Linux 5.14 set to boost future enterprise application security

Linux is set for a big release this Sunday August 29, setting the stage for enterprise and cloud applications for months to come. The 5.14 kernel update will include security and performance improvements.

A particular area of interest for both enterprise and cloud users is always security and to that end, Linux 5.14 will help with several new capabilities. Mike McGrath, vice president, Linux Engineering at Red Hat told TechCrunch that the kernel update includes a feature known as core scheduling, which is intended to help mitigate processor-level vulnerabilities like Spectre and Meltdown, which first surfaced in 2018. One of the ways that Linux users have had to mitigate those vulnerabilities is by disabling hyper-threading on CPUs and therefore taking a performance hit. 

“More specifically, the feature helps to split trusted and untrusted tasks so that they don’t share a core, limiting the overall threat surface while keeping cloud-scale performance relatively unchanged,” McGrath explained.

Another area of security innovation in Linux 5.14 is a feature that has been in development for over a year-and-a-half that will help to protect system memory in a better way than before. Attacks against Linux and other operating systems often target memory as a primary attack surface to exploit. With the new kernel, there is a capability known as memfd_secret () that will enable an application running on a Linux system to create a memory range that is inaccessible to anyone else, including the kernel.

“This means cryptographic keys, sensitive data and other secrets can be stored there to limit exposure to other users or system activities,” McGrath said.

At the heart of the open source Linux operating system that powers much of the cloud and enterprise application delivery is what is known as the Linux kernel. The kernel is the component that provides the core functionality for system operations. 

The Linux 5.14 kernel release has gone through seven release candidates over the last two months and benefits from the contributions of 1,650 different developers. Those that contribute to Linux kernel development include individual contributors, as well large vendors like Intel, AMD, IBM, Oracle and Samsung. One of the largest contributors to any given Linux kernel release is IBM’s Red Hat business unit. IBM acquired Red Hat for $34 billion in a deal that closed in 2019.

“As with pretty much every kernel release, we see some very innovative capabilities in 5.14,” McGrath said.

While Linux 5.14 will be out soon, it often takes time until it is adopted inside of enterprise releases. McGrath said that Linux 5.14 will first appear in Red Hat’s Fedora community Linux distribution and will be a part of the future Red Hat Enterprise Linux 9 release. Gerald Pfeifer, CTO for enterprise Linux vendor SUSE, told TechCrunch that his company’s openSUSE Tumbleweed community release will likely include the Linux 5.14 kernel within ‘days’ of the official release. On the enterprise side, he noted that SUSE Linux Enterprise 15 SP4, due next spring, is scheduled to come with Kernel 5.14. 

The new Linux update follows a major milestone for the open source operating system, as it was 30 years ago this past Wednesday that creator Linus Torvalds (pictured above) first publicly announced the effort. Over that time Linux has gone from being a hobbyist effort to powering the infrastructure of the internet.

McGrath commented that Linux is already the backbone for the modern cloud and Red Hat is also excited about how Linux will be the backbone for edge computing – not just within telecommunications, but broadly across all industries, from manufacturing and healthcare to entertainment and service providers, in the years to come.

The longevity and continued importance of Linux for the next 30 years is assured in Pfeifer’s view.  He noted that over the decades Linux and open source have opened up unprecedented potential for innovation, coupled with openness and independence.

“Will Linux, the kernel, still be the leader in 30 years? I don’t know. Will it be relevant? Absolutely,” he said. “Many of the approaches we have created and developed will still be pillars of technological progress 30 years from now. Of that I am certain.”

 

 


By Sean Michael Kerner

Microsoft is discontinuing its Office apps for Chromebook users in favor of web versions

Since 2017, Microsoft has offered its Office suite to Chromebook users via the Google Play store, but that is set to come to an end in a few short weeks.

As of Sept. 18, Microsoft is discontinuing support for Office, which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and Outlook, on Chromebook. Microsoft is not, however, abandoning the popular mobile device altogether. Instead of an app that is downloaded, Microsoft is encouraging users to go to the web instead.

“In an effort to provide the most optimized experience for Chromebook customers, Microsoft apps (Office and Outlook) will be transitioned to web experiences (Office.com and Outlook.com) on September 18, 2021,” Microsoft wrote in a statement emailed to TechCrunch. 

