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Reuters Data Show Google’s New Cloud Boss Has Big Task to Catch Rivals

Google has a new cloud computing boss and big ambitions to someday produce more revenue from that business than from advertising. Now comes the hard part: winning over big-spending customers.

Alphabet Inc’s cloud computing division remains a distant third behind Amazon.com Inc and Microsoft Corp in terms of global revenue, according to analysts’ estimates. A few major companies manage their data on Google’s servers. But Google has nowhere near the vast customer base of Amazon, according to a new Reuters analysis of company regulatory filings.

Businesses generally are not required to disclose their cloud vendors. Reuters found 311 out of about 5,000 worldwide that did so in 2018. While not comprehensive, the data provide a window into Google’s challenge.

Thirty five of those companies named Google as a cloud provider. The largest by market capitalization were oil major Total SA and bank HSBC Holdings Plc.

Amazon Web Services led with 227 clients, including travel company Expedia Group Inc and industrials giant Siemens AG. Microsoft’s Azure cloud had 69 firms, among them weapons maker Axon Enterprise Inc and business data firm Dun & Bradstreet Co. Thirty four of the companies cited multiple clouds.

The previously untracked data show the work ahead for Thomas Kurian, who is weeks on the job as chief executive of Google Cloud. Kurian has vowed to double down where Google has seen promising results. Specifically, he plans to target governments and top companies in retail, manufacturing, healthcare, media and finance.

“A lot of our focus as we go forward is making sure that our sales organization has the background and the ability to sell to large, more traditional companies,” Kurian said at a Goldman Sachs investor conference last week. “There’s enormous appetite in those companies to consider Google.”

Google declined to comment or make Kurian available for an interview.

People familiar with his plans said he is looking to reshape his division’s culture. A key part is developing or acquiring easy-to-use, industry-specific corporate applications, an area that Amazon and Microsoft do not dominate.

“It’s about the on-ramp onto their cloud,” said Daniel Ives, a New York-based financial analyst following the cloud industry for Wedbush Securities. “The main way to get that is through applications.”

A 22-year veteran of Oracle Corp, Kurian gave the database company fresh life as the product leader behind its move to selling cloud services. His hire is already making potential customers reconsider Google, said Ray Wang, founder of Constellation Research, a Monta Vista, Calif.-based firm that helps businesses negotiate cloud deals.

“They’ve worked with him,” Wang said. “There’s a trust factor that wasn’t there before.”

Kurian also must reassure some investors bewildered by Google’s cloud ambitions: Diversifying revenue beyond advertising is a plus, but it is not coming cheap.

Google, Microsoft and Amazon combined spent nearly $53 billion on capital expenses last year, driven by data center projects to house their clouds.

With gross margins of 20 percent or less, selling cloud storage or tools for which customers need specialized staff is less lucrative for a small vendor, industry experts said. But margins on the type of software Kurian likely wants to offer can top even the 60 percent of Google’s ad business.

“The next wave of growth is going to have to come from the heavy hitting applications,” said Kerry Liu, chief executive at Rubikloud, which helps retailers with cloud projects.

‘Geeky, Techy platform’

Google got serious about the cloud around 2016, five years after Amazon Web Services had become a multibillion-dollar behemoth. But Google’s reputation for limited customer support has attracted mostly newer businesses or those with significant tech know-how.

Mike Fisher, Etsy Inc’s chief technology officer, said Google’s superior AI tools helped win over the New York-based crafts marketplace. Fisher expects data-crunching algorithms to account for 25 percent of its server use this year, up from 10 percent last year.

“We’ve been more pleasantly surprised than we thought,” Fisher said of the cloud’s benefits.

Advertising software company OpenX recently agreed to spend at least $110 million on Google Cloud over five years. The Pasadena, Calif. firm bet its clients would benefit from transacting on the same infrastructure as Google’s ads system. “It’s a bit more of a geeky, techy platform, but we’re that kind of company,” said Chief Technology Officer Paul Ryan.

Kurian’s plan

To attract more traditional corporate clients, Google Cloud will need to do some handholding, executives at its partners and rivals said.

Kurian is well-suited to the role. Two of his former colleagues said his follow-up and candid disclosures about product limitations helped seal deals at Oracle. An early riser, Kurian impressed staff with his meticulous preparation for morning meetings as well as his recall of the tiniest details of clients’ systems from years before.

