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It’s Google’s World. We Just Live In It.

About 20 years ago, I typed Google.com into my web browser for the first time. It loaded a search bar and buttons. I punched in “D.M.V. sample test,” scrolled through the results and clicked on a site.

Wow, I thought to myself. Google’s minimalist design was a refreshing alternative to other search engines at the time — remember AltaVista, Yahoo! and Lycos? — which greeted us with a jumble of ads and links to news articles. Even better, Google seemed to show more up-to-date, relevant results.

And the entire experience took just a few seconds. Once I found the link I needed, I was done with Google.

Two decades later, my experience with Google is considerably different. When I do a Google search in 2020, I spend far more time in the internet company’s universe. If I look for chocolate chips, for example, I see Google ads for chocolate chips pop up at the top of my screen, followed by recipes that Google has scraped from across the web, followed by Google Maps and Google Reviews of nearby bakeries, followed by YouTube videos for how to bake chocolate chip cookies. (YouTube, of course, is owned by Google.)

It isn’t just that I am spending more time in a Google search, either. The Silicon Valley company has leveraged the act of looking for something online into such a vast technology empire over the years that it has crept into my home, my work, my devices and much more. It has become the tech brand that dominates my life — and probably yours, too.

On my Apple iPhone, I use Google’s apps for photo albums and maps, along with tools for calendar, email and documents. On my computer and tablet, the various web browsers I use feature Google as the default search bar. For work, I use Google Finance (to look up stock quotes), Google Drive (to store files), Google Meet (to teleconference) and Google Hangouts (to communicate).

In my home, Google is also everywhere. My Nest home security camera is made by Google. A Google voice service rings my door buzzer. To learn how to repair a gutter, I recently watched home improvement videos on YouTube. In online maps, Google has photos of my house taken from outer space and camera-embedded cars.

By my unofficial estimate, I spend at least seven hours a day on Google-related products.

Google’s prevalence has brought the company to a critical point. On Tuesday, the Justice Department sued it for anticompetitive practices, in the most significant antitrust action by the U.S. government against a technology company in decades. The government’s case focused on Google’s search and how it appeared to create a monopoly through exclusive business contracts and agreements that locked out rivals.

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Google said in a tweet that the lawsuit was “deeply flawed.” The company added, “People use Google because they choose to, not because they’re forced to or because they can’t find alternatives.”

To Gabriel Weinberg, the chief executive of DuckDuckGo, which offers a privacy-focused search engine, what I have experienced was Google’s plan all along.

“I don’t think it was happenstance,” he said. “They’ve been using their different products to maintain their dominance in their core market, which is search.”

That has created a privacy cost for many of us, Mr. Weinberg said. Google, he said, collects reams of information about us across its products, allowing it to stitch together detailed profiles about our behavior and interests.

So in 2012, Mr. Weinberg broke up with Google and purged his accounts. “I got to understand the privacy implications of building massive profiles on people — and the massive harm,” he said.

But Jeff Jarvis, a professor at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism and the author of “What Would Google Do?,” a book about the search giant’s rise, said there was still plenty of room outside Google’s world. For one, we don’t use Google for social media — we’re on Facebook and TikTok. Artificial intelligence, even the type that Google is developing, is still pretty unintelligent, he added.

“The internet is still very, very young,” Mr. Jarvis said.

To test that argument, I decided to catalog Google’s presence in our lives. Here are some results.

When we browse the web, we are probably interacting with Google without even realizing it. That’s because most websites that we visit contain Google’s ad technologies, which track our browsing. When we load a web article containing an ad served by Google, the company keeps a record of the website that loaded the ad — even if we didn’t click on the ad.

And guess what. Most ads we see are served by Google. Last year, the company and Facebook accounted for 59 percent of digital ad spending, according to the research firm eMarketer. Google dominates 63 percent of that slice of the pie.

Google’s ad technologies also include invisible analytics code, which runs in the background of many websites. About 74 percent of the sites we visit run Google analytics, according to an analysis by DuckDuckGo. So that’s even more data we are feeding about ourselves to Google, often without knowing it.

Let’s start with Android, the most popular mobile operating system in the world. People with Android devices inevitably download apps from Google’s Play store.

Android includes Google’s staple apps for maps and email, and Google search is prominently featured for looking up articles and digging through device settings. Google’s voice-powered virtual assistant is also part of Android devices.

Even if you own an Apple iPhone, as I do, Google looms large.

Google has been the default search bar on the iPhone’s Safari browser since 2007. Gmail is the most popular email service in the world, with more than 1.5 billion users, so chances are you use it on your iPhone. And good luck finding a service other than YouTube for watching those cooking and music videos on your phone.

In fact, Google owns 10 of the 100 most-downloaded apps in the Google and Apple app stores, according to App Annie, a mobile analytics firm.