Microsoft’s statement also noted that “this transition brings Chromebook customers access to additional and premium features.” 

The Microsoft web experience will serve to transition its base of Chromebook users to the Microsoft 365 service, which provides more Office templates and generally more functionality than what the app-based approach provides. The web approach is also more optimized for larger screens than the app.

In terms of how Microsoft wants Chromebook users to get access to Office and Outlook, the plan is for customers to, “..sign in with their personal Microsoft Account or account associated with their Microsoft 365 subscription,” according to the statement. Microsoft has also provided online documentation to show users how to run Office on a Chromebook.

Chromebooks run on Google’s Chrome OS, which is a Linux-based operating system. Chromebooks also enable Android apps to run, as Android is also Linux based, with apps downloaded from Google Play. It’s important to note that while support for Chromebooks is going away, Microsoft is not abandoning other Android-based mobile devices, such as tablets and smartphones.

For those Chromebook users that have already downloaded the Microsoft Office apps, the apps will continue to function after September 18, though they will not receive any support or future updates.


By Sean Michael Kerner

PingPong is a video chat app for product teams working across multiple time zones

From the earliest days of the pandemic, it was no secret that video chat was about to become a very hot space.

Over the past several months investors have bankrolled a handful of video startups with specific niches, ranging from always-on office surveillance to platforms that encouraged plenty of mini calls to avoid the need for more lengthy team-wide meetings. As the pandemic wanes and plenty of startups begin to look towards hybrid office models, there are others who have decided to lean into embracing a fully remote workforce, a strategy that may require new tools.

PingPong, a recent launch from Y Combinator’s latest batch, is building an asynchronous video chat app for the workplace. We selected PingPong as one of our favorite startups that debuted last week.

The company’s central sell is that for remote teams, there needs to be a better alternative to Slack or email for catching up with co-workers across time zones. While Zoom calls might be able to convey a company’s culture better than a post in a company-wide Slack channel, for fully remote teams operating on different continents, scheduling a company-wide meeting is often a non-starter.

PingPong is selling its service as an addendum to Slack that helps remote product teams collaborate and convey what they’re working on. Users can capture a short video of themselves and share their screen in lieu of a standup presentation and then they can get caught up on each other’s progress on their own time. PingPong’s hope is that users find more value in brainstorming, conducting design reviews, reporting bugs and more inside while using asynchronous video than they would with text.

“We have a lot to do before we can replace Slack, so right now we kind of emphasize playing nice with Slack,” PingPong CEO Jeff Whitlock tells TechCrunch. “Our longer term vision is that what young people are doing in their consumer lives, they bring into the enterprise when they graduate into the workforce. You and I were using Instant Messenger all the time in the early 2000s and then we got to the workplace, that was the opportunity for Slack… We believe in the next five or so years, something that’s a richer, more asynchronous video-based Slack alternative will have a lot more interest.”

Building a chat app specifically designed for remote product teams operating in multiple time zones is a tight niche for now, but Whitlock believes that this will become a more common problem as companies embrace the benefits of remote teams post-pandemic. PingPong costs $100 per user per year.


By Lucas Matney

With $29M in funding, Isovalent launches its cloud-native networking and security platform

Isovalent, a startup that aims to bring networking into the cloud-native era, today announced that it has raised a $29 million Series A round led by Andreesen Horowitz and Google. In addition, the company today officially launched its Cilium platform (which was in stealth until now) to help enterprises connect, observe and secure their applications.

The open-source Cilium project is already seeing growing adoption, with Google choosing it for its new GKE dataplane, for example. Other users include Adobe, Capital One, Datadog and GitLab. Isovalent is following what is now the standard model for commercializing open-source projects by launching an enterprise version.

Image Credits: Cilium

The founding team of CEO Dan Wendlandt and CTO Thomas Graf has deep experience in working on the Linux kernel and building networking products. Graf spent 15 years working on the Linux kernel and created the Cilium open-source project, while Wendlandt worked on Open vSwitch at Nicira (and then VMware).

