Google promises $1 billion to fight housing crisis

Google CEO Sundar Pichai says the company will do its part to fight the Bay Area housing crisis.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai says the company will do its part to fight the Bay Area housing crisis.

Image: Drew Angerer / Getty Images

By Karissa Bell

Google has a $1 billion plan to put a dent in the Bay Area housing crisis. 

The company announced a sweeping new plan Tuesday to contribute $1 billion to build as many as 20,000 new homes in the San Francisco Bay Area over the next 10 years. 

The bulk of that investment will come not from Google parent Alphabet’s multibillion-dollar cash reserves, but from a promise to rezone its own land in order to build residential housing. 

“Over the next 10 years, we’ll repurpose at least $750 million of Google’s land, most of which is currently zoned for office or commercial space, as residential housing,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai write in a blog post. “This will enable us to support the development of at least 15,000 new homes at all income levels in the Bay Area, including housing options for middle and low-income families.”

Additionally, Pichai says Google will put up $250 million in incentives to get developers to build 5,000 units of affordable housing throughout the Bay Area. The company will donate an additional $50 million to local organizations that fight homelessness. 

Google started in the SF Bay Area, and we know our responsibility to help starts at home: we’re making a $1B investment to enable the development of 20K new homes in the region at all income levels, including affordable housing options in the next 10 years https://t.co/vVEYOFIUm5

— Sundar Pichai (@sundarpichai) June 18, 2019

Google isn’t the first tech company to throw money at the housing crisis in the Bay Area, where the cost of living is so high six-figure salaries are considered “low income.” Mark Zuckerberg’s nonprofit Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is leading an initiative to raise $500 million to build 8,000 Bay Area homes in the next decade. 

But, as the San Jose Mercury News notes, Google’s ambitious plan is the “largest single commitment from a tech company to fight the housing shortage that threatens to stall the economic engine of Silicon Valley.”

That said, the success will of Google’s new investment will depend on other factors, like cooperation from local governments to approve Google’s new zoning plans. And while Pichai notes that the company is already working with the city of Mountain View and having “productive conversations” with San Jose, the company could still encounter roadblocks from other cities or local organizations before its housing dreams are realized.

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This week in tech history: Google unveils the first consumer Chromebooks

Google has been holding I/O, its annual developer conference, in early May for years now. As such, there’s often a lot of notable Google-focused anniversaries to recognize this time of year, and today is no exception. Eight years ago (May 11th, 2011), Google announced the first two commercially-available Chromebooks from Acer and Samsung. At the time, these were just a pair of announcements in the middle of two days of news, but it was a big milestone for Google’s fledgling Chrome OS. And while it took years for Chromebooks to shake a reputation of being devices that were both cheaply-made and not very capable, we can look back now at these laptops as the start of something significant for Google.

The 11.6-inch Acer Chromebook and 12.1-inch Samsung Series 5 Chromebook were cut from similar cloth. Both used low-power Intel Atom processors, used small solid-state drives and claimed impressive battery life, at least for the time: 6.5 hours for the Acer and over 8 hours for the Samsung. With relatively small displays, both computers seemed easily comparable to the many small, low-cost Windows netbooks that were commonplace in the early 2010s. Though with prices starting at $350 and up, these Chromebooks actually cost a bit more than some netbooks running Windows 7 at the time.

Google I/O 2011

With a semi-expensive price tag of $429 and an unproven OS, Samsung’s Series 5 Chromebook wasn’t an obvious winner — but it turned out to be a surprisingly solid option. The hardware itself was study and well-built, the screen was decent, battery life was strong and the performance adequate — provided that you could get by with the many limitations imposed by Chrome OS in 2011. There was basically no offline mode to speak of, Netflix didn’t work and buyers only had 16GB of local storage to work with. At a time when cloud storage was both expensive and not always reliable, a Chromebook was certainly not for everyone.

But even in 2011, it was equally true that much of what one needed a computer for could be done in a web browser, assuming your needs were fairly simple. Gmail, Gchat, Google Docs and Facebook covered a lot of use cases — and while Netflix didn’t work with Chrome OS right off the bat, Google did promise it would add support before long. Add in the new cloud music locker that Google announced at I/O, and a lot of basics were covered. Indeed, when we reviewed the Series 5, we found that while it wasn’t ready to be a main computer, it was far more capable than we might have anticipated.

