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Main article: Gmail

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Google launches a lightweight ‘Gmail Go’ app for Android

21:06 | 15 February

Google has added a notable addition to its line of “Go” edition apps – the lightweight apps designed primarily for emerging markets – with the launch of Gmail Go. The app, like others in the Go line, takes up less storage space on users’ smartphones and makes better use of mobile data compared with the regular version of Gmail.

The app offers standard Gmail features like multiple account support, conversation view, attachments, and push notifications for new messages. It also prioritizes messages from friends and family first, while categorizing promotional and social emails in separate tabs, as Gmail does.

But like other Go apps, Gmail Go doesn’t consume as much storage space on the device.

In fact, according to numerous reports, Gmail Go clocked in at a 9.51 MB download, and takes up roughly 25 MB of space on a device, compared with Gmail’s 20.66 MB download, and 47 MB storage space.

Google has not made a formal announcement about Gmail Go’s launch, but several sites have spotted its availability on the Google Play store this week. We’ve asked Google for more information about the app’s feature set, and what exactly is it that Go does to reduce the burden on low-end smartphones. The company so far has not responded, but we’ll update this post as more information becomes available.

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However, some early adopters have pointed out that scrolling on Gmail Go is a much more choppy experience than on the standard Gmail. But overall, there doesn’t seem to be too many noticeable differences between the two apps, in terms of feature set.

That’s not always the case with the Go-branded apps. For example, YouTube Go has several unique features, like the ability to download videos for offline viewing, and sharing videos with friends nearby, for example.

Gmail Go is joining a growing list of Go edition apps, including YouTube Go, Files Go, Google Go, Google Maps Go, Google and Assistant Go.

 


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AMP for email is a terrible idea

03:17 | 14 February

 Google just announced a plan to “modernize” email, allowing “engaging, interactive, and actionable email experiences.” Does that sound like a terrible idea to anyone else? It sure sounds like a terrible idea to me, and not only that, but an idea borne out of competitive pressure and existing leverage rather than user needs. Not good, Google. Send to trash. Read More

 


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Google wants to use AMP to make email more interactive

17:00 | 13 February

Google’s AMP format has always been about making mobile pages render faster. But Google is now taking it beyond posts, recipes and how-to articles. First, the company launched the new AMP story format earlier today and now it’s also announcing a preview of AMP for Email.

At first, that may seem like an odd combination, especially given that few people complain about how slowly their emails render (they are mostly text, after all). Google argues that AMP is the right format to modernize email, though. “Many people rely on email for information about flights, events, news, purchases and beyond—more than 270 billion emails are sent each day,” Gmail product manager Aarash Sahney writes today. “With AMP for Email, it’s easy for information in email messages to be dynamic, up-to-date and actionable.”

Using AMP for Email, developers will be able to add an interactive calendar to your email, for example, so you don’t have to go through five rounds of back-and-forth messages to find a meeting time. Similarly, a message from your airline could show you up-to-date flight information or a marketer could send you a survey that you can fill out right in your inbox without having to go to another site.

Over the years, Google has launched numerous projects to modernize email. Back in 2013, for example, it launched customizable action buttons in Gmail. For the most part, though, emails haven’t really changed and every new format can only succeed if enough of Google’s competitors support it.

For now, AMP for Email is only available to developers who request preview access. The plan is to roll support out to Gmail later this year.

 


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That time I got locked out of my Google account for a month

20:21 | 22 December

 How much of your digital life would you lose if you lost a single password? Without it, you are locked out and the cold reality of using free cloud services like Google is that you don’t have a human arbiter to help you. If you think back to earlier times where, say you lost your bank book, your local banker probably knew who you were and could help you navigate the process of getting… Read More

 


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Gmail adds support for third-party add-ons

20:00 | 24 October

Google is launching third-party add-ons for Gmail today. These native extensions will allow you to bring the power of services like Asana, DocuSign, Trello, Wrike and others directly to your inbox — no matter whether you are an enterprise or individual user.

If you’ve been following along, this announcement doesn’t come as a total surprise. The company first announced at its I/O developer conference in March that this feature was coming. At the time, though, this was only a developer preview; since then, Google has worked with a number of partners to bring a first set of native extensions to Gmail.

