Google to block notification spam with new Chrome feature

Sabina Weston

29 May, 2020

Google has announced the launch of a new default anti-notification spam system which will aim to protect Chrome users from abusive notifications.

The system, known as the ‘quieter notifications UI’, has been an opt-in feature since February but will be rolled out as a default setting in July.

In a post on the Chromium blog, Google explained that the update “will only affect new notification permission requests from abusive sites”. However, the company added that it is also considering rolling out “protections for users who have already accepted notification permissions from abusive sites”.

Explaining the reasoning behind the decision, the tech giant said that abusive notification prompts are among the most frequently reported user complaints when it comes to Chrome.

“A large percentage of notification requests and notifications come from a small number of abusive sites. Protecting users from these sites improves user safety & privacy on the web, and makes for a better browsing experience,” the blog post read.

“Only a small fraction of websites will be affected by this change but we expect the impact on notification volumes will be significant for some users.”

According to Google, these notifications are often used to mislead users, but also have the potential to “phish for private information or promote malware”.

Site owners that have their domain registered with Google’s Search Console will be able to check if their site has been blocked in July, using the Search Console dashboard in the new Abusive Notifications Report section.

Google’s decision might be able to significantly improve the experience of Chrome users who struggle to focus on work. It might also lead to fewer security incidents, including cases of phishing and malware.

The announcement comes days after Google released a major update for its browser, introducing revamped security and privacy controls. The arrival of Chrome 83 came two months after Google announced that it had cancelled development of version 82 in order to “maintain stability” during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Microsoft warns users not to install Windows 10’s May update

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

28 May, 2020

Microsoft has asked Windows 10 users to avoid manually updating to its May 2020 feature update while it investigates ten major issues, despite having only just released it.

The major update to Microsoft’s flagship operating system has finally started to roll out after a two-week delay earlier this month, but Microsoft has identified ten issues severe enough to recommend that users hold off.

The slew of issues includes Windows 10 devices with Realtek drivers being unable to connect to more than one Bluetooth device, and no mouse input with apps and games using GameInput Redistributable.

Some devices using more than one Always On, Always Connected capable network adaptor may encounter errors or unexpected restarts, while enabling variable refresh rate on devices with intel iGPU may not work as expected.

Users may also encounter the infamous blue screen of death (BSOD), meanwhile, on three of the issues. Devices, for example, with certain Conexant or Synaptics audio drivers may encounter such errors during or after these drivers are updated. Errors may also occur when devices using external Thunderbolt docks are plugged in or unplugged. 

Finally, on the BSOD front, there are incompatibility issues with Windows 10 and certain versions of Nvidia display adapter drivers. The fatal error screen may arise if devices are using drivers older than version 358.00.

To safeguard the update experience, Microsoft has held back the May 2020 Update from any devices with hardware or drivers known to suffer from compatibility issues with Windows 10.

More widely, Microsoft recommends users do not attempt to manually update using the ‘update now’ button until the issues have been resolved.

The widely touted May 2020 Update, also known as Windows 10 version 2004, began rolling out automatically, in a phased manner, to users from yesterday. Users, however, are still able to receive the upgrade if they manually check for updates.

Among the new features expected in the biannual upgrade are a faster and easier Bluetooth pairing process with external devices, as well as a mechanism to much more quickly enable a fully-passwordless experience.

When the update is finally deemed ready, users should also except a refined Coronata chatbot experience and smoother synchronicity between smartphones and Windows machines, among other additions.

That Microsoft has encountered several major issues on the release of its latest operating system upgrade should be of little surprise to long-term users who will be familiar with faulty feature upgrades of the past.

The May 2020 Update itself was delayed by two weeks earlier this month after Microsoft discovered a set of bugs that needed to be addressed urgently. This included a zero-day vulnerability relating to the deployment image servicing and management (DISM) tool, used to repair corruption on Windows systems.

The April and October 2018 feature upgrades were so badly received by the community that Microsoft was forced to change the way it delivers its updates, with users now generally waiting longer in light of a new phased approach.

Conventionally, Microsoft would initiate updates automatically once data suggested users would enjoy a safe and frictionless experience. Starting with Windows 10 version 1903, released last year, users are now, instead, simply notified when it’s available to download and install.

Voip Unlimited Voip Exchange review: Smart and simple

Dave Mitchell

3 Jun, 2020

This cloud-based VoIP system is easy to manage and comes with plenty of useful features as standard

£9 exc VAT per user, per month

Now into its third year, Voip Exchange is purpose-built as a complete cloud-hosted SMB service that can be rolled out with a minimum of training.

Deployment is a breeze too: a project engineer was assigned to discuss our requirements, and then set up an account with preconfigured phone numbers and a base set of users as per our instructions. 

Voip Unlimited also supplies handsets, offering a choice of Snom and Yealink models. We opted for Yealink T48S and T23G sets, and these came preconfigured for each user, so we had only to connect them to the lab’s PoE switch and they were instantly provisioned. Don’t worry if you’re switching from a different VoIP provider: any IP phones you already own will, where possible, be reprovisioned for Voip Exchange.

