Why Google co-founder Larry Page is pouring millions into flying cars – Updated by Timothy B. Leetim Dec 30, 2016, 9:00am EST


People have dreamed about flying cars for decades, but the technology has always seemed far out of reach. Airplanes have long been too big, expensive, dangerous, loud, and complex for personal aviation to be more than a hobby for rich people.

But that might be about to change. “There’s a couple of technologies that are maturing and converging” to make small, affordable airplanes feasible, says Brian German, an aerospace researcher at Georgia Tech.

German argues that lighter and more powerful electric motors, batteries that can store more energy, and more sophisticated aviation software could transform the market for small aircraft.

Indeed, several companies are already working on prototypes of car-size airplanes that could soon become cheap, safe, and versatile enough for ordinary people to use them regularly. Google co-founder Larry Page has secretly funded one startup in this market, Zee Aero, since 2010. In 2015 he also invested in another called Kitty Hawk, led by former Google self-driving car guru Sebastian Thrun.

The flying cars of the future won’t look exactly like the ones on The Jetsons. There’s a good chance you’ll rent them on demand from a company like Uber instead of buying one that parks in your driveway — a possibility Uber explored in a recent white paper. But a future where millions of people take short trips by air on a regular basis could be closer than you think.

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Why 2016 Was a Watershed Year for Tech – By  Christopher Mims Dec. 18, 2016 12:15 p.m. ET


Companies sparred with governments globally as they faced criticism, unprecedented scrutiny

Amazon.com has introduced Amazon Go stores without cashiers.ENLARGE

Amazon.com has introduced Amazon Go stores without cashiers. Photo: jason redmond/Reuters

As 2016 nears an end, five of the seven most valuable companies in the world—including the three most valuable—are technology companies. Beyond their worth in the eyes of investors, Apple Inc., Google parent Alphabet Inc., Microsoft Corp., Amazon.com Inc., and Facebook Inc. also are powerful forces in everyday lives. Tech can seem inescapable.

That helps explain why 2016 also was a difficult year for many of these companies. Collectively, they faced sharp criticism and unprecedented levels of scrutiny while clashing with governments around the world—including the future U.S. president.

It’s no coincidence, for example, that digital-ad spending in the U.S. has been projected to eclipse spending on TV ads in 2016, while Facebook battled concerns about its influence over politics and its role in spreading fake and distorted news. Those developments are two sides of the same coin—Facebook’s power.

Or take Amazon’s new cashier-free stores, which instantly became symbols for how automation “kills” jobs. Amazon has only a handful of physical stores, and doesn’t plan to open its first Amazon Go store to the public until next year, yet its dominance in online retail made this a source of much public concern.

Google had a banner year for both revenue and profit. One price of that real-world influence is three sets of antitrust charges by European regulators who view the company as a sort of American colonial power. The latest, issued in July alongside additional charges piled onto a previous case, accused Google of “strong-arming” Android handset makers into shipping their devices with Google’s search as the default.

In 2016, tech executives overwhelmingly backed the woman who lost the race for president, while the man who won attacked them publicly and sometimes personally. Many of the parties involved met last week in Trump Tower, apparently reaching an uneasy truce. But many in tech still view the next four years warily, concerned by Donald Trump’s views on issues such as free trade and immigration.

That this exchange happened at all speaks to the cultural as well as the economic dominance of tech companies. At stake wasn’t just where iPhones would be manufactured, but whether globalization is a net economic benefit or a scourge to America’s middle class. The tech industry has come to espouse a common culture of disruption, or progress at all costs, and Trump’s election was in some respects a rebuke to that ideology. The outcome of this struggle will have implications for everything from how friendly regulators are to disruptive technologies like self-driving vehicles to how willing they are to support the transition to clean energy.

The year brought little relief from an ongoing drought in tech companies going public. This was notable because in an age when just about every startup describes itself as a tech company, a drought of tech IPOs means a drought of IPOs.

A handful of enterprise tech companies did go public, but the really big fish, including Uber Technologies Inc. and Airbnb Inc., remained on the sidelines. Like others, I initially viewed their reluctance to IPO as admissions that their business models weren’t fit for the critical gaze of public investors. But the more I learned about these companies, the more I realized they weren’t going public because, quite simply, they didn’t have to.

