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Ahead of third antitrust ruling, Google announces fresh tweaks to Android in Europe

Posted by | Android, antitrust, Apple, Apps, chrome os, competition commission, DuckDuckGo, Europe, european commission, european union, France, G Suite, Google, Image search, joaquin almunia, Jolla, Kent Walker, Margrethe Vestager, Mobile, operating systems, play store, Policy, Qwant, search app, search engine, search engines, smartphone, Spotify, travel search | No Comments

Google is widely expected to be handed a third antitrust fine in Europe this week, with reports suggesting the European Commission’s decision in its long-running investigation of AdSense could land later today.

Right on cue the search giant has PRed another Android product tweak — which it bills as “supporting choice and competition in Europe”.

In the coming months Google says it will start prompting users of existing and new Android devices in Europe to ask which browser and search apps they would like to use.

This follows licensing changes for Android in Europe which Google announced last fall, following the Commission’s $5BN antitrust fine for anti-competitive behavior related to how it operates the dominant smartphone OS.

tl;dr competition regulation can shift policy and product.

Albeit, the devil will be in the detail of Google’s self-imposed ‘remedy’ for Android browser and search apps.

Which means how exactly the user is prompted will be key — given tech giants are well-versed in the manipulative arts of dark pattern design, enabling them to create ‘consent’ flows that deliver their desired outcome.

A ‘choice’ designed in such a way — based on wording, button/text size and color, timing of prompt and so on — to promote Google’s preferred browser and search app choice by subtly encouraging Android users to stick with its default apps may not actually end up being much of a ‘choice’.

According to Reuters the prompt will surface to Android users via the Play Store. (Though the version of Google’s blog post we read did not include that detail.)

Using the Play Store for the prompt would require an Android device to have Google’s app store pre-loaded — and licensing tweaks made to the OS in Europe last year were supposedly intended to enable OEMs to choose to unbundle Google apps from Android forks. Ergo making only the Play Store the route for enabling choice would be rather contradictory. (As well as spotlighting Google’s continued grip on Android.)

Add to that Google has the advantage of massive brand dominance here, thanks to its kingpin position in search, browsers and smartphone platforms.

So again the consumer decision is weighted in its favor. Or, to put it another way: ‘This is Google; it can afford to offer a ‘choice’.’

In its blog post getting out ahead of the Commission’s looming AdSense ruling, Google’s SVP of global affairs, Kent Walker, writes that the company has been “listening carefully to the feedback we’re getting” vis-a-vis competition.

Though the search giant is actually appealing both antitrust decisions. (The other being a $2.7BN fine it got slapped with two years ago for promoting its own shopping comparison service and demoting rivals’.)

“After the Commission’s July 2018 decision, we changed the licensing model for the Google apps we build for use on Android phones, creating new, separate licenses for Google Play, the Google Chrome browser, and for Google Search,” Walker continues. “In doing so, we maintained the freedom for phone makers to install any alternative app alongside a Google app.”

Other opinions are available on those changes too.

Such as French pro-privacy Google search rival Qwant, which last year told us how those licensing changes still make it essentially impossible for smartphone makers to profit off of devices that don’t bake in Google apps by default. (More recently Qwant’s founder condensed the situation to “it’s a joke“.)

Qwant and another European startup Jolla, which leads development of an Android alternative smartphone platform called Sailfish — and is also a competition complainant against Google in Europe — want regulators to step in and do more.

The Commission has said it is closely monitoring changes made by Google to determine whether or not the company has complied with its orders to stop anti-competitive behavior.

So the jury is still out on whether any of its tweaks sum to compliance. (Google says so but that’s as you’d expect — and certainly doesn’t mean the Commission will agree.)

In its Android decision last summer the Commission judged that Google’s practices harmed competition and “further innovation” in the wider mobile space, i.e. beyond Internet search — because it prevented other mobile browsers from competing effectively with its pre-installed Chrome browser.

So browser choice is a key component here. And ‘effective competition’ is the bar Google’s homebrew ‘remedies’ will have to meet.