As usual, management is carried out from a web portal, and this is very easy to navigate. Our account had a single top-level site, but businesses with offices in multiple locations can create subsites for each one, which can all be centrally managed.

Creating new users is a cinch, thanks to a wizard that takes you through each step. We were prompted to provide names, email addresses and mobile numbers, then to indicate which site and department each user was a member of; a DDI (direct dial in) number was then doled out for their preassigned handset.

Once you’ve created your users, you can additionally assign them to huntgroups, so that incoming calls to one person’s number will cause all phones in their group to ring at once – or you can choose round robin mode, to call each phone in order. If no one picks up after a timeout period of up to two minutes, you can specify whether the call should be forwarded to a different user or group, to another huntgroup, to an external number or to an interactive voice assistant. 

This last feature is particularly versatile. Callers can be played a custom message, and presented with a menu of up to 12 options – each of which supports the same actions as available for huntgroups, making it almost impossible for an incoming call to be missed.

There are also several settings that users can configure for themselves, either at the point of enrolment or later on. You can set a personal greeting message by uploading a WAV file to your portal, and configure either call forwarding or call twinning, which causes a second number (such as a mobile) to ring simultaneously for incoming calls. The portal also lets you check your voicemail and access the webphone app; install the Voip Exchange Chrome extension and you can initiate calls directly from web pages too.

Almost all of these features are included in the basic pay-as-you-go Voip Exchange package, which costs £8.50 per user per month – the only thing that’s missing is voice recording, which adds an extra £1 per month. Call packages start at £3.50 per user per month, which provides 3,000 minutes per user for calls to landlines and mobiles.

Although web calling is included, you also have to pay a little extra for mobile support: the Android and iOS apps (which are in fact customised versions of the Zoiper softphone app) cost £2 per user each month. We tried the iOS version and found it superbly easy to use, taking mere seconds to register by scanning the unique QR code presented in the user portal.

In all, Voip Exchange is a classy service that SMBs will love: it’s exceptionally easy to deploy and has a strong set of features included in the price. 

Skype review: Retrofitted for the modern age

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

2 Jun, 2020

The video conferencing OG boasts a clean in-meeting interface and most of the features you could ask for


Given an explosion of remote working, with video conferencing thrust in the spotlight, we may have once expected Skype to seize the moment. After all, this is a platform that was eponymous with the concept of video communication not too long ago. 

This titan of video conferencing has enjoyed something of a comeback in recent weeks, but it’s been overshadowed by the emergence of Zoom and Google’s own services.

Times have indeed changed, and the platform has languished in the shadow of these competitors as well as Microsoft’s enterprise-centric Teams service. There’s no better symbol for this decline than Microsoft’s decision to phase out Skype for Business.

Regardless, the free version of Skype still plays a vital role for many small businesses. The platform has undergone a 70% surge in activity during the coronavirus pandemic, in addition to a 220% explosion in Skype-to-Skype calls. In a market now saturated with rivals, does the legacy service have the legs to keep itself relevant?

Skype review: Design and UI

Skype’s user interface (UI) has undergone several overhauls through the years and, today, remains in keeping with Microsoft’s bold ‘fluent design’ aesthetic. 

While the platform adheres to these design principles well, its minimalist aspirations don’t match up with how cluttered the interface is. On desktop, users are immediately met with a well-sized primary chat window to the right, beside a pale-toned sidebar into which most of the app’s functions are squashed. By default, the oversized pane shows a welcome screen.

Using this smaller panel you can cycle between recent chats, recent calls, contacts, and recent notifications. The interface also includes a ‘new call’ and new chat’ button as well as the recently launched ‘meet now’ feature. Double-clicking on any contact will beam your chat history to the right-hand panel. This mess of icons means it can prove fiddly to actually get to the function you need, so could have benefited from icons being spaced out more across the interface.

Despite this clash, navigating to the ‘Appearance’ tab in the Settings menu gives users a decent array of cosmetic options, including a fabulous dark mode, a choice between several accent tones, and two high-contrast settings.

Where the UI does excel is while dialled into a meeting. Only a handful of buttons remain on show, allowing participants to fill the remainder of the display. Advanced functions, instead of lining a portion of the screen, are hidden away in a ‘more options’ menu.

Skype review: Features and functionality

Skype offers a full array of basic features as well as a handful of more advanced features that have found their way into Skype from other services over the years. These include screen sharing and a neat real-time transcription toggle.

‘Meet now’, which allows users to send non-users a meeting link without them having to download the software, is an example of a feature that’s only made its way into the service following the meteoric rise of Zoom on the coattails of a similar feature. Putting aside the speculation as to why Skype’s only just rolled out a similar feature, it’s a welcome addition and boosts the user experience considerably.

