Google

Google Home’s Philips Hue integration can now wake you up gently

Posted by | Australia, Canada, Companies, consumer electronics, Gadgets, Google, google home, hardware, home appliances, Home Automation, india, lighting, Philips, philips hue, Singapore, United Kingdom, United States | No Comments

Maybe you love the sound of your alarm clock blaring in the morning, heralding a new day full of joy and adventure. More likely, though, you don’t. If you prefer a more gentle wake-up (and have invested in some smart home technology), here’s some good news: Google Home now lets you use your Philips Hue lights to wake you up by slowly changing the light in your room.

Philips first announced this integration at CES earlier this year, with a planned rollout in March. Looks like that took a little while longer, as Google and Philips gently brought this feature to life.

Just like you can use your Home to turn on “Gentle Wake,” which starts changing your lights 30 minutes before your wake-up time to mimic a sunrise, you also can go the opposite way and have the lights mimic sunset as you get ready to go to bed. You can either trigger these light changes through an alarm or with a command that starts them immediately.

While the price of white Hue bulbs has come down in recent years, colored hue lights remain rather pricey, with single bulbs going for around $40. If that doesn’t hold you back, though, the Gentle Sleep and Wake features are now available in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, Singapore and India in English only.

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Google starts rolling out better AMP URLs

Posted by | Amp+, Chrome, digital media, Google, google search, HTML, Mobile, mobile web, online advertising, TC, world wide web | No Comments

Publishers don’t always love Google’s AMP pages, but readers surely appreciate their speed, and while publishers are loath to give Google more power, virtually every major site now supports this format. One AMP quirk that publisher’s definitely never liked is about to go away, though. Starting today, when you use Google Search and click on an AMP link, the browser will display the publisher’s real URLs instead of an “http//google.com/amp” link.

This move has been in the making for well over a year. Last January, the company announced that it was embarking on a multi-month effort to load AMP pages from the Google AMP cache without displaying the Google URL.

At the core of this effort was the new Web Packaging standard, which uses signed exchanges with digital signatures to let the browser trust a document as if it belongs to a publisher’s origin. By default, a browser should reject scripts in a web page that try to access data that doesn’t come from the same origin. Publishers will have to do a bit of extra work, and publish both signed and un-signed versions of their stories.

 

Quite a few publishers already do this, given that Google started alerting publishers of this change in November 2018. For now, though, only Chrome supports the core features behind this service, but other browsers will likely add support soon, too.

For publishers, this is a pretty big deal, given that their domain name is a core part of their brand identity. Using their own URL also makes it easier to get analytics, and the standard grey bar that sits on top of AMP pages and shows the site you are on now isn’t necessary anymore because the name will be in the URL bar.

To launch this new feature, Google also partnered with Cloudflare, which launched its AMP Real URL feature today. It’ll take a bit before it will roll out to all users, who can then enable it with a single click. With this, the company will automatically sign every AMP page it sends to the Google AMP cache. For the time being, that makes Cloudflare the only CDN that supports this feature, though others will surely follow.

“AMP has been a great solution to improve the performance of the internet and we were eager to work with the AMP Project to help eliminate one of AMP’s biggest issues — that it wasn’t served from a publisher’s perspective,” said Matthew Prince, co-founder and CEO of Cloudflare. “As the only provider currently enabling this new solution, our global scale will allow publishers everywhere to benefit from a faster and more brand-aware mobile experience for their content.”

 

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Waymo launches robotaxi app on Google Play

Posted by | Android, Apps, automotive, electric vehicles, Google, Lyft, robotaxi, self-driving car, self-driving cars, transport, Transportation, Uber, waymo | No Comments

Waymo is making its ride-hailing app more widely available by putting it on the Google Play store as the self-driving car company prepares to open its service to more Phoenix residents.

The company, which spun out to become a business under Alphabet, launched a limited commercial robotaxi service called Waymo One in the Phoenix area in December. The Waymo One self-driving car service, and accompanying app, was only available to Phoenix residents who were part of its early rider program, which aimed to bring vetted regular folks into its self-driving minivans.

Technically, Waymo has had Android and iOS apps for some time. But interested riders would only gain access to the app after first applying on the company’s website. Once accepted to the early rider program, they would be sent a link to the app to download to their device.

The early rider program, which launched in April 2017, had more than 400 participants the last time Waymo shared figures. Waymo hasn’t shared information on how many people have moved over to the public service, except to say “hundreds of riders” are using it.