Still, the company will be hoping its latest Android tweaks steer off further Commission antitrust action. Or at least generate more fuzz and fuel for its long-game legal appeal.

Current EU competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, has flagged for years that the division is also fielding complaints about other Google products, including travel search, image search and maps. Which suggests Google could face fresh antitrust investigations in future, even as the last of the first batch is about to wrap up.

The FT reports that Android users in the European economic area last week started seeing links to rival websites appearing above Google’s answer box for searches for products, jobs or businesses — with the rival links appearing above paid results links to Google’s own services.

The newspaper points out that tweak is similar to a change promoted by Google in 2013, when it was trying to resolve EU antitrust concerns under the prior commissioner, Joaquín Almunia.

However rivals at the time complained the tweak was insufficient. The Commission subsequently agreed — and under Vestager’s tenure went on to hit Google with antitrust fines.

Walker doesn’t mention these any of additional antitrust complaints swirling around Google’s business in Europe, choosing to focus on highlighting changes it’s made in response to the two extant Commission antitrust rulings.

“After the Commission’s July 2018 decision, we changed the licensing model for the Google apps we build for use on Android phones, creating new, separate licenses for Google Play, the Google Chrome browser, and for Google Search. In doing so, we maintained the freedom for phone makers to install any alternative app alongside a Google app,” he writes.

Nor does he make mention of a recent change Google quietly made to the lists of default search engine choices in its Chrome browser — which expanded the “choice” he claims the company offers by surfacing more rivals. (The biggest beneficiary of that tweak is privacy search rival DuckDuckGo, which suddenly got added to the Chrome search engine lists in around 60 markets. Qwant also got added as a default choice in France.)

Talking about Android specifically Walker instead takes a subtle indirect swipe at iOS maker Apple — which now finds itself the target of competition complaints in Europe, via music streaming rival Spotify, and is potentially facing a Commission probe of its own (albeit, iOS’ marketshare in Europe is tiny vs Android). So top deflecting Google.

“On Android phones, you’ve always been able to install any search engine or browser you want, irrespective of what came pre-installed on the phone when you bought it. In fact, a typical Android phone user will usually install around 50 additional apps on their phone,” Walker writes, drawing attention to the fact that Apple does not offer iOS users as much of a literal choice as Google does.

“Now we’ll also do more to ensure that Android phone owners know about the wide choice of browsers and search engines available to download to their phones,” he adds, saying: “This will involve asking users of existing and new Android devices in Europe which browser and search apps they would like to use.”

We’ve reached out to Commission for comment, and to Google with questions about the design of its incoming browser and search app prompts for Android users in Europe and will update this report with any response.

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Google brings Chrome OS Instant Tethering to more Chromebooks and phones

Posted by | Android, chrome os, Google, Mobile, TC, wireless | No Comments

Tethering your laptop and phone can be a bit of a hassle. Google’s Chrome OS has long offered a solution called Instant Tethering that makes the process automatic, but so far, this only worked for a small set of Google’s own Chromebooks and phones, starting with the Nexus 6. Now Google is officially bringing this feature to a wider range of devices after testing it behind a Chrome OS flag for a few weeks. With this, Instant Tethering is now available on an additional 15 Chromebooks and more than 30 phones.

The promise of Instant Tether is pretty straightforward. Instead of having to turn on the hotspot feature on your phone and then manually connecting to the hotspot from your device (and hopefully remembering to turn it off when you are done), this feature lets you do this once during the setup process and then, when the Chromebook doesn’t have access to a Wi-Fi network, it’ll simply create a connection to your phone with a single click. If you’re not using the connection for more than 10 minutes, it’ll also automatically turn off the hotspot feature on the phone, too.

Tethering, of course, counts against your cell plan’s monthly data allotment (and even most “unlimited” plans only feature a limited number of GB for tethering), so keep that in mind if you decide to turn on this feature.

