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Google Home: The smart person’s guide

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There’s always a new tech product that leads to a battle between products. There has been PC vs. Mac, iPhone vs. Android, and now it’s an all out battle for smart home hubs. Google has an uphill battle in its fight against Amazon’s Alexa.

TechRepublic’s smart person’s guide about Google Home is a quick introduction to this smart home hub, as well as a “living” guide that will be updated periodically as new hardware and software are released.

SEE: Check out all of TechRepublic’s smart person’s guides.

Executive summary

  • What is Google Home? Google Home is Google’s entry into the smart home hub field. It is a small speaker tower that is activated via voice commands, can search the web, and perform other functions added by third-party Actions.
  • Why does Google Home matter? Google has been a proponent of AI and machine learning for a while. Google Home is the first part of what is likely to be the future of Google: On-demand access to personalized information.
  • Who does Google Home affect? Google home affects anyone who wishes to invest in the growing smart home market, especially if they are already heavily invested in Google’s ecosystem.
  • When is Google Home happening? Google Home was announced in May 2016 and was available for purchase in November. It’s now available online and in many electronics retail stores.
  • How do I start using Google Home? You can purchase Google Home online or at major electronics retailers. Using one doesn’t require a Google account, but having one is the only way to gain access to many of the features.

What is Google Home?

Google Home, like Amazon Alexa, is a Wi-Fi connected smart home hub and digital assistant. Home is a small speaker tower that contains far-field microphones designed to pick up speech at a distance as well as touch controls, a microphone mute button, and lights that let you know when it’s listening.

There’s only a single speaker in Google Home, as compared to the two in the Amazon Echo, which can have an effect on how well noises at both the high and low ends of the spectrum sound. Google Home isn’t going to replace a high-end Bluetooth speaker, but it works fine for everything else.

Google Home is a host for Assistant, Google’s answer to Siri and Alexa. Unlike Siri, which is available on all currently supported iOS devices, Google Assistant is only available in Google Home, the Pixel phone, and inside the Google Allo app.

Google Assistant is able to perform most of the same tasks as Siri and Alexa, like checking the weather, searching the internet, and playing music, and is expanded through third-party Actions (similar to Alexa Skills).

Unlike Alexa Skills, which have to be manually added, Google Home Actions are all available right out of the box. There’s nothing to install, and as long as you know the Action’s key word you can use it right away.

There is one catch, however—there aren’t very many Actions available right now. So few, in fact, that the list of them in the Google Home app is just that: An A to Z list without categories or any way to search it. Google Home Actions are open to developers though, making it just a matter of time before the offerings expand.

Additional resources

Why does Google Home matter?

Google unveiled its latest smartphone in October 2016, and at the event Google CEO Sundar Pichai said Google believes the tech world is shifting from a “mobile-first to AI-first” focus. That alone is enough to see why Google Home matters: It’s the first step in Google’s transition to life as an AI company.

If Google is correct in its assessment that we’re moving into an AI-driven world Google Home is the cornerstone of its future: A smart, easy-to-use, always available digital assistant that learns about us, helps us control our environment, and is always in our pockets.

Google Home has a lot of catching up to do in the smart home hub race, however: Amazon Alexa had a year to make improvements before Google Home launched. Google’s future AI efforts will be shaped by its success or failure with Home and Assistant. Both have only been available since the end of 2016, making it far too early to draw conclusions yet.

Additional resources

Who does Google Home affect?

Google Home affects anyone wishing to explore the growing smart home market. Home is designed as a hub for IoT and media devices, giving Google a lot of leverage since it can choose who it partners with. Third-party Actions are a democratizing way to ensure every product can work with Google Home, but Google still reserves approval rights over each one.

From the user side of things Google Home affects anyone who uses Google’s various apps and platforms. Home can read off your calendar, play music from Google Play, and do other things tied to an associated Google account. If you’re heavily invested in Google’s ecosystem Home is the ideal choice for a smart home hub.

Additional resources

When is Google Home happening?

Google announced Home at Google I/O in May 2016 and it went on sale in the US in November. It’s still in its first iteration and there’s no news about upcoming hardware changes to Google Home in the near future.