Now, with Waymo One launching on Google Play, the company is cracking the door a bit wider. However, there will be still be limitations to the service.

Interested customers with Android devices can download the app. Unlike a traditional ride-hailing service, like Uber or Lyft, this doesn’t mean users will get instant access. Instead, potential riders will be added to a waitlist. Once accepted, they will be able to request rides in the app.

These new customers will first be invited into Waymo’s early rider program before they’re moved to the public service. This is an important distinction, because early rider program participants have to to sign non-disclosure agreements and can’t bring guests with them. These new riders will eventually be moved to Waymo’s public service, the company said. Riders on the public service can invite guests, take photos and videos and talk about their experience.

“These two offerings are deeply connected, as learnings from our early rider program help shape the experience we ultimately provide to our public riders,” Waymo said in a blog post Tuesday.

Waymo has been creeping toward a commercial service in Phoenix since it began testing self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans in suburbs like Chandler in 2016.

The following year, Waymo launched its early rider program. The company also started testing empty self-driving minivans on public streets that year.

Waymo began in May 2018 to allow some early riders to hail a self-driving minivan without a human test driver behind the wheel. More recently, the company launched a public transit program in Phoenix focused on delivering people to bus stops and train and light-rail stations.

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The definitive Niantic reading guide

Posted by | Apps, augmented reality, Book Review, Cloud, Collaborative Consumption, Developer, EC-1, funding, Gaming, Google, google cloud, harry potter, ingress, john hanke, mobile gaming, niantic, Niantic Labs, Pokémon Go, reading guide, Social, Startups, TC, Venture Capital, Virtual reality | No Comments

In just a few years, Niantic has evolved from internal side project into an independent industry trailblazer. Having reached tremendous scale in such a short period of time, Niantic acts as a poignant crash course for founders and company builders. As our EC-1 deep-dive into the company shows, lessons from the team’s experience building the Niantic’s product offering remain just as fresh as painful flashbacks to the problems encountered along the way.

As we did for our Patreon EC-1, we’ve poured through every analysis we could find on Niantic and have compiled a supplemental list of resources and readings that are particularly useful for getting up to speed on the company.

Reading time for this article is about 9.5 minutes. It is part of the Extra Crunch EC-1 on Niantic. Feature illustration by Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch.

I. Background: The Story of Niantic

Google-Incubated Niantic, Maker of Ingress, Stepping Out on Its Own | August 2015 | In August of 2015, Niantic announced that it would spin out from Google and become an independent company. As discussed in WSJ’s coverage of the news, Niantic looked at the spin out as a way to accelerate growth and collaborate with the broader entertainment ecosystem.

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Google turns your Android phone into a security key

Posted by | Access Control, Android, authentication, Authenticator, computer security, cryptography, Google, google authenticator, Google Cloud Next 2019, hardware, multi-factor authentication, phishing, Security, security token, TC | No Comments

Your Android phone could soon replace your hardware security key to provide two-factor authentication access to your accounts. As the company announced at its Cloud Next conference today, it has developed a Bluetooth-based protocol that will be able to talk to its Chrome browser and provide a standards-based second factor for access to its services, similar to modern security keys.

It’s no secret that two-factor authentication remains one of the best ways to secure your online accounts. Typically, that second factor comes to you in the form of a push notification, text message or through an authentication app like the Google Authenticator. There’s always the risk of somebody intercepting those numbers or phishing your account and then quickly using your second factor to log in, though. Because a physical security key also ensures that you are on the right site before it exchanges the key, it’s almost impossible to phish this second factor. The key simply isn’t going to produce a token on the wrong site.

Because Google is using the same standard here, just with different hardware, that phishing protection remains intact when you use your phone, too.

Bluetooth security keys aren’t a new thing, of course, and Google’s own Titan keys include a Bluetooth version (though they remain somewhat controversial). The user experience for those keys is a bit messy, though, since you have to connect the key and the device first. Google, however, says that it has done away with all of this thanks to a new protocol that uses Bluetooth but doesn’t necessitate the usual Bluetooth connection setup process. Sadly, though, the company didn’t quite go into details as to how this would work.

Google says this new feature will work with all Android 7+ devices that have Bluetooth and location services enabled. Pixel 3 phones, which include Google’s Titan M tamper-resistant security chip, get some extra protections, but the company is mostly positioning this as a bonus and not a necessity.

As far as the setup goes, the whole process isn’t all that different from setting up a security key (and you’ll still want to have a second or third key handy in case you ever lose or destroy your phone). You’ll be able to use this new feature for both work and private Google accounts.

