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Google Smart Lock: The complete guide

Think fast: How many times a day do you pick up your phone to look at something? Unless you live in the tundra or have far more self-control than most, the answer probably falls somewhere between “quite a few” and “more than any sane person could count.” Assuming you keep your device properly secured, that means you’re doing an awful lot of unlocking — be it with your face, your fingerprint, or the code you tap or swipe onto your screen.

Security’s important, but goodness gracious, it can be a hassle.

Thankfully, there’s a better way. Google Smart Lock provides a variety of options for keeping your Android phone unlocked in preapproved, known-to-be-safe circumstances. It’s an easily overlooked but incredibly useful feature that lets you create a sensible balance between security and convenience. And once you set it up, it’s simple as can be to use.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to turning Google Smart Lock on and taking full advantage of everything it can offer.

Google Smart Lock: The Android options

On any reasonably recent Android device, you can set up Google Smart Lock to keep your phone unlocked in certain trusted situations but to require your PIN, pattern, password, or biometric authentication at all other times. It’s the best of both worlds, in other words: effective Android security without unnecessary annoyances.

To activate Google Smart Lock on Android, you’ll first need to have a PIN, pattern, or password set for your phone (which you should already have, regardless!). Then, in Google’s version of Android:

  1. Open the Security section of your phone’s settings.
  2. Tap “Smart Lock.”

On Android phones where the manufacturer has made modifications to the operating system, the Smart Lock section may be located in a different area of the device’s settings. On Samsung phones, for instance:

  1. Open the Lock Screen section of your phone’s settings.
  2. Tap “Smart Lock.”

However you get there, once you’ve opened the Smart Lock section, you’ll be prompted to put in your PIN, pattern, or password — and you’ll then see a list of available choices:

On-body detection: Fire up this option, and your phone will remain unlocked whenever you’re holding or carrying it — so long as you’ve already unlocked it once. That way, if you unlock your phone to use it and then put it back into your bag or pocket while walking around, you won’t have to unlock it again the next time you pick it up. Anytime your phone is set down or not in motion for more than a moment, it’ll require authentication again.

Trusted places: Perhaps the most useful Google Smart Lock element, this option allows you to set specific locations — by business name, street address, or manual map placement — at which your phone will never put up a lock screen or require authentication (in theory, at least; the function can sometimes be a bit finicky and require occasional fine-tuning). You’ll obviously want to be selective about what places you choose, but configuring this to recognize somewhere like your home can be a helpful way to avoid authentication where it’s generally not needed but keep your phone secured in all other areas.

Trusted devices: If you’d rather have Google Smart Lock recognize a Bluetooth pairing, this next option’s for you. It empowers you to tell your phone to skip the lock screen anytime it’s connected to a specific Bluetooth device — say, your car’s audio system or your gym headphones — when you know the phone will always be in your control.

google smart lock android 2020 JR Raphael/IDG

You can add any Bluetooth device that’s been paired to your phone as a trusted device and then let it keep your phone unlocked whenever it’s connected.

Voice match: This one’s in the midst of being phased out, but on older Android phones, you might still find an option for it. At this point, that option will typically just take you to a screen where you can configure your phone’s voice activation system to let you interact with certain Google Assistant functions without having to unlock the device — but it won’t actually keep your phone unlocked, as the other Smart Lock functions will. And it won’t be around much longer.

Trusted face: This final option is only likely to be present if you own a really old Android phone — and even then, quite honestly, you probably still won’t want to use it. Android’s 2011-era facial recognition system was never entirely consistent, reliable, or secure, for that matter. It’s been replaced with more modern and effective face unlocking mechanisms that exist as their own standalone entities and are not connected with the Smart Lock brand.

With the other Smart Lock options, though, you can achieve a sensible balance of security and convenience — and at the end of the day, that’s only going to help you keep your information safe while keeping your sanity intact.

This story was originally published in December 2018 and updated in March 2020.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.



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How and why you need HomeKit-secured smart homes

Once upon a time the Internet was amazing, enabling niche interests and connecting people. Apple’s iMac was the epitome of the era, while the iPhone became the prophet of change.

What is HomeKit-secured and why should you use it?

These days hackers break into home networks using our routers and smart home devices, which is why everyone must learn how to use HomeKit-secured routers to keep their connected homes safe.

