Android

Google tweaks Android licensing terms in Europe to allow Google app unbundling — for a fee

Posted by | Android, antitrust, Apps, chrome os, competition, Europe, Google, google-chrome, Mobile, operating system, play store, smartphones | No Comments

Google has announced changes to the licensing model for its Android mobile operating system in Europe,  including introducing a fee for licensing some of its own brand apps, saying it’s doing so to comply with a major European antitrust ruling this summer.

In July the region’s antitrust regulators hit Google with a recordbreaking $5BN fine for violations pertaining to Android, finding the company had abused the dominance of the platform by requiring manufacturers pre-install other Google apps in order to license its popular Play app store. 

Regulators also found Google had made payments to manufacturers and mobile network operators in exchange for exclusively pre-installing Google Search on their devices, and used Play store licensing to prevent manufacturers from selling devices based on Android forks.

Google disputes the Commission’s findings, and last week filed its appeal — a legal process that could take years. But in the meanwhile it’s making changes to how it licenses Android in Europe to avoid the risk of additional penalties heaped on top of the antitrust fine.

Hiroshi Lockheimer, Google’s senior vice president of platforms & ecosystems, revealed the new licensing options in a blog post published today.

Under updated “compatibility agreements”, he writes that mobile device makers will be able to build and sell Android devices intended for the European Economic Area (EEA) both with and without Google mobile apps preloaded — something Google’s same ‘compatibility’ contracts restricted them from doing before, when it was strictly either/or (either you made Android forks, or you made Android devices with Google apps — not both).

“Going forward, Android partners wishing to distribute Google apps may also build non-compatible, or forked, smartphones and tablets for the European Economic Area (EEA),” confirms Lockheimer.

However the company is also changing how it licenses the full Android bundle — which previously required OEMs to load devices with the Google mobile application suite, Google Search and the Chrome browser in order to be able to offer the popular Play Store — by introducing fees for OEMs wanting to pre-load a subset of those same apps under “a new paid licensing agreement for smartphones and tablets shipped into the EEA”.

Though Google stresses there will be no charge for using the Android platform itself. (So a pure fork without any Google services preloaded still wouldn’t require a fee.)

Google also appears to be splitting out Google Search and Chrome from the rest of the Google apps in its mobile suite (which traditionally means stuff like YouTube, the Play Store, Gmail, Google Maps, although Lockheimer’s blog post does not make it clear which exact apps he’s talking about) — letting OEMs selectively unbundle some Google apps, albeit potentially for a fee, depending on the apps in question.

“[D]evice manufacturers will be able to license the Google mobile application suite separately from the Google Search App or the Chrome browser,” is what Lockheimer unilluminatingly writes.

Perhaps Google wants future unbundled Android forks to still be able to have Google Search or Chrome, even if they don’t have the Play store, but it’s really not at all clear which configurations of Google apps will be permitted under the new licensing terms, and which won’t.

“Since the pre-installation of Google Search and Chrome together with our other apps helped us fund the development and free distribution of Android, we will introduce a new paid licensing agreement for smartphones and tablets shipped into the EEA. Android will remain free and open source,” Lockheimer adds, without specifying what the fees will be either. 

“We’ll also offer new commercial agreements to partners for the non-exclusive pre-installation and placement of Google Search and Chrome. As before, competing apps may be pre-installed alongside ours,” he continues to complete his trio of poorly explained licensing changes.

We’ve asked Google to clarify the various permitted and not permitted app configurations, as well as which apps will require a fee (and which won’t), and how much the fees will be, and will update this post with any response.

The devil in all those details should become clear soon though, as Google says the new licensing options will come into effect on October 29 for all new (Android based) smartphones and tablets launched in the EEA.

