Google Contacts gets a long-overdue update

Google announced Tuesday that it’s releasing a preview of its new Google Contacts app, which can be accessed now. If you use Gmail, you use a form of Google Contacts, although it’s hardly a perfect system. Previously, Google’s contact app was a mess: It threw people you’ve emailed once into a big list, mixed up with best friends and coworkers and someone you might have added to a circle in Google Plus. Long and messy contact lists may have led to some errant emails last week thanks to a autocomplete bug in Gmail.

The Google Contacts update is bringing a ton of long-requested features, including a complete redesign using Google’s Material Design look. It’s got a feature to remove contacts you have stored twice, or for contacts who, for instance, have their email address and phone number stored separately. When I first logged on, it recommended I cut 18 duplicate contacts.

Contacts preview 1.5

Another improvement is that Google will stick your recent correspondence with someone below their contact information. When you look a contact up, you’ll see when Google thinks you were last in touch. Google also said that it’ll keep your contacts up to date when people you know change their profile information.

Contacts preivew 4.5

You’ll note that Google’s blog post never mentions Google+ — only “Google profile information.” The old contacts integration with Google+ was a headache for people who didn’t use the social network, and this new app could partially reflect Google’s recent decision to split up Google+, as well as its revolving cast of managers.

Like Google Inbox, for now, the new contacts page is for Gmail users only, and it’s not available for people using Google Apps.

Android phones use Google Contacts as the de facto default contact syncing service — which means that millions of Android users were walking around with contact apps full of errors, mistakes and duplicates. Hopefully we’ll see some of the new features trickle down to smartphones. You can try out the new Contacts preview here.

Microsoft claims compliance with ISO data privacy standard

Microsoft says its compliance with a data privacy standard set by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) means customer data in its Azure cloud will be safer from prying eyes.

The ISO/IEC 27018 standard aims to establish “a uniform, international approach to protecting privacy for personal data stored in the cloud,” Microsoft General Counsel and EVP Brad Smith wrote in a blog post.

A third-party, the British Standards Institute (BSI), has verified that Microsoft Azure as well as Office 365 and Dynamics CRM Online meet the ISO criteria, Smith noted.

Compliance means that the vendor’s customer controls her data and will know what’s happening with that data down the line. It also requires the vendor to implement strong security and restricts how data can be handled on public networks, transportable media etc. And, it means that data will not be used for advertising — which means that [company]Google[/company] is unlikely to climb aboard this particular bandwagon.

This is not an academic exercise for [company]Microsoft[/company] which is fighting U.S. court order to turn over customer data residing in its Dublin data center to U.S. authorities.

Cloud competitors are likely to call this a PR stunt — a concept that Microsoft is familiar with — but a security expert said ISO/IEC 27018 certification could become a major selling point to privacy obsessed consumers who balk at the notion that Google, because of its advertising business, uses customer data to sell stuff.

Said this expert, who requested anonymity because he works with both Google and Microsoft:  “Google would never agree to this since advertising is everything to them … Personally when I pay someone for a service, I expect my data to be private. When I use a service for free I accept that it is being paid for by sacrificing my privacy.”

For more on Microsoft’s data privacy stance, see Smith’s talk at last year’s Structure show below.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ncpPRqAJpc]

Google uses machine learning to make its spreadsheets smarter

Google announced on Monday that its Sheets spreadsheet application in Google Drive can now fill in missing table values using machine learning. The new Chrome Store add-in, called Smart Autofill, utilizes Google’s Prediction API, and is theoretically very useful. It could allow laypersons to build small-scale machine learning models that could be used to make predictions about pretty much anything. Recently, a natural-language processing startup called Aylien released an add-in that lets users run some complex text analysis using Google Sheets. Microsoft has also used machine learning to smarten up Excel through a feature called Flash Fill.

Google releases, open sources tools for linear optimization

Google has built a linear optimization add-on for its Google Drive spreadsheet application, as well as an associated API for developers. It also open sourced the underlying code via a project called “Glop.” As the company explains in a blog post, “Any time you have a set of linear constraints such as ‘at least 50 square meters of solar panels’ … along with a linear goal (e.g., ‘minimize cost’ or ‘maximize customers served’), that’s a linear optimization problem.” Google, for example, used linear optimization to solve shakiness on YouTube videos. Earlier this month, it open sourced an R library for inferring causation from correlative data.

Goodbye, Google Enterprise; hello, Google for Work

The Google rebranding is meant to advance the notion that users use the same tools at home and on the job. But another factor could be that Microsoft still reigns supreme in “enterprise” accounts.