Google's privacy policy is changing, or is it?

I really shouldn't be surprised by the reaction to Google's recent announcement of changes to their privacy policy.  Any time the word "privacy" is mentioned in any reference to the internet, the reactions are always strong.  Unfortunately, like so many things related to the internet, too many people are simply unaware and don't understand what exactly is going on.  That leads to a lot of mis-information on the part of the general public, as well as some unfortunate reporting by the media.  Once again, unfortunately through normal media constraints of time and wanting the audience to understand the story, they have not explained the entire change, or lack thereof.

The change Google is making is a simple one.  Right now, if you use Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Plus, Picasa, Youtube or most other google services, each individual one has a different privacy policy and Terms of Service Agreement (ToS).  This leads to a lot of overhead and confusion, because all of those products are provided by one company, but yet each person must agree to different terms to use them.  This means that all of your information in Google is stored in many different buckets.  The Gmail bucket, the calendar bucket, the YouTube bucket, etc.  Each bucket must hold all of your information that you have provided to Google.

Starting March 1, what will change is that instead of having all of your information sitting in several different buckets, it will be kept in one bucket.  Google is aggregating their privacy policies into one (relatively) simple document, and keeping all of your information only once, and in one place.

The majority of the problem people have with this that I have read has been along the lines of not wanting to give more information to Google, and not wanting Google to have that information.  But what most people don't understand is that with these changes, the amount of information Google collects does not change. Google will be collecting exactly the same information that they are today, the only difference is again, it will be stored in one bucket instead of 10.

One thing thet almost no one realizes is that in Google's older terms of service and policies they already say that they can take results from different services and use them to influence their results.  Google keeps archives of their older terms of service documents and people who have more time than I do have gone through them and found that almost every revision has this provision in them.  That means that in terms of how Google uses your data, we can literally say that nothing has changed.  Nothing.  They already had the ability to take information from their different services and interoperate them. The best example of this is that if you search a lot for a band, say Bon Jovi, on Google, when you go to YouTube you may see Bon Jovi music videos as recommended videos.  That is not a bad thing, and Google does this today with your search history.  They take your search history to try to give you more accurate results, and the same goes with YouTube.  Nothing has changed here, and it shouldn't because it is not a bad thing.

The other big thing that many people won't even notice is that this change will allow Google to provide more targeted advertising.  This is where many people seem to be leery of Google's new privacy policy.  But, I've already gone into detail on my thoughts online privacy here.  I encourage everyone to read it becuase I detail a lot about online advertising.  The short version is that targeted advertising is actually better for the consumer and that really, I'd rather see ads about whiskey, not tampons, so bring on the targeted ads.  Yes, this is a way for Google to make more money.  I don't really see a problem with that, since they are a business, and a business is allowed to try to make money.  One thing I stress time and time again is that Google is not a search company.  Google is an advertising company.  It is an important distinction.  Search is what Google was born on, but today search is just one Google product that serves advertising, as nearly all Google products do.  That is what all search engines are today.

This brings me to my last talking point, which has to do with people who are afraid that this could change Google search results, since they can be refined more for the user.  Combined with last weeks' news that Google is going to start adding Google+ search results into search for some users, and there is much fear from people that a true search is dead, that everything is personalized.  While I can see the point of that, the reality is that a pure search hasn't been a reality for many years.  Everything you do is at least somewhat targeted.  Even if you are not logged into google services Google can remember some of your search history on a particular computer through a cookie.  So even if you don't have a google account, if you do all of your Google searching on one computer, your results will become more personalized over time.  Then there is also location tracking.  Google can track your relative location based on the iP address of your computer, and give you results based on where you are.  The best example is that if I want to search for chinese food, I will want it to display results for chinese food restaurants and chains close to me, instead of one in China.  If I wanted chinese food restaurants in China, I'd google "chinese food in China".  Even if you turn on the private browsing mode of your browser so cookies cannot be tracked and used, that location data still exists, and is still used in search results.  And once again, this is not unique to Google.  Any search engine worth using follows these practices, because they have been shown time and time again to improve the user experience in search, and in most cases provide better results.