Kurian also managed billions of dollars in acquisitions at Oracle, including the purchases of software firms BEA Systems and Taleo.

Applications could come through similar deals and internally: Google is testing product recommendation software for shopping apps, a person familiar with the project said, to add to its small set of specialized tools.

Kurian told the investor conference that “you will see us continue to expand our footprint there.”

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Samsung’s Folding Phone Aims to Rejuvenate Smartphone Market

Ten years after launching its Galaxy line of smartphones, Samsung Electronics unveiled a new form of the ubiquitous device — a phone that seamlessly turns into a tablet — to create some new excitement in the sluggish global smartphone market.

At an event in San Francisco on Wednesday, Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Fold, its long-awaited foldable smartphone. Only FlexPai, by Royale, a U.S.-based Chinese company, has anything like it on the market, but the FlexPai has garnered mixed reviews.

Samsung ignored the FlexPai’s existence and unveiled the Galaxy Fold as if it were the first of its kind.

“The size of our screens is still fundamentally limited by the size of our devices until now,” said Justin Denison, Samsung senior vice president of product marketing. “With the Galaxy Fold, we are creating a new dimension for your phone and your life. We are giving you a device that doesn’t just define category, it defies category.”

 

WATCH: Samsung Rolls Out New Smartphones

Three apps at once for multitasking

When closed, the Galaxy Fold is a smartphone. When opened, the Fold turns into an expansive tablet.

The device is for the impatient multitaskers because users can run three apps at the same time and continuously use the apps while moving from phone to tablet.

The Galaxy Fold is slated to go on sale in late April. It will cost nearly $2,000. That price tag caused sticker shock at the event, eliciting gasps and some grumbling among the audience.

But it appears the Galaxy Fold is in keeping with Samsung’s aim to generate buzz for the smartphone market, while also aiming for the market’s high end, where Apple and its iPhone dominate.

Slumping smartphone sales

The challenge smartphone makers have faced in recent years is that consumers hold on to the devices for longer and longer, seeing few reasons to upgrade.

The leader in worldwide smartphone sales, the South Korean electronics firm is hoping to give consumers a few reasons to trade in their older ones, and generate buzz about what smartphones can be in the future.

Samsung’s new line of Galaxy smartphone, the S10, comes in three models, S10e, S10 and the S10+. The S10 models have bigger screens, more battery life and more cameras packed in each device than earlier Galaxy lines.

​Ultrasound fingerprint scanner

The S10 has the world’s first “ultrasonic fingerprint scanner,” which uses sound waves that bounce from a user’s fingertip to unlock a device. It’s unclear if the fingerprint scanner will work through screen savers. And the S10 can act as a charger for other devices such as watches.

The S10 line, with a price starting at $749, will start shipping March 8.

Samsung executives say that with the firm’s foldable phone and new S10 line, it is ushering in the mobile era for the next decade.

“For those who say everything possible has already been done,” said DJ Koh, president and CEO of Samsung’s IT and mobile communications division. “I say open your mind and get ready for the dawn of a new mobile era.”

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Students Build City of the Future

A future of rising oceans and stronger storms awaits the next generation as the climate warms. It will take talented engineers and city planners to tackle those challenges. The annual Future City competition aims to get middle school students excited about learning the skills they’ll need. More than 40,000 students from 1,500 schools participated this year. VOA’s Steve Baragona was at the finals in Washington.

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Microsoft Detects Hacking Targeting Europe Democracy Groups

A hacking group has targeted European democratic institutions including think tanks and non-profit groups ahead of highly anticipated EU parliamentary elections in May, Microsoft said.

The company said Tuesday that a group called Strontium targeted email accounts for more than 100 people in six European countries working for the German Council on Foreign Relations, the Aspen Institutes in Europe and the German Marshall Fund.

Microsoft said in a blog post that it is continuing to investigate but is confident many of the attacks originated from Strontium, a group that others call Fancy Bear or APT28. U.S. authorities have tied the group to Russia’s main intelligence agency, known as the GRU.

Microsoft said the attacks occurred from September to December, and that it notified the organizations after discovering they were targeted.

Tech companies have been accused of not doing enough to prevent hacking attacks and the spread of fake news, which some say influenced major elections like the U.S. presidential vote and the Brexit referendum.

Hundreds of millions of people are set to vote for more than 700 European Union parliamentary lawmakers in May, and the recent rise of populist parties has raised the prospect of euroskeptic politicians gaining more seats and potentially undermining the bloc.

