Microsoft to End Cortana Services in Some Countries



Cortana’s days are numbered. Microsoft announced that Cortana services will no longer be supported after January 31, 2020. This warning could give those who were using Cortana some time to find a different digital assistant. Here is the support note from Microsoft’s UK site:

To make your personal digital assistant as helpful as possible, we’re integrating Cortana into your Microsoft 365 productivity apps. As part of this evolution, on January 31, 2020, we’re ending support for the Cortana app on Android and iOS in your market. At that point, the Cortana content you created – such as reminders and lists – will no longer function in the Cortana mobile app or Microsoft Launcher, but can still be accessed through Cortana on Windows. Also, Cortana reminders, lists, and tasks are automatically synced to the Microsoft To Do app, which you can download to your phone for free.

Microsoft continued by stating that after January 31, 2020, the Cortana mobile app on your phone will no longer be supported and there will be an updated version of Microsoft Launcher with Cortana removed.

The Verge reported that Microsoft is “planning to kill off” its Cortana app for iOS and Android users in the UK, Canada, and Australia. The Verge also reported that Microsoft confirmed that the Cortana app will disappear in the UK, Australia, Germany, Mexico, China, Spain, Canada, and India on January 31, 2020.

It appears that Cortana users in the United States will still have access to the Cortana app, but it is not certain for how much longer after the end of January. Now is a good time for Cortana users decide if they want to start using the Microsoft To Do app, or if they need to start looking for another digital assistant.


Google Upgrades Android Messages with RCS



Google announced that it will be upgrading Android Messages with RCS. This new feature has already begun rolling out to users in the United States. Those who already have Messages will be prompted to enable chat features in the coming weeks. Android users who don’t yet have it can download it in the Play Store. Google expects to have this service broadly available in the U.S. by the end of the year. Google enabled the RCS upgrade earlier this year for anyone in the UK, France, and Mexico.

To make your conversations more seamless, we’ve worked on upgrading traditional SMS text messaging with more useful chat features, powered by RCS (Rich Communication Services). When you and your friends message each other with these chat features, you can chat over Wi-Fi or mobile data, send and receive high-resolution photos and videos, and see if people have received your latest messages. Plus, you’ll get better group chats, with the ability to name groups, add and remove people to and from groups, and see if people haven’t seen the latest messages.

TechCrunch described RCS as “the next generation of SMS”. According to TechCrunch, the push for RCS is a way for Google to compete with Apple’s iMessages, (though Google’s RCS doesn’t feature end-to-end encryption). In addition, TechCrunch makes another interesting observation. Google is taking control of this rollout, and that means it will be responsible for keeping the network running.

ArsTechnica also points out that Android Messages is not end-to-end encrypted, stating that “Google or your carrier (or the NSA) could read your messages”.

The Verge reported that many Android phones use Android Messages as the default texting app, but Samsung users will need to go to the Google Play Store to download Android Messages and then switch it to their default. The Verge also noted that the big four US carriers just announced that they will offer RCS in 2020.

In my opinion, it seems like Google has gotten ahead of the big four carriers with RCS implementation – but not by very much. It sounds like Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint are heading in the same direction, and could potentially be rolling that out a few months from now. The bigger concern, though, is that Android Messages is not end-to-end encrypted. That could result in privacy issues.


Amazon will Challenge the Department of Defense’s Decision about JEDI



The Department of Defense selected Microsoft over Amazon on a contract for their Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) project. In short, the Department of Defense selected Microsoft’s Azure Cloud over Amazon’s AWS business. As you may have expected, Amazon is displeased by this decision.

The Washington Post (which is owned by Jeff Bezos, who is also the founder of Amazon), posted an article stating that Amazon will challenge the Pentagon’s decision on the JEDI project. From the article:

“AWS is uniquely experienced and qualified to provide the critical technology the U.S. military needs, and remains committed to supporting the DoD’s modernization efforts,” Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener said in an emailed statement. “We also believe it is critical for our country that the government and its elected leaders administer procurements objectively and in a manner that is free from political influence. Numerous aspects of the JEDI evaluation process contained clear deficiencies, errors, and unmistakable bias – and it’s important that these matters be examined and rectified.”

Reuters reported that Amazon filed the notice that it will formerly protest the decision on JEDI. Reuters also reported that President Donald Trump has long criticized Amazon and its founder Jeff Bezos. CNBC reported that the decision about which company would get the JEDI contract was postponed until Secretary of Defense Mark Esper completed a series of thorough reviews of the technology.

Personally, I think this situation could potentially turn into a long series of court cases. In the meantime, it seems to me that the Department of Defense is not going to wait for the outcome, and will continue working with Microsoft.


Facebook Introduces Facebook Pay



Facebook is introducing Facebook Pay. The company describes it as: “a convenient, secure and consistent payment experience across Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp.”

Facebook Pay will begin rolling out on Facebook and Messenger this week in the US for fundraisers, in-game purchases, event tickets, person-to-person payments on Messenger and purchases from select Pages and businesses on Facebook Marketplace. And, over time, we plan to bring Facebook Pay to more people and places, including for use across Instagram and WhatsApp.

