Does Google Hate Old People?

Originally posted February 11, 2016. Reposted today after a weekend of struggling to support a variety of older and not-so-old users via Chrome Remote Desktop.

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No. Google doesn’t hate old people. I know Google well enough to be pretty damned sure about that.

Is Google “indifferent” to old people? Does Google simply not appreciate, or somehow devalue, the needs of older users?

Those are much tougher calls.

I’ve written a lot in the past about accessibility and user interfaces. And today I’m feeling pretty frustrated about these topics. So if some sort of noxious green fluid starts to bubble out from your screen, I apologize in advance.

What is old, anyway? Or we can use the currently more popular term “elderly” if you prefer — six of one and half a dozen of another, really.

There are a bunch of references to “not wanting to get old” in the lyrics of famous rock stars who are now themselves of rather advanced ages. And we hear all the time that “50 is the new 30” or “70 is the new 50” or … whatever.

The bottom line is that we either age or die.

And the popular view of “elderly” people sitting around staring at the walls — and so rather easily ignored — is increasingly a false one. More and more we find active users of computers and Internet services well into their 80s and 90s. In email and social media, many of them are clearly far more intelligent and coherent than large swaths of users a third their age.

That’s not to say these older users don’t have issues to deal with that younger persons don’t. Vision and motor skill problems are common. So is the specter of memory loss (that actually begins by the time we reach age 20, then increases from that point onward for most of us).

Yet an irony is that computers and Internet services can serve as aids in all these areas. I’ve written in the past of mobile phones being saviors as we age, for example by providing an instantly available form of extended memory.

But we also are forced to acknowledge that most Internet services still only serve older persons’ needs seemingly begrudgingly, failing to fully comprehend how changing demographics are pushing an ever larger proportion of their total users into that category — both here in the U.S. and in many other countries.

So it’s painful to see Google dropping the ball in some of these areas (and to be clear, while I have the most experience with the Google aspects of these problems, these are actually industry-wide issues, by no means restricted to Google).

This is difficult to put succinctly. Over time these concerns have intertwined and combined in ways increasingly cumbersome to tease apart with precision. But if you’ve every tried to provide computer/Internet technical support to an older friend or relative, you’ll probably recognize this picture pretty quickly.

I’m no spring chicken myself. But I remotely provide tech support to a number of persons significantly older — some in their 80s, and more than one well into their 90s.

And while I bitch about poor font contrast and wasted screen real estate, the technical problems of those older users are typically of a far more complex nature.

They have even more trouble with those fonts. They have motor skill issues making the use of common user interfaces difficult or in some cases impossible. Desktop interfaces that seem to be an afterthought of popular “mobile first” interface designs can be especially cumbersome for them. They can forget their passwords and be unable to follow recovery procedures successfully, often creating enormous frustration and even more complications when they try to solve the problems by themselves. The level of technical lingo thrown at them in many such instances — that services seem to assume everyone just knows — only frustrates them more. And so on.

But access to the Net is absolutely crucial for so many of these older users. It’s not just accessing financial and utility sites that pretty much everyone now depends upon, it’s staying active and in touch with friends and relatives and others, especially if they’re not physically nearby and their own mobility is limited.

Keeping that connectivity going for these users can involve a number of compromises that we can all agree are not keeping with ideal or “pure” security practices, but are realistic necessities in some cases nonetheless.

So it’s often a fact of life that elderly users will use their “trusted support” person as the custodian of their recovery and two-factor addresses, and of their primary login credentials as well.

And to those readers who scream, “No! You must never, ever share your login credentials with anyone!” — I wish you luck supporting a 93-year-old user across the country without those credentials. Perhaps you’re a god with such skills. I’m not.

Because I’ve written about this kind of stuff so frequently, you may by now be suspecting that a particular incident has fired me off today.

You’d be correct. I’ve been arguing publicly with a Google program manager and some others on a Chrome bug thread, regarding the lack of persistent connection capability for Chromebooks and Chromeboxes in the otherwise excellent Chrome Remote Desktop system — a feature that the Windows version of CRD has long possessed.

Painfully, from my perspective the conversation has rapidly degenerated into my arguing against the notion that “it’s better to flush some users down the toilet than violate principles of security purity.”