As of now Google Home is only available for purchase in the US and Google hasn’t made any announcements about worldwide release.

Additional resources

How do I start using Google Home?

Anyone interested in Google Home can pick one up online from the Google Store or can find them at many popular electronics retailers.

Setting up a Google Home is simple: You just need a home Wi-Fi network and a smartphone. You don’t have to have a Google account to use Home, but without one many of its more useful features will be unavailable.

Additional resources

US firms added 227,000 jobs in January

Welder at Wild Well Control

US businesses added 227,000 jobs in January, way above economists’ forecasts of about 175,000.

The figure, from , compares with December’s increase of 157,000, revised up slightly from last month’s first estimate.

Job gains occurred in retail trade, construction, and financial activities.

The figures suggest that new president Donald Trump has inherited a robust jobs market.

He has promised to to create 25 million jobs over 10 years to become “the greatest jobs president… ever”.

President Barack Obama’s term from January 2009-17 saw the number of people with jobs increase by 11.25 million.

Both the number of unemployed people, at 7.6 million, and the unemployment rate, at 4.8%, were little changed in January, said the Bureau.

The percentage of adults working or looking for jobs increased to its highest level since September.

AutoNation’s Q4 net jumps 18%, revenue up 2.6%

AutoNation Inc.’s fourth-quarter net income jumped 18 percent to $115.3 million, as revenue rose 2.6 percent to $5.48 billion on gains in all major business operations, the company said today.

Revenue at the nation’s largest new-vehicle retailer rose in all major business operations: new vehicles, retail and wholesale used vehicles, parts and service and finance and insurance.

But those gains masked pressure on margins. New-vehicle retail sales eased 1.3 percent from the year-earlier quarter to 84,622 units. Revenue per new vehicle retailed rose 2.7 percent to $37,671, but gross profit per new vehicle retailed slipped 4 percent to $1,957.

Used-vehicle retail sales rose 2.4 percent to 55,213. Revenue per used vehicle retailed rose 2 percent to $20,128, but gross profit per used vehicle retailed slumped 12 percent to $1,264.

Same-store numbers

On a same-store basis, the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., dealership group’s new-vehicle sales fell 4.3 percent to 78,907, vs. a 0.3 percent industrywide gain in the quarter. But new-vehicle revenue fell 2.4 percent to $2.97 billion.

Retail used-vehicle same-store unit sales inched up 0.2 percent to 51,443, sending those revenues up 1.5 percent to $1.04 billion.

Same-store parts and service revenue rose 2.1 percent to $765.2 million.

But on a same-store basis, gross profit fell in every business category except parts and service, where it rose 1.7 percent to $331.6 million. The sharpest drop came in used vehicles, combining retail and wholesale, where gross profit dropped 15 percent to $62.5 million.

2016 totals

For all of 2016, net income fell 2.7 percent to $430.5 million, on a 3.6 percent revenue gain to $21.61 billion.

In 2016, AutoNation repurchased 10.5 million shares of common stock for an aggregate price of $497 million. As of Feb. 1, AutoNation has 101 million shares outstanding and about $299 million remaining from the board’s authorization for share repurchases, a company statement said.

6 ways to include more women of color in tech

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Tech company efforts to diversify by hiring more women are falling short in a key way: Leaving out women of color.

“You see this in most large-scale initiatives built to create equality,” said Aubrey Blanche, global head of diversity and inclusion at software company Atlassian. “When you focus on the larger group we call women, which is itself very diverse, you end up in a program that serves the needs of the majority in that group, which are white women.”

Affirmative action programs have primarily benefited white women, a number of studies have shown. “We see that replicated in the tech industry, which is problematic, because we end up leaving women who don’t fall into that camp behind,” Blanche said. “You don’t get as much diversity as you’d like.”

Research shows that diverse teams are more innovative and creative, and that employees are happier. “As America becomes more diverse and globalized, it is smart to understand how to support greater diversity of your own workforce and of customers,” Blanche said. “It’s smart from a business perspective, and it has social impact.”

SEE: 10 tools to help your company improve diversity

Blanche offers the following six tips for tech leaders who want to achieve true diversity of thought and experience on their teams.