Image Credits: Isovalent

“We saw that first wave of network intelligence be moved into software, but I think we both shared the view that the first wave was about replicating the traditional network devices in software,” Wendlandt told me. “You had IPs, you still had ports, you created virtual routers, and this and that. We both had that shared vision that the next step was to go beyond what the hardware did in software — and now, in software, you can do so much more. Thomas, with his deep insight in the Linux kernel, really saw this eBPF technology as something that was just obviously going to be groundbreaking technology, in terms of where we could take Linux networking and security.”

As Graf told me, when Docker, Kubernetes and containers, in general, become popular, what he saw was that networking companies at first were simply trying to reapply what they had already done for virtualization. “Let’s just treat containers as many as miniature VMs. That was incredibly wrong,” he said. “So we looked around, and we saw eBPF and said: this is just out there and it is perfect, how can we shape it forward?”

And while Isovalent’s focus is on cloud-native networking, the added benefit of how it uses the eBPF Linux kernel technology is that it also gains deep insights into how data flows between services and hence allows it to add advanced security features as well.

As the team noted, though, users definitely don’t need to understand or program eBPF, which is essentially the next generation of Linux kernel modules, themselves.

Image Credits: Isovalent

“I have spent my entire career in this space, and the North Star has always been to go beyond IPs + ports and build networking visibility and security at a layer that is aligned with how developers, operations and security think about their applications and data,” said Martin Casado, partner at Andreesen Horowitz (and the founder of Nicira). “Until just recently, the technology did not exist. All of that changed with Kubernetes and eBPF.  Dan and Thomas have put together the best team in the industry and given the traction around Cilium, they are well on their way to upending the world of networking yet again.”

As more companies adopt Kubernetes, they are now reaching a stage where they have the basics down but are now facing the next set of problems that come with this transition. Those, almost by default, include figuring out how to isolate workloads and get visibility into their networks — all areas where Isovalent/Cilium can help.

The team tells me its focus, now that the product is out of stealth, is about building out its go-to-market efforts and, of course, continue to build out its platform.


By Frederic Lardinois

Microsoft now lets you bring your own data types to Excel

Over the course of the last few years, Microsoft started adding the concept of ‘data types’ to Excel, that is, the ability to pull in geography and real-time stock data from the cloud, for example. Thanks to its partnership with Wolfram, Excel now features over 100 of these data types that can flow into a spreadsheet. But you won’t be limited to only these pre-built data types for long. Soon, Excel will also let you bring in your own data types.

That means you can have a ‘customer’ data type, for example, that can bring in rich customer data from a third-party service into Excel. The conduit fort his is either Power BI, which now allows Excel to pull in any data you previously published there, or Microsoft’s Power Query feature in Excel that lets you connect to a wide variety of data sources, including common databases like SQL Server, MySQL and PostreSQL, as well as third-party services like Teradata and Facebook.

“Up to this point, the Excel grid has been flat… it’s two dimensional,” Microsoft’ head of product for Excel, Brian Jones, writes in today’s announcement. “You can lay out numbers, text, and formulas across the flexible grid, and people have built amazing things with those capabilities. Not all data is flat though and forcing data into that 2D structure has its limits. With Data Types we’ve added a 3rd dimension to what you can build with Excel. Any cell can now contain a rich set of structured data… in just a single cell.”

The promise here is that this will make Excel more flexible and I’m sure a lot of enterprises will adapt these capabilities. These companies aren’t likely to move to Airtable or similar Excel-like tools anytime soon but have data analysis needs that are only increasing now that every company gathers more data than it knows what to do with. This is also a feature that none of Excel’s competitors currently offer, including Google Sheets.


By Frederic Lardinois

Google announces slew of Chrome OS features to help extend enterprise usage

As companies have moved to work from home this year, working on the internet has become the norm, and it turns out that Chrome OS was an operating system built for cloud-based applications. But most enterprise use cases are a bit more complex, and Google introduced some new features today to make it easier for IT to distribute machines running Chrome OS.

While the shift to the cloud has been ongoing over the last few years, the pandemic has definitely pushed companies to move faster, says John Maletis, project manager for engineering and UX for Chrome OS. “With COVID-19, the need for that productive, distributed workforce with some employees in office, but mostly [working from home] is really in the sights of businesses everywhere, and it is rapidly accelerating that move,” Maletis told TechCrunch.

