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What’s in the latest Firefox update? Firefox 73 adds to usability and accessibility options

Mozilla this week released Firefox 73, a minor upgrade whose most notable addition was a new default setting for page zooming.

Software engineers working on the open-source browser also patched six vulnerabilities, half of them labeled “High,” Mozilla’s second-most-serious threat rating. As usual, some of the flaws might be used by criminals.

“We presume that with enough effort some of these could have been exploited to run arbitrary code,” the firm wrote of two of the bugs.

Firefox 73 can be downloaded for Windows, macOS and Linux from Mozilla’s site. Because Firefox updates in the background, most users need only relaunch the browser to get the latest version. To manually update on Windows, pull up the menu under the three horizontal bars at the upper right, then click the help icon (the question mark within a circle). Choose “About Firefox.” (On macOS, “About Firefox” can be found under the “Firefox” menu.) The resulting page shows that the browser is either up to date or describes the refresh process.

Mozilla last upgraded the browser on Jan. 7, or five weeks ago.

From this point forward, Mozilla will refresh the browser every four weeks. Firefox 74 will end a gradual reduction to the intervals between upgrades: Mozilla announced the release speed-up in September, when it said the original six-week span would be shortened to five weeks, then to four.


Firefox’s faster release tempo comes at a price: the distinct possibility that each upgrade will boast fewer new features, fewer improvements and enhancements. Firefox 73 is proof, as Mozilla was able to highlight just two changes evident to end users.

The first was a new user-set global default for the page zoom level. Rather than monkey with zoom for each site individually – to, for instance, zoom in to make text more readable for older eyes – users can set a default level higher or lower than 100% as the new baseline.

To change the default zoom (which remains at 100% if the user declines to modify it), users must open Preferences (on macOS) or Options (Windows), then under the “General” tab locate “Language and Appearance.” Select the desired default zoom from the box under “Zoom.”

That number – 110%, for instance – becomes the new baseline for all sites. Users can still manually increase or decrease zoom with keystroke combinations or from the menu.

firefox 73 default zoom Mozilla

Firefox 73’s new zoom default lets users set a baseline to, for example, zoom in to 120% on every site. For anyone who is constantly zooming, this saves tons of time.

The other addition trumpeted by Mozilla in Firefox 73’s release notes was labeled “readability backplate” and designed to collaborate with Windows’ high contrast mode. The latter is a setting that replaces the original colors of, say, a website’s text and background, with high contrast combinations for easier reading by people with vision issues.

Previously, Firefox has simply disabled background images when the user enabled high contrast mode. In Firefox 73, the readability backplate “places a block of background color between the text and background image,” Mozilla said. “Now, websites in High Contrast Mode are more readable without disabling background images.”

Days are numbered for TSL 1.0 and TSL 1.1

Mozilla, like other browser makers, is knee-deep in putting an end to the outdated encryption protocols of TLS (Transport Layer Security) 1.0 and 1.1.

More than a year ago, in October 2018, Mozilla announced that the two standards, TLS 1.0 and TLS 1.1, would lose Firefox support in March 2020. That’s next to now.

In a Feb. 6 post, Thyla van der Merwe, the cryptography engineering manager at Mozilla, promised that the upcoming Firefox 74 would give the boot to the pair. “Expect Firefox 74 to offer TLS 1.2 as its minimum version for secure connections when it ships on 10 March 2020,” she wrote.

Although van der Merwe said that Firefox would retain an override button (which has been appearing on warnings when users try to reach a website encrypted by TSL 1.0 or TSL 1.1), she noted that with telemetry trends being what they were, “It’s unlikely that the button will stick around for long.”

The next version, Firefox 74, will release on March 10.

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Cisco adds AI transcription to Webex Meetings

Cisco has added new AI capabilities to Webex Meetings, following the company’s acquisition of Voicea last year. Voicea’s Enterprise Voice Assistant (EVA) speech recognition tech has been integrated into Cisco’s Webex Meetings videoconferencing platform.