1. Take an intersectional approach.

It’s important to think about diversity from an intersectional lens, Blanche said. That means considering how gender is influenced by race, religion, and other identifications.

Atlassian’s framework for diversity is called “n-Space,” and refers to the uncountable number of characteristics and experiences each employee brings to the workplace. The approach aims to recognize and celebrate those differences to improve each person’s quality of work.

“It helps address the needs of minority women, and also helps create less of an us-versus-them conversation in diversity,” Blanche said. “Straight white men tend to feel very left out from diversity programs. By counting in intersectionality, you can bring them into the conversation—maybe they grew up low income, or are Jewish, or have other aspects of their identity they can join the conversation in. It’s more collaborative and likely to succeed.”

2. Rethink your branding.

All companies have an Employee Value Proposition (EVP)—the unique set of benefits employees receive in return for the skills and experience they bring to a company.

“In tech, we tend to focus on particular aspects of office culture,” Blanche said. Atlassian recently overhauled its Careers page, paying specific attention to what pictures are on the website, and how to communicate that everyone can belong and be successful there, especially women of color and older women.

The company also changed the way it presents employee benefits. “Not that beer and ping pong are inherently terrible, but a lot of people care more about 401k matching and child care,” Blanche said. “We want to show that we provide perks and benefits for people at every stage of their careers.”

3. Measure diversity on a team level.

Most tech company diversity reports provide corporate-level statistics. “At a fundamental level, that does not measure diversity, it measures representation,” Blanche said. “It looks great if you’ve got 50% women, but if they are all in marketing, HR, and sales, instead of engineering, there’s not actually diversity happening.”

Analyzing each team is a better option because it measures the diversity people experience day to day, Blanche said. It also provides more actionable information. “At a corporate level, if I see I have an underrepresentation of women, that doesn’t tell me about the core problem to solve,” Blanche said.

For example, Atlassian’s corporate diversity report last March showed that 13% of employees in technical roles were female. But among the company’s 77 software teams, 66% have at least one women on them. “That tells me these women are distributed, and are not working with women as much as men day to day,” she said.

To address that and prevent turnover, Atlassian invested in programs to create a sense of community and connection across teams. They also instituted a program called Coffee Date, for which interested women sign up and every other week get paired with another woman for coffee. “It’s created organic social relationships that really matter,” Blanche said. The company also has mentoring groups made up of women from different departments at the same office.

SEE: Does your company need a chief diversity officer?

4. Create your own pipeline.

Atlassian found it did not have a robust pipeline of women of color applying to jobs. So the company partnered with Galvanize to offer a scholarship program for black, Latina, and Indigenous women to gain tech skills via a six month full stack bootcamp. In addition to tuition reimbursement, the women are paired with an Atlassian employee who serves as a mentor and conduit to meet others in the field, and with recruiters to help them with their resume. The first recipient is now a junior developer.

“Women of color are less likely to have family and friends working in tech,” Blanche said. “It helps to have someone there telling you, ‘You can do it.'”

5. Partner with others.

Reach out to experts who are connected to a more diverse network of talent, Blanche said. For example, Blavity hosts the AfroTech Conference and recruiting fairs. And a number of groups, like the National Society of Black Engineers, have job boards and events.

“Working with those organizations can make sure you’re not building everything from scratch—you don’t have to know everything,” Blanche said.

6. Enlist allies.

You don’t have to do this work alone. “White men are an incredibly important ally,” Blanche said. “Functionally, they’re the ones in power, and nothing will change if they don’t get on the team.”

Speaking out about equality is important. Take the message and ideas put forth by people in marginalized communities, and speak it to people who look like them. “Act as a megaphone for people who are speaking these words but not heard as much,” Blanche said.

Ultimately, it takes more than hiring diversity and inclusion-focused staff to create change, Blanche said. “They will be enablers and experts, but it’s the work of leaders and people every day making small decisions and learnings and applying it to their teams that will create the change and allow the industry to reach its potential.”