To that end, Cyrus Mistry, group product manager at Google says that they want to make it easier for IT to implement Chrome OS and they’ve added a bunch of features to help. For starters, they have created a free readiness tool that lets IT get the lay of the land of which applications are ready to run on Chrome OS, and which aren’t. The tools issues a report with three colors: green is good to go, yellow is probable and red is definitely not ready.

To help with the latter categories, the company also announced the availability of Parallels for Chrome OS, which will enable companies with Windows applications that can’t run on Chrome OS to run them natively in Windows in a virtual machine. Mistry acknowledges that companies running Windows this way will need to issue higher end Chromebooks with the resources to handle this approach, but for companies with critical Windows applications, this is a good way to extend the usage of Chromebooks to a broader population of users.

To make it easier to issue machines ready to use of the box, Google is also introducing zero touch distribution, which allows manufacturers to set up machines for a domain ready to use out of the box. All the user has to do is turn it on and it’s ready to use.

“We can do what’s called zero touch, which is the devices can be already enrolled by the manufacturers, which means they will know the domain and they can now drop ship directly,” Mistry explained. That means these machines are equipped with the right settings, policies, applications, certificates and so forth, as though IT had set up the machine for the user.

In another nod to making life easier for IT, Google  is offering a new set of certified applications like Salesforce, Zoom and Palo Alto Networks which have been certified to work well on Chrome OS. Finally, the company announced that it will be enabling multiple virtual work areas with the ability to drag and drop between them, along with the ability to group tabs and search for tabs in the Chrome browser, which should be ready in the next couple of months.

As Maletis pointed out, the company may have been ahead of the market when it released Chrome OS almost a decade ago, but this year has shown that companies need the cloud to stay in operation and Chrome OS is an operating system built from the ground up for the cloud.


By Ron Miller

Microsoft launches new Cortana features for business users

Cortana may have failed as a virtual assistant for consumers, but Microsoft is still betting on it (or at least its brand) for business use cases, now that it has rebranded it as a ‘personal productivity assistant’ as part of Microsoft 365. Today, at its Ignite conference, Microsoft launched and announced a number of new Cortana services for business users.

These include the general availability of Cortana for the new Microsoft Teams displays the company is launching in partnership with a number of hardware vendors. You can think of these as dedicated smart displays for Teams that are somewhat akin to Google Assistant-enabled smart displays, for example — but with the sole focus on meetings. These days, it’s hard to enable a device like this without support for a voice assistant, so there you go. It’ll be available in September in English in the U.S. and will then roll out to Australia, Canada, the UK and India in the coming months.

In addition to these Teams devices, which Microsoft is not necessarily positioning for meeting rooms but as sidekicks to a regular laptop or desktop, Cortana will also soon come to Teams Rooms devices. Once we go back to offices and meeting rooms, after all, few people will want to touch a shared piece of hardware, so a touchless experience is a must.

For a while now, Microsoft has also been teasing more email-centric Cortana services. Play My Emails, a service that reads you your email out aloud and that’s already available in the U.S. on iOS and Android is coming to n Australia, Canada, the UK and India in the coming months. But more importantly, later this month, Outlook for iOS users will be able to interact with their inbox by voice, initiate calls to email senders and play emails from specific senders.

Cortana can now also send you daily briefing emails if you are a Microsoft 365 Enterprise users. This feature is now generally available and will get better meeting preparation, an integration with Microsoft To Do and other new features in the coming months.

And if you’re using Cortana on Windows 10, this chat-based app now let you compose emails, for example (at least if you speak English and are in the U.S.). And if you so desire, you can now use a wake word to launch it.


By Frederic Lardinois

Microsoft brings transcriptions to Word

Microsoft today launched Transcribe in Word, its new transcription service for Microsoft 365 subscribers, into general availability. It’s now available in the online version of Word, with other platforms launching later. In addition, Word is also getting new dictation features, which now allow you to use your voice to format and edit your text, for example.

As the name implies, this new feature lets you transcribe conversations, both live and pre-recorded, and then edit those transcripts right inside of Word. With this, the company goes head-to-head with startups like Otter and Google’s Recorder app, though they all have their own pros and cons.

