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This Week in Apps: HQ Trivia’s dramatic death, Android 11, Apple mulls a more open iOS

Posted by | android apps, app stores, Apple, Apps, Google, iOS apps, Mobile, mobile apps, this week in apps | No Comments

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads in 2019 and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019, according to App Annie’s recently released “State of Mobile” annual report. People are now spending 3 hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

In this Extra Crunch series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

This week we look at the sad, strange death of HQ Trivia, spying app ToTok getting booted from Google Play (again!), Android 11, an enticing Apple rumor about opening up iOS further to third-party apps, Google Stadia updates, the App Store book Apple wants banned, apps abusing subscriptions and much more.

Headlines

HQ Trivia burns to the ground

hq trivia app 1

Once-hot HQ Trivia believed it had invented a new kind of online gaming — live trivia played through your phone. Investors threw $15 million into the company hoping that was true. But the novelty wore off, cheaters came in, prize money dwindled and copycats emerged. Then co-founder Colin Kroll passed away and things at HQ Trivia got worse, including a failed internal mutiny, firings and layoffs. This week, HQ Trivia announced its demise. It then hosted one last, insane night of gaming featuring drunken and cursing hosts who sprayed champagne, called out trolls and begged for new jobs. (Sure, because they exited this one so professionally.)

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Google gobbling Fitbit is a major privacy risk, warns EU data protection advisor

Posted by | data protection, data protection law, data security, digital rights, EDPB, Europe, european commission, european union, fitbit, Gadgets, GDPR, General Data Protection Regulation, Google, privacy | No Comments

The European Data Protection Board (EDPB) has intervened to raise concerns about Google’s plan to scoop up the health and activity data of millions of Fitbit users — at a time when the company is under intense scrutiny over how extensively it tracks people online and for antitrust concerns.

Google confirmed its plan to acquire Fitbit last November, saying it would pay $7.35 per share for the wearable maker in an all-cash deal that valued Fitbit, and therefore the activity, health, sleep and location data it can hold on its more than 28M active users, at ~$2.1 billion.

Regulators are in the process of considering whether to allow the tech giant to gobble up all this data.

Google, meanwhile, is in the process of dialling up its designs on the health space.

In a statement issued after a plenary meeting this week the body that advises the European Commission on the application of EU data protection law highlights the privacy implications of the planned merger, writing: “There are concerns that the possible further combination and accumulation of sensitive personal data regarding people in Europe by a major tech company could entail a high level of risk to the fundamental rights to privacy and to the protection of personal data.”

Just this month the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) opened a formal investigation into Google’s processing of people’s location data — finally acting on GDPR complaints filed by consumer rights groups as early as November 2018  which argue the tech giant uses deceptive tactics to manipulate users in order to keep tracking them for ad-targeting purposes.

The Irish DPC, which is the lead privacy regulator for Google in the EU and a member of the EDPB, said the advisory body’s statement is a reflection of the collective views of data protection agencies across the bloc.

The EDPB’s statement goes on to reiterate the importance for EU regulators to asses what it describes as the “longer-term implications for the protection of economic, data protection and consumer rights whenever a significant merger is proposed”.

It also says it intends to remain “vigilant in this and similar cases in the future”.

The EDPB includes a reminder that Google and Fitbit have obligations under Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation to conduct a “full assessment of the data protection requirements and privacy implications of the merger” — and do so in a transparent way, under the regulation’s principle of accountability.

“The EDPB urges the parties to mitigate the possible risks of the merger to the rights to privacy and data protection before notifying the merger to the European Commission,” it also writes.

We reached out to Google for comment but at the time of writing it had not provided a response nor responded to a question asking what commitments it will be making to Fitbit users regarding the privacy of their data.

Fitbit has previously claimed that users’ “health and wellness data will not be used for Google ads”.

However big tech has a history of subsequently steamrollering founder claims that ‘nothing will change’. (See, for e.g.: Facebook’s WhatsApp U-turn on data-linking.)

“The EDPB will consider the implications that this merger may have for the protection of personal data in the European Economic Area and stands ready to contribute its advice on the proposed merger to the Commission if so requested,” the advisory body adds.

We also reached out to the European Commission’s competition unit for a response to the EDPB’s statement. A spokeswoman confirmed the transaction has not been formally notified to it. 

“It is always up to the companies to notify transactions with an EU dimension to the European Commission,” she added. 

It is not yet clear whether or not the acquisition will face merger control review in the EU.