Outside smartphones, Google is the dominant force on our personal computers. By some estimates, more than 65 percent of us use Google’s Chrome web browser. And in education, our schools have chosen the Chromebook, low-cost PCs that run Google’s operating system, as the most widely used tech tool for students.

This can be brief: YouTube is by far the largest video-hosting platform. Period. About 215 million Americans watch YouTube, spending 27 minutes a day on the site, on average. That’s up from 22 minutes a few years ago, according to eMarketer.

Another way you might watch Google videos is through YouTube TV, a streaming service that offers a modest bundle of TV channels. Released in 2017, YouTube TV had more than two million users last year, according to Google. That’s not far behind Sling TV, a similar bundle service introduced by Dish in 2015, which had about 2.6 million subscribers last year.

If you recently bought an internet-connected gadget for your home, chances are that Google is behind it. After all, the company offers Google Home, one of the most popular smart speakers and powered by Google’s virtual assistant, and it owns Nest, the smart-home brand that makes internet-connected security cameras, smoke alarms and thermostats.

We often interact with Google even when we use an app that lacks a clear connection with it. That’s because Google provides the cloud infrastructure, or the server technology that lets us stream videos and download files, to other brands. If you’re using TikTok in the United States, guess what: You’re in Google’s cloud. (TikTok may soon switch cloud providers under a deal with Oracle.)

Even Mr. Weinberg, who quit Google, said he had been unable to shake its services entirely. He said he still watched the occasional Google-hosted video when there was no alternative.

“If somebody’s sending a video that I need to watch and it’s only on YouTube, then that’s just the reality,” he said.

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Google Maps rolls out end-to-end directions for bikeshare users

Google Maps is making it easier for bikeshare users to navigate their city with an update to Maps now rolling out across 10 major markets. Already, Google Maps could point users to bikesharing locations and it has long since offered cycling directions between any two points. The new update, however, will combine both walking and biking directions in order to provide end-to-end navigation between docked bikeshare locations.

That is, Google Maps will first provide detailed walking directions to your nearest bikeshare location before providing turn-by-turn directions to the bikeshare closest to your destination. It then offers the final leg of the trip between the bikeshare drop-off and your destination as walking directions.

Before, users planning to use a bikeshare would have to create three separate trips — one to the first bikeshare to pick up a bike, the second to the bikeshare drop-off point and then walking directions to their final destination. Now, you can plan this outing as one single trip in Google Maps in the supported markets.

In addition to the new end-to-end navigation, Google Maps in some cities will also display links that allow you to open the relevant bikeshare mobile app in order to book and unlock the bike.

The feature is rolling out over the weeks ahead in 10 cities, in partnership with transportation information company Ito World and supported bikeshare partners. These include the following markets:

  • Chicago, U.S. (Divvy/Lyft)
  • New York City, U.S. (Citi Bike/Lyft)
  • San Francisco Bay Area, U.S. (Bay Wheels/Lyft)
  • Washington, DC, U.S. (Capital Bikeshare/Lyft)
  • London, England (Santander Cycles/TfL)
  • Mexico City, Mexico (Ecobici)
  • Montreal, Canada (BIXI/Lyft)
  • Rio De Janeiro, Brazil (Bike Itaú)
  • São Paulo, Brazil (Bike Itaú)
  • Taipei and New Taipei City, Taiwan (YouBike)

Google says it’s actively working to add more partners to bring the functionality to more cities in the months ahead.

The launch of the new feature again one-ups Apple Maps, which recently announced it was catching up with Google Maps by adding a dedicated cycling option within Apple Maps that will optimize routes for cyclists. Apple’s new biking directions can even show if a route includes challenging hills or there’s a bike repair shop nearby, if desired.

Ito World also noted in March it had partnered with Apple to integrate bikeshare data into Apple Maps, allowing iPhone owners to find bikeshare locations across 179 cities.

But Google continues to offer more detailed bikeshare information in its Google Maps product, having over the years launched features like dockless bike and scooter integration with Lime in more than 100 cities and real-time docked bikeshare information in select cities to show availability of bikes for rent.

Offering better biking directions has become even more of a competitive product in recent months for mapping providers, due to the coronavirus outbreak’s impact on travel and transportation. Some commuters, for example, have shifted to using bikes for their trips instead of relying on public transportation, like buses and subways. Google notes this impact has also been reflected in growing worldwide search interest for phrases like “bike repair shop near me,” which hit an all-time high in July — more than double what it was last year.

The updated bikeshare navigation is rolling out in the coming weeks, says Google.

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BMW wants to sell you subscriptions to your car’s features

BMW today announced a number of updates to its in-car software experience during a VR press event, complete with a virtual drive through Munich to show off some of these features. These new updates will come to most recent BMWs that support the company’s Operating System 7 later this year — and new cars will already have them built-in.

The company is able to launch these regular updates because it is now able to not just update the car’s infotainment system but virtually every line of code that’s deployed to the various compute systems that make up a modern vehicle. And because of this, the company is now also able to bring a couple of features to market that it has long talked about.