While Chrome OS felt a bit like another beta product when it launched, the good news it that Google has kept up a steady stream of improvements. Given that Google has a bit of a reputation for abandoning and killing projects at a moment’s notice, the company has been consistently supportive of Chromebooks, eventually turning them into far more than laptops that “can only run a browser.” Features like offline support, better web apps and Google Play / Android compatibility all made the software experience more complete.

At the same time, Google’s hardware partners quickly started selling Chromebooks under $300, making it an ideal option for students or for people who wanted a simple, low-cost laptop as a second computer. And after gaining some traction in the market with those inexpensive laptops, hardware makers followed the lead Google set with its wildly expensive but well-built Chromebook Pixel and started making higher-end Chromebooks of their own.

Now, eight years after these first consumer-ready Chrome OS devices were announced, 21 percent of all laptops sold in the US in Q4 2018 were Chromebooks. Google has also made undeniable progress in education, with one research firm estimating that Chromebooks made up 60 percent of K-12 laptop purchases in 2018. And that strength is based largely around what made Chromebooks attractive in 2011, even when they were still very much a work in progress. There’s something to be said for simplicity and speed.

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Review: Google’s Pixel 3a Is the Best Low-Cost Smartphone You Can Buy

Turns out, not everyone wants a fancy smartphone. The latest and greatest might be catnip for the early adopters among us, but for someone who wants a phone that just works, spending thousands of dollars can be overkill. Even half a grand might seem like a lot for something you’ll probably accidentally drop in a river, leave behind in a taxi or simply get bored of after a few years.

So what’s a budget-conscious smartphone shoppers to do? Google thinks its new Pixel 3a smartphones — more affordable versions of the company’s flagship Pixel 3 and 3 XL smartphones — are the answer. While the cheaper Pixel phones don’t have all the features you might want in a smartphone, they nail the basics and come with an awesome camera to boot — maybe that’s what the “a” stands for.

At first, the $399 Pixel 3a and larger $479 3a XL look virtually identical to the more expensive Pixel 3 line, but the differences become apparent when you pick them up. The 3a ditches the Pixel 3’s glass exterior for a more affordable plastic one, for instance, but it still has a fingerprint sensor. Other changes include uninspiring stereo speakers as well as single front-facing camera, compared to the two on the Pixel 3. The 3a makes up for those tweaks by adding a much-needed 3.5mm headphone jack, in addition to a USB-C port. One unfortunate side effect of the new design: the 3a’s slightly larger body makes it a few millimeters too tall for any Pixel 3 cases. Meanwhile, the Pixel 3a’s 5.6-inch OLED screen lacks top-end features like HDR support, but its high-resolution display and vibrant color reproduction makes streaming video and games look great.

The Pixel 3a’s sacrifices become more apparent inside the device, highlighting the differences between the affordable and the opulent when it comes to smartphones. Enticing yet non-essential features like wireless charging and the secondary wide-angle selfie camera are gone. The lack of wireless charging means some of Google’s own accessories, like its Pixel Stand, won’t work with the 3a. And you won’t get any waterproofing, a feature found on more expensive devices. You will, however, be able to enjoy fast-paced games and apps thanks to its capable mid-range processor and 4GB of RAM. As for actual storage, 64GB is your only option (sorry, hoarders). While it might not sound like much, if you’re using the 3a to take photos, you can store them for free in Google Photos without taking up any extra space. And besides, you’re probably streaming all your content anyway.

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Google smartly makes up for some of those hardware drawbacks with some pretty incredible software. Take, for instance, the Google Assistant, which is getting smarter all the time. Using Call Screen, the Pixel 3a (along other Pixel smartphones) can redirect incoming calls to a text message-like interface where the caller’s voice is transcribed, letting you respond with a list of preset messages designed to handle spam calls or tell someone you’ll call them back. It’s one of many useful features Google’s machine learning and voice assistant efforts are bringing to the table that make using your voice assistant a little less awkward.

The Pixel 3a’s real ace in the hole is the single rear camera. Nearly identical in quality to the Pixel 3’s much-loved camera, the stunning images and extra features commendably make up for the device’s shortcomings. Every camera feature from the Pixel 3 — from time lapse shooting to portrait mode — is present. That includes Night Sight, which produces incredible low-light images that blow the competition out of the water, and is reason enough to consider the Pixel 3a. When using Night Sight, you’ll hold the phone still for about 5 seconds while it takes multiple images, then processes and combines them using machine learning to create a sharper, brighter image than would otherwise be possible. It’s the coolest thing to happen to smartphone cameras since manufacturers decided two lenses were better than one.