For now, this also only works in combination with Chrome. The hope here, though, is to establish a new standard that will then be integrated into other browsers, as well. It’s only been a week or two since Google enabled support for logging into its own service with security keys on Edge and Firefox. That was a step forward. Now that Google offers a new service that’s even more convenient, though, it’ll likely be a bit before these competing browsers will offer support, too, once again giving Google a bit of an edge.

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Review: The $199 Echo Link turns the fidelity up to 11

Posted by | Amazon, Amazon Echo, amazon music unlimited, computing, echo, Echo Link, Gadgets, Google, google home, hardware, microsoft windows, operating systems, Pandora, smart speakers, Sonos, Spotify, streaming services | No Comments

The Echo Link takes streaming music and makes it sound better. Just wirelessly connect it to an Echo device and plug it into a set of nice speakers. It’s the missing link.

The Link bridges the gap between streaming music and a nice audio system. Instead of settling for the analog connection of an Echo Dot, the Echo Link serves audio over a digital connection and it makes just enough of a difference to justify the $200 price.

I plugged the Eco Link into the audio system in my office and was pleased with the results. This is the Echo device I’ve been waiting for.

In my case, the Echo Link took Spotfiy’s 320 kbps stream and opened it up. The Link creates a wider soundstage and makes the music a bit more full and expansive. The bass hits a touch harder and the highs now have a newfound crispness. Lyrics are clearer and easier to pick apart. The differences are subtle. Everything is just slightly improved over the sound quality found when using an Echo Dot’s 3.5mm output.

Don’t have a set of nice speakers? That’s okay; Amazon also just released the Echo Link Amp, which features a built-in amplifier capable of powering a set of small speakers.

Here’s the thing: I’m surprised Amazon is making the Echo Link. The device caters to what must be a small demographic of Echo owners looking to improve the quality of Pandora or Spotify when using an audio system. And yet, without support for local or streaming high-resolution audio, it’s not good enough for audiophiles. This is for wannabe audiophiles. Hey, that’s me.

Review

There are Echo’s scattered throughout my house. The devices provide a fantastic way to access music and NPR. The tiny Echo Link is perfect for the system in my office where I have a pair of Definitive Technology bookshelf speakers powered by an Onkyo receiver and amp. I have a turntable and SACD player connected to the receiver, but those are a hassle when I’m at my desk. The majority of the time I listen to Spotify through the Amazon Echo Input.

I added the Onkyo amplifier to the system last year and it made a huge difference to the quality. The music suddenly had more power. The two-channel amp pushes harder than the receiver, and resulted in audio that was more expansive and clear. And at any volume, too. I didn’t know what I was missing. That’s the trick with audio. Most of the time the audio sounds great until it suddenly sounds better. The Echo Link provided me with the same feeling of discovery.

To be clear, the $200 Echo Link does not provide a night and day difference in my audio quality. It’s a slight upgrade over the audio outputted by a $20 Echo Input — and don’t forget, an Echo device (like the $20 Echo Input) is required to make the Echo Link work.

The Echo Link provides the extra juice lacking from the Echo Input or Dot. Those less-expensive options output audio to an audio system, but only through an analog connection. The Echo Link offers a digital connection through Toslink or Digital Coax. It has analog outputs that’s powered by a DAC with a superior dynamic range and total harmonic distortion found in the Input or Dot. It’s an easy way to improve the quality of music from streaming services.

The Echo Link, and Echo Link Amp, also feature a headphone amp. It’s an interesting detail. With this jack, someone could have the Echo Link on their desk and use it to power a set of headphones without any loss of quality.

I set up a simple A/B test to spot the differences between a Link and a Dot. First, I connected the Echo Link with a Toslink connection to my receiver and an Echo Input. I also connected an Echo Dot through its 3.5mm analog connection to the receiver. I created a group in the Alexa app of the devices. This allowed each of the devices to play the same source simultaneously. Then, as needed, I was able to switch between the Dot and Link with just a touch of a button, providing an easy and quick way to test the differences.

I’ll leave it up to you to justify the cost. To me, as someone who has invested money into a quality audio system, the extra cost of the Echo Link is worth it. But to others, an Echo Dot could be enough.

