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Google Tracker: Calling For Backup From Smartphone Producer HTC

How could Google benefit from acquiring smartphone maker HTC? What is the company doing to help out in the wake of Hurricane Harvey — and will it do the same for Irma? Is Google Home safe from hackers? Will the company pay that antitrust fine from the European Commission? This and everything else you may have missed in this week’s Google tracker.

Calling For Backup

Taiwanese news outlet Commercial Times reported Google has nearly completed an acquisition of HTC, the smartphone maker that builds the Google Pixel. Acquiring HTC would give Google strategic ownership of its mobile operating division and could help offset some of the strategic challenges the company’s mobile computing business could potentially face, according to one analyst.

Those challenges include deeper integration of hardware and software to alleviate Android fragmentation issues, optimization of development cycles, mitigation of rising Distribution TAC expenses and a counterpoint to the unbundling of apps that has resulted from the European Commission’s investigation of Android, the analyst said.

After a number of unsuccessful smartphone launches, HTC formed a separate division selling virtual reality headsets, which could be further reason for Google’s interest.

Hurricane Help

Is it too much to say “heartwarming?” In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Google has teamed up with seven Houston-area uBreakiFix locations (the Heights, Rice Village, Pearland, Pasadena, West Chase, Sugar Land and Webster) to offer free repairs to all Google Pixel phones until Sept. 30.

The Pixel phones aren’t waterproof, so the odds of customers needing repairs after the severe flooding that washed through this part of Texas last week are fairly high. And, with total damages being estimated at around $100 billion, the last expense anyone wants to worry about is $130 for a new phone screen.

No word yet on what, if anything, the company plans to offer Pixel owners in Florida in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, but it would certainly be nice to see the goodwill extended to all who need it.

Fine Not Fine

After the European Commission slapped Google with an antitrust fine of $2.73 billion for unfairly promoting its own Google Shopping ads above competitors in organic search results, Google has taken steps to comply with the Commission’s antitrust order.

At the same time, however, the search engine giant has filed a legal appeal against the fine, suggesting its plan may be to comply while pursuing legal challenge rather than stay the course and risk further non-compliance penalties.

Europe’s top court, the ECJ, ruled that a lower court should compare the case to a previous (failed) antitrust appeal by Intel, suggesting the lower court re-examine its decision to uphold the antitrust judgment. This unusual instance of the ECJ going against the Commission’s verdicts may give Google a tailwind going into its own appeals process.

Smart Thermostat Competition Heats Up

Nest, acquired by Alphabet Inc. in 2014, has released a cheaper digital thermostat in order to stay competitive in the smart home market. To achieve the lower price point, Nest traded the original thermostat’s metal edges for plastic and reduced the number of colors displayed on the screen.

The functionality remains the same: Users can adjust the temperature either by turning the dial, if they’re home, or via smartphone if they’re out. However, the time and weather displays were nixed on this model, and Nest says it supports only 85 percent of home HVAC systems compared to the more expensive model’s 95 percent.

The Thermostat E costs $80 less than the original version, totaling $170, and comes on the heels of Nest’s other new product, the Nest Cam IQ — an indoor security camera which detects people within its field of view and records high-resolution video security footage. The classic Nest thermostat has not been changed at this time.

Voice Hackers

Voice hackers are out there — or at least, research shows they could be. Researchers leveraged harmonics to transform recordings of normal voice commands into supersonic frequencies. They then plied the so-called “DolphinAttack” on 16 voice-activated assistant systems, including the Google Home’s Google Now, to see whether they could trigger the voice assistants to respond.

Although they were successful in issuing commands such as switching the phone to airplane mode or manipulating the navigation system, the technique has significant limitations that will likely prevent cyberattackers from using it for evil (for instance, telling the device to visit a site where it would pick up a virus, or initiating outgoing calls to spy).

The attacker would need to be within a few feet of the device and in a quiet environment. Furthermore, most voice assistants respond audibly to commands, and most devices ask the user to unlock them to visit a website, so it’s unlikely a malicious hacker could do much harm before the device’s legitimate owner noticed.

Smart Home Depot

Home Depot is the latest retail partner to join the Google Home voice ordering portfolio, along with Walmart, Target and Costco. Customers will be able to order from Home Depot on Google Home devices and on the Google Express commercial portal on web and mobile.

Google Home owns about 24 percent of the voice-activated market — a not-even-close second to Amazon’s Echo, which controls 70.6 percent of the market and counting.

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