Apple announced HomeKit-secured routers at WWDC 2019. The first few devices to support the tech recently began to reach market, including options from Linksys and (now) Amazon’s Eero routers.

HomeKit-secured routers provide an additional level of defence between your connected smart home devices and the outside world.

This is of benefit because by putting this ‘wall’ in place, your smart devices become a little harder to hack.

You don’t want criminals taking control of your smart locks, smart baby camera or smart anything, really, do you? You certainly won’t want them to attack your HomeKit devices in order to subvert your home network, or monitoring what your HomeKit devices do in order to figure out when your house is empty and vulnerable.

What security does this provide?

HomeKit-secured routers let you protect each of your HomeKit devices with one of three levels of protection.

These include:

Restrict to Home: The toughest setting, this restricts your devices so that they “can interact only with HomeKit through your Apple devices.” This means they have no independent access to the internet and means you must manually download software updates. But this also means no one can get to those devices unless they take control of your device.

Automatic: The default option allows for limited internet access with connections restricted to those “recommended by its manufacturer”.

No Restriction: This is what it says on the can. It is the least secure option that provides no protection at all. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have a pressing need for it.

HomeKit-secured routers also provide iOS or iPadOS apps which you can get from the App Store and will require when setting up these systems.

How to set up a HomeKit-secured router

First, download and install the relevant app for you router, open it and follow the manufacturer’s set-up instructions.

  • During this process you’ll be asked if you want to add the router to your Home app.
  • Tap accept and follow the on-screen instructions you’ll be provided with.
  • (If you don’t get asked you’ll need to use your router manufacturer’s instructions.)
  • A notification will appear once you’ve successfully added your router to the Home app.

Setting up your HomeKit devices for the router

Because most smart home devices are actually pretty dumb, the next stage of the process is slightly annoying but necessary.

It basically comes down to switching all your HomeKit-enabled products off and switching them on again, which I suspect (though Apple didn’t say) is required to reset the (dumb) low-power processors inside these things.

It means you must remove any existing accessories you’ve already set up, which is a shame as doing so also means all the data, including accessories, scenes, automations and people you’ve invited to control your home will be deleted.

You’ll have to set them all up for your preferences once again.

There are two ways to remove the devices: You can remove individual accessories from your Home app or delete your entire home set-up in the app in order to reconfigure the whole thing from scratch.

To remove individual accessories:

  • On iOS you’ll press and hold the accessory, tap Settings and then tap Remove Accessory.
  • On a Mac, double-click the item, choose Settings and then tap Remove Accessory.

To delete your existing home setup:

  • On iOS, open the Home app and tap the home icon in the top left corner.
  • Scroll to the bottom of the page and tap Remove Home.
  • On a Mac, open Home>Edit>Edit Home and click Remove Home.

Once you’ve removed the accessories (or your home setup) you’ll need to reset you accessories **.

** This is likely to be a tedious process, as you will need to find the tiny reset button that may exist on each of your HomeKit devices. If you can’t find that button, you’ll need to read the manual, spend half a day trying to find out more information on the manufacturer’s website, or contact the manufacturer to begin negotiating for help with its customer support service. Good luck with that.

Assign HomeKit router security privileges

As you add HomeKit devices to your home setup, you’ll be given the opportunity to define access privileges, which works like this:

  • Open the Home app.
  • Tap the home icon in the upper-left corner.
  • Open Home Settings and then choose Wi-Fi Network & Routers.
  • You’ll find a button marked HomeKit Accessory Security which you should toggle to on.
  • You’ll also see a list of the devices you have on your network and can assign the relevant security access to each one (Restrict to Home, Automatic, No Restriction).

So, where are we now?

You now know how to set this system up, but given that doing so may be a little time-consuming, it’s probably worth reprising why it’s important to take on the task.

If properly configured, most routers are smart enough to distinguish between potentially dangerous incoming traffic and traffic from (assumed to be authorized) systems you have installed in your home.

However, not every device is as well secured as you might think.

Many of the early generation smart home devices shipped with weak security, while some may even carry malware already inside the chip.

In the former case, an attacker who can find the device may want to use it to help them climb inside your home network. In the latter scenario, that trusted device may be sharing all kinds of information about you with people you know nothing about.

Spooky, huh?