The German Marshall Fund has done extensive work researching and documenting Russian attempts at interfering in elections as part of its broader efforts on democracy-building and trans-Atlantic cooperation.

In a statement, the German Marshall Fund president, Karen Donfried, said the attacks were unsurprising for an organization “dedicated to advancing and promoting democratic values.”

The organization said its systems did not appear to be compromised.

The German Council on Foreign Relations declined to offer details, citing the ongoing investigation. But a council spokeswoman, Eva-Maria McCormack, called for “strong political and public attention” to the issue of cyberattacks.

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Future Styles: Could Virtual Clothes Reduce Damage of Fast Fashion?

Striking a pose in the mirror, Swedish model and stylist Lisa Anckarman shows off a new jacket with a difference on Instagram – though it fits her perfectly in the photo, it’s a virtual design that does not exist in real life.

She is among a number of trendsetters embracing cutting-edge technology that offers the opportunity to sate appetites for fast fashion while dramatically slashing the emissions, pollution and labor abuses linked to the garment industry.

“I really liked the idea and the aspect that it’s good for the environment,” Anckarman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as she discussed her virtual styling. Actually I think it maybe looked too good because people didn’t really get that it was digital.”

“People were asking me ‘Where did you buy this?’ and I was saying, ‘It’s digital’, and they were like, ‘No, at what shop did you buy it?'”

Fashion is one of the world’s most damaging industries – it is responsible for about 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, sucks up scarce water and creates vast amounts of pollution and waste.

But the desire for the latest look is only increasing. Global fashion sales grew by about 4.5 percent to $1.7 trillion in 2018, found analysts at McKinsey and Company, who said social media is bringing trends to consumers at an ever swifter pace.

Some businesses are now looking to meet the demand for new styles through digital designs, with Scandinavian fashion firm Carlings convincing its customers to pay real cash for virtual clothes that are digitally “fitted” onto users’ photographs.

“It was kind of scary (launching it) but the response was so overwhelming that we were convinced we were on to something,” said Ronny Mikalsen, the firm’s brand director.

The first Carlings designs, costing between 10 euros ($11) and 30 euros, sold out and a second digital collection is due to be released in spring 2019.

High fashion, low emissions

Digital clothes create far lower emissions than physical clothes as they cut out the long, labor-intensive process of sourcing materials, producing fabrics, making garments and shipping them worldwide.

While virtual styles may still be niche, experts say they are set to grow as technology seeps into more aspects of human lives.

Younger generations in particular are keen to curate their online personas as much as their real-life image, said Matthew Drinkwater, the head of the Fashion Innovation Agency based at the London College of Fashion.

On Instagram you have to ask “how much of that is a real person and how much is an enhanced version or a way they wish to portray themselves?” he said.

The increasing use of filters on social media that can add cute dog ears or a flower crown on top of a photo or edit video in real time to make people vomit rainbows shows how people are already using digital effects to play with their image, he said.

“In a very simple sense people are beginning to enhance or alter the way that they look,” he said. “You can begin to see a drift towards this merging of physical and digital.”

Shopping habits are already changing to meet the demands of online images: nearly one in 10 people have bought clothes to wear once, with the aim of sharing their outfit on social media, according to a survey of 2,000 Britons by finance firm Barclaycard last summer.

“If you get caught wearing the same clothes too many times it’s seen as a bad thing,” said Morten Grubak from the Virtue creative agency, who came up with the Carlings campaign.

“One of the worst things you can write under images is ‘Not again’, making the hint they have posted that outfit before.”

‘Physics-defying’ outfits

Some involved in virtual fashion said they had set out to offer a new solution to the industry’s climate damage and waste rather than trying to persuade consumers to buy less.

“Right now (environmental campaigns) are always about, like, how much water did we save producing these jeans and people don’t care about that,” said Grubak.

“Instead of getting angry with people doing fashion on Instagram, how can we innovatively solve that problem by adding a new platform?”

Other companies said they had taken a deliberate decision to avoid the traditional fashion market entirely.

“We’ve made a very clear point of never wanting to be a physical fashion brand,” said Kerry Murphy of Dutch digital fashion house The Fabricant, which creates only virtual designs.

“We believe the world does not need more clothing. It’s an incredibly wasteful and polluting industry. That’s why we very consciously said we want to re-imagine fashion.”