This first set of partners includes Asana, Dialpad, DocuSign (coming soon), Hire (by Google), Intuit QuickBooks, ProsperWorks, RingCentral, Smartsheet, Streak, Trello and Wrike. Unsurprisingly, the focus here is on productivity services that, for the most part, already include some connection to email. The add-ons live in the right sidepane of Gmail (though sadly they are not available in Inbox by Gmail, Google’s other email client).

Asana co-founder Justin Rosenstein told me that this will allow his customers to more easily bring tasks from external emails to the work-tracking service. It also will allow Asana users to see more details about tasks that appear in emails they receive directly from Asana or from other users.

The same is true for most of the other integrations, whether that’s the Trello add-on allowing you to turn emails into actionable tasks or the RingCentral add-on allowing you to make outbound calls and view and send SMS messages from your inbox.

What’s nice is that these add-ons also work in the mobile Gmail app on Android. As for iOS support, a Google spokesperson tells me the company is “working with Apple to bring Gmail Add-ons to iOS users.” It’s unclear when exactly this will happen, though.

As somebody who heavily relies on Trello’s Chrome-based plugin for Gmail to stay semi-sane, the idea of a native integration with Gmail definitely sounds like it’ll make life easier — especially because of this mobile integration.

You can now install these integrations from the G Suite Marketplace; if you are a developer, you can also start creating add-ons for your own organization. These Gmail add-ons join similar tools for Google Docs and Sheets that are already available in the Marketplace.

 


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Gmail launches its first public iOS beta to test support for third-party accounts

19:52 | 18 October

Google wants to make Gmail the place where you check all your email accounts, not just your Google accounts. The company announced this week it’s testing a new version of the Gmail app on iOS that will allow users to add their non-Google accounts, including those from Outlook (including Hotmail or Live), Yahoo, and elsewhere.

The announcement, which was sent out via a tweet from the @gmail Twitter account, invited users to sign up to test a version of the Gmail iOS app with this new feature.

The link takes users to an online form where they consent to joining the Gmail beta program. This requires users to have a current version of the official Gmail iOS app on iOS 10 or higher, and have at least one non-Google email account they would like to add to Gmail.

The form further asks them to check off which non-Google accounts they use from a list that includes Outlook, Hotmail, Live, Yahoo, Yandex, Mail.ru, or “Other.”

Because this is an iOS beta, there’s not an option to download the beta app from the App Store directly. Instead, betas are distributed through Apple’s TestFlight platform.

Notably, a Google spokesperson tells us this is the first time that the company has made a beta version of Gmail for iOS available through TestFlight with external users.

However, it’s not the first time Google has offered beta versions of its apps in general – it runs betas of many of its Android apps through Google Play today, and has for some time.

“We’re always experimenting with ways to improve user experience in Gmail, but we don’t have any additional details to share at this time,” a Google spokesperson said, when asked for details about its iOS beta program.

The company declined to say how many users will be allowed into the TestFlight beta trial, or what the company’s larger intentions are with the program.

For example, it wouldn’t confirm if the test was an attempt to measure much demand for such a feature, or if the addition was something Google planned to publicly release in the future. It’s also unclear if the TestFlight program will continue after this test wraps to trial other pre-release features in the future.

In the meantime, interested users can sign up to try the iOS beta here.

 


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Google launches “strongest security” opt-in program for high risk users

19:03 | 17 October

Google has today launched a free, opt-in program aimed at users who believe their Google accounts — such as Gmail, Drive, YouTube etc — to be at particularly high risk of targeted online attacks.

The Advanced Protection program currently consists of the three main elements: defending Gmail and Google account users against phishing attacks by requiring 2FA via a token generated by a hardware security key; locking down the risk of malicious applications grabbing sensitive data by automatically limiting full access to Gmail and Drive to just Google apps (for now); and reducing the risk of hackers gaining access to a Gmail account via impersonation by adding more steps to the account recovery process.

Safe to say, this is greater security via reduced convenience. And is being billed as most definitely not for everyone — but rather for a small minority of users at “elevated risk” of targeted hacking.