Image Credits: Microsoft

To get started with Transcribe in Word, you simply head for the dictate button in the menu bar and click on ‘transcribe.’ From there, you can record a conversation as it happens — by recording it directly through a speakerphone and your laptop’s microphone, for example — or by recording it in some other way and then uploading that file. The service accepts .mp3, .wav, .m4a and .mp4 files.

As Microsoft Principal Group PM Manager for Natural User Interface & Incubation, Dan Parish, noted in a press briefing ahead of today’s announcement, when you record a call live, the transcription actually runs in the background while you conduct your interview, for example. The team purposely decided not to show you the live transcript, though, because its user research showed that it was distracting. I admit that I like to see the live transcript in Otter and Recorder, but maybe I’m alone in that.

Like with other services, Transcribe in Word lets you click on individual paragraphs in the transcript and then listen to that at a variety of speeds. Since the automated transcript will inevitably have errors in it, that’s a must-have feature. Sadly, though, Transcribe doesn’t let you click on individual words.

One major limitation of the service right now is that if you like to record offline and then upload your files, you’ll be limited to 300 minutes, without the ability to extend this for an extra fee, for example. I know I often transcribe far more than 5 hours of interviews in any given month, so that limit seems low, especially given that Otter provides me with 6,000 minutes on its cheapest paid plan. The max length for a transcript on Otter is 4 hours while Microsoft’s only limit for is a 200MB file upload limit, with no limits on live recordings.

Another issue I noticed here is that if you mistakenly exit the tab with Word in it, the transcription process will stop and there doesn’t seem to be a way to restart it.

It also takes quite a while for the uploaded files to be transcribed. It takes roughly as long as the conversations I’ve tried to transcribe), but the results are very good — and often better than those of competing services. Transcribe for Word also does a nice job separating out the different speakers in a conversation. For privacy reasons, you must assign your own names to those — even when you regularly record the same people.

It’d be nice to get the same feature in something like OneNote, for example, and my guess is Microsoft may expand this to its note-taking app over time. To me, that’s the more natural place for it.

Image Credits: Microsoft

The new dictation features in Word now let you give commands like “bold the last sentence,” for example, and say “percentage sign” or “ampersand” if you need to add those symbols to a text (or “smiley face,” if those are the kinds of texts you write in Word).

Even if you don’t often need to transcribe text, this new feature shows how Microsoft is now using its subscription service to launch new premium features to convert free users to paying ones. I’d be surprised if tools like the Microsoft Editor (which offers more features for paying users), this transcription service, as well as some of the new AI features in the likes of Excel and PowerPoint, didn’t help to convert some users into paying ones, especially now that the company has combined Office 365 and Microsoft 365 for consumers into a single bundle. After all, just a subscription to something like Grammarly and Otter would be significantly more expensive than a Microsoft 365 subscription.

 


By Frederic Lardinois

Slack and Atlassian deepen their partnership with deeper integrations

A lot of “partnerships” between tech companies don’t get very far beyond a press release and maybe some half-hearted co-selling attempts. When Atlassian sold its chat services to Slack in 2018, the two companies said they would form a new partnership and with Atlassian leaving the chat space, a lot of people were skeptical about what that would really mean. Since then, things got pretty quiet around the collaboration between the two companies, but today the companies announced some of the deep integration work they’ve done, especially within Slack.

Image Credits: Atlassian

Over the course of the last two years, Slack and Atlassian shipped 11 product integrations, which now see about a million active users every month, with Jira being the most often used integration, followed by Halp, which Atlassian acquired earlier this year. Every month, Atlassian currently sends 42 million Jira notifications to Slack — and that number continues to grow.

At the core of these integrations is the ability to get rich unfurls of deep links to Atlassian products in Slack, no matter whether that’s in DMs, public channels and private channels. Coming soon, those unfurls will become a default feature within Slack, even if the user who is seeing the link isn’t an Atlassian user yet.

“Today, if you do drop a Jira link in your channel and you’re not as your user — or even if you are and you’re not authed in — you just see a link,” Brad Armstrong said. “You don’t get the benefit of the unfurl. And so one of the things we’re doing is making that unfurl available to everybody, regardless of whether you are logged in and regardless of whether you’re even in Atlassian customer.”