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Facebook’s gaming hub Fb.gg launches into beta on Android

Posted by | Android, Apps, Facebook, Fb.gg, Gaming, Mobile, streaming | No Comments

This summer, Facebook launched Fb.gg, its online gaming hub and Twitch competitor, designed to attract game streamers and their fans to watch videos on Facebook instead of on rival sites. The destination shows videos based on which games and streaming celebrities users follow, plus Liked Pages and Groups, and other featured suggestions of what to watch. Now, Fb.gg is expanding to mobile with its launch on Android.

The new app, first spotted by Sensor Tower, arrived just a few days ago and is currently in beta testing.

According to its description on Google Play, the app allows gamers and fans to discover a “universe of gaming content,” connect with creators and join communities, and play instant games like Everwing, Words with Friends, Basketball FRVR, and others.

From the screenshots, you can see how the Fb.gg app lets users tap navigation buttons at the top to find streamers to watch, or to view those streamers they’re already following, among other things. They can also participate in live conversations during gameplay with other viewers. Here, they can react to the stream using Facebook’s standard emoticon set of likes, hearts, haha’s and others.

Another section lets gamers jump into simple and popular mobile games. These titles are among those who were early participants in Facebook’s other gaming efforts in the past, like Instant Games on Facebook and Messenger.

Facebook has been trying to woo the gaming community for some time, to better compete against Amazon’s Twitch and Google’s YouTube. There’s a large and growing market for game streaming and viewing, with young viewers tuning in an average of 3+ hours a week to watch, as TechCrunch previously noted.

Facebook’s efforts to directly challenge Twitch and others kicked off in earnest this year, with the launch of its own version of Twitch’s Partner Program. Facebook’s  gaming creator pilot program, as it’s called, allows viewers to tip their favorite gamers. And with the arrival of Fb.gg in June, the virtual currency involved in those tips was being referred to as Facebook Stars, with each star equating to $0.01.

Facebook said it takes a cut of fans’ purchases of stars, ranging from 5%-30%, depending on what size pack is bought.

Facebook also recently began testing a monthly subscription option with game streamers, similar to what’s offered by YouTube and Twitch.

Of course, to truly compete with Twitch and YouTube, Facebook needs to go mobile as well – especially since the upcoming Messenger redesign will hide away extraneous features, like mobile gaming. That’s where Fb.gg’s app comes in.

The Android version of the Fb.gg beta app launched on October 9, and already has over 10,000 installs, according to Google Play.

“We recently started testing a standalone gaming app on Google Play that builds on the experience of fb.gg, our destination on Facebook for people to find gaming content in one place,” a Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch. “The fb.gg app is currently in beta with a limited set of features and available in the Philippines. We’re using the beta phase to get feedback from the gaming community and will make a decision on whether we roll it out further based on that response,” they said.

Update, here are some screenshots, courtesy of Twitter user Monte Thigpen:

Beta is exclusively in Philippines but here are some screenshots I got pic.twitter.com/kU3NeK6nGi

— Monte Thigpen Ⓜ ✪ (@mot427) October 12, 2018

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Fortnite for Android no longer requires an invite

Posted by | Android, Apps, epic games, fortnite, Gaming | No Comments

Fortnite’s journey to Android has been an adventure unto itself. It first launched as a Samsung exclusive, alongside the Note 9, before circumventing the Play Store to arrive on Google’s Mobile operating system.

Until now, however, actually getting the game required going to the site, signing up and waiting for an invite. Epic announced today via Twitter that it’s finally cutting that red tape. While the company is still sidestepping Play in order to keep its earnings to itself, downloading the game is a simple as scanning a QR code from its site.

No invite needed – download the Fortnite Beta now on any compatible Android device 📱

Time to squad up: https://t.co/lH95t8qkwd pic.twitter.com/9UZNG7oFXd

— Fortnite (@FortniteGame) October 11, 2018

Not that any of those extra steps were hurting the game. The wildly popular hit 15 million installs a mere three weeks after launching on the OS.

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Google’s Waze has expanded its carpooling app to every US state

Posted by | Android, automotive, noam bardin, Transportation, waze | No Comments

Waze Carpool, the app designed to connect drivers and commuters, is now available throughout the U.S. with a special focus on connecting Amazon employees.