New features include automated recording and transcription of conversations, which Cisco said will remove the need for extensive note taking during meetings. Transcripts are searchable, so team members who miss a meeting can quickly locate key topics of discussion without listening through an entire video call. 

With real-time transcriptions, closed captions during a video call are also available, while users can tell the Webex Assistant for Meetings to highlight conversation points and create action items for follow-up.

cisco webex assistant for meetings Cisco

Cisco’s new Webex Assistant for Meetings offers real-time transcription and closed captioning as well as the ability to highlight key points and action items via voice commands.

“Voicea users have reported saving more than six hours per week per user with more actionable and efficient meetings — and we believe Webex users will experience similar results,” said Amy Chang, executive vice president, Cisco Collaboration, in a prepared statement. 

The Webex Assistant for Meetings features will be open for trials this March, according to a company spokesperson. Pricing has not yet been finalized.

The new features build on existing voice capabilities within Webex. Cisco introduced the Webex Assistant, which lets Webex users kick off conference calls with voice commands, in 2017, following the $125 million acquisition of conversational AI startup MindMeld. Cisco also announced on Tuesday that the Webex Assistant is now available in Spanish.

Cisco is not alone in using AI to improve meetings. Cisco rival Microsoft has added automated transcriptions and live captioning to its Teams app, while Zoom and Google’s Hangouts Meet app have similar features. 

“My thoughts are that Cisco is playing catch-up,” said Timothy Banting, a principal analyst at Ovum. “While Voicera is a good acquisition, other vendors such as Microsoft have had this capability for some time and transcription support for a number of languages.”

He said that Cisco’s extensive collaboration portfolio — which includes a range of hosted and cloud platforms for enterprise calls and instant messaging — can create a challenge in terms of balancing priorities and resources for product development. This is the case for several unified communications vendors that compete with rivals that sell a single product. “This crisis of prioritization — trying to spread resources between numerous platforms — is going to continue to challenge traditional UC vendors until they make some tough strategic choices and end-of-life underperforming products,” said Banting. 

Cisco also announced that the Voicea technology will be integrated with Google Cloud’s Contact Center AI (CCAI) platform. This provides customer service reps with call transcripts and summaries to ensure that action items are addressed. Call highlights are then automatically synced with customer relationship management (CRM) systems to enable easy reference for past support issues.

Among the other announcements at the Cisco Live Europe event in Barcelona this week are the new Webex Room USB video device to enable Webex access in smaller “huddle rooms.” Webex Teams users will also have the option to store data outside of the U.S. for the first time, with the ability to store group messaging data in Cisco’s European data centers.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Google adds AI smarts to G Suite with Google Assistant and Docs updates

Google’s AI expertise has long been a strength, and the company has been steadily adding machine-learning capabilities to its G Suite platform. The latest move in that effort allows users to access certain G Suite apps with Google Assistant and introduces Smart Compose text suggestions to Google Docs.

Google first announced it would bring its AI voice assistant to G Suite earlier this year; a beta is now under way that lets users manage their Google Calendar schedules with voice commands. This includes the ability to read out calendar entries, as well as create, cancel or reschedule events. G Suite admins can sign up for the beta here.

Users can also send emails to meeting participants, kick off voice and video calls hands-free using Google’s Hangouts Meet app, and interact with the Asus-built Google Hangouts Meet hardware in conference rooms to join and exit meetings and make phone calls.

AI voice assistants are beginning to make inroads into the workplace, and analyst firm Gartner has forecast that 25% of digital workers will interact with virtual assistants on a daily basis within two years.

With Google Assistant already popular among consumers, Google is well placed to push the use of voice technologies in a business context too, said Wayne Kurtzman, a research director at IDC.

“The race for voice is on, and Google is very well positioned with robust features, security from the Google Cloud and significantly more learning points than most if not all of their competitors,” said Kurtzman. 

Google also benefits from having an extensive suite of business applications, said Angela Ashenden, principal analyst at CCS Insight. That’s different than Amazon, which has also targeted its voice assistant at office workers with the Alexa for Business service.

