with login handed by a Google account. Essentially, people want an updated version of Google Hangouts, a piece of software Google abandoned and removed features from in order to promote Google Allo. The Verge report says that Google "won’t build the iMessage clone that Android fans have clamored for" and will instead try to get the carriers to cooperate on RCS.

RCS, or Rich Communication Services, has been around as a GSMA (the worldwide mobile network trade body) project for about ten years now. RCS replaces SMS and MMS with a service that works more like an instant messaging app. RCS adds IM features to carrier messaging that most users take for granted, like user presence, typing status, read receipts, and location sharing. It sends messages over your data connection and increases the size caps on photos and video sharing.

The current problem with RCS versus an over-the-top IM service is that users on different carriers are usually not able to talk to each other with RCS features enabled. The cell carriers fear being turned into "dumb pipes" and generally prefer proprietary services that give them customer lock-in. Naturally, they have resisted building an interoperable RCS system. Currently, the RCS landscape is fragmented, with RCS flavors like AT&T Advanced Messaging, Verizon Message+T-Mobile Advanced Messaging, and Sprint Enhanced Messaging.

Google got involved with RCS in 2015 when it acquired Jibe Mobile, a company that provides back-end RCS services to carriers. At the end of 2016, the GSMA published the "Universal Profile" spec, which was an agreed upon standard that would let the various carrier RCS implementations talk to each other. Google then started pushing carriers to adopt "Google Jibe" as an end-to-end RCS service, where Google could provide the RCS network, the cloud infrastructure, and the end-user clients. Android's default SMS app, Android Messages, was made to support this new standard.

RCS-powered “Chat”: Carrier-dependent messaging

The Verge

As part of this renewed RCS push, The Verge reports that Google is putting more resources (including the Allo team) into Android Messages, and RCS will be rebranded into a new service called "Chat." Not "Google Chat," because this is RCS, which is a carrier-controlled standard. RCS will just be rebranded to "Chat."

Being carrier-controlled comes with a number of downsides. First, Chat will need your individual carrier to support Universal Profile to work. Over 55 carriers—including the big four in the US—have "committed" to eventually support RCS, but no timeframe is included in that commitment. In the US, only Sprint has Universal Profile up and running right now. T-Mobile has promised a "Q2 2018" rollout, while Verizon and AT&T have so far declined to give a time frame. (This worldwide Universal Profile tracker is a great resource.) There's also no one single client for RCS. Google's RCS client is Android Messages, while Samsung phones come with a Samsung RCS app. Also, no one knows if Apple will support RCS on the iPhone.

Another big downside of carrier control is no end-to-end encryption. The Verge notes that Google's RCS service will follow the same legal intercept standards as SMS. Nearly all of Google's competition—like iMessage, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Signal, and Telegram—supports end-to-end encryption.

Google's revamped Android Messages app will include old Allo features, like integration with the Google Assistant, GIF search, and smart replies. Android Messages is already an SMS app, so if your friends aren't on an RCS carrier, you'll still be able to send them a regular SMS message. SMS support will be a big improvement over Allo.

Messages will also get a desktop client, but it unfortunately sounds a lot like Allo's awful Web client. The Verge got to try an Android Messages Web client that, like Allo, paired to your phone through a QR code instead of a Google account. These QR-code powered systems typically mean you'll only allowed be logged into one device at a time, and if your phone dies, you can't text anyone. The "desktop client" is also only a webpage, so it won't run in the background the way Hangouts and other IM apps can.

Carriers versus consumers

Various Google execs have been asked numerous times why Google doesn't just build an iMessage clone, and the answer that came back was always something along the lines of "We don't want to jeopardize our relationship with carriers." Carriers famously dislike many of the consumer-centric choices Apple makes with the iPhone, and building a quality, non-SMS messaging solution was one of those choices. For Google, keeping carriers happy so they run Android and Google services on nearly every non-Apple device is far more important than rocking the boat with a competitive messaging app. The plan this year, apparently, is to try to strike a happy medium with the carriers.