As part of the nationwide rollout announced Wednesday, Waze said the carpool app will be available at 50 Amazon Fulfillment Centers. The company said it’s partnering with cities, businesses, transit agencies and civic organizations, as well.

Waze originally trialed the app in markets, including San Francisco, Sacramento and Monterey. Waze expanded access to the app across California, Texas, Massachusetts and Washington. Now, it’s everywhere in the U.S.

“Traffic is at an all-time high in the U.S., yet over 75% of commuters journey to work alone in a car,” founder and CEO Noam Bardin said in a statement. “Waze is in a unique position to help facilitate carpooling on a national level. By leveraging the Waze community and connecting the dots between how people are traveling and where they want to go, we can empower everyone to reduce the number of cars on the road now.”

Waze Carpool isn’t like other ride-hailing services. The app lets riders and drivers find their own carpool buddies based on profiles, star ratings, number of mutual friends and customizable filters such as gender, co-worker or classmate and proximity to preferred route. The app is designed to show the best matches, such as those closest to a preferred route or a co-worker on the same shift, at the top of the list. Payment is handled within the app.

The app lets users schedule rides up to seven days in advance and a group setting enables several people to plan to carpool together.

Riders can download Waze Carpool on iOS or Android. Drivers need to download the Waze app. The company is offering all new riders $2 rides for 21 days.

The company is also rewarding drivers and riders for referrals. Drivers get $20 cash for each referral, and riders get $20 credit for each referral, with a max of 10 referrals per person.

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Google files appeal against Europe’s $5BN antitrust fine for Android

Posted by | Android, antitrust, app developers, Apps, competition commission, competition law, EC, Europe, european commission, european union, Google, lawsuit, Margrethe Vestager, Mobile, play store, smartphone, smartphones, Sundar Pichai | No Comments

Google has lodged its legal appeal against the European Commission’s €4.34 billion (~$5BN) antitrust ruling against its Android mobile OS, according to Reuters — the first step in a process that could keep its lawyers busy for years to come.

“We have now filed our appeal of the EC’s Android decision at the General Court of the EU,” it told the news agency, via email.

We’ve reached out to Google for comment on the appeals process.

Rulings made by the EU’s General Court in Luxembourg can be appealed to the top court, the Court of Justice of the European Union, but only on points of law.

Europe’s competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, announced the record-breaking antitrust penalty for Android in July, following more than two years of investigation of the company’s practices around its smartphone operating system.

Vestager said Google had abused the regional dominance of its smartphone platform by requiring that manufacturers pre-install other Google apps as a condition for being able to license the Play Store.

She also found the company had made payments to some manufacturers and mobile network operators in exchange for them exclusively pre-installing Google Search on their devices, and used Google Play licensing to prevent manufacturers from selling devices based on Android forks — which would not have to include Google services and, in Vestager’s view, “could have provided a platform for rival search engines as well as other app developers to thrive”.

Google rejected the Commission’s findings and said it would appeal.

In a blog post at the time, Google CEO Sundar Pichai argued the contrary — claiming the Android ecosystem has “created more choice, not less” for consumers, and saying the Commission ruling “ignores the new breadth of choice and clear evidence about how people use their phones today”.

According to Reuters the company reiterated its earlier arguments in reference to the appeal.

A spokesperson for the EC told us simply: “The Commission will defend its decision in Court.”

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Indie farm-em-up Stardew Valley is coming to iOS and Android

Posted by | Android, Gaming, iOS, Mobile, Stardew Valley | No Comments

Stardew Valley, the hit indie farming game made by one guy in his spare time, is coming to mobile. I’ve dropped dozens of hours into this charming little spiritual successor to Harvest Moon, and now I know how I’m going to spend my next few plane rides.