That’s why limiting your smart home devices in terms of their access to the internet is the smart thing to do. If they can’t contact people, or can only contact a very limited sub-set of people, then your are a little safer. If they can’t be found, you’re safer too.

Up next

So, is this really something to worry about?

Well, clearly Apple thinks it is, and it is telling that Amazon seems to agree, given addition of HomeKit support to its Eero routers.

It’s also important to consider that pretty much the entire smart home device industry is now working with Apple to develop more secure, more compatible connectivity standard.

“The project is built around a shared belief that smart home devices should be secure, reliable, and seamless to use,” the partners said announcing this.

What are they concerned about? It’s possible they are also aware of Kaspersky research claims that attacks against smart home devices climbed by 700% across 2018-19.

So, while the need to rebuild your entire smart home setup in order to use HomeKit-secured routers may seem frustrating, the added security you get justifies the work.

Of course, many Computerworld readers are experts and may already have found their own ways to improve their own smart home (or office) security. That’s great. However, for many the fact that Apple now offers such tools makes such protection available to them, probably for the first time.

With this in mind, and the scale of the evident threat model, I’d urge anyone with a HomeKit set-up to begin taking steps to implement this kind of protection.

In an ideal world, cable and broadband suppliers would upgrade the routers they supply with support for HomeKit security as a matter of urgency — and it may be worth customers applying pressure to make sure they do. Why not contact your provider and ask about this?

Please follow me on Twitter, or join me in the AppleHolic’s bar & grill and Apple Discussions groups on MeWe.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.





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Why every user needs a smart speaker security policy

Does your voice assistant wake up randomly when you are engaged in normal conversation, listening to radio, or watching TV? You’re not alone, and this may have serious implications in enterprise security policy.

All things being equal (they’re not)

“Anyone who has used voice assistants knows that they accidentally wake up and record when the ‘wake word’ isn’t spoken – for example, ‘seriously’ sounds like the wake word ‘Siri’ and often causes Apple’s Siri-enabled devices to start listening,” the Smart Speakers research study says.

In an ideal world it wouldn’t matter.

You’d say what you wanted to say and if your voice assistant accidentally woke in response to random conversation it wouldn’t matter, because no one else would ever know it happened.

Unfortunately, this is not the world we’re in.

This is because elements of accidentally gathered conversations are listened to by people we don’t know anything about as part of most voice assistant company’s “grading process”. (A process in which what these systems do is checked and software improved).

This was the cause of some discussion last year, with most players in the space subsequently doing some work to mitigate the consequences of this and put users in a little more control. However, it seems plausible to think that some information still leaks.

Enterprise security 101

While it is true that some of the more egregious elements of this have been addressed, particularly by Apple, that’s not going to be a big enough commitment for enterprise security teams seeking to protect confidential information from being accidentally picked-up by entities outside of their control.

Preventing things like this taking place this must be pretty high up the list of most security priorities.

Apple (at least) does promises that any recordings it keeps “are not associated” with your identity in the form of your Apple ID.

All the same, in some cases, stripping the identity away from the statement may still not be security enough, particularly as criminals put more effort into breaking into Echo, Google and HomePod devices.

How many accidents take place each day?

How big a threat is this? It may be greater than many think. The Smart Speakers research study conducted over six months by researchers at Northeastern University and Imperial College London provides insight into how often such systems can be accidentally triggered.

They found that:

  1. Smart speakers are not listening all the time.
  2. Accidental activations may happen up to 19 times each day.
  3. Reasons for such activation are inconsistent.

It is worth observing that some devices remain active for longer than others when accidentally activated:

“Echo Dot 2nd Generation and Invoke devices have the longest activations (20-43 seconds). For the HomePod and the majority of Echo devices, more than half of the activations last 6 seconds or more,” the researchers said.

In other words, some Echo devices may listen and record almost a minute of what you say once you accidentally enable the machine.

A HomePod at least only listens for up to six seconds.

What activates these things?

The study attempted to figure out which word and sentence constructions are most likely to activate the systems.

Unsurprisingly, they found words/phrases that sound like the trigger phrase were the most likely to trigger the devices.

In the case of the HomePod, for example:

“Activations occurred with words rhyming with Hi or Hey, followed by something that starts with S+vowel, or when a word includes a syllable that rhymes with “ri” in Siri. Examples include “He clearly”, “They very”, “Hey sorry”, “Okay, Yeah”, “And seriously”, “Hi Mrs”, “Faith’s funeral”, “Historians”, “I see”, “I’m sorry”, “They say”.”