I prefer to assume that the arrogance suggested by the “security purity” view is one based on ignorance and lack of experience with users in need, rather than any inherent hatred of the elderly.

In fact, getting back to the title of this posting, I’m sure hatred isn’t in play.

But of course whether it’s hatred or ignorance — or something else entirely — doesn’t help these users.

The Chrome OS situation is particularly ironic for me, since these are older users whom I specifically urged to move to Chrome when their Windows systems were failing, while assuring them that Chrome would be a more convenient and stable experience for them.

Unfortunately, these apparently intentional limitations in the Chrome version of CRD — vis-a-vis the Windows version — have been a source of unending frustration for these users, as they often struggle to find, enable, and execute the Chrome version manually every time they need help from me, and then are understandably upset that they have to sit there and refresh the connection manually every 10 minutes to keep it going. They keep asking me why I told them to leave Windows and why I can’t fix these access problems that are so confusing to them. It’s personally embarrassing to me.

Here’s arguably the saddest part of all. If I were the average user who didn’t have a clue of how Google’s internal culture works and of what great people Googlers are, it would be easy to just mumble something like, “What do you expect? All those big companies are the same, they just don’t care.”

But that isn’t the Google I know, and so it’s even more frustrating to me to see these unnecessary problems continuing to persist and fester in the Google ecosystem, when I know for a certainty that Google has the capability and resources to do so much better in these areas.

And that’s the truth.

–Lauren–

Here’s Where Google Hid the SSL Certificate Information That You May Need

Google has a great security team, so it’s something of a head-scratcher when they misfire. Or should we be wondering if the Chrome user interface crew had enough coffee lately?

Either way, Google Chrome users have been contacting me wondering why they no longer could access the detailed status of Chrome https: connections, or view the organization and other data associated with SSL certificates for those connections.

Up to now for the stable version of Chrome, you simply clicked the little green padlock icon on an https: connection, clicked on the “Details” link that appeared, and a panel then opened that gave you that status, along with an obvious button to click for viewing the actual certificate data such as Organization, issuance and expiration dates, etc.

Suddenly, that “Details” link no longer is present. Seemingly, Google just doesn’t feel that “ordinary” users need to look at that data these days.

I beg to differ. I’ve frequently trained “ordinary” users to check that information when they question the authenticity of an https: connection — after all, crooks can get SSL certificates too, so verifying the certificate issuance-related data often makes sense.

Well, it turns out that you can still get this information from Chrome, but apparently Google now assumes that folks are so clairvoyant that they can figure out how to do this through the process of osmosis — or something.

The full certificate data is available from the “Developers tools” panel under the “Security” label. In fact, that’s where this info has been for quite some time, but since the now missing “Details” link took you directly to that panel, most users probably didn’t even realize that they were deep in the Developers tools section of the browser.

To get the certificate data now, here’s what you need to do. 

First, get into Developer tools. You can do this via Chrome’s upper-right three vertical dots, then click “More tools” — then “Developer tools” — or on many systems you can just press the F12 button.

But wait, there’s still more (yeah, Google took a simple click in an intuitive place and replaced it with a bunch of clicks scattered around).

Once the panel opens, look up at its top. If you don’t see the word “Security” already, click on the “>>” to the right of “Console” — then look down the list that appears and click on “Security” — which will open the Security panel with all of the certificate-related goodies. When you’re done there, click the big “X” in the upper right of the panel to return to normal browser operations.

And don’t feel too badly if you didn’t figure all of this out for yourself. Even Houdini might have had problems with this one.

–Lauren–

The New Google Voice Is Another Slap in the Face of Google’s Users — and Their Eyes

I hate writing blog posts like this. I really do. I’m a big fan of Google. They’ve got many of the most skilled and caring employees in tech. Unfortunately, they’re not immune to being caught up in abysmal industry trends, so I’m forced to write another “Here we go again …” piece. Sigh.

I’ve been using Google Voice since pretty much the day it launched. Over the years since then I’ve come to depend upon it for both my personal and business phone calls inbound and outbound. Google Voice has been extremely functional, utterly reliable, and godsend for people like me who must deal with complex mixes of cellular and landline phones, lots of inbound spam calls to burn, and need this level of call management to help free up the time necessary for making inflammatory Google+ posts. That Google Voice is free for all domestic calls is a bonus, but I’d willingly pay reasonable fees to use it.

