Reuters Data Show Google’s New Cloud Boss Has Big Task to Catch Rivals

Google has a new cloud computing boss and big ambitions to someday produce more revenue from that business than from advertising. Now comes the hard part: winning over big-spending customers.

Alphabet Inc’s cloud computing division remains a distant third behind Amazon.com Inc and Microsoft Corp in terms of global revenue, according to analysts’ estimates. A few major companies manage their data on Google’s servers. But Google has nowhere near the vast customer base of Amazon, according to a new Reuters analysis of company regulatory filings.

Businesses generally are not required to disclose their cloud vendors. Reuters found 311 out of about 5,000 worldwide that did so in 2018. While not comprehensive, the data provide a window into Google’s challenge.

Thirty five of those companies named Google as a cloud provider. The largest by market capitalization were oil major Total SA and bank HSBC Holdings Plc.

Amazon Web Services led with 227 clients, including travel company Expedia Group Inc and industrials giant Siemens AG. Microsoft’s Azure cloud had 69 firms, among them weapons maker Axon Enterprise Inc and business data firm Dun & Bradstreet Co. Thirty four of the companies cited multiple clouds.

The previously untracked data show the work ahead for Thomas Kurian, who is weeks on the job as chief executive of Google Cloud. Kurian has vowed to double down where Google has seen promising results. Specifically, he plans to target governments and top companies in retail, manufacturing, healthcare, media and finance.

“A lot of our focus as we go forward is making sure that our sales organization has the background and the ability to sell to large, more traditional companies,” Kurian said at a Goldman Sachs investor conference last week. “There’s enormous appetite in those companies to consider Google.”

Google declined to comment or make Kurian available for an interview.

People familiar with his plans said he is looking to reshape his division’s culture. A key part is developing or acquiring easy-to-use, industry-specific corporate applications, an area that Amazon and Microsoft do not dominate.

“It’s about the on-ramp onto their cloud,” said Daniel Ives, a New York-based financial analyst following the cloud industry for Wedbush Securities. “The main way to get that is through applications.”

A 22-year veteran of Oracle Corp, Kurian gave the database company fresh life as the product leader behind its move to selling cloud services. His hire is already making potential customers reconsider Google, said Ray Wang, founder of Constellation Research, a Monta Vista, Calif.-based firm that helps businesses negotiate cloud deals.

“They’ve worked with him,” Wang said. “There’s a trust factor that wasn’t there before.”

Kurian also must reassure some investors bewildered by Google’s cloud ambitions: Diversifying revenue beyond advertising is a plus, but it is not coming cheap.

Google, Microsoft and Amazon combined spent nearly $53 billion on capital expenses last year, driven by data center projects to house their clouds.

With gross margins of 20 percent or less, selling cloud storage or tools for which customers need specialized staff is less lucrative for a small vendor, industry experts said. But margins on the type of software Kurian likely wants to offer can top even the 60 percent of Google’s ad business.

“The next wave of growth is going to have to come from the heavy hitting applications,” said Kerry Liu, chief executive at Rubikloud, which helps retailers with cloud projects.

‘Geeky, Techy platform’

Google got serious about the cloud around 2016, five years after Amazon Web Services had become a multibillion-dollar behemoth. But Google’s reputation for limited customer support has attracted mostly newer businesses or those with significant tech know-how.

Mike Fisher, Etsy Inc’s chief technology officer, said Google’s superior AI tools helped win over the New York-based crafts marketplace. Fisher expects data-crunching algorithms to account for 25 percent of its server use this year, up from 10 percent last year.

“We’ve been more pleasantly surprised than we thought,” Fisher said of the cloud’s benefits.

Advertising software company OpenX recently agreed to spend at least $110 million on Google Cloud over five years. The Pasadena, Calif. firm bet its clients would benefit from transacting on the same infrastructure as Google’s ads system. “It’s a bit more of a geeky, techy platform, but we’re that kind of company,” said Chief Technology Officer Paul Ryan.

Kurian’s plan

To attract more traditional corporate clients, Google Cloud will need to do some handholding, executives at its partners and rivals said.