Image Credits: Atlassian

The two companies also worked closely together on making moving between the products easier. If you are a Jira user, for example, you’ll soon be able to click on a ling in Slack and if you’re not currently logged into your Atlassian account, you’ll be automatically logged in. And the two companies are taking this even further by automatically creating Jira accounts for users when they come from Slack.

“If you are you’re not even at your user, when you click on the link, we will then map you from Slack and create a Jira user for you that provisions you and auths you in so you’re immediately becoming a Jira  user by virtue of wanting to collaborate on that piece of content in Slack,” Armstrong explained.

That, the two companies argues, turn Slack into something akin to a passport that gives you access to the Atlassian product suite — and that should also make onboarding a lot easier for new users.

Image Credits: Atlassian

“As you could probably imagine, as you know, onboarding is a pain, it’s hard because you have different roles, different size teams, so on and so forth,” said Bryant Lee, Atlassian’s head of product partnerships. “And that’s where you see some of the authentication stuff, the unfurling discovery piece really being an understanding of what those practices are. But the way that we look at it is not just about the product but people, products and practices. So it’s really about understanding who it is that we’re trying to optimize for.”

In addition to these new integrations that are launching soon, the two companies are also expanding their co-marketing efforts, starting with a new 50%-off offer for Atlassian users who want to also use Slack.

“We’re building on the strong foundation of our partnership’s success from the past two years, which has yielded tremendous shared customer momentum and impactful product integrations,” said Slack co-founder and CEO Stewart Butterfield . “Thanks to our strategic alliance, Slack and Atlassian have become the technology stack of choice for developer teams.”


By Frederic Lardinois

Gmail for G Suite gets deep integrations with Chat, Meet, Rooms and more

Google is launching a major update to its G Suite productivity tools today that will see a deep integration of Gmail, Chat, Meet and Rooms on the web and on mobile, as well as other tools like Calendar, Docs, Sheets and Slides. This integration will become available in the G Suite early adopter program, with a wider roll-out coming at a later time.

The G Suite team has been working on this project for about a year, though it fast-tracked the Gmail/Meet integration, which was originally scheduled to be part of today’s release, as part of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the core of today’s update is the idea that we’re all constantly switching between different modes of communication, be that email, chat, voice or video. So with this update, the company is bringing all of this together, with Gmail being the focal point for the time being, given that this is where most users already find themselves for hours on end anyway.

Google is branding this initiative as a ‘better home for work’ and in practice, it means that you’ll not just see deeper integrations between products, like a fill calendaring and file management experience in Gmail, but also the ability to have a video chat open on one side of the window while collaboratively editing a document in real-time on the other.

Image Credits: Google

According to G Suite VP and GM Javier Soltero, the overall idea here is not just to bring all of these tools closer together to reduce the task-switching that users have to do.

Image Credits: Google

“We’re announcing something we’ve been working on since a little bit before I even joined Google last year: a new integrated workspace designed to bring together all the core components of communication and collaboration into a single surface that is not just about bringing these ingredients into the same pane of glass, but also realizes something that’s greater than the sum of its parts,” he told me ahead of today’s announcement. “The degree of integration across the different modes of communication, specifically email, chat, and video calling and voice video calling along with our existing physical existing strength in collaboration.”

Just like on the web, Google also revealed some of its plans when it first announced its latest major update to Gmail for mobile in May, with its Meet integration in the form of a new bar at the bottom of the screen for moving between Mail and Meet. With this, it’s expanding this to include native Chat and Rooms support as well. Soltero noted that Google things of these four products as the “four pillars of the integrated workspace.” Having them all integrated into a single app means you can manage the notification behavior of all of them in a single place, for example, and without the often cumbersome task-switching experience on mobile.

For now, these updates are specific to G Suite, though similar to Google’s work around bringing Meet to consumers, the company plans to bring this workspace experience to consumers as well, but what exactly that will look like still remains to be seen. “Right now we’re really focused. The people who urgently need this are those involved in productivity scenarios. This idea of ‘the new home for work’ is much more about collaboration that is specific to professional settings, productivity and workplace settings,” Soltero said.

