All posts in “Business”

What’s Up With Google Docs

Google on Wednesday introduced a number of collaborative features to its office productivity tools. The latest versions of Google Docs, Sheets and Slides will include new editing functionality that will enable office teams to work together in real time on the most up-to-date versions of their files.

The new features will ensure that every collaborator is working on the same document, explained Birkan Icacan, product manager for Google Docs.

Changes to the documents can be made not only via a desktop, as was possible with previous versions of the software, but also via Android and iOS mobile devices. Users also can approve or reject edit suggestions via the apps. Further, documents can be reviewed with Litera Change-Pro and Workshare add-ons.

Google has introduced new templates for Docs and Sheets, which should help save time on the formatting of documents. Included are new built-in add-ons that allow for greater customization, and tools specific to a particular workflow.

Google provided five new examples in the general template gallery: a new mutual nondisclosure agreement from LegalZoom and Docusign; as well as templates from Lucidchart, PandaDoc, EasyBib and Supermetrics.

Tracking the Changes

The new improvements to Docs address the fact that many documents aren’t written by a single person. These new tools are meant to accommodate the collaborative approach to document creation.

It’s typical to make dozens of edits with multiple team members when crafting a document, especially if it is a legal agreement, project proposal or research paper, Google noted. The new updates to Docs are designed to make it easier than ever for team members to manage the changes.

Among the new capabilities are the option to assign custom names as a way to maintain a historic record of a document’s progress; to track changes in the “version history” — which formerly was known as “revision history”; and to ensure that everyone on the team knows when a document truly is “final.”

Further, the new system will offer users the ability to view a “clean version” of a document so they can see what it would like without comments or suggested edits. Without strikeouts and other distractions, the “clean” preview would be easier to read.

“The new features focus on tracking changes and collaboration, and this bring it much more in line with Microsoft Office, which is one of Office’s strong points,” said Roger Entner, principal analyst at Recon Analytics.

In the process, “it removes one of the major criticisms that business users had with Google Docs,” Entner told the E-Commerce Times.

Tracking More Than Changes

The cloud-based model of Google Docs could be its greatest weakness, however.

“Google Docs for business has been a difficult sale, because Google wants to know what you’re doing, and businesses tend not to go for that,” said Roger Kay, principal analyst at Endpoint Technologies Associates.

“Consumers will make the tradeoff of privacy for access, but businesses often expect to pay for something and actually get it — not become the product themselves,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

“That’s the fundamental issue for Google Docs in business — that and Microsoft’s lock-in, which is not negligible,” added Kay.

Microsoft in recent years also took a hard turn and began migrating toward Google’s cloud-based mode, which paradoxically put Google a better proposition, noted Kay.

“If you’re going to have to give your information away to somebody,” he suggested, it “might as well be Google, because features are secondary.”

Google Docs’ stiffest competition might not come from Word 365, but from an organization’s legacy software, which still — at least, for now — runs on the latest versions of Windows.

“Some people are still getting along fine with Word 2000,” said Kay. “After all, what do you really need in a word processor? Yes, there’s collaborative stuff, workflow and whatnot — but I’m not sure features sell the platform.”

Peter Suciu has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2012. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile phones, displays, streaming media, pay TV and autonomous vehicles. He has written and edited for numerous publications and websites, including Newsweek, Wired and
Email Peter.

Xfinity Mobile goes live nationwide in all Comcast markets, lowers pricing

Why it matters to you

Comcast wants to supply your smartphone internet via Xfinity Mobile, a new wireless plan for its current cable and internet subscribers.

Comcast already pipes internet into millions of homes, and now it wants to take its service to the airwaves. In April, the media giant announced the details of a new service, Xfinity Mobile, that would compete toe-to-toe with Google Fi, US Cellular, and incumbents like AT&T and T-Mobile. Now the company has finally launched its wireless network nationwide for all existing Comcast customers.

If you’re already an Xfinity subscriber, you can head to the company’s new mobile website to get started. Up until this week, Comcast was in the process of rolling out coverage to markets where its terrestrial service already operates. It appears that’s been finished, though a change has been made to sweeten the deal.