The ‘blur background’ toggle, meanwhile, singles you out as the video subject effectively, while you can also add custom background images. Zoom goes one step further with a handful of preloaded images, and support for video, although lacks the blur background toggle – which is perhaps of more interest to business users than zany effects.

Although Skype includes several advanced features, one can’t help but feel limited by the way they’ve been implemented.  While meetings can be recorded, the files are hidden away in your chat ‘gallery’ and are only available for 30 days. Sure, they can be subsequently saved onto your hard drive, but what if you just wanted these files beamed straight into your PC? Other applications include functionality for that. Finally, while you can share your screen at the touch of a button, other video conferencing services allow participants to share a portion of the screen, an individual app or even a ‘digital whiteboard’.

To its detriment, we did encounter a few glitches here and there. These manifested primarily as features taking a long time to work properly, and excessive menu loading-time. One fundamentally disruptive bug we encountered involved the live transcription feature in a meeting started using ‘Meet now’. When activated, the application crashed only a few seconds later, after several attempts. This was odd because on several separate occasions, however, it worked flawlessly.

Skype review: Video and meeting experience

Alongside the lesser-known Lifesize, Skype is the only leading conferencing platform to offer 1080p video quality on its free tier, with Zoom and Hangouts limited to 720p. The maximum number of participants is also a strong 50, bested only by Zoom’s limit of 100. The latter, however, is limited in the way that meetings disconnect after 40 minutes, whereas Skype offers unlimited free video conferencing.

The main advantage Skype holds over its rivals is a clean UI while in meetings, to the extent it feels like a different app than that of the cluttered home screen. Meeting participants can be organised in several ways, but can only occupy a maximum of four large quadrants at any one time. Skype offers a neat way to work around this, with excess participants occupying small bubbles along the top which can be dragged into any quadrant to replace participants at any time. 

Most functions beyond the most basic are tucked away in an expandable folder in the bottom-right-hand corner of the interface. From here, users can record meetings, toggle subtitles, and perform other functions. The live transcription feature is neat too, with real-time dialogue generated in small text without obscuring anybody’s face. 

Skype review: Security provisions

All Skype-to-Skype calls, messages and file transfers are encrypted, according to the developers, through 256-bit advanced encryption standard (AES) protection. Should users wish to make calls to landlines, these conversations will take place over the standard public switched telephone network (PSTN) so won’t enjoy the same level of protection.

Instant messaging, meanwhile, is protected using transport-level security (TLS) which guards messages between the Skype client and the chat service in the platform’s cloud, as well as AES when communications are sent between two Skype clients. 

Voice messages are encrypted on delivery, however once they have been listened to, the files are transferred from Skype servers to users’ local machines, where they are stored in an unencrypted format.

Beyond that, there are a set of standard protections built-into the platform to protect user privacy including automatically screening calls or messages from individuals who aren’t contacts. Users can also determine how long message history, chat titles, and videos will last before these are deleted. Files and voice messages as well as call recordings will be removed from the cloud after 30 days, although users can save them to their machines.

Skype review: Verdict

While there’s no doubting how far Skype has fallen in popularity from its peak around a decade ago, the most basic version of the legacy video conferencing suite still has plenty to offer new and existing users. 

A host of basic features, strong security provisions and advanced tools like real-time transcription and the capacity to record meetings may indeed be enough to entice you away from increasingly popular alternatives. This is in addition to 1080p support, a healthy maximum participant cap, and no meeting time limit, if you’re willing to stomach a couple of minor glitches here and there.

Although a couple of these advanced features might fall short in places, there’s plenty to shout about. The eleventh-hour addition of a ‘meet now’ feature, too, means the classic version of Skype has been sufficiently retrofitted for the modern age.

EnGenius SkyKey review: Magnetically attractive

Dave Mitchell

1 Jun, 2020

A convenient and affordable plug-and-play solution for remotely managing EnGenius wireless APs

£115 exc VAT

The first thing that strikes you about the SkyKey is its size. Weighing a mere 79g, it will fit easily in the palm of your hand, with a footprint of just 59 x 100mm. Yet this miniscule appliance can manage up to 100 EnGenius EWS access points (APs) and network switches via the free ezMaster software.

Indeed, it’s so tiny that you may not need to make use of the included mounting brackets: EnGenius has cleverly given the box a magnetic back, allowing it to clamp securely to the side of a rack cabinet. Two Gigabit Ethernet ports sit on the left-hand side, while on the other end there’s a microSD card slot for configuration backups, plus a socket for the optional power adapter. You may not need that, though, as the first Ethernet socket also supports PoE.

Deploying the SkyKey took just a few minutes. After connecting the appliance to the lab’s PoE switch, we created a free EnGenius Cloud account, then loaded up the iOS app on our iPad and added the SkyKey by scanning in the QR code on its base. 