Google cites examples such as political campaign staff working to get their candidate elected or journalists whose job is to handle sensitive information.

Last year the hacking of Democratic campaigner John Podesta’s emails shone a massive spotlight on the risks of sensitive email accounts being hacked — as the contents of the emails were picked over in public and undoubtedly shaped the narrative of the US presidential election campaign. (While earlier this year it was also revealed that hackers had targeted French president’s Emmanuel Macron’s staffers’ email accounts — with emails leaked on the eve of that poll.)

“We took this unusual step because there is an overlooked minority of our users that are at particularly high risk of targeted online attacks. For example, these might be campaign staffers preparing for an upcoming election, journalists who need to protect the confidentiality of their sources, or people in abusive relationships seeking safety. Sometimes even the most careful and security-minded users are successfully attacked through phishing scams, especially if those phishing scams were individually targeted at the user in question,” Google writes.

Enrolling in the program is open to anyone with a Google account. Though currently sign up requires using Google’s Chrome browser because Google says it supports the U2F standard for Security Keys. “We expect other browsers to incorporate this soon,” Google adds.

People wanting to opt into locking down the risk of their Gmail email being breached will also need to purchase (or own) two compatible hardware security keys.

Google notes it’s been testing the program for a few weeks — with beta testers including Andrew Ford Lyons, a technologist at Internews, an international nonprofit organization that works to support the development of media outlets worldwide.

“Journalists, human rights defenders, environment campaigners and civil society activists working on any number of sensitive issues can quickly find themselves targeted by well-resourced and highly capable adversaries,” said Ford Lyons in a statement. “For those whose work may cause their profile to become more visible, setting this up could be seen as an essential preventative step.”

It’s certainly a welcome step from Google. The only question is what took them so long?

You can sign up for the Advanced Protection program here.

 


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Google’s probe into Russian disinformation finds ad buys, report claims

19:14 | 9 October

Google has uncovered evidence that Russian operatives exploited its platforms in an attempt to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election, according to the Washington Post.

It says tens of thousands of dollars were spent on ads by Russian agents who were aiming to spread disinformation across Google’s products — including its video content platform YouTube but also via advertising associated with Google search, Gmail, and the company’s DoubleClick ad network.

The newspaper says its report is based on information provided by people familiar with Google’s investigation into whether Kremlin-affiliated entities sought to use its platforms to spread disinformation online.

Asked for confirmation of the report, a Google spokesman told us: “We have a set of strict ads policies including limits on political ad targeting and prohibitions on targeting based on race and religion. We are taking a deeper look to investigate attempts to abuse our systems, working with researchers and other companies, and will provide assistance to ongoing inquiries.”

So it’s telling that Google is not out-and-out denying the report — suggesting the company has indeed found something via its internal investigation, though isn’t ready to go public with whatever it’s unearthed as yet.

Google, Facebook, and Twitter have all been called to testify to a Senate Intelligence Committee on November 1 which is examining how social media platforms may have been used by foreign actors to influence the 2016 US election.

Last month Facebook confirmed Russian agents had utilized its platform in an apparent attempt to sew social division across the U.S. by purchasing $100,000 of targeted advertising (some 3,000+ ads — though the more pertinent question is how far Facebook’s platform organically spread the malicious content; Facebook has claimed only around 10M users saw the Russian ads, though others believe the actual figure is likely to be far higher.)

CEO Mark Zuckerberg has tried to get out ahead of the incoming political and regulatory tide by announcing, at the start of this month, that the company will make ad buys more transparent — even as the U.S. election agency is running a public consultation on whether to extend political ad disclosure rules to digital platforms.

(And, lest we forget, late last year he entirely dismissed the notion of Facebook influencing the election as “a pretty crazy idea” — words he’s since said he regrets.)

Safe to say, tech’s platform giants are now facing the political grilling of their lives, and on home soil, as well as the prospect of the kind of regulation they’ve always argued against finally being looped around them.

But perhaps their greatest potential danger is the risk of huge reputational damage if users learn to mistrust the information being algorithmically pushed at them — seeing instead something dubious that may even have actively malicious intent.

