This Week in Tech: From Google Gobbling, #Hashtag-Following and Ride Cost-Sharing to the NSA
- Waze App/Waze.com
It was a busy week for Bay Area tech companies, big and small. Here are a few of the headliner developments.
On Tuesday, Google announced it had bought the social traffic and navigation app Waze, reportedly for $1.3 billion, which seems to be the market range for acquiring the flashiest startups these days.
The search giant already has Google Maps, of course, so why scoop up Waze?
At the heart of this Israeli startup are dedicated communities of drivers who share driving information in real time, alerting each other to accidents, road work and other traffic issues along the route ahead.
“This fast-growing community of traffic-obsessed drivers is working together to find the best routes from home to work every day,” explained Google’s Brian McClendon, vice president, Geo, on the company blog. “We’ll … work closely with the vibrant Waze community, who are the DNA of this app, to ensure they have what’s needed to grow and prosper.”
“(It) is used by something like 105 percent of the population here, statistically speaking,” said Amalyah Keshet of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. “It’s a simple expression of the ancient and honorable Israeli habit of giving wanted or unwanted advice – especially about where to go.
“Just last night, a friend arrived at my house after Waze told her it would take her 14 minutes from where she was. She mentally bet the program that it would take at least 15 minutes. It took 14.”
Waze is notably international in scope, with around 50 million users in some 110 countries.
Meanwhile, a nonprofit group, Consumer Watchdog, urged the Federal Trade Commission to block the acquisition because it could result in Google attaining a monopoly over mapping.
The two most prominent social media companies picked this week to extend each other the sincerest form of flattery. First, early on Wednesday, Facebook announced it has introduced the hashtag search feature to its interface, years after the Twitter user base invented it at the microblogging site.
Not to be outdone, Twitter soft-launched Wednesday night its new #FollowMe feature that allows users to easily create movies that depict their social footprint, including their top tweets, photos and followers. As much as hashtags have been identified with Twitter, the follow concept has long been identified with Facebook
Uber – Sidecar – Lyft
The on-demand transportation sector had a bit of a dustup this week as Uber announced it is cutting prices for its UberX rides to compete more directly with ride-sharing startups Lyft and Sidecar.
UberX is a cheaper version of its pricier black town car service, and usually involves hybrid vehicles. Those taking rides from Lyft and Sidecar pay an optional donation to drivers who drive them across town — usually the amount suggested on the apps as determined by the companies.
Lyft cars are distinguished by the large pink mustache normally displayed on the front of the vehicle.
This sector is actually even more crowded as companies including RelayRides, Wheelz, Getaround and Flywheel all present variations on the theme. Flywheel works directly with the taxi companies, whereas the others are often seen as disrupters of the taxi industry.
The California PUC has been investigating some of the car-sharing companies and is rewriting its rules governing their operations in the state.
NSA Data Collection Update
Google’s Chief Legal Officer David Drummond published his letter to the U.S. attorney general and the FBI director on the corporate blog complaining, “Assertions in the press that our compliance with these requests gives the U.S. government unfettered access to our users’ data are simply untrue. However, government nondisclosure obligations regarding the number of FISA national security requests that Google receives, as well as the number of accounts covered by those requests, fuel that speculation.”
Drummond asked to be able to publish in its Transparency Report the “aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures — in terms of both the number we receive and their scope. Google’s numbers would clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made. Google has nothing to hide.”
Meanwhile, an array of advocacy groups has been organizing opposition to the government’s massive data collection effort. Hosted by Mozilla, the browser company, a website called “Stop Watching Us” gathered more than 100,000 signatures in the first 48 hours after it launched.
“The revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance apparatus, if true, represent a stunning abuse of our basic rights,” the site said. “We demand the U.S. Congress reveal the full extent of the NSA’s spying programs.”
KQED News’s Stephanie Martin asked Mozilla’s privacy and public policy leader Alex Fowler, who helped spearhead the project, about research indicating most Americans are not overly concerned about the surveillance program.
“I don’t think we really have a clear view of where the public is on this yet,” Fowler stated. “The numbers are quite close, and the number that’s being cited as a majority is really focused on the part about surveillance of telephone conversations. But a majority of those who were polled said they are not comfortable with their online communications being monitored. I think when people learn the facts they will be outraged, and this is not something that they’re going to be comfortable with.”