Update: A Google spokesperson has now sent this statement: “We are acquiring Fitbit to help us develop devices in the highly competitive wearables space and the deal is subject to the usual regulatory approvals. Protecting peoples’ information is core to what we do, and we will continue to work constructively with regulators to answer their questions.”

The company also pointed to its original blog post about the acquisition — highlighting the claims that: “We will never sell personal information to anyone. Fitbit health and wellness data will not be used for Google ads. And we will give Fitbit users the choice to review, move, or delete their data.”

This report was updated with additional comment 

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Google launches the first developer preview of Android 11

Posted by | Android, api, Apps, BlackBerry Priv, computing, dave burke, Google, Google Play, machine learning, Mobile, mobile operating system, operating system, operating systems, PIXEL, smartphones, Software, TC | No Comments

With the days of desert-themed releases officially behind it, Google today announced the first developer preview of Android 11, which is now available as system images for Google’s own Pixel devices, starting with the Pixel 2.

As of now, there is no way to install the updates over the air. That’s usually something the company makes available at a later stage. These first releases aren’t meant for regular users anyway. Instead, they are a way for developers to test their applications and get a head start on making use of the latest features in the operating system.

With Android 11 we’re keeping our focus on helping users take advantage of the latest innovations, while continuing to keep privacy and security a top priority,” writes Google VP of Engineering Dave Burke. “We’ve added multiple new features to help users manage access to sensitive data and files, and we’ve hardened critical areas of the platform to keep the OS resilient and secure. For developers, Android 11 has a ton of new capabilities for your apps, like enhancements for foldables and 5G, call-screening APIs, new media and camera capabilities, machine learning, and more.”

Unlike some of Google’s previous early previews, this first version of Android 11 does actually bring quite a few new features to the table. As Burke noted, there are some obligatory 5G features like a new bandwidth estimate API, for example, as well as a new API that checks whether a connection is unmetered so apps can play higher-resolution video, for example.

With Android 11, Google is also expanding its Project Mainline lineup of updatable modules from 10 to 22. With this, Google is able to update critical parts of the operating system without having to rely on the device manufacturers to release a full OS update. Users simply install these updates through the Google Play infrastructure.

Users will be happy to see that Android 11 will feature native support for waterfall screens that cover a device’s edges, using a new API that helps developers manage interactions near those edges.

Also new are some features that developers can use to handle conversational experiences, including a dedicated conversation section in the notification shade, as well as a new chat bubbles API and the ability to insert images into replies you want to send from the notifications pane.

Unsurprisingly, Google is adding a number of new privacy and security features to Android 11, too. These include one-time permissions for sensitive types of data, as well as updates to how the OS handles data on external storage, which it first previewed last year.

As for security, Google is expanding its support for biometrics and adding different levels of granularity (strong, weak and device credential), in addition to the usual hardening of the platform you would expect from a new release.

There are plenty of other smaller updates as well, including some that are specifically meant to make running machine learning applications easier, but Google specifically highlights the fact that Android 11 will also bring a couple of new features to the OS that will help IT manage corporate devices with enhanced work profiles.

This first developer preview of Android 11 is launching about a month earlier than previous releases, so Google is giving itself a bit more time to get the OS ready for a wider launch. Currently, the release schedule calls for monthly developer preview releases until April, followed by three betas and a final release in Q3 2020.

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This Week in Apps: YouTube TV cancels Apple’s rev share, more bad news for mobile voting, WhatsApp hits 2B users

Posted by | app-store, Apple, Apps, Google, Mobile, this week in apps | No Comments

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads in 2019 and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019, according to App Annie’s recently released “State of Mobile” annual report. People are now spending 3 hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

In this Extra Crunch series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

This week, we look at YouTube TV’s decision to stop revenue-sharing with Apple, another mobile voting app with serious flaws, new Apple launches in coding and AR, Microsoft’s game-streaming service Project xCloud arrival on iOS and other notable app news and trends, including WhatsApp’s big 2 billion user milestone, and more.

Headlines

YouTube TV fights back against Apple’s cut of in-app subscription revenue

This week, YouTube emailed customers subscribed to its YouTube TV service by way of Apple’s in-app purchases to let them know that this subscription offering will be discontinued starting on March 13, 2020. Current subscribers will have their subscription canceled automatically on their billing date after March 13, the letter said.