It’s important to note that the Echo Link works a bit differently than other Echo devices connected to an audio system. When, say, a Dot is connected to an audio system, the internal speakers are turned off and all of the audio is sent to the system. The Echo Link doesn’t have to override the companion Echo. When an Echo Link is connected to an Echo device, the Echo still responds through its internal speakers; only music is sent to the Echo Link. For example, when the Echo is asked about the weather, the forecast is played back through the speakers in the Echo and not the audio system connected to the Echo Link. In most cases, this allows the owner to turn off the high-power speakers and still have access to voice commands on the Echo.

The Echo Link takes streaming music and instantly improves the quality. In my case, the improvements were slight but noticeable. It works with all the streaming services supported by Echo devices, but it’s important to note it does not work with Tidal’s high-res Master Audio tracks. The best the Echo Link can do is 320 kbps from Spotify or Tidal. This is a limiting factor and it’s not surprising. If the Echo Link supported Tidal’s Master Tracks, I would likely sign up for that service, and that is not in the best interest of Amazon, which hopes I sign up for Amazon Music Unlimited.

I spoke to Amazon about the Echo Link’s lack of support for Tidal Master Tracks and they indicated they’re interested in hearing how customers will use the device before committing to adding support.

The Link is interesting. Google doesn’t have anything similar in its Google Home Line. The Sonos Amp is similar, but with a built-in amplifier, it’s a closer competitor to the Echo Link Amp. Several high-end audio companies sell components that can stream audio over digital connections, yet none are as easy to use or as inexpensive as the Echo Link. The Echo Link is the easiest way to improve the sound of streaming music services.

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The Google Assistant on Android gets more visual responses

Posted by | Android, artificial intelligence, Assistant, Google, Google Assistant, google now, google search, Mobile, TC | No Comments

About half a year ago, Google gave the Assistant on phones a major visual refresh. Today, the company is following up with a couple of small but welcome tweaks that’ll see the Assistant on Android provide more and better visual responses that are more aligned with what users already expect to see from other Google services.

That means when you ask for events now, for example, the response will look exactly like what you’d see if you tried the same query from your mobile browser. Until now, Google showed a somewhat pared-down version in the Assistant.

Also — and this is going to be a bit of a controversial change — when the Assistant decides that the best answer is simply a list of websites (or when it falls back to those results because it simply doesn’t have any other answer), the Assistant used to show you a couple of boxes in a vertical layout that were not exactly user-friendly. Now, the Assistant will simply show the standard Google Search layout.

Seems like a good idea, so why would that be controversial? Together with the search results, Google will also show its usual Search ads. This marks the first time that Google is showing ads in the Assistant experience. To be fair, the Assistant will only show these kinds of results for a very small number of queries, but users will likely worry that Google will bring more ads to the rest of the Assistant.

Google tells me that advertisers can’t target their ads to Assistant users and won’t get any additional information about them.

The Assistant will now also show built-in mortgage calculators, color pickers, a tip calculator and a bubble level when you ask for those. Also, when you ask for a stock quote, you’ll now see a full interactive graph, not just the current price of the quote.

These new features are rolling out to Android phones in the U.S. now. As usual, it may take a bit before you see them pop up on your own phone.

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Fleksy’s AI keyboard is getting a store to put mini apps at chatters’ fingertips

Posted by | Android, api, Apple, Apps, artificial intelligence, barcelona, e-commerce, Europe, european commission, fleksy, Fleksyapps, Fleksynext, flight search, gboard, gif, Google, imessage, Instant Messaging, keyboard apps, Messenger, Mobile, Pinterest, play store, Qwant, Skyscanner, smartphone, social media, Startups, SwiftKey, TC, Thingthing, tripadvisor, United States, WeChat | No Comments

Remember Fleksy? The customizable Android keyboard app has a new trick up its sleeve: It’s adding a store where users can find and add lightweight third party apps to enhance their typing experience.

Right now it’s launched a taster, preloading a selection of ‘mini apps’ into the keyboard — some from very familiar brand names, some a little less so — so users can start to see how it works.

The first in-keyboard apps are Yelp (local services search); Skyscanner (flight search); Giphy (animated Gif search); GifNote (music Gifs; launching for U.S. users only for rights reasons); Vlipsy (reaction video clips); and Emogi (stickers) — with “many more” branded apps slated as coming in the next few months.

They’re not saying exactly what other brands are coming but there are plenty of familiar logos to be spotted in their press materials — from Spotify to Uber to JustEat to Tripadvisor to PayPal and more…

The full keyboard store itself — which will let users find and add and/or delete apps — will be launching at the end of this month.

The latest version of the Fleksy app can be downloaded for free via the Play Store.