That the Pixel 3a is this good underscores a fact that smartphone makers would perhaps rather keep quiet: The benefits you reap from spending big bucks on a flagship device are marginal at best. Unless you really need the best of the best, a cheaper option is typically enough. Google in particular deserves credit for working smarter rather than harder, using a better voice assistant and smarter camera to compensate for lesser hardware.

Of course, there are plenty of other cheap smartphones to choose from, and they’re getting better every year. Motorola’s low-end Android smartphones are regularly priced under $300, and Nokia’s foray into the Android smartphone market has led to some gorgeous-looking smartphones with decent enough cameras at a similarly low cost. These phones are certainly capable, though they won’t run graphically intense games or take as impressive photos as the Pixel 3a. And this being a Google phone, it’ll get the latest Android updates as soon as they’re available.

While the threshold for “inexpensive” depends on the thickness of one’s wallet, Google’s Pixel 3a is worth every penny, especially when compared to the competition. You’ll definitely find cheaper devices running Android, many of which have equally large and garishly bright displays, or boast similar internal specs like RAM or storage space. But none can hold a candle to what the Pixel 3a offers: an up-to-date operating system that keeps users at the forefront of Android’s latest developments, a quality camera that can conquer darkness, and a price point less likely to break the bank.

Write to Patrick Lucas Austin at patrick.austin@time.com.

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Google Launches CallJoy, a Virtual Customer Service Phone Agent For Small Businesses

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Google Launches CallJoy, a Virtual Customer Service Phone Agent For Small Businesses (techcrunch.com)






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from the interesting-tools dept.

Google is combining several technologies, including virtual phone numbers, audio transcriptions, automated reporting and analytics, in a new effort to help small business owners better manage their inbound phone calls. From a report: The company’s latest project from its in-house incubator is CallJoy, launching today. Aimed at the U.S.’s 30.2 million small business owners, the system offers a low-cost customer service agent that helps block spam calls, provide callers with basic business information and redirect customers to complete their requests — like appointment booking or placing a to-go order — over SMS. Any other calls or questions would be directed to the main business phone number. Typically, customer service phone agents like this are out of reach for small business owners, but CallJoy is priced at a flat monthly fee of $39 to make the technology affordable.

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Google launches CallJoy, a virtual customer service phone agent for small businesses

Google is combining several technologies, including virtual phone numbers, audio transcriptions, automated reporting and analytics, in a new effort to help small business owners better manage their inbound phone calls. The company’s latest project from its in-house incubator is CallJoy, launching today. Aimed at the U.S.’s 30.2 million small business owners, the system offers a low-cost customer service agent that helps block spam calls, provide callers with basic business information and redirect customers to complete their requests — like appointment booking or placing a to-go order — over SMS.

Any other calls or questions would be directed to the main business phone number.

Typically, customer service phone agents like this are out of reach for small business owners, but CallJoy is priced at a flat monthly fee of $39 to make the technology affordable.

Like other virtual customer service systems, CallJoy can greet the caller and offer basic information like the business hours or address, for example. It also frees up the business owner from having to deal with the ever-increasing number of spam calls that waste their time, and can move customers off of phone lines to complete tasks online, where appropriate.

To do so, CallJoy’s virtual agent can send a customer who opts in an SMS text message that includes a URL where the task — like appointment booking or online orders, for example — can be completed.

For example, the agent may ask the customer “Can I send you our food ordering link?” If the customer says “yes,” the text is sent immediately. In addition, the feature can be customized for sharing other types of information — like the company’s email or where to find an online contact form.

If the customer is calling from a landline, however, this textback feature will be disabled and they’ll be directed to the business line instead.

Like other customer service software that alerts callers that calls “will be recorded for quality assurance purposes,” CallJoy records the incoming calls (which is also disclosed). This can help cut down on spam calls because once spammers know the call is recorded, they usually hang up.

The recorded calls are also encrypted and transcribed, and these transcripts then become searchable in the CallJoy dashboard.