This is a pretty severe way for Google to end its subscription revenue-sharing with Apple, however. Most companies that decide to shut off in-app subscriptions still continue to honor those from existing subscribers — they just stop selling to new customers. In YouTube TV’s case, it’s actually ending its relationship with all its customers on Apple devices with the hope they’ll return and resubscribe. That’s quite a risk, given that YouTube TV is not the only streaming TV service out there, and customers getting their subscription canceled may take this opportunity to shop around. The timing is also poorly thought-out, given that YouTube TV just picked up new subs following Sony’s PlayStation Vue shutdown — and now it’s kicking them out.

The move makes Google the latest company to rebel against Apple’s 30% cut of all in-app payments (which drops to 15% in year two). A growing number of app publishers are refusing to share a cut of their revenue with Apple — even saying that Apple’s decision to charge this fee is anti-competitive. For example, Spotify believes Apple’s fee makes it more difficult to compete with Apple’s built-in music service, and has raised the issue repeatedly to regulators. Netflix also stopped paying the “Apple tax” over a year ago.

Mobile voting app Voatz, used by several states, was filled with security flaws

Above: Voatz, via The NYT

Last week, we looked at how a smartphone app meant to tabulate votes from the caucuses really screwed things up in Iowa. This week, MIT researchers took a look at mobile voting app Voatz, which has been used to tally votes for federal elections in parts of West Virginia, Oregon, Utah and Washington as part of various mobile voting pilot programs. The researchers found the app was riddled with security flaws that would let attackers monitor votes or even change ballots or block them without users’ knowledge. Attackers could also create a tainted paper trail, making a reliable audit impossible — despite Voatz’s promise of using blockchain technology to increase security. One security expert, speaking to VICE, called the app “sloppy” and filled with “elementary” mistakes.

Coming on the heels of the Iowa caucus mobile voting disaster, this latest news delivers another huge blow to the promise of mobile voting in the U.S.

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GameSnacks, from Google’s Area 120, brings fast, casual online games to developing markets

Posted by | Apps, Area 120, games, Gaming, Google, Mobile, mobile games | No Comments

A new project called GameSnacks is launching today from Google’s in-house incubator, Area 120, with the goal of bringing fast-loading, casual online games to users in developing markets. Billions of people are coming online through mobile devices. But they’re often on low memory devices with expensive data plans and struggle with unreliable network connections. That makes web gaming inaccessible to millions, as the games aren’t optimized for these sorts of constraints.

Today, over half of mobile website visitors leave a page if it takes more than 3 seconds to load, but on low memory devices and 2G or 3G networks, a typical web game will load much more slowly — even triple or quadruple that load time, or worse.

The idea with GameSnacks is to speed up load time and performance of web games by reducing the size of the initially-loaded HTML page, compressing additional assets like scripts, images, and sounds, then waiting to load them until necessary.

GameSnacks says this allows its games to load in a few seconds even on network connections as slow as 500 Kbps.

For instance, A GameSnacks title called Tower is ready to play on a 1 GB RAM device over 3G within just a few seconds. A typical web game on that same device took as long as 12 seconds, the company claims.

In addition, GameSnacks’ games are simple, casual games that only last a few minutes. They’re meant to fill those idle moments you have when waiting line, waiting at the bus stop, or waiting for a doctor’s appointment to start, for example. The games are also designed to have straightforward rules so they can be learned without instructions.

While mobile may be a primary platform, GameSnacks’ games are also accessible on any web-capable device, including desktop computers with a keyboard and mouse. On mobile, both iOS and Android are supported.

At launch, GameSnacks is partnering with a leading technology platform in Southeast Asia, Gojek, which is bringing the new games to their ecosystem through the GoGames service. Initially, this partnership is focused on delivering games to users in Indonesia before expanding elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

Currently, GameSnacks is working with developers including Famobi, Inlogic Games, Black Moon Design, Geek Games, and Enclave Games. Other HTML5 game developers who think their title may make sense in the GameSnacks catalog are encouraged to reach out.

GameSnacks’ business model will ultimately involve other partnerships that allow other developers to embed GameSnacks games into their own apps, even customized to feel native to that app’s experience.

Founded by Ani Mohan and Neel Rao, GameSnacks is a team of six working within Area 120 at Google, which is home to a variety of experimental ideas, including those in social networking, video, advertising, education, transit, business and more.

