Google Assistant, the artificial intelligence software built into Android handsets and the Google Home smart speaker system, now can control more than 5,000 smart devices, Google announced Thursday. That’s up from just 1,500 products in January — and the list of supported products includes everything from cameras and security systems to doorbells, locks and lights, to dryers, dishwashers and refrigerators. Google’s smart home platform has grown exponentially since its released in the fall of 2016. It can turn an ordinary living room into an entertainment center, with the handset designated as the main control panel for gizmos and gadgets throughout the house. Google now supports devices from every major electronics product brand, and the list continues to grow. Google recently announced that it would offer support for IKEA lights and Deutsche Telekom’s Magenta hub of products. Plans for this month include Google Assistant integration with DISH’s Hopper family of set-top boxes; security alarm devices from ADT, First Alert and Vivint Smart Home; smart door locks from August and Schlage; and home security cameras from Panasonic. Many other products will add Google Assistant compatibility in the coming months, including Hunter Douglas window treatments, Hisense’s line of H9E Plus TVs, and LG appliances. The Internet of Things – Click for More Catching Amazon Google and Amazon appear to have a solid lead in the smart home space. Amazon earlier this year boasted Alexa voice assistant integration with around 4,000 devices. That number hasn’t been updated since then, but it is clear that the two companies are well ahead of rival systems such as Apple’s HomeKit and Samsung’s SmartThings. Those platforms each list support for around 200 devices. Given that manufacturers may be inclined to pick just one “team” to support, closing the gap could be very difficult. “This race is a sprint from the beginning,” said Josh Crandall, principal analyst at Netpop Research. “It looks like Google and Amazon are breaking away from Siri — HomeKit — in the first lap,” he told TechNewsWorld. “There’s no doubt that Google considers this race incredibly important and recognizes it is playing catch-up to Amazon’s Alexa product.” Ecosystem of Developers Google has been able to leverage its vast ecosystem of developers to bring all of its own technology to bear in this race with Amazon. “By making the announcement, Google is letting the industry know that it’s serious about unlocking the potential of Google Home,” said Crandall. “Developers and [Internet of Things] companies will take heed that 5,000 devices are interwoven into the fabric of Google Home, and start developing for the platform if they haven’t already begun to do so,” he predicted. “In other words, Google is saying ‘Look at all of the third-party development happening on our platform. If you don’t support Google Home, watch out, because we’re here to stay,'” Crandall said. More Than Support The number of supported devices may be meaningless to most consumers — especially as most consumers aren’t about to go out and replace all their products and devices just to add smart home functionality, regardless of which company provides the support. “The total number of supported devices [won’t] have much to do with success or market staying power of these branded AI-based services,” explained Paul Teich, principal analyst at Tirias Research. “This is really about adding value to consumers’ lives,” he told TechNewsWorld, “but the only standards that matters here are ‘does the system give me a useful answer to my question?’ and ‘did it do exactly what I asked it to do?'” Thus the number of supported devices may not matter much at this point. “APIs are easy to adjust for, or even to use multiple services,” Teich pointed out. Two-Company Race? Consumers ultimately will decide which platform or platforms will be winners in the smart home market. “Amazon has an upper hand here. It is already directly connected to more consumers in a more intimate fashion than Google, and Amazon is more connected to Apple customers,” suggested Teich. However, “t doesn’t really matter how many consumers are actually integrating these products into the platform yet,” noted Netpop’s Crandall. “All they need to know is that when they are ready to integrate smart home appliances into their smart speakers, the speaker they have selected will have sufficient support,” he added. In the end, the competition could come down to two platforms that both give consumers some choice while declining to support a plethora of incompatible devices. “Similar to the need to support Android and iOS, developers and IoT companies may have to support a couple of platforms for voice interfaces,” said Crandall. “In a similar vein, you’ll notice that there are only two major smartphone operating systems,” he added. “Developers can’t support three, and as a result Windows Phone has disappeared. It’s clear that the momentum in this space belongs to Amazon and Google. If something doesn’t change soon, Siri and HomeKit will be sitting the rest of this race out.”

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Facebook plans to offer members a tool that to prevent tracking of their online activity outside the network.

The Clear History feature will allow users to see which websites and applications send Facebook information when they use them, delete the data and prevent Facebook from collecting and storing it in the future.

Although that information would not be associated with a user’s account, it still would be used in anonymized form to provide website operators and app developers with analytics about Facebook users use of their wares.

“It will take a few months to build Clear History,” wrote Facebook Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan in a Tuesday post.

“We’ll work with privacy advocates, academics, policymakers and regulators to get their input on our approach, including how we plan to remove identifying information and the rare cases where we need information for security purposes,” she said.

“We’ve already started a series of roundtables in cities around the world,” Egan added, “and heard specific demands for controls like these at a session we held at our headquarters two weeks ago.”

Hunting for Wins

While Clear History is a step toward securing more privacy for Facebook’s members, it remains to be seen how significant it will be.

“It’s obviously a step in the right direction, but I see it as more of a PR move than a transformation of how Facebook is operating,” said Vincent Raynauld, an assistant professor in the department of communication studies at Emerson College.

“Facebook at this moment is looking for wins, because its brand has lost some of its shine,” he told TechNewsWorld. “This delivers a clear PR win, but additional steps need to be made to truly protect users’ privacy.”

This is a smart move for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, noted John Carroll, a mass communications professor at Boston University.

“He’s been taking so much heat lately that he needed to do something, as opposed to just saying something,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Privacy Placebo

Clear History is a good first step toward better privacy at Facebook, said Jason I. Hong, an associate professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. However, the greater concern is which parties can see a user’s data and what they can do with it.

“This feature also puts the burden of privacy on individuals, who are already overwhelmed with the number of features available on Facebook,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“It gives sites like Facebook an easy excuse for saying that they are doing something about privacy, but the likely scenario is that few people will know about this feature and use it in practice,” he pointed out.

“I call features like this ‘privacy placebos,'” Hong added, “because they make some people feel better about privacy when in practice it often does very little about actually improving privacy.”

Devil in the Details

Until Facebook releases its Clear History tool, it’s impossible to gauge how users will react to it. Zuckerberg already has warned that the Facebook experience could be degraded for anyone who activates the feature.

“Letting users reset their profiles is a net positive, and echoes similar tools to reset advertising identifiers on mobile OSes,” said Joseph W. Jerome, policy counsel for the Center for Democracy & Technology.

“It’s a good alternative to a complete account kill switch,” he told TechNewsWorld. “We’ll have to see where the setting is located and how easy it is to access.”

Clear History addresses one particular privacy concern of Facebook users, said Lorrie Faith Cranor, director of the CyLab Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon.

“However, this does not address privacy concerns people have about other aspects of their Facebook use, such as their interactions with the platform and other users on Facebook itself,” she told TechNewsWorld.

GDPR Anxiety

All social platforms no doubt harbor concerns about the tough privacy rules that will take effect later this month under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, Carroll noted.

“They’re worried about strong privacy gaining a foothold in Europe and drifting across the Atlantic and landing here,” he said.

The GDPR, threat of congressional action, and just plain bad PR has had an impact on Facebook, according to Carroll. “It’s led them to do more than just say, ‘I’m sorry, and I won’t do it again.'”

Facebook will have to wait and see if Clear History will be sufficient to keep European regulators at bay, said Danny O’Brien, international director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“The new GDPR rules coming into force on May 25 require not just these capabilities — to see, delete and turn off tracking — but also proactive consent from users,” he told TechNewsWorld. “Will Facebook start asking permission to begin this tracking? Or will the default be to keep collecting this data?” 

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