The EnGenius Cloud portal has dual roles. As well as providing remote access to ezMaster hosts, it also directly manages EnGenius’ ECW series of wireless APs and ECS switches. The mobile app is geared up for the cloud service, however, so it can show details of registered SkyKey hosts but not the wireless networks they’re managing. What you can do, though, is visit the page that lists all ezMaster hosts, where you can connect to its local web interface for further configuration. 

Before adding APs, it’s worth defining your wireless settings. These are created as per-site “projects”, which can contain multiple AP groups for different types of wireless services. Each group supports up to eight SSIDs with its own encryption scheme, along with options for SSID masking, L2 isolation (so wireless clients can’t see each other) and VLAN isolation. 

There are also extensive captive portal features, which can be used to direct users to custom splash pages, present AUPs, apply ezMaster, RADIUS or external Cloud4Wi authentication, redirect visitors to a specific web page after login and keep them within walled gardens. A Wi-Fi scheduler function also lets you disable individual SSIDs and APs for specific periods during the day.

To put all of this to the test, we used a mixture of EnGenius EWS357AP Wi-Fi 6 and EWS330AP Wi-Fi 5 APs. Connecting them really couldn’t have been easier: once online, they popped up in the ezMaster console as pending approval, and we were able to claim them with a just few clicks. Helpfully, the SkyKey immediately checked each AP’s firmware on connection and offered to upgrade them all for us.

The next step is to assign your APs to a group. This takes about 30 seconds to complete, after which they’ll start broadcasting whatever wireless services you’ve defined. Local management is disabled on connected APs as they’re now controlled by the SkyKey: you can still connect to each one’s web portal, but the only operations available are viewing statistics and rebooting. 

The SkyKey’s web console, meanwhile, presents a status view of SkyKey resource usage, projects, APs and managed switches. Selecting a project opens up a new screen with a wide range of AP and client-monitoring features. The topology view only works if you have an EWS switch, but you can use the embedded map view to see the physical location of connected APs. We were also able to survey all connected clients and see a range of statistics, including real-time traffic graphs for selected APs. 

While the SkyKey offers a decent set of management and monitoring features, it’s not as capable or versatile as the Cloud Key Gen2 appliance we normally use in the lab to manage our UniFi NanoHD APs. However, the SkyKey is cheaper, not to mention more conveniently sized, making it an attractive plug-and-play solution for small businesses wanting to manage an EnGenius-branded wireless network.

Google Hangouts review: The pros and cons of simplicity

Bobby Hellard

29 May, 2020

From its ease-of-use to its lack of functionality, Hangouts is a basic, but safe, videoconferencing tool


Since the world has gone into lockdown and we’ve all had to connect with friends, family and colleagues via videoconferencing, three services have come to the fore: Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Google Hangouts. 

Hangouts is a natural choice for most, as it comes free with a Gmail account and is almost foolproof, which is why it has proved so popular for both businesses and consumers. It also hasn’t been plagued by security issues like Zoom, which has seen a significant backlash in recent months. But with these services gaining importance, is Hangouts right for you?

Google Hangouts review: Pricing plans

Google’s collaborations tools can be a little confusing, especially as it has Hangouts and Meet, which are two separate services that almost do the same thing. The way to differentiate them is that Meets is the version that comes bundled in with paid G Suite plans, while Hangouts is available to free users. Meets boasts a few more enterprise-friendly features than Hangouts, including support for meeting-room infrastructure and meeting recording – so you can either have a free, but limited, version of the software or you can opt for a business account and have the version with more functionality. 

Basic G Suite accounts including Meet start from £4.14 per month with a rudimentary suite of features such as a limit of 100 participants on calls and 30GB of Drive cloud storage. A ‘Business’ option which costs £8.28 per month increases the participation limit to 150 and adds unlimited Drive storage. The final tier is a £20 enterprise champion that allows for up to 250 participants on calls, unlimited storage and, quite crucially, significantly greater security options. 

Google Hangouts review: Interface

G Suite had already seen quite significant growth before the coronavirus pandemic forced us all into lockdown, but services like Hangouts have been a key tool for many individuals and businesses since the outbreak. One reason for this is that it’s ever so simple to use via either the app or the web version. 

The interface, launched from a web browser, has giant buttons for call, video and chats right there in the middle so you can jump into any of the three straight away. To the left of that is the instant messenger feature which is again easy-peasy. There are also icons to open the menu and contacts pages in the top left corner, although a couple are somewhat redundant.

Such is the ease of its interface, the least tech-savvy person in your office – or even your nan – will have no trouble navigating it. This isn’t something to be totally thankful for though, as the main reason it’s so simple is because there isn’t a whole lot of things to do on it. Compared to features offered by other services like Zoom or Teams, such as customisable backgrounds and collaborative whiteboards,  Hangouts is relatively basic no matter which tier you pay for. 