You can find the full list of newly supported devices, which include many of today’s most popular Android phones and Chromebooks, below.

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The annual PornHub year in review tells us what we’re really looking at online

Posted by | Android, Apps, arkansas, Australia, chrome os, Germany, india, microsoft windows, Mississippi, Nintendo, pornhub, pornography, South Carolina, Startups, TC, United Kingdom, United States, video hosting, world wide web | No Comments

PornHub, a popular site that features people in various stages of undress, saw 33.5 billion visits in 2018. There are currently 7.53 billion people on Earth.

Y’all have been busy.

The company, which owns most of the major porn sites online, produces a yearly report that aggregates user behavior on the site. Of particular interest, aside from the fact that all of us are horndogs, is that the U.S., Germany and India are in the top spots for porn browsing and that the company transferred 4,000 petabytes of data, or about 500 MB, per person on the planet.

We ignore this data at our peril. While it doesn’t seem important at first glance, the fact that these porn sites are doing more traffic than most major news organizations is deeply telling. Further, like the meme worlds of Twitter and Facebook, Stormy Daniels and Fortnite made the top searches, which points to the spread of politics and culture into the heart of our desires. TV manufacturers should note that 4K searchers are rising in popularity, which suggests that consumer electronics manufacturers should start getting read for a shift (although it should be noted that there is sadly little free 4K content on these sites, a discovery I just made while researching this brief.)

Need more frightening/enlightening data? Here you go.

Just as ‘1080p’ searches had been a defining term in 2017, now ‘4k’ ultra-hd has seen a significant increase in popularity through-out 2018. The popularity of ‘Romantic’ videos more than doubled, and remained twice as popular with female visitors when compared to men.

Searches referring to the dating app ‘Tinder’ grew by 161% among women, 113% among men and 131% by visitors aged 35 to 44. It was also a top trending term in many countries including the United Kingdom and Australia. The number of Tinder themed fantasy date videos on the site is now more than 3500.

Life imitates art, and eventually porn imitates everything, so perhaps it’s no surprise to see that ‘Bowsette’ also made our list of searches that defined 2018. After the original Nintendo fan-art went viral, searches for Bowsette exceeded 3 million in just one week and resulted in the release of a live-action Bowsette themed porn parody (NSFW) with more than 720,000 views.

Bowsette. Good. Moving on.

The Bible Belt represented well in the showings, with Mississippi, South Carolina and Arkansas spending the most time looking at porn. Kansas spent the least. Phones got the most use as porn distribution devices and iOS and Android nearly tied in terms of platform popularity.

Windows traffic fell considerably this year, while Chrome OS became decidedly more popular in 2018. Chrome was popular when it came to browsers used, while the PlayStation was the biggest deliverer of flicks to the console user.

Porn is a the canary in the tech coal mine, and where it goes the rest of tech follows. All of these data points, taken together, paint a fascinating picture of a world on the cusp of a fairly unique shift from desktop to mobile and from HD to 4K video. Further, given that these sites are delivering so much data on a daily basis, it’s clear that all of us are sneaking a peek now and again… even if we refuse to admit it.

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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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One day, Google’s Fuchsia OS may become a real thing

Posted by | Android, chrome os, computing, Google, kernel, linux, Microsoft, operating system, Sundar Pichai, TC | No Comments

Every few months, Google’s Project Fuchsia makes the rounds in the tech press. And for good reason, given that this is Google’s first attempt at developing a new open-source kernel and operating system. Of course, there are few secrets about it, given that it’s very much being developed in the open and that, with the right know-how, you could run it on a Pixelbook today. There’s also plenty of documentation about the project.

According to the latest report by Bloomberg, about 100 engineers at Google work on Fuchsia. While the project has the blessing of Google CEO Sundar Pichai, it’s unclear what Google really wants Fuchsia to be. I don’t think it’ll replace Android, as some people seem to believe. I don’t think it’s the mythical Chrome OS/Android mashup that’ll bring Google’s two operating systems together.