Xfinity Mobile features an unlimited data, talk, and text plan, initially sold starting at $65 a month for up to five lines ($45 per line for customers with Comcast’s top X1 TV packages), or $12 per GB a month a la carte. According to a report from Engadget, the company has simplified pricing by removing the $65 rate — so the $45 reduced cost for unlimited is now available to everyone.

The $12 “By the Gig” plan only charges you for the data you actually use. In that way, it’s somewhat similar to Project Fi — though instead of crediting you back for unused data, Xfinity simply charges another $12 every time you go over the mark. Be advised that if you end up surpassing 3GB under this plan, you’d save money by choosing unlimited.

A combination of Comcast’s 16 million Wi-Fi hot spots and Verizon’s network will supply coverage, and, as with Google’s Fi technology, phones will automatically switch between Wi-Fi and cellular depending on network conditions. Xfinity Mobile customers have their choice of the iPhone, 7, 6S, and SE series, the Samsung Galaxy S8 and S7 series, and the LG X Power — though they won’t be permitted to bring their current devices.

Sign-ups have been restricted to Comcast’s 25 million subscribers at launch, which the company said is to ensure a “high level” of customer service. Xfinity Mobile subscribers will be able to get in touch with reps via text and “other means,” Comcast said.

The pricing is in line with the competition — Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint offer plans ranging from $50 a month to $90 a month for a single line. And that’s no mistake. “We believe we have very competitive unlimited plans,” Greg Butz, president of Comcast’s mobile business, told Reuters.

With this launch, Comcast becomes the first cable mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) — in other words, the first wireline internet provider to buy capacity on other wireless carriers’ networks.

“The lines between wired and wireless networks are blurring,” Comcast CEO Brian Roberts told Fortune. “For Comcast […] being a wireless operator isn’t optional. All network operators are going to be in the wireless business whether they like it or not.”

It’s a logical step for Comcast, which faces declining revenue in the wake of an ongoing cable TV exodus. In August 2016, every major cable TV company, including DirecTV, Comcast, and Character, lost subscribers. A collective 812,000 U.S. customers canceled their pay TV subscriptions, and there were 1.4 million fewer cable subscribers in the quarter overall compared to the same period a year ago.

It isn’t all doom and gloom. A forecast from analysts at SNL Kagan projects that broadband subscriptions will increase by 8 million over the next decade, heading off an expected 1.5 percent decline in traditional TV subscriptions. But Comcast’s not taking chances.

And Comcast isn’t the only company in this position. Charter Communications is also said to be launching a wireless service next year. And AT&T, which owns satellite provider DirecTV, debuted an internet TV package — DirecTV Now — earlier this year.

Update: Added news that Xfinity Mobile has gone live in all existing Comcast markets, along with pricing changes.

When disaster strikes, this secret Verizon bunker keeps your phone working

It takes a lot to protect a cell network. Hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes snap towers like toothpicks. Hackers probe the backend for vulnerabilities; and smartphone-touting concertgoers, fair attendees, and sports fans push cell sites to their limits.

Verizon Wireless, the largest wireless network in the U.S. by number of subscribers, spends a lot of time thinking about how to keep its grid from going down. During a tour of the carrier’s network switching center in Yonkers, New York, we got an inside look at the equipment designed to withstand everything from gale-force winds to Mariah Carey concerts.

“Our switches have to survive everything,” Michelle White, executive director at Verizon, told Digital Trends. “You go back to when [the terrorist attacks on] 9/11 happened and a lot of people became really attached to their devices because they used them to stay in touch with family and friends. The value we bring to our customer is highlighted through those crises.”

Entering through the (padlocked) front door

From the outside, Verizon’s Yonkers, New York office looks conspicuously normal. The gray low-rise building, which is located about an hour north of Midtown Manhattan by train, is nestled in an overgrown forest hillside dotted with hotels. But it’s not your average office building. A metal barricade and padlocked double doors keep out onlookers without the proper security clearance. You won’t find its exact address on the map — type it into Google, and you’ll find a nearby perimeter highway.

“One of the easiest ways for someone to hurt us is our communications,” Christine Williams, a Verizon network supervisor and our tour guide, said. “That’s why we do everything in our power to shield the network. We have firewalls [and] and entire team devoted to security.”