In case you’re not aware, Stardew Valley is a game where you inherit a farm near a lovely little town and must restore it, befriend (and romance) the locals, fish, fight your way through caverns, forage for spring onions and wild horseradish, mine ore, and… well, there’s a lot. Amazingly, it was created entirely by one person, Eric Barone, who taught himself to code, make pixel art, compose music and do literally everything. And yes, it took a long time. (GQ of all things wrote an interesting profile recently.)

Fortunately it was a huge hit, to Barone’s great surprise and no doubt pleasure, and deservedly so.

Originally released for the PC, Stardew Valley has since expanded (with the help of non-Barone teams) to the major consoles and is now coming to iOS — undiminished, Barone was careful to point out in a blog post. This game is big, but nothing is left out from the mobile port.

“It’s the full game, not a cut down version, and plays almost identically to all other versions,” he wrote. “The main difference is that it has been rebuilt for touch-screen gameplay on iOS (new UI, menu systems and controls).”

Barone has added a lot to the game since its release in early 2016, and the mobile version will include those updates up to 1.3 — meaning you’ll have several additional areas and features but not the multiplayer options most recently added. Those are planned, however, so if you want to do a co-op farm you’ll just have to wait a bit. No mods will be supported, alas.

In a rare treat for mobile ports, you can take your progress from the PC version and transfer it to iOS via iTunes. No need to start over again, which, fun as it is, can be a bit daunting when you realize how much time you’ve put into the game to start with.

I can’t recommend Stardew Valley enough, and the controls should be more than adequate for the laid-back gameplay it offers (combat is fairly forgiving). It’ll cost $8 in the App Store starting October 24 (Android version coming soon), half off the original $15 price — which I must say was amazingly generous to begin with. You can’t go wrong here, trust me.

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Here are all the details on the new Pixel 3, Pixel Slate, Pixel Stand, and Home Hub

Posted by | Android, Apple, Assistant, computing, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, Google Hardware Event 2018, google nexus, google store, machine learning, mobile phones, new york city, PIXEL, pixel 3, Samsung, smartphones, Speaker, tablet computers, TC, touch pad | No Comments

At a special event in New York City, Google announced some of its latest, flagship hardware devices. During the hour-long press conference Google executives and product managers took the wraps off the company’s latest products and explained their features. Chief among the lot is the Pixel 3, Google’s latest flagship Android device. Like the Pixel 2 before it, the Pixel 3’s main feature is its stellar camera but there’s a lot more magic packed inside the svelte frame.

Pixel 3

Contrary to some earlier renders, the third version of Google’s Android flagship (spotted by 9 to 5 Google) does boast a sizable notch up top, in keeping with earlier images of the larger XL. Makes sense, after all, Google went out of its way to boast about notch functionality when it introduced Pie, the latest version of its mobile OS.

The device is available for preorder today and will start shipping October 18, starting at $799. The larger XL starts at $899, still putting the product at less than the latest flagships from Apple and Samsung.

Pixel Slate

The device looks pretty much exactly like the leaks lead us to believe — it’s a premium slate with a keyboard cover that doubles as a stand. It also features a touch pad, which gives it the edge over products like Samsung’s most recent Galaxy Tab. There’s also a matching Google Pen, which appears to more or less be the same product announced around the Pixel Book, albeit with a darker paint job to match the new product.

The product starts at $599, plus $199 for the keyboard and $99 for the new dark Pen. All three are shipping at some point later this year.

Home Hub

The device looks like an Android tablet mounted on top of a speaker — which ought to address the backward firing sound, which is one of the largest design flaws of the recently introduced Echo Show 2. The speaker fabric comes in a number of different colors, in keeping with the rest of the Pixel/Home products, including the new Aqua.

When not in use, the product doubles as a smart picture frame, using albums from Google Photos. A new Live Albums, which auto updates, based on the people you choose. So you can, say, select your significant others and it will create a gallery based on that person. Sweet and also potentially creepy. Machine learning, meanwhile, will automatically filter out all of the lousy shots.

The Home Hub is up for pre-order today for a very reasonable $149. In fact, the device actually seems like a bit of a loss leader for the company in an attempt to hook people into the Google Assistant ecosystem. It will start shipping October 22.

