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Google’s parent company snatched up the smart-glasses maker in a deal worth a reported US$180 million. The company has “built a strong technology foundation, and we’re excited to have North join us in our broader efforts to build helpful devices and services,” said Google senior vice-president Rick Osterloh, adding that the North will stay put in Kitchener-Waterloo. The Globe and Mail was first to report Alphabet’s interest last week. (The Globe and Mail, The Logic)

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Talking point: Named the fastest-growing Canadian tech firm in 2019, North nevertheless struggled to capitalize on its hype. Focals by North, which paired a user’s smartphone to give a head-up information display in its right lens, were cumbersome, buggy and had little appeal to customers, according to an internal memo obtained by The Logic. Last year, North was beset by staff layoffs and the halting of a $24-million job-creation investment. Google’s purchase means North won’t ship its Focals 2.0 as earlier planned.

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The sale will come as the eight-year-old firm is reportedly close to running out of money after selling few glasses and failing to attract new investment. (The Globe and Mail)

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Talking point: Alphabet will reportedly acquire the Kitchener, Ont.-based firm at a price below the roughly US$200 million North raised throughout its history. The firm was one of Canada’s highest-profile startups, raising funds from Amazon, Intel and Fidelity and regularly touted by institutions like the Creative Destruction Lab. In December 2019, The Logic reported that North staff had warned CEO Stephen Lake that its glasses didn’t work well for women and were being rushed to market despite bugs. According to The Globe, the firm is unlikely to have sold more than 1,000 pairs. North published over 100 patents in 2019, including ones claiming its products were superior to Alphabet subsidiary Google’s smart glasses.

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At least 10 shareholders responsible for over US$2.4 trillion in assets, including Boston Common Asset Management and Aviva Investors, have filed a resolution calling on the Google parent company to form an independent committee to monitor the human rights risks linked to its business operations and products. The resolution will be put to a vote at Alphabet’s annual meeting in June. (Financial Times)

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Talking point: The resolution follows criticism from human rights advocates outside and inside the company over its plans to build a censored search engine in China (which have since been scrapped) and its data-collection and -use practices, among other privacy concerns. In late 2019, 83 investors sent a letter to Alphabet asking it to do more to monitor and address human rights issues; the company rejected their request for a meeting. A vote in favour of the resolution would be non-binding, but presenting it at the annual meeting is a public pressure tactic that will be harder for Alphabet to ignore.

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Loon, a subsidiary of the U.S. tech giant, plans to provide mobile internet connections by flying network equipment on balloons, while Tokyo-based HAPSMobile will use drones. Carriers China Telecom, Germany’s Deutsche Telekom, Spanish firm Telefónica, and Bharti Airtel of India are joining the two firms in an alliance to get spectrum and create uniform regulation and standards for high-altitude vehicles. So are Airbus, Nokia and Ericsson. (Reuters)

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Talking point: The airborne efforts are designed to bring coverage to remote or sparsely populated areas where ground-bound network infrastructure would be difficult or uneconomical to install. But the carriers that have shown interest thus far typically operate in or across huge consumer markets. Despite the Alphabet unit’s Canadian icon-invoking name, Ottawa has chosen to look even higher in the sky to connect far-flung members of its smaller population. In July 2019, it made a $600-million deal with Ottawa-based Telesat for access to its low-Earth orbit satellite constellation, which will allow internet service providers to sell high-speed broadband in remote communities.

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Makani is the first Alphabet company to be wrapped up since Sundar Pichai took over the reins in December. It was part of the company’s “Other Bets” division, which also invests in self-driving cars and smart-city projects, and which lost US$4.8 billion last year. (Financial Times)

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Talking point: Despite successfully demonstrating a flight off the coast of Norway last year, ”the road to commercial viability is a much longer and riskier road than we’d hoped … it no longer makes sense for Makani to be an Alphabet company,” said Astro Teller, Alphabet X head and chairman of Makani’s board. Founded in 2006, Makani created airborne wind turbines (or energy kites). The California-based company was acquired by Google in 2013 as part of its Google X “moonshot” wing. It became a standalone Alphabet subsidiary last year after an investment from Royal Dutch Shell. Concerns about the technology remained: in 2018, an EU report pointed out, “The technology still has a long way to go before it can reach commercialisation.” Makani CEO Fort Felker said Shell is “exploring options to continue developing Makani’s technology.”