My guess is that we’re talking about an experimental system here that’s mostly meant to play with some ideas for now. In the future, it may become a real product, but to do so, Google will still have to bring a far larger team to bear on the project and invest significant resources into it. It may, however, end up in some of Google’s own hardware — maybe a Google Home variant — at some point, as that’s technology that’s 100 percent in the company’s control.

It’s not unusual for companies like Google to work on next-generation operating systems, and what’s maybe most important here is that Fuchsia isn’t built on the Linux kernel that sits at the heart of Android and ChromeOS. Fuchsia’s kernel, dubbed Zircon, takes a microkernel approach that’s very different than the larger monolithic Linux kernels that power Google’s other operating systems. And building a new kernel is a big deal (even though Google’s efforts seem to be based on the work of the “littlekernel” project).

For years, Microsoft worked on a project called Singularity, another experimental microkernel-based operating system that eventually went nowhere.

The point of these projects, though, isn’t always about building a product that goes to market. It’s often simply about seeing how far you can push a given technology. That work may pay off in other areas or make it into existing projects. You also may get a few patents out of it. It’s something senior engineers love to work on — which today’s Bloomberg story hints at. One unnamed person Bloomberg spoke to said that this is a “senior-engineer retention project.” Chances are, there is quite a bit of truth to this. It would take more than 100 engineers to build a new operating system, after all. But those engineers are at Google and not working on Apple’s and Microsoft’s operating systems. And that’s a win for Google.

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All Chromebooks launching in 2017 will be compatible with Android apps

Posted by | Android, chrome os, chromebook, computing, Gadgets, Google, Google Play, laptops, Software | No Comments

chromebook pixel All Chromebooks new in 2017 will support Android apps out of the box. An update will not be required. Owners will be able to take the Chromebook home, open it up and immediately access the Google Play Store. The news comes from a single line of text on Google’s list of Chromebooks compatible with Android apps. “All Chromebooks launching in 2017 and after as well as the… Read More

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Google’s mysterious new Fuchsia operating system could run on almost anything

Posted by | Android, chrome os, GitHub, Google, google-chrome, linux, operating system, smartphones, TC | No Comments

14288043542_e4bedaf69d_k Google has a new operating system called Fuchsia in development, with the early results publicly available on Github (and you can even compile and run it yourself, should you feel daring). The new OS differs from both Android and Chrome OS since it doesn’t run on a Linux kernel, and instead uses as its core code something called Magenta, which might make it better suited to running on… Read More

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Google’s Chrome OS will soon be able to run all Android apps

Posted by | Android, chrome os, Google, Google I/O 2016, Mobile, TC | No Comments

android-chrome The Play Store is coming to Chrome OS, Google announced at its I/O developer conference today — and with that, you will soon be able to install and run virtually any Android app on your Chromebooks and Chromeboxes.
It’s no secret that Google has been working on this project for quite a while now. You were already able to run a few Android apps on Chrome OS before, too. This new… Read More

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Google Brings Commenting To Sheets And Slides On Mobile

Posted by | chrome os, Google, Google Apps for Work, google apps marketplace, Google-Drive, Mobile, TC | No Comments

Commenting made easier Docs Google announced today a couple of updates to the commenting features in its Google Apps productivity suite.
These include the launch of mobile commenting in the iOS and Android apps for Slides and Sheets. Thanks to this, the commenting experience in Google’s apps is now (almost) the same across all of its apps — whether on the web or on mobile. I’m not sure why Google… Read More

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Google: Chrome OS Is Here To Stay

Posted by | Android, Chrome, chrome os, chromebook, chromecast, Gadgets, Google, google-chrome, TC | No Comments

Chromebook2_015_Detail2_Titanium Gray By now you have probably seen the WSJ report that says Google plans to fold its Chrome operating system into Android and phase it (and the “Chromebook” name) out over time. Google today published a story on virtually every blog it owns that denies this. “While we’ve been working on ways to bring together the best of both operating systems, there’s no plan to phase… Read More

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