That might sound a little hyperbolic, but the Yonkers building is an attractive target. This switching center handles call, text message, and data routing for one of Verizon’s largest markets: New York City. It’s one of two that service the greater New York area, Williams explained, as we entered the bowels of the building’s equipment floor.

The building’s switching room routes more than 300 million data connections.

The building’s switching room — rows of servers, AC units, and circuit breakers — routes more than 300 million data connections through multicolored fiber-optic wires. If you send an email to a coworker, Snapchat message a friend, or post a picture to Instagram from Midtown Manhattan, the Bronx, or Queens, chances are it’ll hit the Yonkers building’s wires first. It’s also responsible for routing voice calls.

“When you’re on the local cell tower or wherever you may be, the switch is running that call,” Williams said. “If you’re making a landline call to somebody, it connects you to every [other switch] out there. And if you’re calling a mobile center, it would hit this switch, travel long distance across the country, and connect to another local switch to find your corresponding person.”

Protecting the brain

It’s like a big computer, White said. The switch is “the brains” that have the information on how your calls should be handled.

Just like brains, they’re temperamental. The switches need to be kept within a certain temperature range to prevent overheating, and they draw power from a custom circuit that converts incoming AC (alternating current) power to DC (direct current).

Why DC instead of AC? The voltage in AC current — the kind that powers your hairdryer and coffee pot — periodically reverses, which can affect the switches’ stability. DC current, on the other hand, supplies electricity at a constant voltage.

Switching Center white room

Kyle Wiggers/Digital Trends

“With the regular power outside, there are spikes — it goes up and down, and the computers don’t like that,” White said. “So we work off DC batteries.”

They switches are also insulated to protect against flooding. Four long hallways buffer the switching room against any rainwater that might make it past the past the facility’s surrounding hillside, and data is piped in through two separate fiber feeds on either end of the building.

“We put all the important equipment interior to the building, surrounded by hallways so that if there’s a flood or hurricane or any kind of natural disaster,” Williams said. “It’d have to go through a lot to get to our most critical processing.”

The same is true of the building’s backup power. Two diesel-powered generators, each the size of an entire room, supply enough electricity to power a 400-home subdivision. If the building’s two connections to the power grid were cut or if severe weather knocks out local power, for example — they can supply enough energy to run the building’s switches for eight hours.

“It’s sort of like the portable generators you use to power your house when there’s a flood or outage, but on a much bigger scale.” Williams said. “They run simultaneously, and each one of them by themselves could handle all the AC and DC power the facility needs. Even when there’s a little bit of a loss, they start powering the air conditioners, lights, and everything that doesn’t run off of DC power.”

Ready for game day

The Yonkers building handles more than just switching. A cement parking lot houses what White called the “farmyard” equipment: portable towers and generators with colorful acronyms like COWS (Cell on Wheels), COLTS (Cells on Light Trucks), and GOATS (Generators on Trailers).

“We’re usually heavily involved behind the scenes. We pull out all the stops.”

They’re smaller, modular versions of the cell towers that dot the side of the road, and they’re used to bolster local network capacity. Ahead of events like festivals, fairs, and football games, Verizon engineers decide which (and how much) equipment to deploy based on data like historical attendance, time of day, and traffic.

They aren’t cheap. Verizon charges municipalities more than $50,000 to set up a COW, and the event organizers are on their own when it comes to the generator required to power it.

Natural disasters are a different story. During the recent Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, Verizon volunteered phones, mobile hot spots, and solar-powered network equipment to emergency personnel. In 2015, when two convicts escaped a New York’s upstate Clinton Correctional Facility, the carrier established a satellite uplink so that investigators could stay in touch.

“We’re usually heavily involved behind the scenes,” White said. “We pull out all the stops.”

Next-gen readiness

White doesn’t expect the Yonkers switch to change all that much in the coming years. The most dramatic upgrades will be on the inside, where network techs will swap out and consolidate switches as Verizon transitions to Gigabit 4G LTE and 5G.

Right now, roughly half of the building’s server room houses 3G switches and call-only computers. Its 4G equipment takes up a single metal rack.

“Everything’s shrinking,” Williams said. “We don’t need as much space as we used to.”