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Google’s Gboard introduces Emoji Kitchen, a tool to mash up emojis to use as stickers

Posted by | Android, android apps, Apps, emoji, gboard, Google, Keyboard, stickers, TC | No Comments

If you’ve ever felt like there just weren’t enough emoji options to express how you’re feeling, a new addition to Google’s Gboard keyboard, launching today, aims to help. Gboard for Android is introducing a feature called “Emoji Kitchen” that allows users to mash up different emoji then use them as stickers when messaging.

The stickers will work across apps, including Gmail, Messages by Google, Messenger, Snapchat, Telegram, WhatsApp and others.

For example, you could add glasses to the various smiley emoji, add a cowboy hat to a ghost, have a robot cry tears, put a monkey face on a cactus (idk either), make the happy poop emoji express love with a heart and so on.

To be clear, you can’t just mash up any of the thousands of emoji with any other one — it only works with those Google supports, which are mainly variations on the smileys. That’s because the emoji aren’t being mashed up in real time through some sort of AI system. Instead, Google designers have created this set of mashups for Gboard, specifically.

To use the option, you first tap on any smiley emoji and Emoji Kitchen will show which mashups are available to you.

Google’s Gboard has long been an experimental app for trying out new ideas in self-expression, including with launches like its own set of personalized emoji, called Emoji Minis, as well as with features like doodling, Morse code input, emoji suggestions and GIFs, and others in years past.

The app has been well-received by Android users, as a result — despite being years old, it’s still in a top 50 app in the Tools category and has more than a billion downloads worldwide to date. It’s also now the default keyboard on some Android devices, like Google’s Pixel smartphones.

However, Google’s larger goal with Gboard is to make it compelling enough for users to keep it installed, giving the company a way to bring Google’s properties, like Search, directly to the end-user. That’s more important than ever at a time when mobile search has become bigger than desktop. Unfortunately for Google, mobile search has been much more expensive, as the company now relies on deals with mobile device makers, like Apple, to make its search engine the default.

Gboard gives Google another way to hedge its bets — by skipping the need to use a browser app to get to Google. Users can just use their keyboard instead.

Google says Emoji Kitchen rolls out today to Android users.

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Netflix begins streaming in AV1 on Android

Posted by | alliance for open media, Amazon, Android, Apple, Apps, Facebook, Google, Media, Microsoft, Mobile, Netflix, nvidia, Videolan | No Comments

Netflix announced this week that it has started to stream titles in AV1 on Android in what could significantly help the two-year-old media codec gain wider adoption.

The world’s biggest streaming giant said on Wednesday that by switching from Google’s VP9 — which it previously used on Android — to AV1, its compression efficiency has gone up by 20%.

At the moment, only “select titles” are available to stream in AV1 for subscribers “who wish to reduce their cellular data usage by enabling the ‘Save Data’ feature,” the American firm said.

Netflix hasn’t shared much about the benefit AV1 will provide to customers, but the new media codec’s acceptance nonetheless sends a message by itself.

Tech giants, including Google, have spent years developing and improving media codecs as consumption of data skyrocketed and low-cost devices began to sell like hotcakes. But they just can’t seem to settle on one media codec and universally support it.

Think of Safari and YouTube, for instance. You can’t stream YouTube videos in 4K resolution on Safari, because Apple’s browser does not support Google’s VP9. And Google does not support HEVC for 4K videos on YouTube.

AV1 is supposed to be the savior media codec that gets universal support. It’s royalty-free and it works atop of open-source dav1d decoder that has been built by VideoLAN, best known for its widely popular media player VLC and FFmpeg communities. It is sponsored by the Alliance for Open Media.

Who are the members of Alliance for Open Media? Nearly all the big guys: Apple, Google, Amazon, Netflix, Nvidia, ARM, Facebook, Microsoft, Mozilla, Samsung and Tencent, among others.

But that’s not to say there aren’t roadblocks in the adoption of AV1. Compared to HEVC — the format that AV1 is supposed to replace in popularity — encoding in AV1 was noticeably slower a year ago, as per some benchmark tests.

Adoption of AV1 by various browsers, according to analytics firm StatCounter. Safari is yet to support it.

Netflix’s announcement suggests that things have improved. The streaming giant said its goal is to support AV1 on all of its platforms. “In the spirit of making AV1 widely available, we are sponsoring an open-source effort to optimize 10-bit performance further and make these gains available to all,” it said in a blog post.

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Google Maps adds more crowdsourced transit data and gets a new navigation bar

Posted by | Apps, Google, Google-Maps, Mobile | No Comments

Google is updating Google Maps on Android and iOS with a revamped tab bar at the bottom, a new icon and a couple of new features. In particular, the company is putting more emphasis on user-generated content and recommendations.