“Until now, Amazon has been the most high-profile player here with Alexa for Business, but it doesn’t have the cloud productivity portfolio to help steer its direction, so there is a real opportunity for Google,” said Ashenden.

The challenge for Google and others, said Kurtzman, is to assure customers that the requisite security and governance capabilities are in place, offering corporate and personal privacy for every region and industry.

“Google is understandably wary of moving too fast; it is a sensitive area that spans business and personal identities, so it’s important not to lose the trust of both audiences by pushing too far too quickly,” said Ashenden.

Google and Amazon are far from the only business software vendors that see an opportunity for voice interfaces. Microsoft, for instance, recently announced it has integrated its Cortana voice assistant into the Outlook mobile app, while Salesforce has been building out the capabilities of its under-development Einstein Voice Assistant. Oracle also wants to let users interact with its suite of applications using its voice-enabled Digital Assistant.

Smart Compose and autocorrect

Google also announced it will bring Smart Compose to Google Docs. The feature, already available as a beta in Gmail, uses AI to help users draft documents faster by suggesting common phrases that reduce repetitive writing.

“With Smart Compose, Google has seen it have a major impact in Gmail where it’s used in 10% of responses now, and I think it will be a very valuable addition to Docs as well,” said Ashenden.

“The fact that it adapts to your style over time means that it’s likely to become one of those features that no one thought they needed, but they become so reliant on it they won’t want to do without it.

“Google is not the only company building AI-assisted content creation; Salesforce demoed related features at Dreamforce that could fit into its Quip app in the future.

“However, Google is the furthest ahead with these types of AI-assisted productivity features, embedding them into the G Suite products to accelerate tasks and make the tools more sticky,” Ashenden said.

Grammar corrections and suggestions in Docs have been enhanced thanks to the addition of new neural network technology, which is slated to be available soon.

Google’s assistive AI tool will also be able to recognize commonly used words and acronyms that are specific to a project or organization, learning to avoid underlining and marking these as incorrect. It will also suggest corrections if these are misspelled.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Netflix Adds the Option to “Skip Politics”

Netflix has added a button which allows viewers to “Skip Politics”. Unfortunately, this option is currently only available in one comedy special, and is intended as a joke. However, the option to skip segments of shows could become a thing in the future.

Politics Is Everywhere

People are becoming increasingly annoyed with politics, and it doesn’t matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on. However, because politics is everywhere, it’s virtually impossible to get away from it. Even when it comes to entertainment.

Picture the scene. You’ve had a hard day at work, and decide to watch Netflix. You find a comedy special and press Play. Then, 10 minutes later, the comedian starts making jokes about your favorite politician. Your night is ruined, and you’re more stressed than ever.

Seth Meyers Skips Politics in Lobby Baby

The solution may just be a “Skip Politics” button that allows you to skip past those jokes. Which is exactly what’s on offer on Seth Meyers’ comedy special, Lobby Baby. What’s more, the option to skip certain segments was requested by Meyers himself.

At certain points during the special, a “Skip Politics” button will appear in the bottom-right of the screen. Viewers can click it to be whisked past that segment and onto the next. Thereby saving themselves from Meyers’ jokes about President Trump.

According to CNN, the “Skip Politics” button was Meyers idea, with the Late Night With Seth Meyers host saying, “It dawned on me that because it was on Netflix, there would be this opportunity to put in technology that would allow people to skip it.”

Netflix is thrilled that Meyers is using its technology, saying he’s taking “advantage of the Netflix experience in such a funny and innovative way.” However, Meyers himself insists this is just “another joke in the special” and not to be taken too seriously.

Other Ways Netflix Could Use the Skip Button

It remains to be seen whether anyone will actually use the “Skip Politics” button. Especially when they’ve actively chosen to watch a comedy special from a man known for delivering political humor. But it’s still a clever idea, nonetheless.