The old equipment is less power-efficient and slower, too, which is one of the reasons Verizon plans to sunset its 3G network in the next three to four years. It’ll transition customers to 4G LTE, which can handle talk, text, and data simultaneously.

Fiat joins BMW, Intel, and Mobileye in the race toward a self-driving future

Why it matters to you

Back in 2016, Intel, Mobileye, and BMW formed a consortium to develop self-driving technology. Now, Fiat has joined that consortium.

Fresh off Intel’s completed acquisition of Mobileye, the race toward a self-driving future has accelerated once again. On Wednesday, August 16, Fiat Chrysler announced that it would be joining these two companies and BMW in order to help develop autonomous vehicles. As more and more carmakers recognize the importance of driverless technology as a prerequisite for staying relevant in the digital future, FCA’s move certainly seems like the strategic choice.

“In order to advance autonomous driving technology, it is vital to form partnerships among automakers, technology providers, and suppliers,” FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne noted in a news release. “Joining this cooperation will enable FCA to directly benefit from the synergies and economies of scale that are possible when companies come together with a common vision and objective.”

Indeed, FCA doesn’t necessarily possess the capital needed to embark upon a self-driving journey on its own, so joining the BMW, Intel, and Mobileye consortium helps. When BMW and Intel created their partnership in 2016 alongside Mobileye, they noted that they were open to having new members join in order to accelerate the development of the technology as well as its implementation.

As James Hodgson, senior analyst at ABI Research, told Digital Trends, “This is a good move for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) and much needed to help reduce its severe innovation deficit in autonomous vehicles, with the brand having very little to show to date compared to direct, mass-market competitors such as Ford and GM.”

As it stands, the BMW-Intel partnership claims to be on track to deliver 40 self-driving test cars by the end of 2017. And given that McKinsey believes that the autonomous car sector could be worth $2 trillion by 2030, conducting these tests sooner rather than later certainly seems to be a goal among all concerned.

“For the BMW/Intel/Mobileye consortium, the addition of another OEM (original equipment manufacturer) helps to build the critical mass around their initiatives, particularly with FCA being a volume player,” Hodgson told us.

So look out, friends. You could soon be seeing a whole host of self-driving cars from different companies, with Fiat Chrysler standing at the top of that list.

Driverless technology may be on the rise, but Lyft has a place for humans

Why it matters to you

Many of us may be worried about robots and machines taking over our jobs, but Lyft wants to assuage some of those fears.

Despite the burgeoning interest in driverless cars and autonomous technology, there will always be a place in this world (and in cars) for humans. That, at least, is the stance that Lyft is taking according to its interview with Recode. In a recent episode of the publication’s podcast, the company’s director of product, Taggart Matthiesen, noted that while Lyft is certainly focusing on self-driving automobiles, their human counterparts will not be forgotten in the face of technological progress.

“Drivers have always been part of our family, they have been core to our service,” Matthiesen said. “As far as I’m concerned, they will continue to be that. Over time, technology will give us the opportunity to provide additional services on our platform, whether that is a concierge service, whether that is an in-vehicle experience … these are all things that we will slowly evolve and work with our drivers on.”

This certainly comes as encouragement and reassurance to those who fear that their jobs may soon be obviated by the rise of the machine. After all, robots have previously been estimated to have the capacity to replace some 5 million jobs in the next three years. However, given that most of these jobs will likely be lower level, administrative roles, this replacement could also herald the dawn of a more creative and innovative era in the human workforce.

In any case, Lyft is making clear that it has no intentions of completely turning to robots and machines when it comes to its own driving fleet. Already, Matthiesen said, the company has formed an “advisory council” tasked with “proactively reaching out about the future of human workers in self-driving cars.” And ultimately, the director noted, Lyft might “never be 100 percent” autonomous. Why? Because when push comes to shove, there are some scenarios in which human empathy and understanding are necessary.

“If I need to go to the doctor’s office and my leg is in a cast, and I can’t drive, we have a service for that,” Matthiesen said. “If you get into the world of autonomous, we may need someone in that vehicle to help that person. There are things we’re doing beyond getting a passenger from point A to point B, additional services that we as a company can look at.”