An inside look at why Apache Kafka adoption is exploding

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Apache Kafka, the open source distributed streaming platform, is making an increasingly vocal claim for stream data “world domination” (to coin Linus Torvald’s whimsical initial modest goals with Linux). Last summer I wrote about Kafka and the company behind its enterprise rise, Confluent. Kafka adoption was accelerating as the central platform for managing streaming data in organizations, with production deployments of Kafka claiming six of the top 10 travel companies, seven of the top 10 global banks, eight of the top 10 insurance companies, and nine of the top 10 US telecom companies.

Today, it’s used in production by more than a third of the Fortune 500.

But 2016 may be most noted for Kafka joining the “Four Commas Club,” a nod to the popular HBO comedy series “Silicon Valley” where character Russ Hanneman is the flashy and obnoxious billionaire investor who is quick to point out to the tormented heroes of the show that it takes three commas to make the number 1,000,000,000. Last year Linkedin, Microsoft, and Netflix all passed the threshold of processing more than one TRILLION messages a day over Kafka. That’s four commas: 1,000,000,000,000. That’s scale.

I asked Confluent CTO and co-founder Neha Narkhede what was behind these numbers.

Hadoop is too slow

TechRepublic: Kafka is putting up very large numbers, even for the big data world. I think a lot of people saw the technology as a messaging queue that scaled, kind of a scale-out enterprise bus that moved data very fast. Something more seems to be happening here.

Narkhede: My co-founders and I originally created Kafka at Linkedin in 2010 when our own systems ran up against the limits of a monolithic, centralized database. We saw the need for a distributed architecture with microservices that we could scale quickly and robustly. The legacy systems couldn’t help us anymore. On one hand, the traditional messaging queues were real-time but didn’t scale and, on the other, the ETL systems couldn’t handle data in real-time.

SEE: Apache Kafka is booming, but should you use it?

We looked deeply into the architecture of existing systems, why it didn’t work and combined that with our experience in modern distributed systems to create Kafka. It was built to be real-time, could store data to feed batch systems from the same pipe, and could enable stream processing to make sense of the data in real-time in addition to moving it around. We had the vision of building the entire company’s business logic as stream processors that express transformations on streams of data.

In order to do that, you need a highly efficient pipe to move data around, need connectors to existing systems, and need a stream processing layer. That is what we call a complete streaming platform. So though Kafka started off as a very scalable messaging system, it grew to complete our vision of being a distributed streaming platform.

Fitting the needs of modern business

TechRepublic: Are there many enterprises doing real-time stream processing at scale today? A lot of the Fortune 500 is still wondering how to monetize all the data they sucked into their Hadoop clusters in the first place.

Narkhede: It’s true that most of the sophisticated backend data processing in enterprises is actually conducted by big batch processes that run on big daily data dumps (the Hadoop people rely on Kafka as the preferred data pipeline to their Hadoop clusters, by the way).

But managing and using the Hadoop ecosystem is very challenging, which has been the main reason companies still struggle with moving their relational DWH workloads over to Hadoop. There’s a complicated world of integration, ETL, buses, and queuing that makes all this batch magic happen. It’s complicated, expensive, and hard to do.

But as business becomes fully digital, the daily batch cycle of reaction to new data makes less and less sense. For most modern businesses, their core data is continuous, not batch. It’s streaming information in real-time of sales, customer experiences, shipments, a system crash, and so on. It’s natural that you would want to process and analyze this data continuously and in real-time.

And you want to express most of the business monitoring on Kafka in real-time that was previously run in batch on Hadoop and other batch systems. This is a change we observe at Confluent across various industries from financial services to retail, from gaming to healthcare, and so on. Companies want the ability to create new products, respond to customers, and make business decisions in real-time.

Making money while making friends

TechRepublic: As the creators of Kafka, how do you walk the line of building a profitable business at Confluent around software that is free and open source?

Narkhede: It is a smart way to get a new technology in the hands of developers across the world. It helps you build a pipeline for your product and reduce the cost of sales. Monetizing the technology is easier when the technology plays a critical role in serving your business goals.

This journey starts by realizing that the developer is the new decision maker. If the product experience is tailored to ensure that the developers are successful and the technology plays a critical role in your business, you have the foundational pieces of building a growing and profitable business around an open-source technology. That is the story of Kafka and Confluent’s success so far. Kafka is used as the source-of-truth pipeline carrying critical data that businesses rely on for real-time decision-making. Its claim to fame has been a persistent focus on user experience and community development.