Who watches the watchmen?

Some consumer users may not be so concerned at snippets of conversation being picked up by accidentally invoked smart speaker systems.

At the same time, it does seem reasonable to expect manufacturers to make it possible for consumers to check the frequency of such accidents, and manage those recordings that do exist.

The researchers agree, and will next be exploring if smart speaker system manufacturers “Correctly show all cases of audio recording to users?”

That’s important, of course, because any home or enterprise users wanting to conduct a security audit of accidental or otherwise recordings made using such devices will want to know this.

To be fair, Apple strips the ID from the recording, which means those snippets of sound are no longer directly related to you.

But any information that does leak in this way may still be of value to your or to your business.

How to prevent this happening

The beauty of using Siri on your HomePod is that you can easily ask it to send messages, play music at outstanding quality, take reminders and lots of other tasks.

However, the trade-off in terms of accidentally triggering the device may make it unsuitable for some deployments.

Fortunately, there are ways to stop Siri listening to your conversations on most devices, including the HomePod. Here are three ways to prevent your HomePod listening to you:

#1: Ask Siri

Ironically, you can ask Siri, just say “Hey Siri, stop listening.” The device will ask you if you are sure.

While in this state, Siri will not listen to you, which also means it won’t take accidental recordings. You will still be able to stream music from another device through the system, or just tap the top of the device to enable Siri again.

#2: Use Home app

  • Open the Home app on your iPhone and press and hold the HomePod
  • On the next page, tap the gears icon at bottom right corner.
  • Scroll down this page to the Siri section where you should disable the Listen for Hey Siri If you leave the Touch and Hold for Siri command active you’ll still be able to use Siri in the normal way, but only by touching the device.

#3: Turn it off

Not using the HomePod? Disconnect it from power and there’s no chance it will be listening. Though you won’t get to enjoy the fantastic-sounding audio these systems create.

I don’t intend to be an alarmist in focusing on smart device security. I think it is important to do so. In part this is because this is still a very early stage industry and mistakes do and will get made.

This is why it seems reasonable to me that every smart speaker user should take an audit of the security of their systems, just as I advise every iPhone, iPad or Mac user to regularly check their own system security.

Enterprise users should make such security audits a regular part of what they do.

Stay safe out there!

Please follow me on Twitter, or join me in the AppleHolic’s bar & grill and Apple Discussions groups on MeWe.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.





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Smart lighting security flaw illuminates risk of IoT

The latest smart home security nightmare sheds light on the risk you take each time you add another connected item to your home, office or industrial network – and even market leading brands make mistakes.

The story of Hue

Philips Hue smart lighting systems are probably among the most widely installed smart home solutions in the world, so plenty of people deserve to learn about the latest Check Point research which warns of a major security flaw in them.

It seems it is possible to infiltrate home/office networks using a remote exploit in the ZigBee low-power wireless protocol and Philips Hue smart bulbs and bridge as the access point.

The report claims it was possible to subvert smart home security to the extent that hackers took control of the bulb and then tricked users into a series of actions that let hackers infiltrate the network itself.

Check Point alerted Philips to the problem and the manufacturer very quickly released a software patch to protect against it.

You can get that patch here, and if you happen to have a Hue system installed somewhere in your life you should install it as soon as you can.

Particularly in view of Kaspersky research that tells us attacks against smart home devices climbed by around 700% in the last 12 months.

Why is this still happening?

This strongly reminds me of the highly publicized 2014 attack when criminals used a vulnerability in a connected HVAC system to exfiltrate the details of millions of credit and debit cards from Target.

This is what can happen when attackers succeed in penetrating networks – a little packet-sniffing and your bank details could be purloined – as too might be the access codes for the power plant you work at.

What’s remarkable about this is that it has been six years since the Target hack, and yet it’s still possible to isolate connected items in order to subvert them.

This is a problem Apple has been working to try to solve ever since it created its Made for HomeKit system

Manufacturers have a responsibility

Now, I’m not about to focus my ire on Philips in this – the company took steps to remediate the situation once it heard about it.

Nor is it exactly Zigbee that is at fault — the truth is that every operating system holds its own set of vulnerabilities and identifying them is a big business.