Pixel Stand

The Pixel Stand is basically a sleek little round dock for your phone. While it can obviously charge your phone, what’s maybe more interesting is that when you put your phone into the cradle, it looks like it’ll start a new notifications view that’s not unlike what you’d see on a smart display. It costs $79.

more Google Event 2018 coverage

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Here’s how Google is revamping Gmail and Android security

Posted by | Android, Apps, gmail, Google, Mobile, privacy, Security | No Comments

Eager to change the conversation from their years-long exposure of user data via Google+ to the bright, shining future the company is providing, Google has announced some changes to the way permissions are approved for Android apps. The new process will be slower, more deliberate and hopefully secure.

The changes are part of “Project Strobe,” a “root-and-branch review of third-party developer access to Google account and Android device data and our philosophy around apps’ data access.” Essentially they decided it was time to update the complex and likely not entirely cohesive set of rules and practices around those third-party developers and API access.

One of those roots (or perhaps branches) was the bug discovered inside Google+, which theoretically (the company can’t tell if it was abused or not) exposed non-public profile data to apps that should have received only a user’s public profile. This, combined with the fact that Google+ never really justified its own existence in the first place, led to the service essentially being shut down. “The consumer version of Google+ currently has low usage and engagement,” Google admitted. “90 percent of Google+ user sessions are less than five seconds.”

But the team doing the review has plenty of other suggestions to improve the process of informed consent to sharing data with third parties.

The first change is the most user-facing. When an application wants to access your Google account data — say your Gmail, Calendar and Drive contents for a third-party productivity app — you’ll have to approve each one of those separately. You’ll also have the opportunity to deny access to one or more of those requests, so if you never plan on using the Drive functionality, you can just nix it and the app will never get that permission.

These permissions can also be delayed and gated behind the actions that require them. For instance, if this theoretical app wanted to give you the opportunity to take a picture to add to an email, it wouldn’t have to ask up front when you download it. Instead, when you tap the option to attach a picture, it would ask permission to access the camera then and there. Google went into a little more detail on this in a post on its developer blog.

Notably there is only the option to “deny” or “allow,” but no “deny this time” or “allow this time,” which I find to be useful when you’re not totally on board with the permission in question. You can always revert the setting manually, but it’s nice to have the option to say “okay, just this once, strange app.”

The changes will start rolling out this month, so don’t be surprised if things look a little different next time you download a game or update an app.

The second and third changes have to do with limiting which data from your Gmail and messaging can be accessed by apps, and which apps can be granted access in the first place.

Specifically, Google is restricting access to these sensitive data troves to apps “directly enhancing email functionality” for Gmail and your default calling and messaging apps for call logs and SMS data.

There are some edge cases where this might be annoying to power users; some have more than one messaging app that falls back to SMS or integrates SMS replies, and this might require those apps to take a new approach. And apps that want access to these things may have trouble convincing Google’s review authorities that they qualify.

Developers also will need to review and agree to a new set of rules governing what Gmail data can be used, how they can use it and the measures they must have in place to protect it. For example, apps are not allowed to “transfer or sell the data for other purposes such as targeting ads, market research, email campaign tracking, and other unrelated purposes.” That probably puts a few business models out of the running.

Apps looking to handle Gmail data will also have to submit a report detailing “application penetration testing, external network penetration testing, account deletion verification, reviews of incident response plans, vulnerability disclosure programs, and information security policies.” No fly-by-night operations permitted, clearly.

There also will be additional scrutiny on what permissions developers ask for to make sure it matches up with what their app requires. If you ask for Contacts access but don’t actually use it for anything, you’ll be asked to remove that, as it only increases risk.

These various new requirements will go into effect next year, with application review (a multi-week process) starting on January 9; tardy developers will see their apps stop working at the end of March if they don’t comply.