The Google Voice (henceforth “GV”) desktop/web interface has been very stable for something like five years now. In one sense that’s a good thing. It works well, it accomplishes its purpose. Excellent.

On the other hand, if you know Google, you know that when one of their products doesn’t seem to be updated much, it might be time to start being afraid. Very afraid. Because Google products that seem “too” stable may be on the path to decimation and death.

Let’s face it, an ongoing problem in the Internet world is that skilled software engineers by and large aren’t enthusiastic about maintaining what are seen to be “old” products. It’s not considered conducive to climbing the promotion ladder at most firms — the “sexy” new stuff is where the bigger bucks are perceived to reside.

So as desktop GV continued along its stable path, many observers began to wonder if Google was preparing to pull its plug. I’ve had those concerns too, though somewhat mitigated by the fact that Google has been integrating aspects of GV into some of their other newer products, which suggested that GV still had significant life ahead.

This was confirmed recently when word started to circulate of a new version (“refresh” is another term used for this) of GV that was soon to roll out to users. Google eventually confirmed this. Indeed, it’s rolling out right now.

And for desktop users at least, it’s a nightmare. A nightmare that in fact I was expecting. I had hoped I’d be wrong. Unfortunately, I was correct.

I probably don’t even really need to describe the details, because you’ve likely seen this happen to other Google products of late (including recently Google Wallet, though the impact of GV is orders of magnitude worse for users who need to interact with GV frequently throughout the day).

Once again, Google is on the march to treat large desktop displays as if they were small smartphone screens.

Legacy GV made excellent use of screen space — making it easy to see all call details, full voicemail transcriptions, and everything else you needed — all in clear and easy to read fonts.

The new GV is another wasted space, low contrast slap in the face of desktop users, especially those with less than perfect vision (whether due to naturally aging eyes or any other reason).

Massive amounts of unused white space. Call histories squished into a little smartphone style column (no way to increase its size that I could find so far), causing visible voicemail transcriptions to be truncated to just a few words. Plus we’re “treated” to the new Google standard low contrast “if you don’t have perfect vision we don’t care about you” fonts, that disrupt the entire user interface when you try to zoom them up.

And so on. Need I say more? You already know the drill.

There is one saving grace in the new desktop GV. For the moment, there’s a link that takes you back to legacy GV. In fact, after reverting one of my accounts that way, I didn’t even see an obvious way to get back to the new GV interface. In any case, we can safely assume that the legacy access is only temporary.

Compared to legacy desktop GV that worked great, the new GV is another painful sign that Google just doesn’t care about users who don’t live 100% of the time on smartphones and/or have perfect vision. Yet this maligned demographic is rapidly growing in size.

It’s increasingly difficult to not consider the end results of these changes in Google products to be a form of discrimination. I don’t believe that they’re actually intended as discrimination — but the outcomes are the same irrespective of motives. And frankly, my view is that in the long run this is a very dangerous and potentially self-destructive path for Google to be taking.

Nobody would demand that innovation and product improvements must stop. But we are far beyond the point where we should have come to the realization that “one size fits all” user interfaces are simply no longer tenable in these environments, unless you’re willing to simply write off large numbers of users who may not be in your primary target demographic, but still represent many millions of human beings who depend upon you.

Ignoring the needs of these users is not right. It’s not fair. It’s not ethical.

It’s just not Googley. Or at least, it shouldn’t be.

–Lauren–

User Trust Fail: Google Chrome and the Tech Support Scams

I act as the volunteer support structure for a significant number of nontechnical — but quite active — Internet users. Some of these are quite elderly, which makes me quite sensitive to where Internet firms are falling down on the job in this context. 

Let’s face it, these firms may pay lip service to accessibility and serving all segments of their users, but in reality they typically tend to care very little about users who aren’t in their key sales demographics, and who (while often numbering in the millions or more) aren’t considered to be their “primary” users of interest.

We see this problem across a number of aspects (I’ve in the past frequently noted the problems of illegible fonts and poor user interface designs, as my regular readers well know).

But today I’d like to focus on just one, where Google really needs to more aggressively protect their users from some of the most dangerous criminals on the Internet.