SEE: How Apache Kafka takes streaming data mainstream

Since the early days, we built Kafka to solve a real problem at LinkedIn and deployed it internally before we released it to the community. That has been key for its success as a fast-growing, open source project. Since we started Confluent a little over two years ago, adoption of open source Kafka has accelerated dramatically. Enterprises like to have a company backing the software, especially when they go into production with mission-critical systems that rely on Kafka. They like that we have nine of the 13 most active Kafka committers working for us. As a company, we hire the best Kafka talent and invest in innovating on the open source core and adding more features that then make the software attractive to more companies and users.

We offer a fully open-source version of Confluent: Confluent Open Source that offers a set of tools and software that make it easier to be successful with Kafka in a company. And we also offer Confluent Enterprise that builds on the open-source version and offers various proprietary add-ons to successfully configure, manage and monitor Kafka in production. Our approach is working. We just announced a record year as a young company, with over 700% subscription growth year-over-year.

Npower facing backlash over energy price rises

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Npower has announced one of the largest single price rises ever implemented by a “Big Six” supplier.

will raise standard tariff electricity prices by 15% from 16 March, and gas prices by 4.8%.

A typical dual fuel annual energy bill will rise by an average of 9.8%, or £109.

Npower said the changes would affect about half of its customers, as the other half are on fixed term deals. They will see no price rise.

However, 1.4 million customers on existing standard tariffs will be offered a four year-fixed price tariff with a 4.8% discount.

The announcement comes after three other suppliers – British Gas, E.on and SSE – announced they would keep prices on hold until the end of March.

EDF cut its gas prices by 5.2% last month, but will raise electricity charges by 8.4% from 1 March.

Npower said it was the first time it had raised prices for three years.

“This is a hugely difficult decision, and we’ve delayed the date this takes effect until after one of the coldest months of the year,” said Simon Stacey, Npower’s managing director of domestic markets.

It blamed increases in wholesale energy costs, and the cost of delivering government policies like smart meters and the renewables obligation.

Barra, Musk, CEOs meet with Trump amid tension over policies

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump huddled with General Motors CEO Mary Barra, Tesla CEO Elon Musk and several other top executives of major U.S. companies on Friday as the business community finds itself increasingly split over how to respond to his policies.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick on Thursday quit the business leaders’ group, a panel selected by Trump in December, under pressure from activists over Trump’s week-old executive order halting travel to the U.S. for people from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Executives from Ford Motor Co. and Tesla also criticized Trump’s travel ban, but other advisory group members, including GM and JPMorgan Chase & Co. have not taken a position.

Trump previously met with executives from the U.S. pharmaceutical and auto industries as part of a push to step up U.S. job creation.

“I’m pleased to have been part of a very constructive discussion on how we can all work together on policies that support a strong and competitive U.S. economy, create jobs and address safety and environmental issues,” Barra said in a statement. “As we have stated, a vibrant U.S. economy that is competitive globally and that grows jobs is what we all want.”

U.S. companies of all political stripes want Trump, a Republican, to fulfill a campaign pledge to slash corporate taxes, but a schism has developed over how to do it.

The splits highlight business leaders’ struggles to navigate a divisive political environment and a new president who does not hesitate to use his platform against companies that vex him.

The businessman-turned-politician has threatened companies that manufacture in Mexico with a 20 percent tax on imports and needled pharmaceutical executives to make more drugs in the U.S. On Thursday, he publicly cheered South Korea’s Samsung Electronics Co. for saying it might build a U.S. plant for its home appliances business.

Some investors want companies to speak up.

“I certainly don’t think investors want people who run corporate America to be afraid of making smart business decisions,” Art Hogan, chief market strategist at Wunderlich Securities, said in an interview on Thursday.

The sharpest outcry about Trump’s travel restrictions, which caused chaos and protests at U.S. airports last weekend, came from tech companies, which have broad concerns about his immigration plans.

Uber criticized the ban but took heat from activists when its chief competitor, Lyft, appeared more vocal on the issue.