But I will focus some anger at those manufacturers in the smart home space who don’t see security and privacy as important in an increasingly connected age.

Because the risk to your home and business represented by poorly secured devices on your connected networks reflects the weakest devices you have installed far more than the better ones.

You can have ten thousand well secured smart devices, but that ancient connected thermostat in the storeroom may be all the vulnerability a hacker needs to penetrate your entire network.

That’s also why you should diligently check how committed manufacturers are to regular software and security updates for the smart devices they want to sell you. It doesn’t matter if those systems are aimed at business or consumer users, if they don’t commit to regular security protection, you shouldn’t buy them. 

What can you do?

I recommend consumer and enterprise users take inventory of their existing connected device deployments.

When they do, they should ask the following questions:

  • Has this device shown any unexpected instability recently?
  • Is it possible to update the firmware on this device?
  • Is the latest software patch installed?
  • How regularly do software patches ship?
  • Is it possible to change any default password/code on the device and has it been changed?
  • Is it possible to use an alphanumeric code?
  • Does the system support the latest edition of its operating system?
  • What is the device’s networking protocol? Is it still current?
  • Is it possible to identify the device from beyond the network using standard network monitoring tools?
  • If you can’t update the device, or change its password, or it uses an ancient networking protocol, stop using it.
  • If the device is visible to people outside your network, either secure it, or switch it off and send it to be recycled.

In some cases, I’ve heard of deployments in which connected devices are placed on a separate wireless network from any computers or data storage systems.

Apple, has its own solution which may go some way toward securing HomeKit-based smarthomes, Homekit-enabled routers. These let you protect smart devices across your office or home, but only a few routers supporting this are available right now.

Personally, I think every router should have smart device protection baked inside. Perhaps this is what Apple, Google, Amazon, the Zigbee Alliance and others hope to achieve with the Connected Homes over IP project.

But the security vulnerabilities illuminated by this latest Hue problem should be proof positive that better security is mandatory, for your home, your office, factory or any other connected system.

Please follow me on Twitter, or join me in the AppleHolic’s bar & grill and Apple Discussions groups on MeWe.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.





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6 smart things to think over with Google’s CEO shakeup

Oh, hey — didja hear? Larry and Sergey are leaving! Google’s founders are jumping ship! THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT IS BEING SHAKEN UP AND TURNED UPSIDE-DOWN.

Well, kind of. It’s true that Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the two fellas who started Google in what I can only assume was a somewhat dank and none-too-fresh-smelling garage some 20 years ago, are stepping back from their formal roles within the company. The pair announced as much in a public letter this week, saying it was “the natural time to simplify” the management structure and revealing that current Google CEO Sundar Pichai would take over the role of Alphabet CEO — a position held by Page up til now — in addition to retaining all of his existing duties.

(Brin’s job of Alphabet president — a position whose practical purpose was even more murky than Page’s CEO role — seems like it’ll simply be eliminated.)

Well, shiver me timbers: This all sure sounds pretty sporkin’ earth-shattering on the surface. And it certainly is significant, in some sense; after all, the once-influential creators of a company formally resigning from their management roles is monumental, at least from a historical and sentimental perspective.

But, well, Google isn’t exactly an ordinary organization. And so it only makes sense that there’d be more to this story.

Join me in thinking through some critical context to Google’s high-profile and widely misunderstood management shuffle, and let’s see if we can get to the bottom of what it really signifies.

Here we go:

1. Pichai was already overseeing Alphabet’s most important areas

Have you ever tried to explain to someone what Alphabet is? The first challenge is getting across the idea that Alphabet even is something, as hardly anyone who doesn’t watch tech like a hawk is aware that it exists.

Once you manage that, you invariably wade into the thorny subject of what Alphabet truly represents — a conversation that, in my experience, usually goes a little somethin’ like this:

“Um, well, y’see, a few years ago, Google decided to make itself one small part of a bigger umbrella company — kind of like a ‘holding company,’ I think? So Google is technically one wing of Alphabet, I guess, and other things that used to be part of Google are now their own separate wings of Alphabet.”

Oh, I get it! So, like, YouTube and Android and Nest and whatever are all their own baby companies, alongside Google, and Alphabet is the papa?