I hate brining up the term cookies here, because so many people still think cookies are a bad thing, and me saying that Google can track search history through a cookie will not help that.  Cookies are a discussion for another time and place, but I will just say that cookies improve the browsing experience in ways that most people do not know because they, in part, allow web behaviours to be remembered.  We are creatures of habit, and things that allow us to continue that habits are generally good things, but since it is often invisible to us we don't notice the benefit we get.

Before you take the media reports and blow them completely out of proportion, please consider the facts.  Especially when most media reports can't and don't go into the detail necessary to really explain the issue to people (a person pet peeve of mine).  It is easy to criticize and throw our hands up into the air when we hear something that we don't understand, but sounds bad.  Especially when the reality is that almost nothing at all has changed. Literally almost nothing.  However, once again fear of things we don't understand on the internet seems to be ruling the day here, when the reality is much different from the fear.

The Samsung Galaxy Nexus

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I've talked about how the Galaxy S demonstrates the problem with Android.  During that time I also talked about how I was considering voting with my dollars and moving over to a nexus phone, specifically the new Samsung Galaxy Nexus.  I'm happy to say I did just that a couple weeks ago, and I want to talk about it.

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My biggest fear on the Galaxy Nexus was that it was going to be too big for my liking, considering the screen is a massive 4.65". While i will say that I definitely would not want a phone any bigger than this, I don't mind the size, and am getting used to having a bigger phone.  The phone itself is actually only slightly bigger than a 4.3" phone like the HTC Sensation, mainly because it does not need to have the row of buttons.  Not having the buttons also leads to one of the truly unique experiences about this phone, which is the fact that the front is dominated by the screen, easily 85-90% of the front panel is just screen, with no distractions.

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The phone itself has a plastic casing.  that doesn't make it cheap.  In fact compared to the Galaxy S the Galaxy Nexus feels amazing. The Galaxy S feels cheap and plasticey compared to the Galaxy Nexus, which feels like it is well constructed and can actually handle every day wear and tear.  It also includes that crazy battery cover which is very thin, very flexible, but doesn't feel like it would break, and has a textured back.  It is also extremely difficult to put on the phone, which is annoying.  I do wish the phone was made with more metal in the body to make it a bit more durable, but it definitely does not feel cheap.

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The phone also has a 5 megapixel camera with an LED flash. I really welcome the LED flash, as the Galaxy Nexus didn't' have one.  The flash won't blow anyone away, and in some situations it doesn't help, but I'd rather have a mediocre flash that I can use sometimes than no flash at all.  The camera itself is admittedly a bit of a mixed bag.  In good lighting and outdoors it produces excellent results. Indoors and in darker environments it is not as good as I would like.  I'll I've with it, but I do with the camera shot better photos.  Note that while the camera software includes a "zero shutter lag" ability, where tapping the shutter takes a picture almost instantly, I've found that that tends to produce the worst pictures, and the tried and true method of actually taking the time to line up a shot and focus properly obviously takes the best pictures.  The zero shutter lag ability is nice, and I used it to grab some great shots of an indoor fireworks show, but it is not something that can and should be relied upon for good pictures.

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I do have a few complaints about the hardware, however.  The first is the Camera, which I've already talked about. A quality 8MP camera would have really made a big difference in this phone.  The built in speaker is also a sore spot.  Frankly, it is not loud enough.  It does the job in most situations, but I find the alarm clock to be too quiet, and it is nowhere near as loud as the Galaxy S. It is not a deal breaker, but it definitely could be louder.  The location of it also bugs me.  On the Galaxy Nexus it is placed at the bottom of the phone. Maybe it's just because i've never had a phone with the speaker at the bottom, but placing it at the bottom seems wrong.  The last complaint is something that could easily be software, but the auto-brightness is way to aggressive on this phone, constantly making the screen too dark, especially in a moderately lit room.  On every other Android phone I've used this hasn't been an issue, but on the Galaxy Nexus I've had to resort to setting the brightness manually, and using a widget to change it as needed.  I'm hoping this is a bug in ICS, but no one knows for sure.  I hope it is so it can get fixed quickly.