Mini apps made for messaging

The core idea for these mini apps (aka Fleksyapps) is to offer lightweight additions designed to serve the messaging use case.

Say, for example, you’re chatting about where to eat and a friend suggests sushi. The Yelp Fleksyapp might pop up a contextual suggestion for a nearby Japanese restaurant that can be shared directly into the conversation — thereby saving time by doing away with the need for someone to cut out of the chat, switch apps, find some relevant info and cut and paste it back into the chat.

Fleksyapps are intended to be helpful shortcuts that keep the conversation flowing. They also of course put brands back into the conversation.

“We couldn’t be more excited to bring the power of the world’s popular songs with GIFs, videos and photos to the new Fleksyapps platform,” says Gifnote co-founder, John vanSuchtelen, in a supporting statement.

Fleksy’s mini apps appear above the Qwerty keyboard — in much the same space as a next-word prediction. The user can scroll through the app stack (each a tiny branded circle until tapped on to expand) and choose one to interact with. It’s similar to the micro apps lodged in Apple’s iMessage but on Android where iMessage isn’t… The team also plans for Fleksy to support a much wider range of branded apps — hence the Fleksyapps store.

In-keyboard apps is not a new concept for the dev team behind Fleksy; an earlier keyboard app of theirs (called ThingThing) offered micro apps they built themselves as a tool to extend its utility.

But now they’re hoping to garner backing and buy in from third party brands excited about the exposure and reach they could gain by being where users spend the most device time: The keyboard.

“Think of it a bit like the iMessage equivalent but on Android across any app. Or the WeChat mini program but inside the keyboard, available everywhere — not only in one app,” CEO Olivier Plante tells TechCrunch. “That’s a problem of messaging apps these days. All of them are verticals but the keyboard is horizontal. So that’s the benefit for those brands. And the user will have the ability to move them around, add some, to remove some, to explore, to discover.”

“The brands that want to join our platform they have the option of being preloaded by default. The analogy is that by default on the home screen of a phone you are by default in our keyboard. And moving forward you’ll be able to have a membership — you’re becoming a ‘brand member’ of the Fleksyapps platform, and you can have your brand inside the keyboard,” he adds.

The first clutch of Fleksyapps were developed jointly, with the team working with the brands in question. But Plante says they’re planning to launch a tool in future so brands will be able to put together their own apps — in as little as just a few hours.

“We’re opening this array of functionalities and there’s a lot of verticals possible,” he continues. “In the future months we will embed new capabilities for the platform — new type of apps. You can think about professional apps, or cloud apps. Accessing your files from different types of clouds. You have the weather vertical. You have ecommerce vertical. You have so many verticals.

“What you have on the app store today will be reflected into the Fleksyappstore. But really with the focus of messaging and being useful in messaging. So it’s not the full app that we want to bring in — it’s really the core functionality of this app.”

The Yelp Fleksyapp, for example, only includes the ability to see nearby places and search for and share places. So it’s intentionally stripped down. “The core benefit for the brand is it gives them the ability to extend their reach,” says Plante. “We don’t want to compete with the app, per se, we just want to bring these types of app providers inside the messenger on Android across any app.”

On the user side, the main advantage he touts is “it’s really, really fast — fleshing that out to: “It’s very lightweight, it’s very, very fast and we want to become the fastest access to content across any app.”

Users of Fleksyapps don’t need to have the full app installed because the keyboard plugs directly into the API of each branded service. So they get core functionality in bite-sized form without a requirement to download the full app. (Of course they can if they wish.)

So Plante also notes the approach has benefits vis-a-vis data consumption — which could be an advantage in emerging markets where smartphone users’ choices may be hard-ruled by the costs of data and/or connectivity limits.

“For those types of users it gives them an ability to access content but in a very light way — where the app itself, loading the app, loading all the content inside the app can be megabits. In Fleksy you’re talking about kilobits,” he says.

Privacy-sensitive next app suggestions

While baking a bunch of third party apps into a keyboard might sound like a privacy nightmare, the dev team behind Fleksy have been careful to make sure users remain in control.

To wit: Also on board is an AI keyboard assistant (called Fleksynext) — aka “a neural deep learning engine” — which Plante says can detect the context, intention and sentiment of conversations in order to offer “very useful” app suggestions as the chat flows.

The idea is the AI supports the substance of the chat by offering useful functionality from whatever pick and mix of apps are available. Plante refers to these AI-powered ‘next app’ suggestions as “pops”.