I’m referring to the ubiquitous “tech support” scams (often based in India) that terrify users by appearing on their browsers — often the result of a contaminated site link, a “cold” phone call, or very often a mistyped URL — who then falsely claim that the user’s computer is infected with malware or somehow broken, that you must click HERE for a fix, or you must immediately call THIS 800 number, and BLAH BLAH BLAH.

The vast majority of these follow a common pattern, usually claiming to be a legit tech support firm or often Microsoft itself. 

Once users are pushed into contacting the scammers — who typically focus on Windows computers — the usual pattern is for them to walk the unsuspecting user through the installation of a remote access program, so that the scammer has free reign to suck the user’s credit card and bank accounts dry via a variety of crooked procedures. Their methods are typically tuned especially well to take advantage of elderly, nontechnical users.

It’s not Google’s fault that these criminals exist. However, given Google’s excellent record at detection and blocking of malware, it is beyond puzzling why Google’s Chrome browser is so ineffective at blocking or even warning about these horrific tech support scams when they hit a user’s browser.

These scam pages should not require massive AI power for Google to target.

And critically, it’s difficult to understand why Chrome still permits most of these crooked pages to completely lock up the user’s browser — often making it impossible for the user to close the related tab or browser through most ordinary means that most users could reasonably be expected to know about.

The simplest cure to offer in these situations (especially when you’re trying to help someone on the other side of the country over the phone) is to tell them to reboot (if the user isn’t already so flustered that they’re having trouble doing that) or to power cycle the computer completely (with the non-zero risk of disk issues that can result from sudden shutdowns). 

Even after that, users need to know that they must refuse Chrome’s “helpful” offer of restoring the old tabs after the reset — otherwise they can easily find themselves locked into the offending page yet again!

Chrome is now the world’s most popular browser, and Google’s Chrome team is top-notch. I am confident that they could relatively quickly solve these problems, if they deemed it a priority to do so.

For the sake of helping to protect their users from support scams — even though these users are often in demographic categories that Google doesn’t seem to really care that much about — I urge Google to take immediate steps to make it much more difficult for the tech support criminals to leverage the excellent Chrome browser for evil purposes.

–Lauren–

The correct term is “Internet” NOT “internet” — please don’t fall into the trap of using the latter. It’s just plain wrong!

IETF’s Stunning Announcement: Emergency Transition to IPv7 Is Necessary!

Frostbite Falls, Minn. (NOTAP) In a brief announcement today that stunned Internet users around the world, the Internet Engineering Technical Force proclaimed the need for an “emergency” transition to a yet to be designed “IP version 7” protocol, capable of dealing with numeric values up to “a full gazillion at a minimum.”

IETF spokesman David Seville explained why this drastic move was considered necessarily when the ongoing transition from IPv4 to Internet protocol level IPv6 — the latter with a vast numbering capability — is still far from complete.

“Frankly, we’re just trying to get ahead of the curve, for once in the technology field,” said Mr. Seville. “With the dramatic rise in the number of hate speech and fake news sites around the world — not only originating in the Soviet Uni … I mean, Russia — we can’t risk running out of numbering resources ever again! Everyone deserves to be able to get these numbers, no matter how vile, racist, and sociopathic they may be. We’re already getting complaints regarding software systems that have overflowed available variable ranges simply trying to keep track of Donald Trump’s lies.”

Asked how the IETF planned to finance their outreach regarding this effort, Seville suggested that they were considering buying major ad network impressions on racist fake news sites like Breitbart, where “the most gullible Internet users tend to hang out. If anyone will believe the nonsense we’re peddling, they will!”

In answer to a question regarding the timing of this proposed transition, Seville noted that the IETF planned to follow the GOP’s healthcare leadership style. “We feel that IPv4 and IPv6 should be immediately repealed, and then we can come up with the IPv7 replacement later.” When asked if this might be disruptive to the communications of Internet users around the world, Mr. Seville chuckled “You’re catching on.”

David Seville can be reached directly for more information at his voice phone number: +7 (495) 697-0349.

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–Lauren–

I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so — my opinions expressed here are mine alone.
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The correct term is “Internet” NOT “internet” — please don’t fall into the trap of using the latter. It’s just plain wrong!