Google Hangouts review: Call Quality

Call quality on Hangouts is decent enough; its basic function works, in that you can see and hear the other callers, but it could be better. Competitors like Zoom and Microsoft Teams are doing it better with clearer calls. Obviously, any participants on your call with poor Wi-Fi will cause a bit of fuzziness, but it’s an almost constant problem with Hangouts, regardless of broadband, where other callers are blurred behind extreme pixelation or their voice is subject to a slight delay. Inevitably, this results in people talking over each other, which can be frustrating and awkward during meetings. 

Google Hangouts review: Integrations

Integrating with other apps is arguably where Hangouts and G Suite is at its best. As the videoconferencing service within Google’s suite of apps, it’s one click away from Google Docs or Drive and can even be launched from Gmail. Setting up meetings from your shared work calendar is utterly foolproof. 

It’s arguably helped other comms platforms too, such as Slack, which integrates with G Suite seamlessly. Just typing ‘/Hangouts’ within a channel or private message is all you need to launch a call.

Google Hangouts review: Features

Security is a big concern with videoconferencing platforms right now – particularly Zoom – but Hangouts has a bit of an advantage in this area as it comes bundled in with G Suite. For example, anyone that doesn’t have access to the shared calendar will have to be verified before they join a call. There are also preventative functions to stop unwanted participants from hijacking your call. All of these elements are set as default, so most users will hardly notice them. 

As for other features, Hangouts has very little to offer. It is, after all, a free service and you are literally getting what you pay for: basic video calling, instant messaging and the ability to share your screen with other participants. This is probably a big factor in Google making Meet available for free until September.  

Google Hangouts review: Verdict

While the pandemic continues, so will the increased use of videoconferencing platforms. And, given the length of the lockdown, it’s worth investing in a service. Hangouts is free but it’s very limited. So choosing something paid for might be a better option. Currently, services like Zoom are free, so it may be worth trialling a few before a final decision is made. 

Meet being available for free until September does change things and it probably is worth choosing that over Hangouts while in lockdown. But, if you want a bog-standard service without the fuss, the latter is for you. Sure, you’ll have less functionality, like not being able to change your background into something funny, but this is the new normal for most businesses, and your boss probably isn’t going to care whether or not you can make it look like you’re calling from space.  

SafeSend Email Security for Outlook review: A great solution for security-conscious SMBs

Dave Mitchell

28 May, 2020

An invaluable last line of defence against Outlook email disasters that’s easy to deploy and manage

£24 exc VAT per user, per year

We’ve all experienced that sinking feeling after accidentally sending an email to the wrong recipient. If it’s an internal message, you may still be able to recall it – but if it’s gone to someone outside of your company there may be nothing you can do. At best, it’s an embarrassment; at worst, if your message contained confidential or personal information, you could be looking at a hefty fine.

SafeSend Email Security is a small add-in for Outlook that’s designed to eliminate that risk. It achieves this partly by requiring users to review all external email recipients and confirm that they’re correct before the message can be released. 

There’s a lot more than this to the software, however. It also provides extensive data loss prevention (DLP) services, allowing you to scan email subjects, message contents and attachments for specific keywords and patterns. If a match is found, the software can request confirmation before sending or even block transmission altogether.

Deployment is a cinch. The add-in can either be installed manually or distributed and managed centrally using a group policy. It works with all versions of Outlook from 2007 upwards, and there’s also a web version for Outlook 365 and OWA. We had no problems using a GPO to distribute the MSI package to the Windows clients in our lab: once they had logged into the domain and been authenticated, the add-in was silently deployed without the need for any user interaction.

Training requirements are minimal. Users just need to be advised that the first time they load Outlook, SafeSend will pop up a message to confirm their internal email domain. Once this is done, any attempt to send a message outside of the organisation will bring up a confirmation prompt.

That might sound a little intrusive, but the dialog is clean and simple, showing all the email’s recipients (including those in the “Cc:” field) with a tickbox next to each one. If something’s not right, you can remove any unwanted recipients before sending, or reopen the message for further editing.

Central management is just as easy. SafeSend provides ADMX/ADML files for deployment on your domain controller; with these copied across to the PolicyDefinations folder on our Active Directory server, we were able to create a customised SafeSend GPO for all authenticated users.

This process can be a little time-consuming, but that’s only because the SafeSend GPO has over 150 options to configure. Some of these are simple controls, such as preventing users from removing SafeSend, adding extra safe domains and deciding whether to enable the “Select All” tickbox. More advanced options let you do things such as limiting the number of message recipients, detecting bulk emails and adding custom footer messages.

In addition, you can, of course, customise SafeSend’s DLP policies. These are extremely versatile as you can create multiple rules to detect specific strings, credit card numbers and even regular expressions. To ensure nothing slips through the net, SafeSend scans not only the text of outgoing emails but also attachments in various formats, including PDFs, Office attachments and ZIP archives.

If a user’s email triggers one of your DLP rules, they’ll be presented with details of the sensitive content and the detection rules that it triggered. You can set a custom action for each rule, so for some types of data you could require explicit confirmation from the sender, while other content might be completely blocked.