“Uh….well, not exactly. I mean, YouTube and Android are still part of Google. Nest was its own separate wing under Alphabet for a while, but it’s back within Google now, too.”

Huh. So what else is under Alphabet, then?

And that’s usually where you coyly try to change the subject (or just give up and gallop out of the room while making cacaw sounds as a distraction).

I mean, honestly, how many Alphabet companies — outside of Google — can you name? Assuming you aren’t a professional industry “pundit” (which I’m pretty sure is a euphemism for “unemployed blowhard”), at best, you might come up with “some health research thing, some investment stuff or other, and something about hot air balloons?” Heck, even Alphabet’s official website doesn’t appear to have been updated since the organization’s formation in 2015. You really have to do some serious digging to figure out what the hell it’s all about.

But once you do, you discover that beyond the health research thing, the investment stuff, and the something-about-hot-air-balloons matter, Alphabet has a handful of thus-far-unrealized experimental sorts of projects within it — including the DeepMind artificial intelligence research group and the Waymo self-driving, uh, brainstorming entity. It also houses the confusingly named Google Fiber — the once-promising-sounding effort to bring affordable high-speed internet access to all of America that’s now separated from Google and faded into barely-active-seeming obscurity.

When it comes to the more significant parts of the Alphabet operation, though, both from a business perspective and from the perspective of what actually impacts us as fragrant-footed bipeds who use the products — y’know, products like Google Search, YouTube, Maps, the whole advertising empire, and those silly little things we call Chrome and Android — well, those were already all under Pichai’s purview.

And that brings us to our second point:

2. Alphabet projects that become particularly significant seem to have a way of moving back to Google, anyhow

The most prominent example is Nest, and it’s an especially striking one: When Nest first became its own standalone entity, separate from Google and under the Alphabet umbrella, things didn’t exactly go well.

During its Alphabet era, the company — which was initially held up as an illustration of what the Alphabet-centric, everything-isn’t-Google model was supposed to achieve — lost its two co-founders and the founder of a high-profile connected camera company it acquired. It struggled to ship new products and seemed weirdly at odds with Google’s own smart-hardware-making efforts. Google even reportedly tried (and failed) to sell the organization off altogether at a certain point, and stories abounded about discontent and frustration within the Nest ranks.

Now united with Google’s hardware team, Nest is shipping products and slowly but surely settling on a cohesive strategy. Its story is far from finished, but it’s certainly a dramatic turn from where it was a few short years ago.

Google similarly swallowed up Alphabet’s enterprise security company Chronicle this past summer, just a few months after Chronicle released its first official product. From the sounds of it — with a little between-the-lines reading — out in the real world, Chronicle wasn’t acquiring its own clients quickly enough and so it made more sense for it to become a part of Google’s existing Google Cloud service instead of awkwardly trying to succeed as its own standalone entity.

See the trend here?

3. Page and Brin have already, by most measures, been mostly absent for a while

Perhaps the most important unspoken takeaway from this week’s shift is the fact that the whole thing seems more symbolic than anything — more of a formalization of something that had largely already happened as opposed to a sudden shocking change.

To wit: Neither Page nor Brin has had any significant public role within Alphabet in ages. Neither even attended the company’s last two shareholder meetings. When someone appears publicly on the organization’s behalf — be it at an investor-focused event, a customer-focused unveiling, or a politically required meeting or hearing of some sort — it’s almost always Pichai (along with other appropriate executives).

Even within Google’s walls, the founders have long been conspicuously absent, according to numerous reports. In June, Bloomberg posed the question: “Where Is Larry Page? Alphabet Deserves Better” — the title of an article that made a pretty damning proclamation:

Alphabet has both a functional CEO in Pichai and a figurehead CEO who busies himself with far-off technology and is otherwise increasingly a ghost inside and outside of the company. …

Everyone would like to do only the interesting parts of a job and skip the unpleasant or dull tasks. That’s not how adult life works, and that isn’t how a public company should work, either.

Page and Brin had even both mostly stopped attending their company’s legendary “TGIF” town-hall-style pow-wows for employees — a noteworthy contrast from the past, when their presence was generally considered a given. (Those meetings have also since been scaled back and revamped into more structured monthly meetings about “product and business strategy,” but that’s another discussion for another time.)

