March 24, 2010

Tech 101: What you need to know about Google vs. China

Posted: 12:39 PM ET

Tech news is complicated enough. But throw in some international relations and a heavy dose of spying allegations, and you've got yourself a news story that plenty of people talk about, but few people really understand.

That's the Google vs. China story in a nutshell. But don't check out just yet. This blog is here to help, with answers to several important (and easy-to-digest) questions about the Google-China situation.

Let me know if there are further confusions you'd like to have cleared up. And, if you decide to whip some of these facts out at your next cocktail party, report back on how it goes.

When did Google go into China, and why?

On January 27, 2006, some eight years after Google first incorporated, the San Francisco, California-based search engine decided to launch, a Chinese version of its Web site. Google's global Web site - - had been available in China before that, but it was censored and at times shut down by the Chinese government. It didn't work very well.

China's communist leadership restricts Internet content and political speech, so Google had to agree to censor some of its Internet search results in order to do business in China.

Still, the company argued that its presence in China would help open up the system over time. And the company said its search engine would work better if Google, rather than China, did the filtering.

"Our decision was based on a judgment that will make a meaningful - though imperfect - contribution to the overall expansion of access to information in China," Elliot Schrage, Google's then-VP of communications, testified in 2006.

Are there financial reasons for Google to be in China, too?

Of course. China has more Web users than any other country in the world - nearly 400 million of them, according to the latest reports. So there is definitely money to be made in China. Google made $300 million in China last year alone, according to CNNMoney. And the Chinese Internet market is expected to grow considerably as the Asian country continues to industrialize.

What happened this week? Did Google pull out of China?

Not exactly. Google said it would stop filtering search results in China. It accomplished this with a logistical change: Search results from mainland China now are directed to, a Hong Kong site that isn't filtered, instead of, which Google stopped filtering on Monday.

Many people assume China will block Google's unfiltered site. But Google's move put that decision in the Chinese government's hands. The search engine posted a chart, which has been dubbed the "evil meter," where people can see which Google services are currently blocked in China.

As of Wednesday morning, the chart said Web searches remained active in China.

What changed to make Google stop going along with Chinese censorship laws?

Google says Chinese hackers tapped into the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists and conducted a "highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure." China denies these claims, but the situation caused Google to promise to stop censoring its results in China unless some kind of new agreement could be arranged between Google and China.

Here's what the company said in a blog post this January:

These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered - combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web - have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China.

Why would it be a big deal for Google not to be in China?

Some say it could sour U.S.-China relations, although a spokesman for China's foreign ministry says this will not be the case. Others say it could reduce access to information and Web services in China. But one caveat there: Google is not the dominant search engine in China. A site called Baidu is.

There are obvious implications for Google's financial future if it, indeed, does not have a strong foothold in the largest market of Internet searchers in the world. And some analysts says the move could cause China to withdraw further from the Internet and from the globalizing world.

Do regular people in China care about whether Google is there or not?

Academics and business types have complained that their work will become more difficult without Google's search site around. National Public Radio reports that Chinese citizens are referring to Monday, the day Google stopped censoring in China, as "G Day," an apparent reference to the D-Day invasion of Normandy during World War II.

One professor told NPR that Google has "overestimated its importance" in China. "As a researcher and an English-speaking person, I use Google English a lot. But for most Chinese netizens, they don't care about Google Chinese version," Deng Jianguo, an associate professor at Fudan University, told the news organization.

Does Google censor Web content in other countries?

In a word: Yes. Google caters its search site to censorship and privacy laws of countries where it operates. CNNMoney has a good round-up of some of these rules. Among them: In Germany, France and Poland, it's illegal to publish material that denies the Holocaust. So Google filters search results that do so. And in Turkey, videos that the government says mock "Turkishness," are filtered by Google for its Web site.

That story also provides an important detail about why Google's censorship policies are important:

Google controls nearly two-thirds of the world's search results, making it the Internet gateway for most people. As a result of that clout, Google's censorship policies are closely watched.

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Filed under: China • Google

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March 19, 2010

A bad week for Google?

Posted: 03:22 PM ET

By some accounts, this week hasn't been so great for Google.

The first bit of bad news concerns sales of Google's Nexus One phone.

On Tuesday, the market analytics firm Flurry released a report saying initial sales of Google's Nexus One phone have been slim compared to the Droid and the iPhone. The firm compared sales of those those phones over the first 74 days they were on the market. In a blog post, Flurry says it chose that time period because that's how long it took the original iPhone to sell 1 million handsets when it was released in 2007.

By comparison, only 135,000 Nexus One phones were sold in that phone's first 74 days. More from Flurry's post:

As Google and Apple continue to battle for the mobile marketplace, Google Nexus One may go down as a grand, failed experiment or one that ultimately helped Google learn something that will prove important in years to come.