Digital design also opens up new possibilities to play with fashion, from using fabrics like rubber which would be relatively uncomfortable in real life through to dabbling in exotic skins or even physics-defying fantasies.

“Clothing will definitely have a different meaning because it does not have the same functionality as physical clothing,” Murphy said.

“People can wear fire or they wear rain or they can be a dinosaur, so the possibilities are limitless.”

Those involved in the digital design industry said it will not offer a complete solution to fashion’s emissions and waste problems, but it can help by encouraging people to update their existing wardrobes with virtual flourishes.

And as technology advances, virtual fashion could sashay into the mainstream, said Drinkwater.

Within a decade, people could regularly wear high-tech glasses that can apply digital effects over what the wearer sees in real life, he predicted, meaning virtual clothes will no longer be restricted to a computer or phone screen.

“Could you imagine a point where your existing clothes could be constantly updated through digital design? Could we be downloading content that could portray ourselves differently? Would that stop us from simply buying more product?” he asked. “That potential is really quite exciting.”

($1 = 0.8834 euros)

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Twitter Tightens EU Political Ad Rules Ahead of Election

Twitter said Tuesday it is tightening up rules for European Union political ads ahead of bloc-wide elections this spring, following similar moves by fellow tech giants Facebook and Google.

The social media company said it is extending restrictions already in place for federal elections in the United States.

Under the new rules, which will also apply in Australia and India, political advertisers will need to be certified.

It’s also taking steps to increase transparency. Ads, in the form of “promoted tweets,” from the past seven days will be stored in a publicly accessible database showing how much was spent, how many times it was seen and the demographics of the people who saw it.

Facebook and Google have put in similar systems ahead of the EU vote in May, as the U.S. tech companies respond to criticism they didn’t do enough to prevent misuse of their platforms by malicious actors trying to sway previous elections around the world.

“This is part of our overall goal to protect the health of the public conversation on our service and to provide meaningful context around all political entities who use our advertising products,” the company said in a blog post .

Hundreds of millions of people are set to vote for more than 700 European Union parliamentary lawmakers.

Political advertisers can start applying now for certification under Twitter’s stricter ad rules, which take effect March 11, by providing more information such as photo ID or a company identification number.

Twitter defines political ads as those bought by a party or candidate or that advocate for or against a candidate or party.

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Artists Create Contemporary Take on Ancient Art Form

Levitating objects and plastic boxes may not seem to have anything to do with landscape painting, but they are the contemporary take on an ancient Chinese art style called “shan shui hua” or mountain water painting.

Dating back more than 1,000 years, this style of landscape painting, which uses brush and ink, has evolved over time. The art form is evolving once again in an exhibit called “Lightscapes: Re-envisioning the Shanshuihua” at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles.

The goal of Nick Dong and Chi-Tsung Wu, the two artists in the exhibit, is to connect the new, digital generation to this traditional type of art and to capture its essence in a new way through modern technology. 

The exhibit forces the viewer to slow down and experience a different world. That’s one of the objectives of the ancient masters of Chinese shan shui paintings.

Escape from reality

“Actually, it was for all these artists to create a world which they want to hide, avoid, escape from reality. So, they create a mountain (and) imagine they could live there,” said Dong, an artist born in Taiwan who now lives in Northern California.

Trained in both Chinese and Western art styles, Dong and Wu use experimental materials and light in the various art pieces in the exhibit. 

In a contemporary approach to what’s real and what is not, one installation involves a slowly moving light directed at clear plastic boxes attached to a wall.

“If we see this through the light, through the different perspective, we could see there’s another world behind that,” Wu said about his installation called Crystal City.

That other world Wu referenced are shadows that look more real and solid than the actual plastic boxes. Wu said the art installation is symbolic of the modern digital age.

“We spend most of our time in our daily life, no matter to work or to our social life or our entertainment, all on this cyberspace,” he said.

That space is an escape for many people similar to the landscape paintings.

Philosophy and the spiritual

To capture the philosophical elements of the landscape painting, magnets are used to levitate objects to show that there is a force between everything in nature.

Another art piece in the exhibit is a take on one’s relationship with the universe. To view Dong’s representation of heaven, one has to step into a room filled with mirrors from ceiling to floor. There is a stool in the middle of the room.