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“Sensible regulation must also take a proportionate approach” to artificial intelligence, “balancing potential harms with social opportunities,” Pichai wrote in a column. In his view, companies cannot build technology and “let market forces decide how it will be used.” (Financial Times)

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Talking point: This is Pichai’s first big public statement since being appointed CEO of Alphabet last month. Silicon Valley has faced a growing backlash against its vast market power and its perceived abuses of it, resulting in a move toward increased regulation. An early draft of a whitepaper from the European Commission, leaked last week, suggests multiple options for regulating AI, including a temporary ban on using facial recognition technology in public spaces—a proposal Pichai has backed. Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer Brad Smith was less enthusiastic, citing the benefits of facial technology for NGOs looking for missing children. Microsoft has called for increased governance of how technologies are designed and to whom they are sold, and plans to implement a governance process on responsible AI.

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Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin handed him the reins of the company they created 21 years ago. They leave the helm of Alphabet, the US$900-billion Google parent company they created in 2014, with a billion-dollar retirement gift from investors as the company’s shares rose on the news; each retains six per cent ownership. (The Logic, Bloomberg)

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Talking point: The 47-year-old, who became Google CEO in August 2015, has already been at the forefront of Google’s multi-front battle with antitrust regulators who have increasingly scrutinized the company, as well as thousands of protesting workers. There’s also the possibility of Google employees unionizing. Some fired workers are suing the company, claiming they were dismissed for organizing; Google said it was for leaking confidential information. Pichai’s job will now also include the “other bets” Alphabet made separately from its core Google businesses, including driverless cars, high-altitude balloons, smart cities and health care. In a joint letter announcing the decision, Page and Brin said it was a “time to assume the role of proud parents—offering advice and love, but not daily nagging!” Their departures mean the three biggest U.S. tech companies—Apple, Microsoft and now Alphabet—are no longer led by a founder.

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Google’s parent company bid an undisclosed sum for Fitbit, the San Francisco-based maker of wearable devices. Fitbit shares rose 27 per cent on the news. (Reuters)

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Talking point: Google has lagged behind competitors like Apple and Samsung in the wearables market. In 2016, the firm reportedly cancelled plans for a Pixel smartwatch over concerns the final product didn’t live up to the Google hardware brand; it hasn’t developed a flagship wearable since. In January, it bought Fossil’s smartwatch intellectual property for US$40 million, though it’s unclear exactly what those assets were or what Google plans to do with them. Fitbit had 12.2 per cent of the global smartwatch market in 2018, compared to Apple’s 50 per cent and Samsung’s 11.8 per cent, according to Strategy Analytics.

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Apple removed HKmap.live, a crowd-sourced mapping app that tracks the locations of police and protestors in Hong Kong, saying it was being used to target both sides. Apple also removed the app of news organization Quartz; its CEO, Zach Seward, said it was because of its continuing coverage of the Hong Kong protests. Meanwhile, Google’s parent company Alphabet pulled The Revolution of Our Times, a game that allowed users to roleplay as Hong Kong protestors, saying it violated its terms by “capitalizing on sensitive events.” Documents show it was removed at the request of the region’s police. (Wall Street Journal, The Verge)

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Talking point: The concessions may help the two firms avoid further criticism from Beijing. But the stakes remain high for Apple, as China is both the site of much of its device assembly and its third-largest market. It made almost US$44 billion in the greater China region—which includes Taiwan and Hong Kong sales—in the year ending June 30. Google doesn’t have as great a stake in China, where services like its search engine, Gmail and YouTube are already blocked. Though it pulled the game, the HKmap.live app remains available in the Google Play Store in Hong Kong and elsewhere.

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Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners (SIP) was spun out of the Alphabet subsidiary and will focus its investments on technology-enabled infrastructure projects throughout North America. It will be investing in projects that require more than US$100 million of equity, as reported by The Wall Street Journal. The spinout was first mentioned in Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, released in late June, though it did not say who its funding partners would be at the time.(The Logic)

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Talking point: SIP is distinct from Sidewalk Labs, and its existence is not contingent on Sidewalk’s Quayside deal with Waterfront Toronto moving forward. But if the deal does proceed, it could be used to make “SIP financing available as a potential option to those companies or partners ultimately designated to take on advanced infrastructure systems as part of the Sidewalk Toronto project,” said Keerthana Rang, associate director of communications for Sidewalk Labs. Waterfront Toronto, which continues to negotiate the Quayside project with Sidewalk Labs, told The Logic it was made aware of Thursday’s announcement within the last month. This isn’t the first time OTPP has made a bet on Alphabet: in January, it participated in Alphabet subsidiary Verily’s US$1-billion investment round.