Google responded to that news by playing up the Android Market, the online store where people with Android phones - like the Nexus One and Droid - buy applications, according to Engadget

Google issued a statement to CNN, saying:

We’re pleased with our sales volumes and with how well the Nexus One has been received by our customers. The Nexus One is one of a fast growing number of Android handsets which have been brought to market through the open Android ecosystem. Our partners are shipping more than 60,000 Android handsets each day compared with 30,000 just three months ago.

Not everyone says this news is so bad, though. Concern about the Nexus One's slow start is "more than a little ridiculous," writes Derek Thompson at The Atlantic:

Google is still a software company dabbling in hardware. And its mobile smart phone software is very, very good.

The other potentially troublesome story concerns Google's search traffic.

Microsoft's Bing search engine appears to be making slight inroads on Google, which still dominates that territory. A Nielsen report, issued Monday, found Microsoft searches in February made up 12.5 percent of the search market, compared to 10.9 percent in January. Meanwhile, Google still accounts for 65.2 percent of all U.S. searches.

The Wall Street Journal's D: All Things Digital blog notes that the shift in the search market is "slow going":

... Bing is clearly whittling away at both Google and Yahoo’s search market share. Of course, the flip side is that with Yahoo in decline, the search side of the Microsoft-Yahoo partnership isn’t showing all that much growth.

What do you think? Is Google, clearly one of the world's dominant tech companies, in any trouble here?

Was its jump into the mobile phone hardware market misguided, or do you think Nexus One sales may still take off? We welcome your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Filed under: Android • Google • iPhone • Microsoft Corp.

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The man who teaches computers to listen

Posted: 08:53 AM ET

Michael Cohen, Google’s voice-technology guru, is in the business of knowing what you’ll say - before you say it.

That may sound creepy, but that’s essentially how voice-recognition technology works these days.

In a conference room at Google’s Mountain View, California, headquarters, Cohen recently explained this complicated process by scribbling a mess of circles, words and arrows in blue ink on a whiteboard.

He ends up drawing a sort of assembly line:

On the left, words go in. Arrows direct them to various circles and boxes, which process the speech using complex equations. Some boxes analyze the sounds in the words. If “the cat” goes through this whiteboard factory, the sounds for “th” and “c” may get picked up because of how they look in digital format.

But the process doesn’t stop there. It would be far too time-consuming and computer-intensive to analyze every sound. So Google’s computers start guessing at what comes next, Cohen said.

What word would likely come after the phrase, “the cat”? Well, a verb, probably. "Is," “sat” or “jumped” would be good bets. So, based on the fact that other people have used verbs after the phrase “the cat” before, Google’s computers start guessing what word is likely to come next.

“You can think of the whole thing as just circles and arrows, and if you’re in this circle, there’s a certain probability that you’ll go to this next one,” Cohen said. Google's computers draw out these paths, based on statistics, and then spit out the text that goes with the correct path.

This guessing game works for sounds, words and sentences. It's not the computer really understands what you're saying, it's just that it can often guess what you'll say and how you might say it.

This only gets trickier the more you think about it, and the more questions you ask.

What about accents, for example?

Cohen has a noticeable Brooklyn, New York, accent because that's where he's from. Instead of saying "car," he says "caah." Instead of "human," he says "you-muhn." If you're a person, it's still obvious what he's saying. But to a computer, that's really confusing. All of us talk differently, and we don't always say words the same way twice. So Google's computers have to work hard to understand these differences, and they use context and statistics to do so.

"Luckily, there are a lot of people from Brooklyn, so it recognizes me well," he said.

Google's equations account for 10,000 different kinds of sounds. That's obviously way more than the 26 letters in the English alphabet, but if you think about it, it makes some sense. When you say "map," you make a different "a" sound than when you say "tap." That because your lips come together differently, Cohen said.

To further complicate things, every time the computers make a guess about what a person is saying, they have literally trillions of sound combinations to choose from, he said.

As I wrote on today, voice technology has been around for a while, but it's seeing a sort of Renaissance on mobile phones. Google has been demoing a number of speech products lately, including one for the Nexus One phone that lets people who speak different languages talk to each other. Bing and Google both have voice search functions for mobile phones, in case it's easier to say what you're looking for than to type it on a mobile keyboard.

What do you think? Is speech technology good enough for people to start using it regularly? Do you use voice search on your phone? And also let me know if you have further questions about how the technology works.

I've starting using voice search on my phone from time to time. And, after talking to Cohen and several other researchers like him, each time I do, I'm amazed that any words come back - whether they're right or not.

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Filed under: Google

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March 18, 2010

Google entering the 'smart TV' market, reports say

Posted: 03:09 PM ET

Google and its partners are looking to become the latest players to beam Web content onto your television, according to media reports.