SafeSend also gives you the option of adding X-headers to emails. These can be used to trigger encryption using a separate security product such as Mimecast and Proofpoint – or you can use X-headers in conjunction with Exchange transport rules to verify that users have SafeSend installed. 

We found SafeSend simple to roll out and refreshingly easy to manage. In these days when an accidental data breach can expose you to steep fines, every SMB ought to be concerned about email security – and this add-in is a great solution.

Zoom review: Are we alone now?

Sabina Weston

27 May, 2020

Zoom is undeniably having a moment – but is it suited for life under lockdown?


“I think we’re alone now,” sang Tiffany on her 1987 hit single; “there doesn’t seem to be anyone around”. It’s a feeling many self-isolating workers will be familiar with, and just like the track over three decades ago, remote video conferencing app Zoom is an absolute chart-topper. 

As of the first week of April, it ‘s the number one most downloaded app in 60 countries, with more than 200 million daily meeting participants. It’s not surprising that Zoom is used by schoolchildren, their remote-working parents, and self-isolating grandparents alike – the company’s service has been adopted by people across all generations. But is it still suitable for businesses?

Zoom review: Features

Zoom’s Basic Personal Meeting plan is free for anyone to use, allowing unlimited one-to-one meetings and 40-minute group meetings for up to 100 participants. It comes with many useful perks, such as the option to screen-share and collaboratively edit a document during meetings using desktop, tablet and mobile devices running Zoom. Another useful feature is the virtual Whiteboard, which will be appreciated by anyone working from home during the lockdown who misses the simplicity of collaboration from back in the office days. The unique Waiting Room feature gives the host the option to manage when a participant joins the meeting by admitting attendees one by one. You can also choose who to hold in the Waiting Room based on whether they’re not signed into Zoom. 

Apart from the basic free version, Zoom comes with three paid plans which you can choose from to suit your business needs. Ranging from £11.99 to £15.99 per month and host, you can choose between Pro, Business, and Enterprise. However, it should be kept in mind that the Business plan has a required minimum of 10 hosts, while Enterprise needs at least 100. All plans are business-oriented, allowing users to include 100, 300, or even 500 participants – and if that’s still not enough, Enterprise Plus lets the host include up to 1,000 participants. 

Although the Free version has a 40-minute cap on group meetings, any of the paid plans remove this limit and allow meetings lasting up to 24 hours (although we’d strongly discourage the idea of hosting 23-hour meetings). All of the paid plans also come with Skype for Business interoperability and 1GB of MP4 or M4A cloud recording, which can be expanded from £32 per month.

It comes as no surprise that Zoom is a favourite among employees forced into remote working due to the ongoing coronavirus lockdown. The app keeps you feeling organised by making it easy to plan meetings well in advance in its Schedule function, which can be linked to Google Calendar using the Zoom Chrome Extension and to Microsoft Outlook using web and desktop add-ons.

Zoom review: Interface

Zoom’s interface is minimalist and makes the app a pleasure to use. Its simple, modernist design is reminiscent of Skype, but Zoom has managed to add more colours and even a simple calendar which showcases meetings for the day (with a pleasant potted plant design, to boot).

Its home page allows the user to navigate between starting a new meeting, joining an existing one, checking the schedule, or sharing the screen – all in simple square grid fashion. The additional tabs at the top, which let the user maneuver between the Home page and Chat, Meetings, or Contacts, could be more prominent, but overall there’s not much to complain about.

When it comes to actual video conferences, users can view other attendees in rectangular grids which are laid out symmetrically across the screen. A helpful element is the name tags at the bottom of every grid, which can help you remember who’s who within the company. Usually you should know who you are speaking to, but it’s still a useful feature for employees of massive corporations or for those who are meeting people for the first time over video.

Zoom review: Usability

The app is easy to install and use (at least when it comes to its basic functions), but it’s also free and non-committal. This last feature in particular seems to be the secret to Zoom’s success. Users who are unable to install Zoom on their devices (or are just stingy on precious data storage) can join a meeting or webinar through their web browser. The option is so successful that even video conferencing veteran Skype has recently launched a similar feature called ‘Meet Now’.

However, the option sounds better in theory than in practise. Zoom promises that a “Join from your browser” link is supposed to appear after the user clicks on the link to join the meeting. However, when tested, the option did not appear and the Zoom app was automatically downloaded instead. Turns out, there is a catch: the user who set up the meeting has to log in to their Zoom Account Settings, select a “Join from your browser” Link option on the Meeting tab, which is under In Meeting (Advanced). Sounds easy? Try explaining that to your coworkers right before the first Monday morning meeting.

Zoom review: Security and deployment

Despite all of these pros, it’s impossible to ignore the elephant in the room: Zoom has earned itself a somewhat patchy reputation for security. From FBI warnings and plummeting stocks to being banned by SpaceX, Google, the US Senate, and even Germany’s Foreign Office, Zoom has faced the consequences of not making its security settings more comprehensible.