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that's really all there is to talk about with the hardware, aside form the screen.  The phone is really built to do one thing, and one thing only, and that is to get out of the way and just run Android to the best of it's abilities.  That is what is fantastic about the front of the phone.  Not having buttons means that the front is dominated by the gorgeous 720p display and Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich that runs on it.  There are no buttons at all aside from the required power and volume.  The screen and the software are the stars of the show, and the phone makes that happen.

the screen, as mentioned, is amazing.  It is a 720x1280 Super AMOLED display.  Essentially, it is a 720p HD screen in a phone.  The display itself gets to the resolution by using the PenTile technique, which arranges pixels differently than a regular display.  Without getting too technical PenTile displays can look really bad at lower resolutions, where indivutal pixels can be seen and red really stands out.  However, on a 720p display that is this small the pixels are so dense that I honestly can't tell that it is PenTile.  The display is stunning, and watching HD video on it is simply brilliant.

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Ice Cream Sandwich is the star of the show here, and I can say that it is a truly massive leap for Android.  Virtually every part of the OS was re-designed, and the results are great.  Android 4.0 feels modern, beautiful, and unique.  It is a fantastic experience.  I'm not going to detail everything, because others have much better than I have, but Android 4.0 makes the pervious version for phones, 2.3 Gingerbread, feel completely outdated.

Now, many other phones will get Ice Cream Sandwich, but the main advantage to this phone remins the fact that it is a Google Nexus phone.  This means that it is guaranteed to be the first, or among the first to receive every operating system update to Android.  there are no pre-installed applications by the carrier, and this phone is very simple to unlock the bootloeader for loading custom ROM's (if you have no idea what that means, that's ok).  Nexus phones are Google's answer to the iPhone ecosystem, and they are the only phones that are guaranteed to be kept up to date for every update to Android for at least a couple years.  Owners of phones from HTC, Samsung, Motorola and Sony cannot say the same, and even if they do get the updates, they are often months behind.  That is truly the most compelling reason to own a Nexus phone.

The previous Nexus phone, the Nexus S, which is receiving the ICS update now, was regarded as a good phone, but not the greatest phone, the main reason to own it was that it was a Nexus phone.  the Galaxy Nexus changes that.  Not only is this a great phone if you want the pure Android experience, this is just simply a good phone.  Not once in the past 2 weeks of using it have I missed any aspect of my Galaxy S.  It is easy to see how much thought went into this phone, to marry the hardware and software in a way that is only matched by Apple and iOS.  and in many ways, Google has achieved something that not even Apple has been able to, they have built a phone devoid of physical buttons, the hardware being there only to serve the software to the user.

The Galaxy Nexus is not just a great nexus phone or a great Android phone, it is one of the best smartphones on the market today, period.  Are there phones that feel better in the hand? Yes. There are phones with better cameras for sure.  The speaker is too quiet.  However, the combination of the hardware and software puts it above any other Android phone on the market.  If you are looking to buy an Android phone right now, the Galaxy Nexus is without doubt the one to get.  the only reason not to get this phone is if you feel it is too large, or if you must have the best camera possible.  Otherwise, this is hands down the Android phone to buy in 2012.

Below Are some comparison pictures to a BlackBerry Tour 9630, HTC Wildfire S, and my Galaxy S.  I apologize for some of the picture quality, as I was taking these pictures with the Galaxy S and Wildfire S.

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The Samsung Galaxy S - Android in a nutshell

Tech enthusiasts kind of blew up today over the official announcement that Samsung will not be updating the Galaxy S to the newest version of Android, version 4.0, or Ice Cream Sandwich.  The reaction has surprised me a lot, not because of the announcement, but that people are so surprised by this.  Read on and I'll explain.

Some of Android's greatest strengths is also some of the greatest weaknesses.  Google provides Android as an open source system, meaning that phone makers are free to take it and customize it at their will.  The most obvious implementation of this is in the user interface, how the phone actually works.  If you look at an Android phone from Samsung, one from HTC, one from Motorola, and one from Sony, the interface elements on each phone look almost nothing alike.  Samsung has software called TouchWiz, HTC has Sense, Motorola has Blur, and Sony's doesn't have a name, but it is unique.