The Web search giant, along with Intel and Sony, would integrate applications like Twitter and the Picasa photo site onto TV screens, according to the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

Both reports attributed news of the project, said to be in its early stages, to unnamed sources. Google did not return a message from CNN seeking comment.

Google would open its Android smartphone operating system to developers to use for the television project, according to the reports.

Projects based on the software could begin popping up as early as this summer, the Times reported.

The move would follow several established companies and some startups working to more fluidly combine Web content and television viewing.

Earlier this month, TiVo announced that subscribers will be able to pull Internet content, music and movies onto their televisions more easily with a new Premiere service.

The "Boxee Box," which won the title of "Last Gadget Standing" at January's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, lets users search and store Web content and either play it on television or share it on social-networking sites.

California-based company Roku has also rolled out a digital video player that integrates television, Web content and a video library.

What do you think? Would you welcome Google's entry into the TV business?

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Filed under: consumer tech • Google • television

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March 16, 2010

The 5 cheesiest tech slogans?

Posted: 11:21 AM ET

At a keynote address on Monday, Twitter CEO Evan Williams said the aim of his company is this:

"Be a force for good."

TechCrunch writer Michael Arrington, who reported this quote from the South By Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, said the statement made him cringe.

Any company that's out for profit cannot claim simply to "be a force for good," he writes:

... it’s basically impossible to balance a profit motive with a goodness motive. And in fact the nice thing about capitalism is that everyone acting in their own self interest tends to be good for everyone else, too, if appropriate government forces are put in place to stop monopolies, pollution, etc. Being a socialist is a great way to get laid in college but it’s no way to run a society.

With that in mind, here's our list of the five cheesiest - or otherwise bizarre - tech company mottos, slogans, mission statements and unofficial tags. Can any profit-seeking company claim to be in it for the betterment of humanity? (Ben & Jerry's ice cream tried until investors stepped in, as NPR explains). And do they have to wear their ideals on their sleeve in such bumper-sticker fashion?

Let us know what you think in the comments section. And, without further ado, here's the list:

Google: "Don't be evil." ("Star Wars," anyone?)

Apple: "Think different." (Like the rest of us? Part of an older ad campaign.)

Microsoft: "Your potential. Our passion." (Well, at least they're passionate).

Facebook: "To give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected." (A little long-winded for a mission statement, and doesn't include any money-making goals).

And, of course, Twitter: "Be a force for good." (See above).

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Filed under: Facebook • Google • Internet • Twitter

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March 5, 2010

YouTube auto-captions: a work in progress

Posted: 03:27 PM ET

I logged on to YouTube today, eager to test the automatic-captioning feature made available to all users Thursday.

I plugged in my headphones, clicked on the first video I saw - a clip from the Food Network show, “Semi-Homemade Cooking” - and turned on captioning by clicking the "cc" icon in the lower right-hand corner of the screen.

Before the captions appeared, a message popped up that read, “Please note: Transcribed Audio is an experimental service that uses Google’s speech recognition technologies to provide automated captions for video.”

Experimental - they weren’t kidding.

“I’m just going to take this and kind of free form it,” host Sandra Lee said as she prodded a loaf of raw meat. However, the caption read, “I’m just going to take that a tax break for it.”

Other mangled captions have appeared on Twitter and on the new Web meme,

In a post on the Official YouTube Blog, a spokesperson acknowledges “auto-captions aren’t perfect,” but asks user to be patient. “Our speech recognition technology gets better every day.”

Here's how it works:

“Auto-captioning combines some of the speech-to-text algorithms found in Google's Voice Search to automatically generate video captions when requested by a viewer … Just like any speech recognition application, auto-captions require a clearly spoken audio track,” the blog states. “Videos with background noise or a muffled voice can't be auto-captioned.” 

A YouTube spokesperson told CNN, “Although auto-captions are imperfect, they’re better than nothing and they will help the deaf community to better understand this wide world of video they previously hadn’t been able to connect with.”

At the moment, auto-captioning only applies to videos in English. In the coming months, YouTube plans to release auto-captioning for many other languages.

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Filed under: Google • YouTube

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February 12, 2010

Bing wows crowd with live-video maps

Posted: 04:50 PM ET

Microsoft Corp. on Thursday unveiled updates to its Bing search engine - and they seemed to wow the crowds here at the TED Conference in Long Beach, California.

First, Blaise Aguera y Arcas, architect of Bing Maps, demonstrated a live-video add-in to to the search engine's mapping feature. He zoomed into 3-dimensional images of streets in Seattle, Washington, and showed off a feature that integrates live video feeds into those images. Microsoft says this might be useful, for instance, if you wanted to see how long a line outside a restaurant was on Valentine's Day.