Kurian is well-suited to the role. Two of his former colleagues said his follow-up and candid disclosures about product limitations helped seal deals at Oracle. An early riser, Kurian impressed staff with his meticulous preparation for morning meetings as well as his recall of the tiniest details of clients’ systems from years before.

Kurian also managed billions of dollars in acquisitions at Oracle, including the purchases of software firms BEA Systems and Taleo.

Applications could come through similar deals and internally: Google is testing product recommendation software for shopping apps, a person familiar with the project said, to add to its small set of specialized tools.

Kurian told the investor conference that “you will see us continue to expand our footprint there.”

Samsung’s Folding Phone Aims to Rejuvenate Smartphone Market

Ten years after launching its Galaxy line of smartphones, Samsung Electronics unveiled a new form of the ubiquitous device — a phone that seamlessly turns into a tablet — to create some new excitement in the sluggish global smartphone market.

At an event in San Francisco on Wednesday, Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Fold, its long-awaited foldable smartphone. Only FlexPai, by Royale, a U.S.-based Chinese company, has anything like it on the market, but the FlexPai has garnered mixed reviews.

Samsung ignored the FlexPai’s existence and unveiled the Galaxy Fold as if it were the first of its kind.

“The size of our screens is still fundamentally limited by the size of our devices until now,” said Justin Denison, Samsung senior vice president of product marketing. “With the Galaxy Fold, we are creating a new dimension for your phone and your life. We are giving you a device that doesn’t just define category, it defies category.”

 

WATCH: Samsung Rolls Out New Smartphones

Three apps at once for multitasking

When closed, the Galaxy Fold is a smartphone. When opened, the Fold turns into an expansive tablet.

The device is for the impatient multitaskers because users can run three apps at the same time and continuously use the apps while moving from phone to tablet.

The Galaxy Fold is slated to go on sale in late April. It will cost nearly $2,000. That price tag caused sticker shock at the event, eliciting gasps and some grumbling among the audience.

But it appears the Galaxy Fold is in keeping with Samsung’s aim to generate buzz for the smartphone market, while also aiming for the market’s high end, where Apple and its iPhone dominate.

Slumping smartphone sales

The challenge smartphone makers have faced in recent years is that consumers hold on to the devices for longer and longer, seeing few reasons to upgrade.

The leader in worldwide smartphone sales, the South Korean electronics firm is hoping to give consumers a few reasons to trade in their older ones, and generate buzz about what smartphones can be in the future.

Samsung’s new line of Galaxy smartphone, the S10, comes in three models, S10e, S10 and the S10+. The S10 models have bigger screens, more battery life and more cameras packed in each device than earlier Galaxy lines.

​Ultrasound fingerprint scanner

The S10 has the world’s first “ultrasonic fingerprint scanner,” which uses sound waves that bounce from a user’s fingertip to unlock a device. It’s unclear if the fingerprint scanner will work through screen savers. And the S10 can act as a charger for other devices such as watches.

The S10 line, with a price starting at $749, will start shipping March 8.

Samsung executives say that with the firm’s foldable phone and new S10 line, it is ushering in the mobile era for the next decade.

“For those who say everything possible has already been done,” said DJ Koh, president and CEO of Samsung’s IT and mobile communications division. “I say open your mind and get ready for the dawn of a new mobile era.”

Samsung Rolls Out New Smartphones

Samsung has unveiled its newest line of smartphones. The top-selling smartphone maker hopes to inject excitement into a sluggish global smartphone market. Michelle Quinn attended the event in San Francisco on Wednesday and gives us a look.

Students Build City of the Future

A future of rising oceans and stronger storms awaits the next generation as the climate warms. It will take talented engineers and city planners to tackle those challenges. The annual Future City competition aims to get middle school students excited about learning the skills they’ll need. More than 40,000 students from 1,500 schools participated this year. VOA’s Steve Baragona was at the finals in Washington.

WhatsApp Bug Lets Users Bypass New Privacy Controls 

A security bug is allowing users to bypass new privacy controls introduced by Facebook-owned messaging service WhatsApp on iPhones this month, the service said Wednesday after users posted about the problem on social 

media. 

The disclosure came as messaging and other applications race to improve security and privacy and as Facebook Inc. is addressing criticism for not safeguarding privacy. 