These companies have access to virtually unlimited amounts of capital, in part as a result of capital flooding the globe following the 2008 financial crisis. Seeking better returns, institutional investors have piled into these companies’ later-stage private rounds, lifting their valuations. One bright spot for 2017 looks to be a planned IPOfrom Snap Inc., which is a notable exception among holdouts in the billion-dollar startup club.

What of Apple, the most valuable of them all? Following a record holiday quarter in 2015, Apple saw its first decline in annual revenue since 2001. Some analysts declared that this time, the company was truly, finally out of ideas. This despite the apparent success of the Apple Watch and the potential for Apple’s AirPods to become a new class of wearable computer.

This matters because Apple has become synonymous with America’s power to innovate, as China moves from making things for others to creating brands of its own.

As the world’s most valuable company Apple has become a standard-bearer for America’s innovation exceptionalism. For Apple to falter is for America to falter.

And that was the real theme of tech in 2016: A raft of companies that were underdogs and scrappy upstarts just 20 years ago are now the incumbents, the budding monopolists, the ones in charge. We learned to fear and rely on them in equal measure, let them pervade our lives even as we struggled with their omnipresence. And in their denials, spin and public pronouncements, for the most part they just didn’t seem quite ready to acknowledge their importance.

Write to Christopher Mims at christopher.mims@wsj.com

Why Google believes AI is the next front in the smartphone wars – Updated by Timothy B. Lee tim@vox.com Oct 5, 2016, 1:40p


Google CEO Sundar Pichai Ramin Talaie/Getty Images

Google CEO Sundar Pichai Ramin Talaie/Getty Images`

Google’s Android dominates the smartphone market overall, but Apple has attracted a disproportionate share of high-end users — and consequently an outsize share of smartphone profits.

At a Tuesday event, Google unveiled a two-pronged strategy to change that. Part one was the Pixel, the first smartphone that will be designed and manufactured by Google. Google is betting that building its own phone will allow it to offer the same kind of seamless user experience Apple provides its own users.

But the second prong of Google’s strategy is more original and received more attention on Tuesday. The company wants to make voice-based artificial intelligence a much bigger part of how people interact with their smartphones. Google envisions a future where you’ll make restaurant reservations, look up photos, and play music by talking to your phone instead of tapping and swiping on its screen.

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Obviously, this isn’t a totally new idea, as all the major smartphone platforms have had voice-based personal assistants — Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana — for several years. But Google says it’s about to make this technology a lot better — so much better that people will use it a lot more.

If anyone can pull this off, it’s Google. Making AI really good requires a lot of data to “train” sophisticated machine learning algorithms. Wrangling large amounts of data has always been Google’s specialty. But even if the company can build a voice-based AI that can really understand a wide variety of requests, I’m still skeptical it will change the smartphone game as much as Google hopes.

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Google Doesn’t Want to Be Apple. It Wants to Be Everyone. – Jake SwearingenOctober 4, 2016 4:42 p.m.


As the search giant looks to own hardware, it’s making aggressive moves against other manufacturers.

Google’s event today was ostensibly about showing off various new products — in particular, a quartet of hardware devices: a new phone, the Pixel; a new home-speaker device, Google Home; a new virtual-reality headset, the Daydream View; and a new Wi-Fi router. All of Google’s forays into hardware look intriguing, if not potentially best-in-class. But what people are going to really remember from the event is Google’s aggression, and not just because many of the presenters’ zingers were painfully bad.

The event was Google showing it wants not only to dominate search, mapping, web advertising, and email; it wants to own hardware as well. It clearly sees its own artificial-intelligence systems as the future, and ensuring that AI gets embedded everywhere means making openly aggressive moves against other hardware manufacturers.

Apple

Google started by throwing shade at Apple, and veered into “talking about your ex way too much” territory, taking potshots at Cupertino throughout its presentation of its Pixel phone, from pointing out that its camera didn’t protrude from the back of the phone (unlike Apple’s newest iPhones) to directly using Apple’s storage-warning screen while talking about the Pixel’s ability to use cloud storage to ensure your phone’s physical storage never fills up. The phone’s pricing exactly mirrors the iPhone’s (and breaks tradition with Google’s Nexus phones, which offered high-end hardware at budget prices), showing that Google believes it has a phone that can directly take on the iPhone.