4. Page and Brin may be formally stepping down in title, but they’re ultimately still in control

This part is key: While both of Google’s founders are relinquishing their managerial titles — “assum[ing] the role of product parents, offering advice and not but not daily nagging,” as they put it — the two still have total command of their company’s course.

It’s no exaggeration: Page and Brin control more than 50% of the voting power on Alphabet’s board, where they’ll stay on as members. They’re effectively kings of the Alphabet empire, in other words, and they’ll continue to make the big decisions even if they aren’t doing the day-to-day legwork.

That little tidbit makes the change in titles seem slightly less significant, doesn’t it?

5. Page and Brin are reducing their roles at a time when strong leadership is most needed — and arguably most difficult

It’s not a frequent subject of discussion in these more practical-impact-focused quarters of ours, but it’s no secret that Google (and thus also Alphabet) is facing some serious challenges as a company right now — challenges that relate to labor issues and employee unrest as well as broader and not entirely unrelated questions about the company’s culture. And that’s to say nothing of the growing storm of political and regulatory hurdles that’s long been a-brewin’ and threatening to explode.

Page and Brin, perhaps not surprisingly, don’t seem particularly interested in such issues. They’re engineers — product guys. This stuff is difficult, dull, and presumably far less rewarding than achieving some awe-inspiring new technological breakthrough.

And while Google is of course still simultaneously charging forward on the tech front, it’s hard not to think that the cultural, political, and regulatory issues are gonna be the biggest and most consequential challenges for the company in the months and maybe even years ahead — particularly from the perspective of a founder or executive.

Maybe Page and Brin aren’t the right guys to steer that ship. It’s certainly easy to see why they might not want to; even in a simpler past, Page was known to shy away from the more mundane managerial tasks, devoting his time and attention more toward product strategy and then outsourcing policy, budgets, and other such dry matters to folks who seemed better suited to handle ’em. He often spoke of wanting Google to act more like a startup, and there’s nothing less startup-like than dealing with bureaucratic monotony.

6. The impact of this change — for us, as users — seems likely to be far less dramatic than what we’ve seen with Pichai’s previous promotions

Given everything we’ve just discussed, the notion of this change in leadership leading to any major practical changes for us — not investors or shareholders or employees but simply the regular ol’ folk who rely on Google services — doesn’t seem especially likely.

Ultimately, the whole point of the Alphabet umbrella organization existing in the first place was to isolate the more experimental projects and thus allow Larry Page to focus on such “bigger-picture” thinking while Sundar Pichai handled the day-to-day business operations. The other point was to separate the less immediately profitable parts of the operation from the viable Google businesses and thereby to enhance investors’ views of Google’s success.

Well, the Page part of the equation is no longer relevant. And the investor part of it was never especially relevant from any practical, user-oriented standpoint.

Now, compare that with six years ago, when Pichai — then a Google VP in charge of Chrome — took over as the chief of Android following Android creator Andy Rubin’s departure.

That change, as I noted back in 2013, made a significant and very noticeable difference: It made Android start to feel “more like a Google product and less like its own island within the Google universe” — with the first real steps toward a more Google-like design, the first prominent integration of non-Android-specific Google functionality, and generally just the beginning of a more consistent and connected sort of experience. It’s tough to remember now, but that was a pretty sharp change from the way Android had been up to that point.

And all of that’s to say nothing about the transformative Android-Chrome-OS alignment we’ve been seeing slowly take shape over the past several years, with seeds being planted around that same era.

Putting all of Alphabet under Pichai’s direction sure doesn’t seem likely to have anywhere near that level of outward-facing impact, even if it could perhaps lead to a similar sort of increased unification from an internal organization perspective. Heck, even if Pichai pulls the ultimate Google move and eventually “spring cleans” Alphabet itself into oblivion, the practical impact for us on the outside would presumably be pretty minimal.

To sum things up, then: The founders of Google are stepping down from managerial roles they haven’t really been actively practicing for a long time now while continuing to hold onto ultimate control of what happens within the company. And the guy who’s been in charge of all the important stuff for a while already will continue to be in charge of all the important stuff, just with some other odds and ends sprinkled on top.

It wouldn’t be Google if there weren’t some level of near-constant change, but all in all, this shift — monumental as it may be in certain senses — seems like something that’s more of a long-time-coming, logical sort of adjustment than any earth-shattering recalibration.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.



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