Most notably, ‘Zoom-bombing’ and the lack of end-to-end encryption have been PR nightmares for the company, but these factors do not automatically make it a bad video conferencing platform. In Zoom’s defense, the tool became a victim of its almost-overnight success – it was designed for use by tech-savvy startups rather than casual consumers. However, since its popularity exploded at the start of the lockdown, the company has revised its security tools and added extra features such as passwords for meetings or the previously-mentioned Waiting Room. Nevertheless, you want to make sure that “we’re alone now”, do not share your Personal Meeting ID to your 2.5 million Twitter followers, in Prime Ministerial fashion.

Zoom review: Verdict

Zoom is a very slick video conferencing app which can be tailored to your business’ needs. Its minimalist design makes the interface user-friendly and easy to navigate, at least when it comes to its basic features. Despite Zoom’s recent history of security mishaps, the tool is under more scrutiny than before, which will hopefully motivate the company to make its security settings easier to use. When it comes to the aesthetic side, there are ways that the interface could be made even better, with more visually-appealing fonts in the nametags and different borders between the callers. However, that isn’t much of a complaint, if truth be told, and there’s a lot to like. 

Zoom is having a moment, and this is reflected in its massive user base. Even if companies are banning the platform left, right, and centre, it’s still the most popular app at the moment and chances are, anyone who you wish to speak to already has it installed. At this point, it’s almost easier to jump on the Zoom bandwagon – and if you do, you’ll likely find that it’s popular for a very good reason.

Google staff will receive a remote working allowance

Sabina Weston

27 May, 2020

Google has announced that it will cover working from home costs for 114,000 employees who will likely continue to do so for the rest of the year.

Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and Alphabet, confirmed in a message on the company’s blog that every Google employee will receive an allowance of $1,000 (around £811) to cover the costs of “necessary equipment and office furniture”.

A spokesperson for the company confirmed to IT Pro that the Pichai’s announcement also applies to UK employees.

Pichai also announced that Google will begin to reopen offices on 6 July, “assuming external conditions allow”.

Staff returning to these buildings will do so on a rotating basis, with employees set to go into the office “one day every couple of weeks” to ensure occupancy remains at around 10%. Pichai assured that offices will “have rigorous health and safety measures in place to ensure social distancing and sanitization guidelines are followed”.

Pichai also revealed that Google will increase the target office capacity to 30% in September if conditions permit. However, he added that “there are a limited number of Googlers whose roles are needed back in office this calendar year”.

“If this applies to you, your manager will let you know by June 10. For everyone else, returning to the office will be voluntary through the end of the year, and we encourage you to continue to work from home if you can,” he said, following through on the company’s promise to continue allowing employees to work from home for the rest of the year.

At the same time, Facebook also announced that it would encourage employees to continue working from home until the end of 2020.

Pichai’s announcement comes weeks after an internal document revealed that Google is struggling to provide laptops and other essential equipment for its remote workers and new employees. A memo from leadership at the tech giant informed employees that hardware such as laptops and phones were in “limited supply”.

Can Microsoft’s new approach to AI erase the memory of Tay?

Dale Walker

28 May, 2020

On 23 March 2016, Microsoft released Tay to the world, a chatbot built through a collaboration between the company’s research and Bing divisions. Unlike other chatbots, this was designed as a proof of concept to show that artificial intelligence could interact with users effectively across very human communication media – in this case, Twitter.

Unfortunately, Microsoft hadn’t quite understood the dangers of releasing a tool that learns from user interaction into the Twittersphere, a place not exactly known for constructive criticism and polite political discourse. Exploiting its “repeat after me” function – it’s still unclear whether this was built in or a learned function – users were able to expose the @TayandYou account to inflammatory statements about some of the internet’s most popular talking points of the time, whether that was Gamergate, feminism, or simply entries from the Urban Dictionary.

Within days, this self-described “AI with zero chill” had been transformed into an accomplished purveyor of hate. The chatbot was supposed to demonstrate how AI can learn from environmental cues and communicate nuanced ideas in a language familiar to those on Twitter. What we got was a bot that echoed some of the more hateful sides of the internet, either through the parroting of genuine messages or users attempting to derail the project.

Microsoft said at the time that it was “deeply sorry for the unintended offensive and hurtful tweets from Tay”, and that it would “look to bring Tay back only when we are confident we can better anticipate malicious intent that conflicts with our principles and values”.

Tay was meant to show just how far Microsoft’s research teams had outpaced those of its rivals in the AI arms race. Instead, it was a catastrophic failure, proving that technology capable of learning and making its own decisions based on its environment needed to have guardrails, not just in development but also in its application.

It’s clear the experiment served as a wake-up call for a company that, until that point, had little in the way of internal processes to govern how such technology was developed. Some three months after it pulled the plug on Tay, CEO Satya Nadella would go on to pen an article in Slate, that tackled the issue head on, arguing that AI and humans can exist in harmony if strict development safeguards exist – something that is now regarded as the genesis of Microsoft’s current internal policies.