“Joining the group was not meant to be an endorsement of the president,” Kalanick said in a memo explaining why he left Trump’s advisory panel.

Musk said in a tweet on Thursday: “In tomorrow’s meeting, I and others will express our objections to the recent executive order on immigration and offer suggestions for changes to the policy.”

The White House said in a statement on Thursday evening that did not mention Uber that Trump “understands the importance of an open dialogue with fellow business leaders to discuss how to best make our nation’s economy stronger.”

Tax reform

A more complicated division is developing over taxes. Boeing Co. and General Electric Co. on Thursday joined a group in support of a congressional plan to tax all imports. But that plan, which does not have universal support among Republicans, is opposed by many U.S. retailers, including Toyota Motor Corp., which say it could raise prices for consumers.

Republican leaders say tax reform is a top priority, but they have acknowledged it could take until the end of 2017 or longer to finish legislation.

“If I were a company, I’d be worried about tax reform,” said Bernie Williams, chief investment officer at USAA Investment Solutions, in San Antonio.

The White House meeting with the group, which also includes leaders of the Cleveland Clinic, PepsiCo and IBM, is set to cover tax and trade, regulatory relief and infrastructure.

Barra, Musk, CEOs to meet with Trump amid tension over policies

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump will huddle with General Motors CEO Mary Barra, Tesla CEO Elon Musk and several other top executives of major U.S. companies on Friday as the business community finds itself increasingly split over how to respond to his policies.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick on Thursday quit the business leaders’ group, a panel selected by Trump in December, under pressure from activists over Trump’s week-old executive order halting travel to the U.S. for people from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Executives from Ford Motor Co. and Tesla also criticized Trump’s travel ban, but other advisory group members, including GM and JPMorgan Chase & Co. have not taken a position.

Trump previously met with executives from the U.S. pharmaceutical and auto industries as part of a push to step up U.S. job creation.

U.S. companies of all political stripes want Trump, a Republican, to fulfill a campaign pledge to slash corporate taxes, but a schism has developed over how to do it.

The splits highlight business leaders’ struggles to navigate a divisive political environment and a new president who does not hesitate to use his platform against companies that vex him.

The businessman-turned-politician has threatened companies that manufacture in Mexico with a 20 percent tax on imports and needled pharmaceutical executives to make more drugs in the U.S. On Thursday, he publicly cheered South Korea’s Samsung Electronics Co. for saying it might build a U.S. plant for its home appliances business.

Some investors want companies to speak up.

“I certainly don’t think investors want people who run corporate America to be afraid of making smart business decisions,” Art Hogan, chief market strategist at Wunderlich Securities, said in an interview on Thursday.

The sharpest outcry about Trump’s travel restrictions, which caused chaos and protests at U.S. airports last weekend, came from tech companies, which have broad concerns about his immigration plans.

Uber criticized the ban but took heat from activists when its chief competitor, Lyft, appeared more vocal on the issue.

“Joining the group was not meant to be an endorsement of the president,” Kalanick said in a memo explaining why he left Trump’s advisory panel.

Musk said in a tweet on Thursday: “In tomorrow’s meeting, I and others will express our objections to the recent executive order on immigration and offer suggestions for changes to the policy.”

The White House said in a statement on Thursday evening that did not mention Uber that Trump “understands the importance of an open dialogue with fellow business leaders to discuss how to best make our nation’s economy stronger.”

Tax reform

A more complicated division is developing over taxes. Boeing Co. and General Electric Co. on Thursday joined a group in support of a congressional plan to tax all imports. But that plan, which does not have universal support among Republicans, is opposed by many U.S. retailers, including Toyota Motor Corp., which say it could raise prices for consumers.

Republican leaders say tax reform is a top priority, but they have acknowledged it could take until the end of 2017 or longer to finish legislation.

“If I were a company, I’d be worried about tax reform,” said Bernie Williams, chief investment officer at USAA Investment Solutions, in San Antonio.

The White House meeting with the group, which also includes leaders of the Cleveland Clinic, PepsiCo and IBM, is set to cover tax and trade, regulatory relief and infrastructure.