One of those features — and maybe the key announcement from today’s event — are updates to BMW program for subscribing to specific hardware features that are may already be built into your car, like heated seats or advanced driver assistance systems, but that you didn’t activate when you bought the car. BMW has talked about this for a while, but it is now making this a reality. That means if you didn’t buy the heated seats and steering wheel, for example, your new BMW may now offer you a free three-month trial and you can then essentially buy a subscription for this feature for a set amount of time.

Image Credits: BMW

“We offer maximum flexibility and peace of mind to our customers when it comes to choosing and using their optional equipment in their BMWs, whether this BMW is new or used,” a company spokesperson said during today’s press event. “So flexible offers, immediate availability, simpler booking and easy usability for choice, at any time, when it comes to your optional equipment. We already started connectivity over 20 years ago and since 2014, we are online with our Connected Drive Store, where digital services can already be booked.”

Those were very much infotainment features, though. Now, BMW will let you enable vehicle functions and optional equipment on demand and over the air. The company started offering some features like active cruise control with stop and go functionality, a high beam assistant and access to the BMW IconicSounds Sport. The carmaker will add new features to this line-up over time.

Surprisingly, it’s often easier and cheaper for car manufacturers to build some hardware into cars, even if it is not activated, simply because it removes complexity from the production process. A lot of the features that BMW is talking about consist of a combination of software and hardware, though.

What’s new here is the ability to only subscribe to some features for a short time. “In the near future, we will not only be able to add more functions here, but we will also be able to add even more flexibility for our customers with temporary bookings so booking of options for three years, for one year, or even shorter periods of time, like a few months,” a spokesperson said.

Image Credits: BMW

The company also notes that this will give somebody who buys a used car a lot more flexibility, too. It’s worth noting that Apple CarPlay support was also originally a subscription feature in new BMWs, costing $80 a year. The company’s customers were not very happy about this, though, and the company reversed that decision last December. That really felt like nickel-and-diming drivers, though, since none of BMW’s competitors charged for this. It’ll be interesting to see how drivers will react to additional subscription services, but the focus now is more on convenience features that would usually be an option when you buy a new car, so my guess is that this will be less of an issue.

Among the other new and updated digital services the company showcased today is support for Apple’s new ‘Car Keys,’ which BMW brands as the BMW Digital Key, as well as an updated BMW Personal Assistant. Some of these new Assistant features are more cosmetic and about how it is showcased on the in-car display. But one nifty new Assistant feature here, for example, is a kind of IFTTT for your car, where you can easily program it to automatically roll down your windows when you enter your company’s parking garage, for example, so that you can easily scan your badge to open the boom gate.

Image Credits: BMW

Other updates include the new BMW Maps, the company’s built-in GPS system, which the company described as a ‘major leap.’ This cloud-based service can now find routes faster, has more granular traffic data and also includes the ability to find parking spaces for you — and that parking feature itself is based on a lot of work the company is doing in aggregating sensor data from across its fleet, which already covers and maps close to 99% of the German highway system once a day in HD.

Image Credits: BMW

Talking about maps, the company, which is still in the middle of the roll-out of its hybrid-electric vehicles, BMW also today announced that its hybrid fleet will make it easier for drivers to find charging stations and will automatically switch to electric driving when they enter low-emission zones in 80 European cities, with support for additional cities coming over time.

“Digital technologies belong to the core of BMW – because hardware and software are of
equal importance for premium cars,” said Oliver Zipse, the Chairman of the Board of Management of BMW. “Our mission is to integrate advanced digital technologies with highest product excellence to enhance our customers’ experience and driving pleasure even more.”

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Google highlights accessible locations with new Maps feature

Google has announced a new, welcome and no doubt long-asked-for feature to its Maps app: wheelchair accessibility info. Businesses and points of interest featuring accessible entrances, bathrooms and other features will now be prominently marked as such.

Millions, of course, require such accommodations as ramps or automatic doors, from people with limited mobility to people with strollers or other conveyances. Google has been collecting information on locations’ accessibility for a couple years, and this new setting puts it front and center.

The company showed off the feature in a blog post for Global Accessibility Awareness Day. To turn it on, users can go to the “Settings” section of the Maps app, then “Accessibility settings,” then toggle on “Accessible places.”

This will cause any locations searched for or tapped on to display a small wheelchair icon if they have accessible facilities. Drilling down into the details where you find the address and hours will show exactly what’s available. Unfortunately it doesn’t indicate the location of those resources (helpful if someone is trying to figure out where to get dropped off, for instance), but knowing there’s an accessible entrance or restroom at all is a start.

The information isn’t automatically created or sourced from blueprints or anything — like so much on Google, it comes from you, the user. Any registered user can note the presence of accessible facilities the way they’d note things like in-store pickup or quick service. Just go to “About” in a location’s description and hit the “Describe this place” button at the bottom.

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