WhatsApp’s new privacy feature allows iPhone users to require Touch ID or Face ID — fingerprint or facial recognition — to open the app, but users were able to bypass those log-in methods by using the iPhone’s “share” function to send files over WhatsApp. 

Users can set verification to be required immediately upon log-in, meaning they would need to supply Touch ID or Face ID each time they open WhatsApp, or at intervals of up to an hour, allowing them to toggle between apps on the iPhone for that time period. 

The security system fails when users select any interval option other than “immediately.” 

A user named “u/de_X_ter” wrote a Reddit post detailing the problem Tuesday. Reuters verified the bug. 

“We are aware of the issue and a fix will be available shortly. In the meantime, we recommend that people set the screen lock option to ‘immediately,’ ” a WhatsApp spokesperson said by email. 

Last month, a user discovered a privacy flaw with Apple’s FaceTime group video chat software, which allowed iPhone users to see and hear others before they accept a video call. Apple rolled out an iOS update to fix the issue. 

Apple did not immediately respond to questions on whether a similar fix would be required for the WhatsApp glitch.

Microsoft Detects Hacking Targeting Europe Democracy Groups

A hacking group has targeted European democratic institutions including think tanks and non-profit groups ahead of highly anticipated EU parliamentary elections in May, Microsoft said.

The company said Tuesday that a group called Strontium targeted email accounts for more than 100 people in six European countries working for the German Council on Foreign Relations, the Aspen Institutes in Europe and the German Marshall Fund.

Microsoft said in a blog post that it is continuing to investigate but is confident many of the attacks originated from Strontium, a group that others call Fancy Bear or APT28. U.S. authorities have tied the group to Russia’s main intelligence agency, known as the GRU.

Microsoft said the attacks occurred from September to December, and that it notified the organizations after discovering they were targeted.

Tech companies have been accused of not doing enough to prevent hacking attacks and the spread of fake news, which some say influenced major elections like the U.S. presidential vote and the Brexit referendum.

Hundreds of millions of people are set to vote for more than 700 European Union parliamentary lawmakers in May, and the recent rise of populist parties has raised the prospect of euroskeptic politicians gaining more seats and potentially undermining the bloc.

The German Marshall Fund has done extensive work researching and documenting Russian attempts at interfering in elections as part of its broader efforts on democracy-building and trans-Atlantic cooperation.

In a statement, the German Marshall Fund president, Karen Donfried, said the attacks were unsurprising for an organization “dedicated to advancing and promoting democratic values.”

The organization said its systems did not appear to be compromised.

The German Council on Foreign Relations declined to offer details, citing the ongoing investigation. But a council spokeswoman, Eva-Maria McCormack, called for “strong political and public attention” to the issue of cyberattacks.

Amazon’s ‘Collaborative’ Robots Offer Peek into the Future

Hundreds of orange robots zoom and whiz back and forth like miniature bumper cars — but instead of colliding, they’re following a carefully plotted path to transport thousands of items ordered from online giant Amazon.

A young woman fitted out in a red safety vest, with pouches full of sensors and radio transmitters on her belt and a tablet in hand, moves through their complicated choreography.

This robot ballet takes place at the new Amazon order fulfillment center that opened on Staten Island in New York in September.

In an 80,000-square-meter (855,000-square-foot) space filled with the whirring sounds of machinery, the Seattle-based e-commerce titan has deployed some of the most advanced instruments in the rapidly growing field of robots capable of collaborating with humans.

The high-tech vest, worn at Amazon warehouses since last year, is key to the whole operation — it allows 21-year-old Deasahni Bernard to safely enter the robot area, to pick up an object that has fallen off its automated host, for example, or check if a battery needs replacing.

Bernard only has to press a button and the robots stop or slow or readjust their dance to accommodate her.  

Human-robot ‘symphony’

Amazon now counts more than 25 robotic centers, which chief technologist for Amazon Robotics Tye Brady says have changed the way the company operates.

“What used to take more than a day now takes less than an hour,” he said, explaining they are able to fit about 40 percent more goods inside the same footprint.