But there is more…

Google is also announcing a few other feature updates to its G Suite line today. Chat rooms, for example, are now getting shared files and tasks, with the ability to assign tasks and to invite users from outside your company into rooms. These rooms now also let you have chats open on one side and edit a document on the other, all without switching to a completely different web app.

Also new is the ability in Gmail to search not just for emails but also chats, as well as new tools to pin important rooms and new ‘do not disturb’ and ‘out of office’ settings.

One nifty new feature of these new integrated workspaces is that Google is also working with some of its partners to bring their apps into the experience. The company specifically mentions DocuSign, Salesforce and Trello. These companies already offer some deep Gmail integrations, including integrations with the Gmail sidebar, so we’ll likely see this list expand over time.

Meet itself, too, is getting some updates in the coming weeks with ‘knocking controls’ to make sure that once you throw somebody out of a meeting, that person can’t come back, and safety locks that help meeting hosts decide who can chat or present in a meeting.

Image Credits:


By Frederic Lardinois

Google Meet launches improved Zoom-like tiled layout, low-light mode and more

Google Meet, like all video chat products, is seeing rapid growth in user numbers right now, so it’s no surprise that Google is trying to capitalize on this and is quickly iterating on its product. Today, it is officially launching a set of new features that include a more Zoom-like tiled layout, a low-light mode for when you have to make calls at night and the ability to present a single Chrome tab instead of a specific window or your entire screen. Soon, Meet will also get built-in noise cancellation so nobody will hear your dog bark in the background.

If all of this sounds a bit familiar, it’s probably because G Suite exec Javier Soltero already talked to Reuters about these features last week. Google PR is usually pretty straightforward, but in this case, it moved in mysterious ways. Today, though, these features are actually starting to roll out to users, a Google spokesperson told me, and today’s announcement does actually provide more details about each of these features.

For the most part, what’s being announced here is obvious. The tiled layout allows web users to see up to 16 participants at once. Previously, that number was limited to four and Google promises it will offer additional layouts for larger meetings and better presentation layouts, as well as support for more devices in the future.

For the most part, having this many people stare at me from my screen doesn’t seem necessary (and more likely to induce stress than anything else), but the ability to present a single Chrome tab is surely a welcome new feature for many. But what’s probably just as important is that this means you can share higher-quality video content from these tabs than before.

If you often take meetings in the dark, low-light mode uses AI to brighten up your video. Unlike some of the other features, this one is coming to mobile first and will come to web users in the future.

Personally, I’m most excited about the new noise cancellation feature. Typically, noise cancellation works best for noises that repeat and are predictable. Think about the constant drone of an airplane or your neighbor’s old lawnmower. But Google says Meet can now go beyond this and also cancel out barking dogs and your noisy keystrokes. That has increasingly become table stakes, with even Discord offering similar capabilities and Nvidia RTX Voice now making this available in a slew of applications for users of its high-end graphics cards, but it’s nice to see this as a built-in feature for Meet now.

This feature will only roll out in the coming weeks and will initially be available to G Suite Enterprise and G Suite Enterprise for Education users on the web, with mobile support coming later.


By Frederic Lardinois

AWS launches Bottlerocket, a Linux-based OS for container hosting

AWS has launched its own open-source operating system for running containers on both virtual machines and bare metal hosts. Bottlerocket, as the new OS is called, is basically a stripped-down Linux distribution that’s akin to projects like CoreOS’s now-defunct Container Linux and Google’s container-optimized OS. The OS is currently in its developer preview phase, but you can test it as an Amazon Machine Image for EC2 (and by extension, under Amazon EKS, too).

As AWS chief evangelist Jeff Barr notes in his announcement, Bottlerocket supports Docker images and images that conform to the Open Container Initiative image format, which means it’ll basically run all Linux-based containers you can throw at it.

One feature that makes Bottleneck stand out is that it does away with a package-based update system. Instead, it uses an image-based model that, as Barr notes, “allows for a rapid & complete rollback if necessary.” The idea here is that this makes updates easier. At the core of this update process is “The Update Framework,” an open-source project hosted by the Cloud Native Computing Foundation.

AWS says it will provide three years of support (after General Availability) for its own builds of Bottlerocket. As of now, the project is very much focused on AWS, of course, but the code is available on GitHub and chances are we will see others expand on AWS’ work.