The relatively short timeline here suggests that some apps may in fact shut down temporarily or permanently due to the rigors of the review process. Don’t be surprised if early next year you get an update saying service may be interrupted due to Google review policies or the like.

These changes are just the first handful issuing from the recommendations of Project Strobe; we can expect more to appear over the next few months, though perhaps not such striking ones. To say Gmail and Android apps are widely used is something of an understatement, so it’s understandable that they would be focused on first, but there are many other policies and services the company will no doubt find reason to improve.

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The Google Assistant gets more visual

Posted by | Android, Apps, artificial intelligence, Assistant, Google, Google Assistant, google home, Mobile, smart home devices, TC | No Comments

Google today is launching a major visual redesign of its Assistant experience on phones. While the original vision of the Assistant focused mostly on voice, half of all interactions with the Assistant actually include touch. So with this redesign, Google acknowledges that and brings more and larger visuals to the Assistant experience.

If you’ve used one of the recent crop of Assistant-enabled smart displays, then some of what’s new here may look familiar. You now get controls and sliders to manage your smart home devices, for example. Those include sliders to dim your lights and buttons to turn them on or off. There also are controls for managing the volume of your speakers. Update: Google tells me that update will roll out over the course of the next few weeks, with the iOS release depending on Apple’s app store review process.Even in cases where the Assistant already offered visual feedback — say when you ask for the weather — the team has now also redesigned those results and brought them more in line with what users are already seeing on smart displays from the likes of Lenovo and LG. On the phone, though, that experience still feels a bit more pared down than on those larger displays.

With this redesign, which is going live on both Android and in the iOS app today, Google is also bringing a little bit more of the much-missed Google Now experience back to the phone. While you could already bring up a list of upcoming appointments, commute info, recent orders and other information about your day from the Assistant, that feature was hidden behind a rather odd icon that many users surely ignored. Now, after you’ve long-pressed the home button on your Android phone, you can swipe up to get that same experience. I’m not sure that’s more discoverable than previously, but Google is saving you a tap.

In addition to the visual redesign of the Assistant, Google also today announced a number of new features for developers. Unsurprisingly, one part of this announcement focuses on allowing developers to build their own visual Assistant experiences. Google calls these “rich responses” and provides developers with a set of pre-made visual components that they can easily use to extend their Assistant actions. And because nothing is complete with GIFs, they can now use GIFs in their Assistant apps, too.

But in addition to these new options for creating more visual experiences, Google is also making it a bit easier for developers to take their users money.

While they could already sell physical goods through their Assistant actions, starting today, they’ll also be able to sell digital goods. Those can be one-time purchases for a new level in a game or recurring subscriptions. Headspace, which has long offered a very basic Assistant experience, now lets you sign up for subscriptions right from the Assistant on your phone, for example.

Selling digital goods directly in the Assistant is one thing, but that sale has to sync across different applications, too, so Google today is also launching a new sign-in service for the Assistant that allows developers to log in and link their accounts.

“In the past, account linking could be a frustrating experience for your users; having to manually type a username and password — or worse, create a new account — breaks the natural conversational flow,” the company explains. “With Google Sign-In, users can now create a new account with just a tap or confirmation through their voice. Most users can even link to their existing accounts with your service using their verified email address.”

Starbucks has already integrated this feature into its Assistant experience to give users access to their rewards account. Adding the new Sign-In for the Assistant has almost doubled its conversion rate.

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Google launches voice assistant app to help people with limited mobility use their phones

Posted by | accessibility, Android, Diversity, Google, Include, inclusion, TC | No Comments

Google just introduced a new Android app to better enable people with limited mobility to use their phones. Called Voice Access, the app offers people a hands-free way to use apps, write and edit text and, of course, talk to the Google Assistant.

It’s designed to make it easier to control specific functions like clicking a button, and scrolling and navigating app screens. Currently, the app is only available in English, but Google is working on additional languages.

Google created the app in service of people with Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, arthritis and spinal cord injuries, but recognizes that the tool can also be helpful for people whose hands are tied with other tasks.

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