For some, these fulfillment centers, which have helped cement Amazon’s dominant position in global online sales, are a perfect illustration of the looming risk of humans being pushed out of certain business equations in favor of artificial intelligence.

But Brady argues that robot-human collaboration at the Staten Island facility, which employs more than 2,000 people, has given them a “beautiful edge” over the competition.

Bernard, who was a supermarket cashier before starting at Amazon, agrees.

“I like this a lot better than my previous jobs,” she told AFP, as Brady looked on approvingly.  

What role do Amazon employees play in what Brady calls the human-robot “symphony?”

In Staten Island, on top of tech-vest wearers like Bernard, there are “stowers,” “pickers” and “packers” who respectively load up products, match up products meant for the same customers and build shipping boxes — all with the help of screens and scanners.

At every stage, the goal is to “extend people’s capabilities” so the humans can focus on problem-solving and intervene if necessary, according to Brady.  

At the age of 51, he has worked with robotics for 33 years, previously as a spacecraft engineer for MIT and on lunar landing systems of the Draper Laboratory in Massachusetts.

He is convinced the use of “collaborative robots” is the key to future human productivity — and job growth.

Since Amazon went all-in on robotics with the 2012 acquisition of logistics robot-maker Kiva, gains have been indisputable, Brady says.

They’ve created 300,000 new jobs, bringing the total number of worldwide Amazon employees up to 645,000, not counting seasonal jobs.

“It’s a myth that robotics and automation kills jobs, it’s just a myth,” according to Brady.

“The data really can’t be denied on this: the more robots we add to our fulfillment centers, the more jobs we are creating,” he said, without mentioning the potential for lost jobs at traditional stores.

The ‘R2D2’ model

For Brady, the ideal example of human-robot collaboration is the relationship between “R2D2” and Luke Skywalker from “Star Wars.”

Their partnership, in which “R2D2” is always ready to use his computing powers to pull people out of desperate situations “is a great example of how humans and robots can work together,” he said.

But despite Brady’s enthusiasm for a robotic future, many are suspicious of the trend — a wariness that extends to the corporate giant, which this month scrapped high-profile plans for a new New York headquarters in the face of local protests.

Attempts by Amazon employees to unionize, at Staten Island and other sites, have so far been successfully fought back by the company, further fuelling criticism.

At a press briefing held last month as part of the unionization push, one employee of the facility, Rashad Long, spoke out about what he said were unsustainable work conditions.

“We are not robots, we are human beings,” Long said.

Sharing the benefits

Many suspect Amazon’s investment in robotics centers aims to eventually automate positions currently held by humans.

For Kevin Lynch, an expert in robotics from Northwestern University near Chicago, the development of collaborative robots is “inevitable” and will indeed eventually eliminate certain jobs, such as the final stage of packing at Amazon for instance.

“I also think other jobs will be created,” he said. “But it’s easier to predict the jobs that will be lost than the jobs that will be created.”

“Robotics and artificial intelligence bring clear benefits to humanity, in terms of our health, welfare, happiness, and quality of life,” said Lynch, who believes public policy has a key role to play in ensuring those benefits are shared, and that robotics and AI do not sharpen economic inequality.

“The growth of robotics and AI is inevitable,” he said. “The real question is, ‘how do we prepare for our future with robots?”

App-Based Delivery Men Highlight India’s Growing Gig Economy

Suraj Nachre works long hours and regularly misses meals but he treasures his job as a driver for a food delivery startup — working in a booming industry that highlights India’s expanding apps-based gig-economy.

The 26-year-old is one of hundreds of thousands of young Indians who, armed with their smartphones and motorcycles, courier dinners to offices and homes ordered at the swipe of a finger.

A surge in the popularity of food-ordering apps like Uber Eats and Swiggy provides a welcome source of income for many as India’s unemployment rate sits at a reported 45-year high.

But they also shine a spotlight on the prevalence of short-term contracts in the economy, raising questions about workers’ rights and conditions and the long-term viability of the jobs.

“(These delivery workers) are treated as independent contractors so labor laws governing employees are not applicable and they lack job security,” Gautam Ghosh, a human resources consultant, told AFP.