Heading into the Aether

By 2017, Microsoft had started work on turning Nadella’s ideals into something a little more tangible, deciding that the answer was to involve as many voices as possible in development. To this end, Microsoft created the Aether Committee, an internal ethics board made up of representatives from all the various departments involved in the development and delivery of AI products. Today it includes people from its engineering teams, sales teams, and research departments, as well as a representative from Microsoft’s Office of the Chief Economist.

“One way of accounting for the broad use of the technology across a range of different sectors is to bring a range of perspectives to the actual work,” says Natasha Crampton, head of Microsoft’s Office of Responsible AI. “As much as possible, you want to try and have a diverse group of people actually building the technology. That then helps you try and avoid the situation where your training data is a miss-match for the real world conditions for which the technology is used.”

Aether, which stands for ‘AI, Ethics and Effects in Engineering and Research’, was the first step in creating greater accountability and communicating what can and can’t be done at a development level among the many teams operating across the globe. The committee was tasked with ensuring that any work on AI being done at the company followed a set of new principles now being championed by Microsoft – fairness, reliability in its purpose, safety, privacy and security, and inclusivity of wider society, all of which are underpinned by the ideas of transparency and accountability.

While Aether proved useful for communicating these new ideas, the committee functioned solely as a non-binding advisory body, promoting fairly vague principles without the powers to create or enforce policy. Its limitations in affecting change soon became clear and in 2018, Microsoft created the Office for Responsible AI, a separate department responsible for enforcing new development policies and maintaining oversight of all AI development, with the help of the committee.

“You can think of the Office for Responsible AI as the governance complement to the advisory function of the Aether Committee work,” explains Cramption, who has headed up the unit since July 2019. “So together, we have this company wide approach where we use Aether as this thought leadership body to unravel some of these really thorny questions, and my office sort of defines the company wide approach and roles.”

Crampton and her team have been tasked with coming up with a set of internal policies to help govern the development of AI at Microsoft – in other words, safeguards to prevent a repeat of Tay. A large part of that is case management, which ensures that new and existing projects are able to effectively translate academic AI papers into something fit for the real world, as well as improving communication between development, sales and public-facing teams – something that was clearly ineffective during the rollout of Tay in 2016.

One way it does this is by assessing projects for ‘sensitive use cases’– anything that’s likely to infringe on the fundamental human rights of the end user or lead to the denial of services (such as a loan application), anything involving the public sector, or any service that could harm the end user, either physically, psychologically, or materially. Through this, the Aether committee and OFRA can triage use cases as Microsoft works with customers, and pass recommendations up to the senior leadership team.

At least, that’s the idea. Most of Microsoft’s AI policies are still in a pilot phase.

“We’ve been piloting the standard for coming up to five months now and we’re starting to get some interesting learnings,” explains Crampton.

“We’re imminently about to bring on more groups as part of our phase 2 – the rollout is accompanied by research and a learning process as we go, because the whole point of the pilot is to make sure that we are refining the standard and improving it as we learn more. Based on what we see now, my expectation is that by the end of the next financial year, so in 2021, we will have it rolled out across the company.”

Owning up to mistakes

Microsoft’s work in this area is as much about righting the wrongs of the past as it is about ensuring AI is built for everyone. Tay was certainly a blemish on Microsoft’s development history, but the incident also shattered any trust the public had placed in AI-based software and served as validation for those who feel the technology is overhyped, or perhaps even dangerous.

“We’ve tried to approach this in a humble way, recognising that we don’t have all the answers yet … these are really tough challenges that we’re confronting,” says Crampton.

“The near term role of it is to really be a champion for developing new practices … to uphold our principles. I really want to be forward leaning on that and really try and do what we did for privacy or security and embed responsible AI considerations into our thinking when we’re developing technologies.”

Crampton believes her soon-to-be company-wide AI policies are a reflection of a maturing Microsoft, a company trying to be more responsible with how it develops software, and how it speaks to its customer base.

“When customers come to us and ask us to help them with solutions, we think about how we can help the customer with a product in a way that upholds our principles,” says Crampton. “And … sometimes we are conscious of how a system may be expanded in the future.

“A number of our AI technologies are building blocks, especially when we think about some of our cognitive services. By design, we make available the building block and the customer adds various components. If we use facial recognition as an example, we provide the [facial] matching technology, but the customer adds their cameras, their database, their people and their processes. Recognising that there are all of these different actors, different people contributing different things to create an overall system and interaction between components is really important, and so is the accountability between different players.”

“We really try hard to communicate the limitations of our technology,” adds Crampton. “In the past, I think Microsoft has really just focused heavily on the capability. We think it’s important to talk about the limitations as well. And so we are trying to communicate those to our customers so that they are educated about the downstream issues that could arise.”