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Security News This Week: Google Ups the Ante on Web Encryption – LILY HAY NEWMAN AND ANDY GREENBERG 09.11.16. 7:48 PM


As the presidential campaign charges ahead, the saga of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server continues. Fresh criticism emerged this week that Clinton must have been hiding terrible things because one of her aides smashed two of her personal Blackberrys with a hammer. But from a data security perspective, that’s not a bad thing; in fact some experts say the discarded devices should have been destroyed more thoroughly. Meanwhile, House Oversight Committee leader Elijah Cummings released a 2009 email sent by former Secretary of State Colin Powell to Clinton in which he describes in detail all the ways he himself skirted State Department technology requirements.

This week we grappled with the question of why Baltimore has become a bastion of surveillance tech. Over in the private sector, the Google-owned tech incubator Jigsaw is developing a program to try to identify ISIS recruits and deter them from joining the organization. And an op-ed contributor says it’s time to acknowledge that whoever wins the presidency will need to set new policy for autonomous weapons systems and their scope of use in warfare when the old Department of Defense Directive expires in 2017.

But wait, there’s more: Each Saturday we round up the news stories that we didn’t break or cover in depth but still deserve your attention. As always, click on the headlines to read the full story in each link posted. And stay safe out there.

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Google Takes on Uber With New Ride-Share Service – By JACK NICAS, Greg Bensinger Aug. 30, 2016 3:10 p.m. ET


Alphabet’s carpooling program in San Francisco offers rides at cheaper rates

 Google’s ride-sharing service uses the Waze app to connect with fellow commuters.ENLARGE

Google’s ride-sharing service uses the Waze app to connect with fellow commuters.Photo: Linda Davidson/The Washington Post/Getty Images

By

Jack Nicas

Aug. 30, 2016 3:10 p.m. ET

Google is moving onto Uber Technologies Inc.’s turf with a ride-sharing service to help San Francisco commuters join carpools, a person familiar with the matter said, jumping into a booming but fiercely competitive market.

Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc., began a pilot program around its California headquarters in May that enables several thousand area workers at specific firms to use the Waze app to connect with fellow commuters. It plans to open the program to all San Francisco-area Waze users this fall, the person said. Waze, which Google acquired in 2013, offers real-time driving directions based on information from other drivers.

Unlike Uber and its crosstown San Francisco rival Lyft Inc., which each largely operate as on-demand taxi businesses, Waze wants to connect riders with drivers who are already headed in the same direction. The company has said it aims to make fares low enough to discourage drivers from operating as taxi drivers. Waze’s current pilot program charges riders at most 54 cents a mile—less than most Uber and Lyft rides—and, for now, Google doesn’t take a fee.

The company says it doesn’t believe Waze drivers’ income is taxable because it considers payments through its service effectively as money for gas.

Google’s push into ride-sharing could portend a clash with Uber, a seven-year-old private firm valued at roughly $68 billion that largely invented the concept of summoning a car with a smartphone app.

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This Automaker Just Joined IBM and Google as a Patron of Open-Source Software – by Roger Parloff JULY 13, 2016, 6:00 AM EDT


The move reflects the growing importance of software to cars.

While not as momentous as its introduction of the Prius in 1997—the first mass-produced hybrid vehicle—Toyota Motor Corp TM 0.83% quietly took another bold, industry-leading step toward technological innovation last month.

The world’s largest automaker ponied up a one-time fee—believed to be $20 million—and became the eighth full member of a consortium that most people do not associate with the auto industry at all.

It’s called the Open Invention Network, and its other members are GoogleIBM, Red Hat RHT 1.75% , NEC nec-electronics , Philips PHG 0.92% , Sony SNE -1.96% , and SUSE (a unit of Britain’s Micro Focus). Fortune is the first to report Toyota’s startling move.

Formed in 2005, OIN’s mission is to protect and encourage the collaborative development and use of open-source software, like the Linux operating system, which can be freely copied, altered, and distributed, and which no one person or company owns. OIN pursues a variety of strategies aimed at protecting the users and developers of such software against the threat of patent suits by proprietary software manufacturers, like Microsoft and Apple. Such suits, if successful, could deny users the freedoms that make open-source software desirable.

That Toyota would now join the group reflects the growing importance that software is playing in cars, and the growing number of automakers who believe that open-source software is the best approach to providing many of the needed solutions for its vehicles. Open-source champions say such software is cheaper, more flexible, and of higher quality, because it benefits from the pooled resources of collaborative input.

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