The way each of these interfaces work is that they sit on top of Android, replacing the normal look and feel.  This allows each phone maker to differentiate themselves from the other, while still running the same system underneath.  It might sound like a good idea in theory, but the end result has some unfortunate consequences.  When Android gets updated by Google, not only does Samsung have to make that update work on their phones, but they also have to update and test their TouchWiz software with that Android update.  This essentially doubles the time and effort it takes to provide an update to a phone.

The Galaxy S was announced in early 2010 running Android 2.1.  Since then, it has been updated to 2.2, and most models have also been updated to 2.3.  Samsung has announced that they will not be updating it to Android 4.0.  They claim the reason for this is that the combination of Android 4.0 and TouchWiz will not fit onto the Galaxy S.  Now, I do not believe that for one second.  The part of the hard drive space that holds Android is  more than big enough, and the hardware is very capable of running Android 4.0.  I personally believe that the decision not to update the Galaxy S is a business decision.  As I said before, to update both Android and TouchWiz for the phone would take significant time and resources for Samsung for a phone that was designed 2 years ago.  Samsung has made the decision to try to push users to their newer phone, the Galaxy S II or even the Galaxy S III, which will probably be announced in March of 2012.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not happy with this either.  I've owned a Galaxy S phone for 18 months, and it is unfortunate that it won't be getting updated again.  But I am not surprised at all.  could they update it? Absolutely.  They have chosen not to because they simply do not want to invest the resources it would take to do so.  This is unfortunate, and demonstrates everything that is wrong with Android.  The openness and ability to customize it are the reasons why I love Android and prefer it over the iPhone, but situations like this are the obvious shortcoming.  Users are at the mercy of a company choosing whether or not to update 2 different systems on a phone.

Now, Samsung is by no means alone in this.  Sony has stated that only phones they have made in 2011 will be updated to Android 4.0.  This leaves the very capable Xperia X10 out.  The phones that HTC has announced they will update are all newer phones, none were made in 2010.  Motorola never really releases a specific list of which phones will be updated, but in the past few Motorola phones older than a year old have received significant updates.  The reason why this only seems to be a bigger deal with Samsung is because the Galaxy S was one of the first truly successful Android phones, with over 20 million sold world wide, and is still being sold today.  It is a news item not because it is unexpected or news worthy, but it is a news item because of sheer quantity of devices.

So, what is the answer?  There aren't many, especially for those people who are not willing or able to dive into some very advanced work on their phones, work that has the potential to render it unusable, forever.  The only real answer is to only buy a phone that runs the straight Android experience, with no customizations or software running on top of it.  Google has released 3 such phones now, the Nexus One, Nexus S, and the new Galaxy Nexus.  These are phones that Google designs in collaboration with a hardware maker (the Nexus One was HTC, and the Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus are Samsung).  While HTC and Samsung have made the hardware, Google has full control over the software.  As a result, these phones run the "stock" Android experience as Google designs it, and are updated often.  the Nexus S, released almost a year ago, has received at least a half dozen updates.  Some of them have been small, to fix bugs, and some of them have been big, like the current upgrade to Android 4.0.  My Galaxy S has received 2 updates in 18 months.

In my opinion, Google can, and should, do more to force phone manufacturers to update their phones more often, but right now the only solution is to purchase the "Google Phone," as that is the only phone on the market that is guaranteed to receive updates to Android in a timely manner for as long as the phone is physically capable of handling the update.  In many ways the "Google Phone" mirror's Apple's approach with the iPhone.  Phones have come out roughly once a .year and those phones are updated by Apple for as long as they are able to run the software.

So, back to the answer  The real answer is the answer for anything in the consumer space and to vote with your wallet.  If being guaranteed to have the latest update to Android is important to you, then the only solution is to buy a Google phone, and to not buy any phone that has a custom interface like TouchWiz on it.  I like the Galaxy S, but it has reached the end of it's life, and I'm strongly considering practicing what I preach and voting with my wallet by buying the Galaxy Nexus.  If all of this matters to you, you should be as well.