Here, call information — including the phone number, audio and transcript — is stored. The business owner can also go back and tag the calls in order to run reports that help them gain insight into their business. For example, if a salon got a lot of inbound calls about “wedding hairstyles” they may then decide it would make sense to include this information on their website; or a restaurant may want to track how many calls it gets per night for reservations.

Other insights are available, too, like call volume, peak call times and new versus returning callers. These are displayed in the online dashboard and sent out in a daily email.

The service works today with existing landlines, mobile phones, Google Voice lines or other cloud providers by routing calls to the business phone number.

But phone numbers are not ported to CallJoy. Instead, similar to Google Voice, the business would select their virtual CallJoy number with their local area code.

To start receiving calls there, they’d have to update all their business information with this new number — including the website, business cards, online listings, ads, social media and anywhere else the number appears.

CallJoy is also tied to only one location and one phone number. Additional locations with their own lines can be added within the CallJoy dashboard, but businesses are charged per line.

At launch, CallJoy is available on an invite-only basis. Businesses must request a spot on the waitlist from the CallJoy homepage. More invites will be shared every day; eventually, the system will open to all.

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Google Stadia uses a custom AMD chip to offer 10.7 teraflops of cloud gaming power

Google Stadia uses a custom AMD chip to offer 10.7 teraflops of cloud gaming power

The beauty of a cloud gaming service is two-fold: 1) you can theoretically play any game, anywhere you’ve got a good enough internet connection to stream it over the net, and 2) even if you’re playing it on a wimpy smartphone, you can harness the power of a beefy server located in a data center.

But what kind of server matters a whole heck of a lot when it comes to graphical fidelity and keeping the service affordable, given how many players may be using those servers at a given time — and it turns out that Google’s just-announced Stadia cloud gaming service may have struck a balance between power and price by partnering with AMD for a new custom piece of silicon.

According to Google, each Stadia server will contain a custom x86 processor running at 2.7GHz, 16GB of RAM, and most importantly a custom AMD GPU capable of 10.7 teraflops of performance. (They’re running Linux, not Windows, which may matter when Google tries to attract game developers.)


Google wasted no time in comparing that teraflop number against the Xbox and PlayStation competition — where the Xbox One X manages a mere 6.0 teraflops, and the PS4 Pro around 4.2 teraflops.

Of course, that comparison conveniently omits that today’s top PC gaming graphics cards can easily top 10.7 teraflops, but it’s far closer to a high-end PC than consoles generally come. In fact, AMD already had a GPU with around 10.5 teraflops of single-precision compute and the same 56 compute units: the RX Vega 56, which launched as a $400 graphics card in 2017.

Note that we’re expecting a PS5 and a next-gen Xbox as soon as next year, whose chips will no doubt be faster.

What does Google’s 10.7 teraflops mean in practice, though? Google says that at launch, you’ll be able to play games at 4K resolution, 60 frames per second with both HDR and surround sound, while simultaneously sharing a 4K, 60 fps stream of your game live to your YouTube followers. And Google says it’ll upgrade that to 8K and 120 fps gameplay in the future, though it’s not clear how far off a future we’re talking about.


Mind you, today’s top PC gaming cards already struggle to play some of the latest games at 4K with max graphical settings, but Google may have a solution for that, too: if you’re only harnessing the power of a single server, you might not see the most beautiful effects like realistic water in your games. But tap into two GPUs, and suddenly things look way better:


Theoretically, game developers could design their games to use many distributed GPUs for more impressive graphics than any single beefy gaming PC would be capable of on its own — but then there’s the economics to think about.

One of the big problems with early cloud gaming services like OnLive and PlayStation Now has been those economics — if each player needs access to a dedicated computer (or more than one!) living in that server farm, can you afford to charge a low enough fee that players will actually be tempted to pay? (PlayStation Now originally had actual PS3 consoles sitting in its server rooms, which wasn’t necessarily cost-effective.)

But Google didn’t address those economics one bit during its presentation today, and didn’t even hint at a price for this service. Hopefully, the AMD deal is a step in the right direction.

What we do know is that Google will have those servers set up at 7,500 different locations around the world, which could help ensure your games don’t lag behind your button presses — traditionally, cloud gaming services can have that problem if the servers are too far from your house.

Update, 4:44 PM ET: While it sounded like Google was using an AMD CPU in addition to the custom AMD GPU, it’s no longer clear that’s the case: Eurogamer says Google wouldn’t talk about the CPU vendor, and the spec sheet we received from Google doesn’t specify.

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