“We’re all searching. We’re all longing for growth, become better and, ultimately, good enough to go to heaven. So, in my mind, heaven is a place of selfless, so eventually once you’ve entered the installation, at first you’ll see a lot of your reflection. But once you sit down, you trigger the mechanism of the room. The mirror actually starts to reflect, and you yourself will disappear within the space. You vanish. All you have is this empty, wide-open space. For me, it’s the ultimate evolution,” Dong explained.

The art pieces in the exhibit are ways the artists hope the modern-day viewer will be able to experience what the ancient artists of the landscape paintings were trying to achieve. 

“They (ancient scholars) were able to say, ‘We’re seeking a spiritual outlet. We’re seeking a way to refine the spirit and refine the soul.’ This work, today, it’s hard to have that experience with the traditional artwork because they’re such a contained device. You see them in a museum under glass, and they’re hard to approach,” said Justin Hoover curator of the Chinese American Museum, Los Angeles.

Contemporary artists hope their use of lighting and experimental materials will make an ancient art form more tangible and real in the 21st century.

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Amazon Aims to Cut Its Carbon Footprint

Amazon, which ships millions of packages a year to shopper’s doorsteps, says it wants to be greener.

The online retail giant announced plans Monday to make half of all its shipments carbon-neutral by 2030.

To reach that goal, the online retail giant says it will use more renewable energy like solar power; have more packages delivered in electric vans; and push suppliers to remake their packaging.

McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and other big companies that generate lots of waste have announced similar initiatives, hoping to appeal to customers concerned about the environment.

Amazon is calling its program “Shipment Zero,” and plans to publicly publish its carbon footprint for the first time later this year.

Seattle-based Amazon said it spent the past two years mapping its carbon footprint and figuring out ways to reduce carbon use across the company.

“It won’t be easy to achieve this goal, but it’s worth being focused and stubborn on this vision and we’re committed to seeing it through,” said Dave Clark, Amazon’s senior vice president of worldwide operations.

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Facebook Voids Accounts Targeting Moldovan Election

Facebook said on Thursday it had disrupted an attempt to influence voters in Moldova, increasing concerns that EU elections in May could be prey to malign activity.

Employees of the Moldovan government were linked to some of the activity, the California-based social media company said. Authorities in Chisnau, capital of the tiny former Soviet republic, denied knowledge.

Facebook said it dismantled scores of pages and accounts designed to look like independent opinion pages and to impersonate a local fact-checking organization ahead of Moldova’s elections later this month.

“So they created this feedback loop,” Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, told reporters in Brussels. “We did assess that there were links between some of that activity and individuals associated with the Moldovan government.”

The government said it welcomed any initiative to combat “fake news”, saying it did not check the private accounts of its more than 200,000 state employees.

“They have different political views and opinions, and the state is obliged to maintain the boundary between fighting the phenomenon of Fake News and guaranteeing the freedom of expression for citizens,” it said.

Facebook said it removed 168 accounts, 28 pages and eight Instagram accounts involved in “inauthentic behavior.” Some 54,000 accounts followed at least one of these Facebook pages.

The owners of pages and accounts typically posted about local news and political issues such as requirements for Russian- or English-language education and potential reunification with Romania, the company said.

Guarding elections

Facebook stepped up efforts to combat disinformation, including accounts in Russia, Iran and Indonesia, over the last year after coming under public scrutiny for not doing enough to stem the spread extremism and propaganda online.

The vulnerabilities exposed in Moldova, sandwiched between EU member Romania and Ukraine on the fringes of the bloc, were a warning ahead of polls in neighboring Ukraine and for the European legislature.

The European Union has pushed tech companies to do more to stop what it fears are Russian attempts to undermine Western democracies with disinformation campaigns that sow division. Russia has repeatedly denied any such actions.

The sheer perception of manipulation can damage polls, Gleicher warned. “We are starting to see actors try to create the impression that there is manipulation without owning lots and lots of accounts,” he said.

“We already have the teams up and running and focused on the European parliamentary elections and that is only going to grow as the elections get closer and the pace of threats increases.”

Dogged by scandal, Moldova’s pro-Western government has failed to lift low living standards. That has driven many voters towards the Socialists, who favor closer ties with Russia.

The European Parliament called Moldova a “state captured by oligarchic interests” in November, and there are concerns whether the parliamentary election on February 24 will be fair. The election is likely to produce a hung parliament, which could set the scene for months of wrangling or possibly further elections.

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