While much of the commentary around the US election social media probe has, thus far, focused on Facebook, all major tech platforms could well be implicated as paid aids for foreign entities trying to influence U.S. public opinion — or at least any/all whose business entails applying algorithms to order and distribute third party content at scale.

Just a few days ago, for instance, Facebook said it had found Russian ads on its photo sharing platform Instagram, too.

In Google’s case the company controls vastly powerful search ranking algorithms, as well as ordering user generated content on its massively popular video platform YouTube.

And late last year The Guardian suggested Google’s algorithmic search suggestions had been weaponized by an organized far right campaign — highlighting how its algorithms appeared to be promoting racist, nazi ideologies and misogyny in search results.

(Though criticism of tech platform algorithms being weaponized by fringe groups to drive skewed narratives into the mainstream dates back further still — such as to the #Gamergate fallout, in 2014, when we warned that popular online channels were being gamed to drive misogyny into the mainstream media and all over social media.)

Responding to The Guardian’s criticism of its algorithms last year, Google claimed: “Our search results are a reflection of the content across the web. This means that sometimes unpleasant portrayals of sensitive subject matter online can affect what search results appear for a given query. These results don’t reflect Google’s own opinions or beliefs — as a company, we strongly value a diversity of perspectives, ideas and cultures.”

But it looks like the ability of tech giants to shrug off questions and concerns about their algorithmic operations — and how they may be being subverted by hostile entities — has drastically shrunk.

According to the Washington Post, the Russian buyers of Google ads do not appear to be from the same Kremlin-affiliated troll farm which bought ads on Facebook — which it suggests is a sign that the disinformation campaign could be “a much broader problem than Silicon Valley companies have unearthed so far”.

Late last month Twitter also said it had found hundreds of accounts linked to Russian operatives. And the newspaper’s sources claim that Google used developer access to Twitter’s firehose of historical tweet data to triangulate its own internal investigation into Kremlin ad buys — linking Russian Twitter accounts to accounts buying ads on its platform in order to identify malicious spend trickling into its own coffers.

A spokesman for Twitter declined to comment on this specific claim but pointed to a lengthy blog post it penned late last month — on “Russian Interference in 2016 US Election, Bots, & Misinformation”. In that Twitter disclosed that the RT (formerly Russia Today) news network spent almost $275,000 on U.S. ads on Twitter in 2016.

It also said that of the 450 accounts Facebook had shared as part of its review into Russian election interference Twitter had “concluded” that 22 had “corresponding accounts on Twitter” — which it also said had either been suspended (mostly) for spam or were suspended after being identified.

“Over the coming weeks and months, we’ll be rolling out several changes to the actions we take when we detect spammy or suspicious activity, including introducing new and escalating enforcements for suspicious logins, Tweets, and engagements, and shortening the amount of time suspicious accounts remain visible on Twitter while pending confirmation. These are not meant to be definitive solutions. We’ve been fighting against these issues for years, and as long as there are people trying to manipulate Twitter, we will be working hard to stop them,” Twitter added.

As in the case with the political (and sometimes commercial) pressure also being applied on tech platforms to speed up takedowns of online extremism, it seems logical that the platforms could improve internal efforts to thwart malicious use of their tools by sharing more information with each other.

In June Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Twitter collectively announced a new partnership aimed at reducing the accessibility of internet services to terrorists, for instance — dubbing it the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism — and aiming to build on an earlier announcement of an industry database for sharing unique digital fingerprints to identify terrorist content.

But whether some similar kind of collaboration could emerge in future to try to collectively police political spending remains to be seen. Joining forces to tackle the spread of terrorist propaganda online may end up being trivially easy vs accurately identifying and publicly disclosing what is clearly a much broader spectrum of politicized content that’s, nonetheless, also been created with malicious intent.

According to the New York Times, Russia-bought ads that Facebook has so far handed over to Congress apparently included a diverse spectrum of politicized content, from pages for gun-rights supporters, to those supporting gay rights, to anti-immigrant pages, to pages that aimed to appeal to the African-American community — and even pages for animal lovers.

One thing is clear: Tech giants will not be able to get away with playing down the power of their platforms in public.