At the bottom of the app, you now get five icons — Explore, Commute, Saved, Contribute and Updates. You could already save places and add more information to a Google Maps listing, but those features are now more visible. They’re no longer hidden in a side menu.

The Saved tab lets you easily access your saved places, lists and maps. You can also access the creepy timeline of all your past activity from the same menu now — you can disable location history in your Google account settings.

With the Contribute tab, you can see all your past contributions (reviews, photos, etc.) but also add content directly from that menu. In addition to reviews and photos, you can now directly suggest an edit and add a place from that menu instead of searching for a place and then adding or editing a place.

Finally, the Updates tab combines two existing features in a single view — a feed of recommendation (“For You”) as well messages from businesses. Google added the ability to message businesses in November 2018, but the inbox was a bit buried.

As for crowdsourced transit data, Google is expanding transit data beyond crowdedness reports. Google Maps prompts users to give more information about your bus or train ride at the end of the trip.

Users will now get prompts about the temperature, accessibility features and the presence of security cameras or security guards. In some regions, you’ll be able to say if there’s a women’s section. In Japan, Google Maps will offer you to pick a route with more carriages. Those features will roll out in March.

The company is also announcing some improvements to Live View, the feature that lets you see your route using augmented reality. For instance, you’ll be able to see a pin with your destination so that you get a better sense of where you should be headed.

Finally, Google is updating the Google Maps logo. It’s a more minimalistic Google-colored pin.

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Russia’s push back against big tech has major consequences for Apple

Posted by | Android, Apple, Column, Developer, donald trump, Google, hardware, huawei, LinkedIn, Messenger, Moscow, Pavel Durov, Policy, pornhub, privacy, russia, smart device, Tim Cook, Turkey, Twitter | No Comments
Josh Nadeau
Contributor

Josh Nadeau is a Canadian journalist based in St. Petersburg who covers the intersection of Russia, technology and culture. He has written for The Economist, Atlas Obscura and The Outline.

Last month, Donald Trump took to Twitter to criticize Apple for not unlocking two iPhones belonging to the Pensacola shooter, another volley in the struggle between big tech and the world’s governing bodies. But even the White House’s censure pales in comparison to the Kremlin’s ongoing plans. Apple, as the timing would have it, also happens to be in Vladimir Putin’s sights.

The company’s long-running policy of not preloading third-party software onto its devices is coming up against a new piece of Russian legislation requiring every smart device to be sold with certain applications already installed, many of which are produced by the government. Inside the country, the policy has even been called the zakon protiv Apple, or the “law against Apple,” for how it disproportionately affects the tech giant. While the law was passed last November, the Russian Federal Antimonopoly Service released the full list of apps only last week.

These regulations form the latest move in what’s turning out to be one of the largest national campaigns for digital control outside of Asia. These laws have been steadily accumulating since 2014 and are described as a way of consolidating sovereignty over the digital space — threatening to push companies out of the country if they fail to comply. Apple, for instance, will have to choose by July 1 whether maintaining access to the Russian market is worth making a revolutionary change in their policy. The same choice is given to any company wishing to do business in the country.

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Google’s Glass dreams live on with the arrival of enterprise hardware

Posted by | augmented reality, Gaming, Google, Google Glass, hardware, Wearables | No Comments

Google Glass was ahead of its time. That’s not to say that the people who wore it out in public didn’t look like giant dorks, of course, but in hindsight it seems safe to say that the world just wasn’t ready for wearable augmented reality. The phenomenon has, however, seen a resurgence among enterprise applications, courtesy of companies like Epson and Microsoft.

Google’s ready to ride that wave. In May, the company announced the arrival of the second version of its Enterprise Edition of Glass. Today, the headset is available for developers as a direct purchase from a handful of resellers. The Android-based device, which graduated from Google X mid last year, looks remarkably like the earliest versions of Glass, albeit with a slightly refined design.

Seven years after the arrival of the original model, the Glass Enterprise 2 isn’t cheap, either. It runs $1,000 from partner sites. There are a few suggestions for potential applications, including card text, imaging samples and QR scanning.

As Lucas noted in his initial write-up, the Glass system is much more limited than the likes of the latest HoloLens, which is focused on a more XR experience. Google, instead, is focused on lightweight usability — which could certainly serve as an advantage in certain settings. Key applications for the product include settings like construction sites, where contextual environmental information can otherwise be difficult to access.

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