Netflix could use this technology in other ways in the future. Letting you skip upsetting scenes in dramas or sweary tirades in PG movies. However, as with Netflix’ experiments with variable playback speeds

Netflix Is Testing Variable Playback Speeds

Netflix Is Testing Variable Playback Speeds

Variable playback speeds would allow viewers to speed up or slow down the playback speed of movies and TV shows.
Read More

, we suspect content creators would complain.

Image Credit: Joanna Penn/Flickr

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Slack adds app home screen, better app discoverability

At its Spec developer conference, Slack today unveiled new features aimed at bolstering app discoverability and reducing the need to leave Slack for a variety of tasks. The changes include a new app home screen and redesigned app launcher, the addition of modal windows, and an extension of app “actions” across the platform. 

Accessing other apps from within Slack has long been key to the collaboration tool’s appeal; there are now more than 1,800 third-party apps available in the company’s App Directory.  Options include integrations with the likes of Microsoft, Salesforce, Workday and Google and for Slack-specific bots and services Polly and Troops.

Slack said 600,000 daily active registered developers are now building on the platform. That prompted the company to find ways to make it easier for developers to create new services – and for users to access those services.

One of the new features is the app home screen, which lets developers offer new functions for individual apps. The software, for instance, can now display information related to a user’s work (like upcoming tasks or pending expenses) and the ability to interact directly from the home screen. 

The Google Calendar app, for example, can display a user’s schedule for the current or future date and let users respond to meeting requests or join video calls directly.

Developers can customize home screens using the Block Kit UI framework launched last year. 

The Google Calendar app home in Slack Slack

Google Calendar is one of the first apps to make use of Slack’s app home screen.

App home screens are accessed by clicking on the new app launcher in the Slack sidebar that gives an overview of all installed and available apps. 

“Previously, a user had to hunt around or search for apps that they interacted with in the past. Now, we provide a single entry point to easily access that,” said Andy Pflaum, Slack director of product. “You can think of this like an app on your phone, where every time you open an app you’re taken to the same starting point – so it is a consistent experience and a user knows where to navigate from there.” 

App home is now available as an open beta.

Slack app launcher Slack

Slack’s app home screen is designed to make it easier for users to see what apps they can use, and how.

Slack has also extended the capabilities of its “actions” feature so it’s accessible from other parts  of the platform. Actions, unveiled last year at the company’s first Spec conference, let users interact with apps by clicking on a context menu placed on the right-hand corner of a Slack messages. 

App action menus can now be accessed from an icon in the sidebar, and users can pin actions to a Slack channel. Users can also search for app actions with the Slack Quick Switcher.  

“Slack is adding value through integrations, and [id] not just a chat application,” said Wayne Kurtzman, a research director at IDC. “Developers believe the new Slack app toolkit will make it easier to leverage much of their existing IT stack with low-code solutions.”

He added: “Enterprises have to realize, regardless of the collaboration platform they use, integrations are how the average employee will access IT stack applications.”

App windows

Another feature that developers can customize are multi-step modal “windows.” These offer another way to add detailed information into apps or display interactive choices, and offer an alternative method to conversational bot interactions for certain tasks. 

Qualtrics, which sells survey and employee experience software, is using windows to distribute more advanced surveys to users in Slack, while Bridge – a learning management system – offers a way for users to search and register for courses without switching apps.  

“Between the App Home and Windows we are giving developers a lot more surface area on  which they can build their interactive apps, and it means that users are doing less context switching and less jumping in and out of applications,” said Pflaum. 

The windows feature is now available.

Granular permissions narow data access

To encourage more organizations to deploy third-party integrations, Slack also introduced granular permissions that allow developers to request only the necessary information for an app to function.  

In the past, a “bot token” required a full range of permissions, something that could deter more security-minded admins from using a third-party app.

“That change is going to go a long way to make more enterprises be able to install more apps, because they’ll be able to see specifically what the app is going to do,” said Slack’s director of developer relations, Bear Douglas.

Granular permissions can now be accessed as an open beta.

Finally, Slack also said it has introduced a certification program to give admins and developers accreditation for expertise in deploying, managing and creating apps for the Slack platform.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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