Check out a video demo here. It's pretty impressive.

Next, Microsoft's research lab announced a maps app that lets people, virtually, stand on the street and look up at the sky to see constellations.

And finally, Microsoft says it's zooming back from page links to give people pages of image results that can be categorized and sorted like index cards. In a demo, a company representative shuffled through TED Conference presenters, organizing their digital cards by field of study, year of their speech and other categories.

Check out some of the demos here.

Let me know what you think. Is Bing's "decision engine" making headway on Google - which is still the powerhouse in that market? Google also won some fans here with a Nexus One smartphone demo in which a rep spoke into his phone in English and asked the phone to translate his voice into Spanish. Then the phone spoke for him.

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Filed under: Google • Microsoft Corp. • TED2010

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December 21, 2009

Young kids searching Web for 'porn'

Posted: 11:44 AM ET

Yikes. According to Symantec, the fourth most popular search term for children 7 and under is "porn" - just ahead of kids' networking site Club Penguin.

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption="Symantec's top searches for 2009 arranged by age group" height="218"]Symantec recently released the anonymous results of 14.7 million searches run by users of its OnlineFamily.Norton service in 2009. The service allows parents to monitor web activities and supposedly blocks questionable sites, so let's hope the toddlers searching for "porn" were unsuccessful.

It's understandable that "sex" is one of the top searches for teens, but I was surprised to see that children as young as 7 were familiar with "porn." While services like OnlineFamily.Norton may filter most inappropriate content, they are not perfect - and are no substitute for parental supervision.

Other search terms popular with children included social-networking sites, celebrities and online games.

Interestingly, "Google" was also a top search term, which leads me to believe a lot of kids don't really understand how search engines work.

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Filed under: browsers • Google • Internet • online news

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December 1, 2009

Michael Jackson tops 2009's Google Zeitgeist

Posted: 02:33 PM ET

What was the world buzzing about most in 2009?
[cnn-photo-caption image= caption=""]

Michael Jackson’s death, the rise of Twitter, “New Moon’s” vampires and Microsoft’s Windows 7 release, among other hot topics gathered by Google for its annual Zeitgeist survey.

The year’s other “fastest-rising” topics, culled from Google search results in almost 50 countries, included Facebook, emerging pop star Lady Gaga, Spanish social-networking site Tuenti and Torpedo Gratis, which I believe has something to do with sending free text messages in Brazil.

These replace 2008’s hot topics, many of which landed on Google Zeitgeist’s “fastest-falling” list for 2009: The Beijing Olympics, Barack Obama, Wii, Heath Ledger and Amy Winehouse.

To compile the 2009 Year-End Zeitgeist, Google says it studied the aggregation of billions of queries people typed into Google search so far this year.

“We use data from multiple sources, including Insights for Search, Google Trends and internal data tools. We also filter out spam and repeat queries to build out lists that best reflect 'the spirit of the times,' " Google said in a statement.

Last year's fastest-rising topic, Sarah Palin, didn't make the fastest-falling list this year, which means people must still be intrigued with her. Maybe it's all the fuss over her book, press tour and chat with Oprah.

The only topics to make the "fastest-rising" list for 2008 AND 2009? Facebook and Tuenti.

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Filed under: Google

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November 20, 2009

Auto-captions come to YouTube

Posted: 02:09 PM ET

Some of YouTube's videos started featuring machine-generated captions this week. That's a potentially huge change for the deaf and hearing impaired, who still don't have access to the vast majority of online video.

Writing on the Official Google Blog (don't forget, Google owns YouTube), software engineer Ken Harrenstien says voice-to-text technology - while clunky at times - must be used to caption the world's videos. The problem is too large for people to handle alone, writes Harrenstein, who is deaf:

Every minute, 20 hours of video are uploaded. How can we expect every video owner to spend the time and effort necessary to add captions to their videos? Even with all of the captioning support already available on YouTube, the majority of user-generated video content online is still inaccessible to people like me.

The YouTube auto-captions use the same speech-to-tech technology as Google Voice.

Check out a video demo here.

Harrenstien says this week's announcement of auto-captions makes him "more hopeful than ever" that Google can achieve its goal of "making videos universally accessible."

NYTimes notes that the captions also stand to make YouTube money:

The technology will also open YouTube videos to a wider foreign market and make them more searchable, which will make it easier for Google to profit from them.

For now, the captions apply only to a handful of YouTube channels, but it will be interesting to watch where this technology goes. The BBC says that, even in Google's demo, the caption technology is not perfect. The phrase "sim card," for instance, was mistaken for "salmon" when it was captioned.

Will this technology help you, or someone you know? Or are you frustrated by machine translations of speech into captioning? Let us know in the comments section.

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Filed under: captioning • Google

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Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

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