The company is launching the project in cooperation with a number of partners, including Alcide, Armory, CrowdStrike, Datadog, New Relic, Sysdig, Tiger, Trend Micro and Waveworks.

“Container-optimized operating systems will give dev teams the additional speed and efficiency to run higher throughput workloads with better security and uptime,” said Michael Gerstenhaber, Director of Product Management at Datadog.” We are excited to work with AWS on Bottlerocket, so that as customers take advantage of the increased scale they can continue to monitor these ephemeral environments with confidence.”

 


By Frederic Lardinois

Google cancels Cloud Next because of coronavirus, goes online-only

Google today announced that it is canceling the physical part of Cloud Next, its cloud-focused event and its largest annual conference by far with around 30,000 attendees, over concerns around the current spread of COVID-19.

Given all of the recent conference cancellations, this announcement doesn’t come as a huge surprise, especially after Facebook canceled its F8 developer conference only a few days ago.

Cloud Next was scheduled to run from Apri 6 to 8. Instead of the physical event, Google will now host an online event under the “Google Cloud Next ’20: Digital Connect” moniker. So there will still be keynotes and breakout sessions, as well as the ability to connect with experts.

“Innovation is in Google’s DNA and we are leveraging this strength to bring you an immersive and inspiring event this year without the risk of travel,” the company notes in today’s announcement.

The virtual event will be free and in an email to attendees, Google says that it will automatically refund all tickets to this year’s conference. It will also automatically cancel all hotel reservations made through its conference reservation system.

It now remains to be seen what happens to Google’s other major conference, I/O, which is slated to run from May 12 to 14 in Mountain View. The same holds true for Microsoft’s rival Build conference in Seattle, which is scheduled to start on May 19. These are the two premier annual news events for both companies, but given the current situation, nobody would be surprised if they got canceled, too.


By Frederic Lardinois

You can now ask Excel questions about your data

Microsoft today announced an update to Excel that brings natural language queries to the venerable spreadsheet tool. Available now to Office Insiders, this new feature allows you to talk to Excel like you’re talking to a person and get quick answers to your queries without having to write a query.

“Natural language query is another step toward making data insights and visualization more approachable and accessible to users with various levels of Excel experience,” Microsoft explains. “Novice users will not need to know how to write a formula to gain useful insights from their data, while power users will be able to save time by automating the data discovery process by simply asking the right questions and quickly adding charts and tables they need for better and faster decisions.”

It’s worth noting that Google already offers similar features in Google Sheets. In my experience, Google sometimes does a pretty good job at finding data but also regularly fails to find even a single relevant data point, so it remains to be seen how good Excel is compared to that.

Today’s announcement is one in a series of recent launches for Excel that brought a number of new machine learning smarts to the spreadsheet. Among those is Excel’s ability to better understand your entries and provide you with additional information about stocks, geographical data and more.


By Frederic Lardinois

Cortana wants to be your personal executive assistant and read your emails to you, too

Only a few years ago, Microsoft hoped that Cortana could become a viable competitor to the Google Assistant, Alexa and Siri . Over time, as Cortana failed to make a dent in the marketplace (do you ever remember that Cortana is built into your Windows 10 machine?), the company’s ambitions shrunk a bit. Today, Microsoft wants Cortana to be your personal productivity assistant — and to be fair, given the overall Microsoft ecosystem, Cortana may be better suited to that than to tell you about the weather.

At its Ignite conference, Microsoft today announced a number of new features that help Cortana to become even more useful in your day-to-day work, all of which fit into the company’s overall vision of AI as a tool that is helpful and augments human intelligence.

Screen Shot 2019 10 31 at 3.25.48 PM

The first of these is a new feature in Outlook for iOS that uses Microsoft text-to-speech features to read your emails to you (using both a male and female voice). Cortana can also now help you schedule meetings and coordinate participants, something the company first demoed at previous conferences.

Starting next month, Cortana will also be able to send you a daily email that summarizes all of your meetings, presents you with relevant documents and reminders to “follow up on commitments you’ve made in email.” This last part, especially, should be interesting as it seems to go beyond the basic (and annoying) nudges to reply to emails in Google’s Gmail.

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By Frederic Lardinois