And — crucially, from a privacy point of view — the Fleksynext suggestion engine operates locally, on device.

That means no conversation data is sent out of the keyboard. Indeed, Plante says nothing the user types in the keyboard itself is shared with brands (including suggestions that pop up but get ignored). So there’s no risk — as with some other keyboard apps — of users being continually strip-mined for personal data to profile them as they type.

That said, if the user chooses to interact with a Fleksyapp (or its suggestive pop) they are then interacting with a third party’s API. So the usual tracking caveats apply.

“We interact with the web so there’s tracking everywhere,” admits Plante. “But, per se, there’s not specific sensitive data that is shared suddenly with someone. It is not related with the service itself — with the Fleksy app.”

The key point is that the keyboard user gets to choose which apps they want to use and which they don’t. So they can choose which third parties they want to share their plans and intentions with and which they don’t.

“We’re not interesting in making this an advertising platform where the advertiser decides everything,” emphasizes Plante. “We want this to be really close to the user. So the user decides. My intentions. My sentiment. What I type decides. And that is really our goal. The user is able to power it. He can tap on the suggestion or ignore it. And then if he taps on it it’s a very good quality conversion because the user really wants to access restaurants nearby or explore flights for escaping his daily routine… or transfer money. That could be another use-case for instance.”

They won’t be selling brands a guaranteed number of conversions, either.

That’s clearly very important because — to win over users — Fleksynext suggestions will need to feel telepathically useful, rather than irritating, misfired nag. Though the risk of that seems low given how Fleksy users can customize the keyboard apps to only see stuff that’s useful to them.

“In a sense we’re starting reshape a bit how advertising is seen by putting the user in the center,” suggests Plante. “And giving them a useful means of accessing content. This is the original vision and we’ve been very loyal to that — and we think it can reshape the landscape.”

“When you look into five years from now, the smartphone we have will be really, really powerful — so why process things in the cloud? When you can process things on the phone. That’s what we are betting on: Processing everything on the phone,” he adds.

When the full store launches users will be able to add and delete (any) apps — included preloads. So they will be in the driving seat. (We asked Plante to a confirm the user will be able to delete all apps, including any pre-loadeds and he said yes. So if you take him at his word Fleksy will not be cutting any deals with OEMs or carriers to indelibly preload certain Fleksyapps. Or, to put it another way, crapware baked into the keyboard is most definitely not plan.)

Depending on what other Fleksyapps launch in future a Fleksy keyboard user could choose to add, for example, a search service like DuckDuckGo or France’s Qwant to power a pro-privacy alternative to using Google search in the keyboard. Or they could choose Google.

Again the point is the choice is theirs.

Scaling a keyboard into a platform

The idea of keyboard-as-platform offers at least the possibility of reintroducing the choice and variety of smartphone app stores back before the cynical tricks of attention-harvesting tech giants used their network effects and platform power to throttle the app economy.

The Android keyboard space was also a fertile experiment ground in years past. But it’s now dominated by Google’s Gboard and Microsoft-acquired Swiftkey. Which makes Fleksy the plucky upstart gunning to scale an independent alternative that’s not owned by big tech and is open to any third party that wants to join its mini apps party.

“It will be Bing search for Swiftkey, it will be Google search for Gboard, it will be Google Music, it will be YouTube. But on our side we can have YouTube, we can also have… other services that exist for video. The same way with pictures and the same way for file-sharing and drive. So you have Google Drive but you have Dropbox, you have OneDrive, there’s a lot of services in the cloud. And we want to be the platform that has them all, basically,” says Plante.

The original founding team of the Fleksy keyboard was acqui-hired by Pinterest back in 2016, leaving the keyboard app itself to languish with minimal updates. Then two years ago Barcelona-based keyboard app maker, ThingThing, stepped in to take over development.

Plante confirms it’s since fully acquired the Fleksy keyboard technology itself — providing a solid foundation for the keyboard-as-platform business it’s now hoping to scale with the launch of Fleksyapps.

Talking of scale, he tells us the startup is in the process of raising a multi-million Series A — aiming to close this summer. (ThingThing last took in $800,000 via equity crowdfunding last fall.)

The team’s investor pitch is the keyboard offers perhaps the only viable conduit left on mobile to reset the playing field for brands by offering a route to cut through tech giant walled gardens and get where users are spending most of their time and attention: i.e. typing and sharing stuff with their friends in private one-to-one and group chats.