Not at the Congress hearing next month. And likely not for the foreseeable future.

Featured Image: Mikhail Metzel/Getty Images

 


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At long last, Gmail starts converting addresses and contact info into links

07:09 | 19 September

Gmail is packed with a lot of time-saving features, like Smart Replies for mobile users. So it’s a bit surprising to realize that Gmail will only now start to automatically convert addresses, phone numbers and contacts into links.

The feature begins rolling out today for Gmail and Inbox on Android, iOS and the web. Address links will open Google Maps, clicking on an email address launches a new compose window in your email client and phone numbers dial a new call in Hangouts or your default phone app.

As the G Suite team blog puts it, “Gmail users often exchange information like addresses and phone numbers with each other to set up meetings, introduce colleagues and plan events. Precious time can be lost by having to copy and paste this information from an email into other apps and websites, so we wanted to provide a better way to perform these tasks that also saves time.” Indeed.

The feature will be visible to all users within three days

Featured Image: Bloomberg/Getty Images

 


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Clara Labs nabs $7M Series A as it positions its AI assistant to meet the needs of enterprise teams

16:49 | 19 July

Clara Labs, creator of the Clara AI assistant, is announcing a $7 million Series A this morning led by Basis Set Ventures. Slack Fund also joined in the round, alongside existing investors Sequoia and First Round. The startup will be looking to further differentiate within the crowded field of email-centric personal assistants by building in features and integrations to address the needs of enterprise teams.

Founded in 2014, Clara Labs has spent much of the last three years trying to fix email. When CC-ed on emails, the Clara assistant can automatically schedule meetings — reasoning around preferences like location and time.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve probably come across x.ai or Fin. But while all three startups look similar on paper, each has its own distinct ideology. Where Clara is running toward the needs of teams, Fin embraces the personal pains of travel planning and shopping. Meanwhile, x.ai opts for maximum automation and lower pricing.

That last point around automation needs some extra context. Clara Labs prides itself in its implementation of a learning strategy called human-in-the-loop. For machines to analyze emails, they have to make a lot of decisions — is that date when you want to grab coffee, or is it the start of your vacation when you’ll be unable to meet?

In the open world of natural language, incremental machine learning advances only get you so far. So instead, companies like Clara convert uncertainty into simple questions that can be sent to humans on demand (think proprietary version of Amazon Mechanical Turk). The approach has become a tech trope with the rise of all things AI, but Maran Nelson, CEO of Clara Labs, is adamant that there’s still a meaningful way to implement agile AI.

The trick is ensuring that a feedback mechanism exists for these questions to serve as training materials for uncertain machine learning models. Three years later, Clara Labs is confident that its approach is working.

Bankrolling the human in human-in-the-loop does cost everyone more, but people are willing to pay for performance. After all, even a nosebleed-inducing $399 per month top-tier plan costs a fraction of a real human assistant.

Anyone who has ever experimented with adding new email tools into old workflows understands that Gmail and Outlook have tapped into the dark masochistic part of our brain that remains addicted to inefficiency. It’s tough to switch and the default of trying tools like Clara is often a slow return to the broken way of doing things. Nelson says she’s keeping a keen eye on user engagement and numbers are healthy for now — there’s undoubtedly a connection between accuracy and engagement.

As Clara positions its services around the enterprise, it will need to take into account professional sales and recruiting workflows. Integrations with core systems like Slack, CRMs and job applicant tracking systems will help Clara keep engagement numbers high while feeding machine learning models new edge cases to improve the quality of the entire product.

“Scheduling is different if you’re a sales person and your sales team is measured by the total number of meetings scheduled,” Nelson told me in an interview.

Nelson is planning to make new hires in marketing and sales to push the Clara team beyond its current R&D comfort zone. Meanwhile the technical team will continue to add new features and integrations, like conference room booking, that increase the value-add of the Clara assistant.

Xuezhao Lan of Basis Set Ventures will be joining the Clara Labs board of directors as the company moves into its next phase of growth. Lan will bring both knowledge of machine learning and strategy to the board. Today’s Clara deal is one of the first public deals to involve the recently formed $136 million AI-focused Basis Set fund.

 


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