“While jobs created by food delivery apps are crucial, they may not exist in 10 years so for the majority of youngsters they are a stopgap arrangement,” he added.

India’s army of food delivery drivers, mostly men but some women too, became a talking point on social media late last year when a rider for the Zomato platform was filmed sampling a customer’s order.

The video, apparently shot on a mobile phone, showed the man taking bites from several food parcels before wrapping them again. It sparked anger online and he was promptly sacked.

Rushing around

Many internet users rallied to his defense, however. They insisted that the two-minute clip showed he was hungry and desperate, and said Zomato had acted harshly in dismissing him.

“It is a challenging job,” said Nachre, expressing sympathy for the unnamed delivery man who was working in the southern city of Madurai before being fired.

“We work 12 hours straight in soaring heat and heavy rains. Sometimes I don’t even have time to eat,” he added.

Nachre drives for the Scootsy platform. He leaves home at 9:00 am and does not return until after 1:00 am. Navigating Mumbai’s abysmal traffic makes work stressful, he says. 

“We’re always in a rush to deliver and customers keep calling us. We know we have to be on our toes all the time or customers might complain and we may lose our jobs,” Nachre told AFP.

India’s food delivery apps, backed by major international investment, are offering new avenues of employment for Indian youngsters who lack higher education but possess a driving license.

Their importance to the likes of Nachre was highlighted recently when a leaked government report said India’s unemployment rate was 6.1 percent in 2017-18, the highest since the 1970s.

“This job is lucrative,” said Nachre, who has no post-school qualifications and earns a minimum of 18,000 rupees ($253) a month. 

In his previous job running errands at an office he made only 8,000 rupees.

The app-based food delivery industry is worth an estimated $7 billion to Asia’s third-largest economy, according to market research firm Statista, and is expanding rapidly.

Swiggy announced at the end of last year that it had received $1 billion in funding from foreign backers including South Africa’s Naspers and China’s Tencent.

Foreign investment

That put the valuation of the five-year-old company, headquartered in Bangalore, at more than $3 billion.

Zomato, Swiggy’s nearest challenger for market dominance, is being aggressively backed by Alibaba’s Ant Financial. The Chinese giant recently pumped in $210 million, valuing the Delhi-based startup at $2 billion. 

The food delivery platforms are soaring as India’s growing middle classes take advantage of better smartphone connectivity and cheap data plans that are fueling a gig economy centered on technology.

Informal, casual labor has long been the bedrock of India’s economy but now Indians can access a host of services on their phones from hiring a rickshaw to booking a plumber or yoga teacher.

FlexingIt, a global consulting agency, estimates the country’s gig economy has the potential to grow up to $30 billion by 2025.

Analysts say it is time the government started to regulate the sector.

“There is no regulator overlooking this sector. Working conditions definitely need to get better for these workers,” Anurag Mahur, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers told AFP.

Thirty-year-old Tushar Khandagale, who delivers for Zomato, is the sole breadwinner in his family.

With millions of youngsters entering India’s workforce every year and looking for a job, Khandagale would relish a long-term contract that offered him some security.

“I hope to stay in this job. It pays well and my family depend on me,” he said.

Tech Enables Holocaust Survivors to Engage in Conversations Beyond the Grave

The life history of Holocaust survivors is being kept alive in a very real and personal way with the help of technology. Imagine speaking to a video image of a genocide survivor and getting answers back as if you’re having a conversation with the real person. That is now possible with a project called Dimensions in Testimony developed by the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation.  VOA’s Elizabeth Lee has the details on how it works.

Future Styles: Could Virtual Clothes Reduce Damage of Fast Fashion?

Striking a pose in the mirror, Swedish model and stylist Lisa Anckarman shows off a new jacket with a difference on Instagram – though it fits her perfectly in the photo, it’s a virtual design that does not exist in real life.

She is among a number of trendsetters embracing cutting-edge technology that offers the opportunity to sate appetites for fast fashion while dramatically slashing the emissions, pollution and labor abuses linked to the garment industry.

“I really liked the idea and the aspect that it’s good for the environment,” Anckarman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as she discussed her virtual styling. Actually I think it maybe looked too good because people didn’t really get that it was digital.”