Facebook points out that Facebook Pay is built on existing financial infrastructure and partnerships, and is separate from the Calibra wallet which will run on the Libra network.

That is probably a good decision on Facebook’s part, because Libra has had several companies that were founding members drop out. I don’t think anyone should trust that Libra will be stable until or unless it gets additional companies to sponsor it.

But, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Facebook Pay is a good idea. The Verge reported in October that PayPal, Visa, Mastercard, Stripe, Mercado Pago, and Ebay all dropped out of the Libra project. To me, it seems like a long-shot that the companies who pulled out of Libra would turn around and attach themselves to Facebook Pay.

But even if they did, and other credit card companies also decided to get on board with Facebook Pay, that brings up another problem. How much do you trust Facebook with your credit card number? Earlier this year, the FTC imposed a $5 billion penalty on Facebook and required the company to boost its accountability and transparency. The FTC is also not thrilled with Facebook’s situation with Cambridge Analytica.


Microsoft will Honor California’s Digital Privacy Law Across the U.S.



Microsoft announced that it is a strong supporter of California’s CCPA law, which goes into effect on January 1, 2020. Microsoft is going to extend the privacy protections in the CCPA to all Microsoft customers in the United States.

Under CCPA, companies must be transparent about data collection and use, and provide people with the option to prevent their personal information from being sold. Exactly what will be required under CCPA to accomplish these goals is still developing. Microsoft will continue to monitor those changes, and make the adjustments needed to provide effective transparency and control under CCPA to all people in the U.S. While many of our customers and users find that the data controls we already offer them through our GDPR commitment will be stronger than those rights offered by the new California law, we hope this step will show our commitment to supporting states as they enact laws that take us in the right direction.

Reuters reported that the California law is expected to harm profits over the long term for technology companies, retailers, advertising firms, and other businesses dependent on collecting consumer data to track users and increase sales.

According to Reuters, Microsoft products that collect data include its Cortana and Microsoft Edge browsers, Bing web search engine, Windows 10 system, Xbox and Skype.

Microsoft pointed out the “lack of action by the United States Congress to pass comprehensive privacy legislation”. The company noted that “in the absence of strong national legislation”, California’s law will be adhered to by Microsoft not only for people in California, but also Microsoft customers across the United States.


Twitter will Label and Warn about Deepfakes, but won’t Remove them



Twitter announced in October of this year that they are working on a new policy to address synthetic and manipulated media (also called “deepfakes”). Today, Twitter presented a draft of what they plan to do when they see manipulated media that purposely tries to mislead or confuse people.

Based on conversations with experts and researchers, Twitter proposes that synthetic and manipulated media be defined as: “any photo, audio, or video that has been significantly altered or fabricated in a way that intends to mislead people or changes its original meaning.” Twitter notes that these are sometimes referred to as deepfakes or shallowfakes.

You may have seen some examples of this on social media. There was an altered video passed around of U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, which was made to appear as though she was slurring her words. There is also a video where someone took faces from well-known paintings and made it look as if the faces were speaking.

Twitter made a draft policy regarding deepfakes, in which Twitter may:

  • Place a notice next to Tweets that share synthetic or manipulated media
  • Warn people before they share or like Tweets with synthetic or manipulated media; or
  • Add a link – for example, to a news article or Twitter Moment – so that people can read more about why various sources believe the media is synthetic or manipulated.

In addition, Twitter may remove tweets that include synthetic or manipulated media that is misleading and could threaten someone’s physical safety or lead to other serious harm. It appears that other than this exception, Twitter is intending to allow deepfakes to spread. Twitter has a survey for people who want to to provide feedback about this draft policy.

Personally, I don’t think Twitter’s draft policy will be very effective. Those who view deepfakes that match their opinions or political views are unlikely to accept that what they see has been altered. Warning people that they are about to like or share a deepfake isn’t going to deter those who think the deepfake is more believable than reality, and who think that Twitter is “censoring” content.


Instagram will Test Hiding “Likes” in the US



One of the easiest ways to respond to an Instagram post is to click “like”. It is faster and easier than commenting, and it serves as a positive response to your friend’s latest photo. Wired reported that Instagram will be hiding “like” counts in the United States.

Months after the company tested hiding “like” counts in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Ireland, Italy, and Brazil, CEO Adam Mosseri announced today at WIRED25 that some US Instagram users can expect their like counts to vanish from public view. The company will begin testing next week, at first rolling out the change to a limited number of accounts.

To be clear, this does not mean that Instagram is removing the ability for users to click “like”. You will continue to be able to click “like” on whatever you want to. You will also still be able to see who clicked “like” on the photos that you post on Instagram.

The part that is changing is significant. Users who are part of this test will no longer see the “like” count on the photos posted by other users. I wonder how this will affect Instagram influencers who make their money by attracting brands to sponsor them. Will brands continue to seek out Instagram influencers if the brand cannot see how many “likes” their sponsored post received?

Overall, I think removing the number of “likes” from public view can be a good thing. There are those who will delete posts that they felt did not receive enough of likes. That might change if the person realizes that no one else can see their “like” count. Making that information private could be a relief to many Instagram users.