Like Google Allo, Chat will start far, far behind the competition at launch and will need to move quickly to catch up. If it catches up—if that's even possible—it needs to surpass the entrenched messaging services and be so much better that users are willing to switch. It seems like it will be especially tough to accomplish this while being hamstrung by the world's cellular carriers. Just making RCS actually work across carriers is a huge challenge, and it would only result in a very basic messaging system that can be matched by every other chat app in existence. Plus, the lack of end-to-end encryption already makes Google's Chat plans inferior to other services in many people's eyes.

With all these challenges ahead of it, can Google turn RCS into something worth using? If Google's history with past messaging apps is any indication, the answer is "no."

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acdha
2 days ago
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Any time someone says you can’t compete with Google ask whether you have an attention span longer than a sandflea’s and any respect for your users
Washington, DC
zwol
2 days ago
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Mountain View, CA
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1 public comment
glenn
2 days ago
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Seriously this is embarrassing. They own the OS and are a “services” company. How hard is to build an iMessage API even for apps to use let alone a decent actual app? And relying on the carriers? Lol.
Waterloo, Canada

Leveraging AI to protect our users and the web

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Recent advances in AI are transforming how we combat fraud and abuse and implement new security protections. These advances are critical to meeting our users’ expectations and keeping increasingly sophisticated attackers at bay, but they come with brand new challenges as well.

This week at RSA, we explored the intersection between AI, anti-abuse, and security in two talks.

Our first talk provided a concise overview of how we apply AI to fraud and abuse problems. The talk started by detailing the fundamental reasons why AI is key to building defenses that keep up with user expectations and combat increasingly sophisticated attacks. It then delved into the top 10 anti-abuse specific challenges encountered while applying AI to abuse fighting and how to overcome them. Check out the infographic at the end of the post for a quick overview of the challenges we covered during the talk.

Our second talk looked at attacks on ML models themselves and the ongoing effort to develop new defenses.

It covered attackers’ attempts to recover private training data, to introduce examples into the training set of a machine learning model to cause it to learn incorrect behaviors, to modify the input that a machine learning model receives at classification time to cause it to make a mistake, and more.

Our talk also looked at various defense solutions, including differential privacy, which provides a rigorous theoretical framework for preventing attackers from recovering private training data.

Hopefully you were to able to join us at RSA! But if not, here is re-recording and the slides of our first talk on applying AI to abuse-prevention, along with the slides from our second talk about protecting ML models.

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zwol
2 days ago
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Penetrate the House

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You may have seen some of the coverage this got earlier on in the week, if you are nerds like us and read games press. Otherwise, let us REVEAL to you our launch trailer for Cultist Simulator: PENETRATE THE HOUSE.

If you can, we’d really appreciate you sharing this around – the idea’s to introduce the game to new people who are not the Enlightened Souls who already read this blog, or the Beloveds who have already backed the game. Thank you! ♥

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zwol
10 days ago
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Mountain View, CA
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SotD: Plutonian Nights

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The Nubians of Plutonia was recorded by Sun Ra and his Arkestra before 1960 and released in 1966, but it’s not really music of either period, it’s of the distant future. Or at least that’s what Sun Ra claimed; mind you, he also claimed he was born on Saturn and that aliens were going to be arriving any minute. Having said that, Plutonian Nights is one of the coolest jazz tracks ever recorded in any galaxy; I’m glad it was this one.

Sun Ra

Sun Ra combined ludicrous costumery and good-humored erudite craziness with strong songwriting, the exceptional talents of saxophonist James Gilmore, and pretty deft keyboard playing when he felt like it. Check out some of the video links below. If you listen to Plutonian Nights and decide you’re a fan, I advise sampling before you buy; some of the music is so far outside it’s heading for orbit, which is exactly the intent, only maybe it doesn’t sound like what you might consider music. Personally I find that the thrills make up for the spills, most times at least, but then musically I’m a thrillseeker.

Quoting from a blog I wrote on this piece in 2012: The opening rhythm-section makes weird but effective use of the piano’s very bottom strings, then it segues into a conventional horn vamp, except for Gilmore’s bass-saxophone continuo, mixed loud and front and center, is approximately the funkiest sax part in the history of the universe. Eventually you get some nice breaks, clarinet (I think) and bowed bass, then the funky horns come back to shiver your timbers for a minute or so on the way out.