“People were asking me ‘Where did you buy this?’ and I was saying, ‘It’s digital’, and they were like, ‘No, at what shop did you buy it?'”

Fashion is one of the world’s most damaging industries – it is responsible for about 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, sucks up scarce water and creates vast amounts of pollution and waste.

But the desire for the latest look is only increasing. Global fashion sales grew by about 4.5 percent to $1.7 trillion in 2018, found analysts at McKinsey and Company, who said social media is bringing trends to consumers at an ever swifter pace.

Some businesses are now looking to meet the demand for new styles through digital designs, with Scandinavian fashion firm Carlings convincing its customers to pay real cash for virtual clothes that are digitally “fitted” onto users’ photographs.

“It was kind of scary (launching it) but the response was so overwhelming that we were convinced we were on to something,” said Ronny Mikalsen, the firm’s brand director.

The first Carlings designs, costing between 10 euros ($11) and 30 euros, sold out and a second digital collection is due to be released in spring 2019.

High fashion, low emissions

Digital clothes create far lower emissions than physical clothes as they cut out the long, labor-intensive process of sourcing materials, producing fabrics, making garments and shipping them worldwide.

While virtual styles may still be niche, experts say they are set to grow as technology seeps into more aspects of human lives.

Younger generations in particular are keen to curate their online personas as much as their real-life image, said Matthew Drinkwater, the head of the Fashion Innovation Agency based at the London College of Fashion.

On Instagram you have to ask “how much of that is a real person and how much is an enhanced version or a way they wish to portray themselves?” he said.

The increasing use of filters on social media that can add cute dog ears or a flower crown on top of a photo or edit video in real time to make people vomit rainbows shows how people are already using digital effects to play with their image, he said.

“In a very simple sense people are beginning to enhance or alter the way that they look,” he said. “You can begin to see a drift towards this merging of physical and digital.”

Shopping habits are already changing to meet the demands of online images: nearly one in 10 people have bought clothes to wear once, with the aim of sharing their outfit on social media, according to a survey of 2,000 Britons by finance firm Barclaycard last summer.

“If you get caught wearing the same clothes too many times it’s seen as a bad thing,” said Morten Grubak from the Virtue creative agency, who came up with the Carlings campaign.

“One of the worst things you can write under images is ‘Not again’, making the hint they have posted that outfit before.”

‘Physics-defying’ outfits

Some involved in virtual fashion said they had set out to offer a new solution to the industry’s climate damage and waste rather than trying to persuade consumers to buy less.

“Right now (environmental campaigns) are always about, like, how much water did we save producing these jeans and people don’t care about that,” said Grubak.

“Instead of getting angry with people doing fashion on Instagram, how can we innovatively solve that problem by adding a new platform?”

Other companies said they had taken a deliberate decision to avoid the traditional fashion market entirely.

“We’ve made a very clear point of never wanting to be a physical fashion brand,” said Kerry Murphy of Dutch digital fashion house The Fabricant, which creates only virtual designs.

“We believe the world does not need more clothing. It’s an incredibly wasteful and polluting industry. That’s why we very consciously said we want to re-imagine fashion.”

Digital design also opens up new possibilities to play with fashion, from using fabrics like rubber which would be relatively uncomfortable in real life through to dabbling in exotic skins or even physics-defying fantasies.

“Clothing will definitely have a different meaning because it does not have the same functionality as physical clothing,” Murphy said.

“People can wear fire or they wear rain or they can be a dinosaur, so the possibilities are limitless.”

Those involved in the digital design industry said it will not offer a complete solution to fashion’s emissions and waste problems, but it can help by encouraging people to update their existing wardrobes with virtual flourishes.

And as technology advances, virtual fashion could sashay into the mainstream, said Drinkwater.

Within a decade, people could regularly wear high-tech glasses that can apply digital effects over what the wearer sees in real life, he predicted, meaning virtual clothes will no longer be restricted to a computer or phone screen.

“Could you imagine a point where your existing clothes could be constantly updated through digital design? Could we be downloading content that could portray ourselves differently? Would that stop us from simply buying more product?” he asked. “That potential is really quite exciting.”

($1 = 0.8834 euros)