That means the keyboard-as-platform has the potential to get brands of all stripes back in front of users — by embedding innovative, entertaining and helpful bite-sized utility where it can prove its worth and amass social currency on the dominant messaging platforms people use.

The next step for the rebooted Fleksy team is of course building scale by acquiring users for a keyboard which, as of half a year ago, only had around 1M active users from pure downloads.

Its strategy on this front is to target Android device makers to preload Fleksy as the default keyboard.

ThingThing’s business model is a revenue share on any suggestions the keyboard converts, which it argues represent valuable leads for brands — given the level of contextual intention. It is also intending to charge brands that want to be preloaded on the Fleksy keyboard by default.

Again, though, a revenue share model requires substantial scale to work. Not least because brands will need to see evidence of scale to buy into the Fleksyapps’ vision.

Plante isn’t disclosing active users of the Fleksy keyboard right now. But says he’s confident they’re on track to hit 30M-35M active users this year — on account of around ten deals he says are in the pipeline with device makers to preload Fleksy’s keyboard. (Palm was an early example, as we reported last year.)

The carrot for OEMs to join the Fleksyapps party is they’re cutting them in on the revenue share from user interactions with branded keyboard apps — playing to device makers’ needs to find ways to boost famously tight hardware margins.

“The fact that the keyboard can monetize and provide value to the phone brands — this is really massive for them,” argues Plante. “The phone brands can expect revenue flowing in their bank account because we give the brands distribution and the handset manufacturer will make money and we will make money.”

It’s a smart approach, and one that’s essentially only possible because Google’s own Gboard keyboard doesn’t come preloaded on the majority of Android devices. (Exceptions include its own Pixel brand devices.) So — unusually for a core phone app on Android — there’s a bit of an open door where the keyboard sits, instead of the usual preloaded Google wares. And that’s an opportunity.

Markets wise, ThingThing is targeting OEMs in all global regions with its Fleksy pitch — barring China (which Plante readily admits it too complex for a small startup to sensibly try jumping at).

Apps vs tech giants

In its stamping ground of Europe there are warm regulatory winds blowing too: An European Commission antitrust intervention last year saw Google hit with a $5BN fine over anti-competitive practices attached to its Android platform — forcing the company to change local licensing terms.

That antirust decision means mobile makers finally have the chance to unbundle Google apps from devices they sell in the region.

Which translates into growing opportunities for OEMs to rethink their Android strategies. Even as Google remains under pressure not to get in the way by force feeding any more of its wares.

Really, a key component of this shift is that device makers are being told to think, to look around and see what else is out there. For the first time there looks to be a viable chance to profit off of Android without having to preload everything Google wants.

“For us it’s a super good sign,” says Plante of the Commission decision. “Every monopolistic situation is a problem. And the market needs to be fragmented. Because if not we’re just going to lose innovation. And right now Europe — and I see good progress for the US as well — are trying to dismantle the imposed power of those big guys. For the simple evolution of human being and technology and the future of us.”

“I think good things can happen,” he adds. “We’re in talks with handset manufacturers who are coming into Europe and they want to be the most respectful of the market. And with us they have this reassurance that you have a good partner that ensures there’s a revenue stream, there’s a business model behind it, there’s really a strong use-case for users.

“We can finally be where we always wanted to be: A choice, an alternative. But having Google imposing its way since start — and making sure that all the direct competition of Google is just a side, I think governments have now seen the problem. And we’re a winner of course because we’re a keyboard.”

But what about iOS? Plante says the team has plans to bring what they’re building with Fleksy to Apple’s mobile platform too, in time. But for now they’re fully focusing efforts on Android — to push for scale and execute on their vision of staking their claim to be the independent keyboard platform.

Apple has supported third party keyboards on iOS for years. Unfortunately, though, the experience isn’t great — with a flaky toggle to switch away from the default Apple keyboard, combined with heavy system warnings about the risks of using third party keyboards.

Meanwhile the default iOS keyboard ‘just works’ — and users have loads of extra features baked by default into Apple’s native messaging app, iMessage.

Clearly alternative keyboards have found it all but impossible to build any kind of scale in that iOS pincer.

“iOS is coming later because we need to focus on these distribution deals and we need to focus on the brands coming into the platform. And that’s why iOS right now we’re really focusing for later. What we can say is it will come later,” says Plante, adding: “Apple limits a lot keyboards. You can see it with other keyboard companies. It’s the same. The update cycle for iOS keyboard is really, really, really slow.”