This is part of the Song of the Day series (background).

Links

Spotify playlist. This tune on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon. There’s no live video of this tune, but lots of Sun Ra. Here’s an only-mildly deranged pair of songs from 1989. Next, don’t try this at home. As one YouTube comment notes, he misses one note at 0:56 but otherwise perfect. Nifty French TV show (music starts at 1:30, and the first twenty minutes are full-on drum hysteria).

It’s perfectly possible that Sun Ra was laughing at us all those years. But he went to his grave without losing his poker face.

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zwol
10 days ago
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acdha
10 days ago
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Quetzalcóatl Sculpture in San Jose, California

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The Quetzalcoatl sculpture looks best up-close and from the front.

The controversial Quetzalcóatl sculpture in downtown San Jose inspires love, loathing, and laughter in just about equal measures. But was this excremental artwork a genuine homage to Aztec culture, or payback in the form of poop?

Plumed Serpent, aka the Quetzalcóatl sculpture, aka the poop statue, was created by the Mexican-American sculptor Robert Graham. According to the artist’s website, it is "a stylized image of Quetzalcóatl, one of the most important mythological deities of the Mesoamerican pantheon, and was created for the city "to symbolize the spirit of social harmony and diversity."

But in 1994, when Plumed Serpent was unveiled to the public in San Jose’s Plaza de Cesar Chavez, social harmony wasn’t exactly the phrase of the day. Even before it was unveiled, the statue was drawing stern criticism.

The cost, a cool half a million dollars, was very much a talking point. Weren’t there better ways to spend the city’s money than on a piece of public art? And all this coming about 15 years after the city’s mayor approved a $440,000 equestrian statue of Thomas Fallon, only to see it warehoused for more than a decade (local groups complained that Fallon, a former mayor of San Jose, represented American imperialism and repression of the Mexican population).

Complaints also poured in from both sides of the religious spectrum. Christian fundamentalists were riled up by the very thought of a statue of Quetzalcóatl, who they argued was a grotesque symbol of human sacrifice who enjoyed tearing out still-beating hearts with his lava-rock axe. They were wrong about this, but no one was able to convince them otherwise. Nathan Hill, the host of a local Christian television news magazine, even predicted that the sculpture would turn the plaza into the site of modern-day human sacrifices, with homeless people being the first victims (and in case you’re wondering, there have yet to be any human sacrifices in Plaza de Cesar Chavez).

Non-religious groups, meanwhile, were complaining that the statue of the god Quetzalcóatl was an illegal promotion of religion on public property. They later filed a lawsuit, but a federal court rejected the claim.

The statue’s intended location also raised plenty of eyebrows. In order to place the statue in Plaza de Cesar Chavez, the existing firefighters’ memorial bell would have to be moved. This was seen as highly disrespectful by some, but it was nonetheless relocated to St. James Park and later to Fire Station #1 on North Market Street.

All this controversy, and the statue hadn’t even been revealed yet. And not even the people who had commissioned it knew exactly what they were getting until just six weeks before the unveiling. You see, back in 1992 Robert Graham told the city he was going to build them a 20- to 25-foot-tall bronze sculpture of the Aztec feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl. Its wings would be outstretched, the entire thing perched magnificently on a base 15- to 20-feet in diameter. But then, in a sudden artistic swerve, he went in a different, far more scatological direction, something that stunned some of the gathered supporters and protesters at the statue's public unveiling.

Graham later said that the change was inspired by a trip to Mexico. And it’s true, some Aztec coiled snakes do indeed bear a resemblance to coiled, cartoon-like excrement. In fact, the English novelist, poet, and playwright D. H. Lawrence described these very same serpents as “snakes coiled like excrement, snakes fanged and feathered beyond all dreams of dread" in his 1926 novel The Plumed Serpent (the same name, coincidentally or not, as Graham’s statue).

