Google Takes a Bite Out of Apple
At its annual developer conference, Google took small steps in Apple’s direction with a new privacy and security focus for its products.
(Slightly edited from original story and video which you can read and watch here: https://cheddar.com/media/google-i-o-privacy-features-apple)
Apple in March showed off a new business strategy focused on media and services. And while there are plenty of streaming and gaming options out there, Apple’s main message was privacy. Unlike others, Apple made it clear that it doesn’t collect information about its users for the purpose of advertising.
That Apple owns the hardware and software to enable these protections has been a big advantage for the iPhone-maker. But if you look at what Google announced on Tuesday, that advantage may be shrinking.
Privacy, security, and control were the big themes at Google’s annual I/O developer conference.
“This morning we’ll introduce you to many products built on a foundation of user trust and privacy,” CEO Sundar Pichai said onstage within the first few moments of his opening keynote in Mountain View, California.
The idea of privacy and security being “the foundation” of Google popped up several more times during Pichai’s speech and those of the other speakers.
The message repetition was noteworthy because, like Facebook, Google’s main business model has been collecting as much information on its users as possible to better target ads. But the company’s relatively recent push into consumer hardware means it could start locking down its platforms like Apple.
Here’s one example: Google Maps will now include Incognito mode, which makes it harder for Google to collect personally identifiable information while you use the app. This mode already exists in Google Chrome and Apple’s Safari web browsers. When enabled, the setting clears web history, cookies, and other browsing breadcrumbs after each session.
Another privacy feature Google announced during the keynote presentation was tied to its newest piece of hardware, the Nest Hub Max smart assistant.
The Nest Hub Max is the big sibling to the Google Home Hub launched last year. There is a 10-inch screen, front-facing camera, and microphone. One of the more advanced things it can do is remember faces so that when someone walks into a room, his or her unique profile will appear on screen.
In order to do this, Google has to process facial recognition and store that information. But it’s now doing so on the actual device so that “camera data never leaves the device.” Apple has made this on-device processing—rather than sending personal data to be processed in the cloud—a key privacy differentiator for the iPhone.
But perhaps the strongest privacy strategy Google has to compete against Apple on privacy is in a type of artificial intelligence called Federated Learning.
Federated Learning is a type of AI machine learning that doesn’t rely on collecting vast amounts of data and processing it all in a centralized place (i.e. on a company’s servers). Instead, this technology allows individual devices to process and learn from data on their own, keeping personal data on those devices.
Think of it like this: Google needs to push all your photo data to the cloud so it can sort and recommend different pictures and videos. Apple can do all that AI processing on individual iPhones, thanks in part to its proprietary Bionic chip. The fact that Google is making its own hardware is likely an important enabler for the shift to privacy.
Google’s previous reliance on third party manufacturers for its smartphones and tablets meant the company had less say in how its services — Google search, Google Maps, and even Android — ultimately handles user data.
But now that the new Google Pixel 3A and 3A XL phones are out—to rave reviews and competitive price of under $500—Google has a real chance to catch up to Apple and do the right thing by protecting customer privacy. The key difference from Apple, however, is that Google wants to give users the choice to be more private, whereas Apple has always positioned privacy as part of the default design of its products. (Incognito mode in Google Maps is opt-in, for example.)
With mounting scrutiny from the public and regulators around the world, Google has no choice but to either focus more on user privacy or face potentially grave consequences.
The European Union is currently seeking some $9.3 billion in antitrust fines from Google over its dominance in the mobile, browser, and search markets. In the U.S., lawmakers in Congress grilled Pichai in an open hearing last year over concerns on data collection, among several other related issues.
Given Google’s heavy reliance on user data for its business model, a strong focus on privacy and security may be tricky, especially given the company’s financial standing.
Alphabet, Google’s parent company, released its earnings report last month with disappointing results. Total sales for the first quarter came in about $1 billion less than expected. Sales growth from ads, which makes up the bulk of its business, slowed from 24 percent a year ago to 15 percent.
Google’s annual I/O developer conference wraps Thursday.