Not everyone sees Graham’s supposed sudden change of direction as entirely genuine. Some people argue that the poop-like statue was in fact a form of revenge for a rebuff received by Graham in the late 1980s. Back then, Graham submitted designs and models for gateways to downtown San Jose. These included 30-foot-tall inverted L’s topped by trees, and life-sized bronze horses. The city approved the design, but local media ridiculed the project. The city caved and abandoned the whole idea, paying Graham $60,000 for his fruitless (apart from the cash) endeavors.

This slight, if you’re inclined to believe the rumors, was the cause of Quetzalcóatl’s ultimately turd-like form: a perhaps not-so-subtle middle finger to the institution that had rejected his previous proposal years before.

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zwol
11 days ago
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GIFs in Space!

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Want to feel like an old-timey astronaut? You can trawl auction houses for lunar artifacts mistakenly put up for sale. You can travel to a Dairy Queen in Franklin, Pennsylvania, and pose outside of a model of the Apollo command module. Or—and this is much simpler—you can watch a GIF of a moon buggy rough-riding over some craters, as above.

This spacey experience was put together by Chaz Hutton, a comedian from Australia. Earlier this month, inspired by Jared Kinsler's similar curation project, Hutton went through all of the photos in the Project Apollo Archive and made some of them move.

The archive contains 14,227 images, taken over the course of the 10 manned Apollo missions. Starting with Apollo 8, astronauts brought electric Hasselblad EL cameras with them to space. As Gary Kitmacher explained on the NASA History Program website, these cameras "largely automated the picture-taking process." Astronauts only had to point and shoot, and the Hasselblads took care of everything else, from tensioning the shutter to re-winding the film.

Likely for this reason, "a lot of [the images] are shot in sequence—the same scene set out over 20 or 30 photographs," Hutton explains. "Even when you're scrolling through, you almost get an animated effect. And so I was like, 'Hang on a second—a lot of these can be turned into GIFs.'" (He collected his in two Medium posts, which you can see here and here. NASA also has their own GIPHY page, which features more examples, both historic and contemporary.)

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On their own, photographs can be like magic, dropping the viewer into a time or place they could otherwise only imagine. But people who want to feel still more present in these scenes have found a number of ways to shrink this distance even further. Artists carefully colorize black-and-white images, removing the barrier to empathy that can come with monochromatics. Or archivists place photos in their geographic context, so that viewers familiar with a particular spot can see exactly what that place once looked like.

As a comedian, Hutton originally intended to bridge this gap through humor: "My first thought was, what if I went through the archive and found all the shit photos?" he says. (There are many.) But the choppy motion of the GIFs provided another immediate entry point. "You get a sense of the height, and where everything is in relation to each other," he says.

For example, there's a pair of GIFs that comes from the Apollo 9 mission. They show the lunar module (nicknamed Spider) flying separately from the command module (nicknamed Gumdrop), with two astronauts aboard. They were testing Spider to make sure it could properly detach from Gumdrop, fly far away—say, to the moon—come back up, and then reattach.

In the first GIF, Spider is leaving Gumdrop, careening off into space. Its "United States" license plate flashes defiantly as the Earth spins in the background. In the second, it's returning, emerging from the whirl of clouds and heading straight back to Gumdrop. You can almost imagine the photographers sighing with relief.

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Another high point is the panoramic shots. On most missions, a moonwalking photographer took a moment to spin around in a circle and take photos of the local environs: craters, equipment, and fellow astronauts. "It's almost like you're in Google Street View," says Hutton.

And then there are those GIFs that—depending on your particular constitution—might make you glad you're not actually there. One of Hutton's favorites shows a spacewalk from Apollo 17, during which Ron Evans retrieved some instrument film from a service module outside the main spacecraft. The walk took place halfway between the Earth and the Moon. "To me, that's like going for a swim in the middle of the Pacific," says Hutton.

Viewed one by one, these images show a trained professional, capably going about his job. The GIF shows the same thing, but the camera bobs and sways. Watching it, you feel one bad grab away from the infinite abyss of space. It's a good thing to empathize with, from the safety of your computer.

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zwol
17 days ago
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