Plus, of course, Fleksy being preloaded as a default keyboard on — the team hopes — millions of Android devices is a much more scalable proposition vs just being another downloadable app languishing invisibly on the side lines of another tech giant’s platform.

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Gmail turns 15, gets Smart Compose improvements and email scheduling

Posted by | Android, computing, email, G Suite, gmail, Google, Google Allo, Mobile, mobile software, operating systems, webmail | No Comments

Exactly 15 years ago, Google decided to confuse everybody by launching its long-awaited web-based email client on April 1. This definitely wasn’t a joke, though, and Gmail went on to become one of Google’s most successful products. Today, to celebrate its fifteenth birthday (and maybe make you forget about today’s final demise of Inbox and tomorrow’s shutdown of Google+), the Gmail team announced a couple of new and useful Gmail features, including improvements to Smart Compose and the ability to schedule emails to be sent in the future.

Smart Compose, which tries to autocomplete your emails as you type them, will now be able to adapt to the way you write the greetings in your emails. If you prefer “Hey” over “Hi,” then Smart Compose will learn that. If you often fret over which subject to use for your emails, then there’s some relief here for you, too, because Smart Compose can now suggest a subject line based on the content of your email.

With this update, Smart Compose is now also available on all Android devices. Google says that it was previously only available on Pixel 3 devices, though I’ve been using it on my Pixel 2 for a while already, too. Support for iOS is coming soon.

In addition to this, Smart Compose is also coming to four new languages: Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese.

That’s all very useful, but the feature that will likely get the most attention today is email scheduling. The idea here is as simple as the execution. The “Send” button now includes a drop-down menu that lets you schedule an email to be sent at a later time. Until now, you needed third-party services to do this, but now it’s directly integrated into Gmail.

Google is positioning the new feature as a digital wellness tool. “We understand that work can often carry over to non-business hours, but it’s important to be considerate of everyone’s downtime,” Jacob Bank, director of Product Management, G Suite, writes in today’s announcement. “We want to make it easier to respect everyone’s digital well-being, so we’re adding a new feature to Gmail that allows you to choose when an email should be sent.”

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Android users’ security and privacy at risk from shadowy ecosystem of pre-installed software, study warns

Posted by | Adtech, Advertising Tech, Android, Apps, Facebook, Google, Google Play, Google Play Store, Mobile, pre-installed software, privacy, Security, trackers | No Comments

A large-scale independent study of pre-installed Android apps has cast a critical spotlight on the privacy and security risks that preloaded software poses to users of the Google developed mobile platform.

The researchers behind the paper, which has been published in preliminary form ahead of a future presentation at the IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy, unearthed a complex ecosystem of players with a primary focus on advertising and “data-driven services” — which they argue the average Android user is unlikely to be unaware of (while also likely lacking the ability to uninstall/evade the baked in software’s privileged access to data and resources themselves).

The study, which was carried out by researchers at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) and the IMDEA Networks Institute, in collaboration with the International Computer Science Institute (ICSI) at Berkeley (USA) and Stony Brook University of New York (US), encompassed more than 82,000 pre-installed Android apps across more than 1,700 devices manufactured by 214 brands, according to the IMDEA institute.

“The study shows, on the one hand, that the permission model on the Android operating system and its apps allow a large number of actors to track and obtain personal user information,” it writes. “At the same time, it reveals that the end user is not aware of these actors in the Android terminals or of the implications that this practice could have on their privacy.  Furthermore, the presence of this privileged software in the system makes it difficult to eliminate it if one is not an expert user.”

An example of a well-known app that can come pre-installed on certain Android devices is Facebook .

Earlier this year the social network giant was revealed to have inked an unknown number of agreements with device makers to preload its app. And while the company has claimed these pre-installs are just placeholders — unless or until a user chooses to actively engage with and download the Facebook app, Android users essentially have to take those claims on trust with no ability to verify the company’s claims (short of finding a friendly security researcher to conduct a traffic analysis) nor remove the app from their device themselves. Facebook pre-loads can only be disabled, not deleted entirely.

The company’s preloads also sometimes include a handful of other Facebook-branded system apps which are even less visible on the device and whose function is even more opaque.

Facebook previously confirmed to TechCrunch there’s no ability for Android users to delete any of its preloaded Facebook system apps either.

Facebook uses Android system apps to ensure people have the best possible user experience including reliably receiving notifications and having the latest version of our apps. These system apps only support the Facebook family of apps and products, are designed to be off by default until a person starts using a Facebook app, and can always be disabled,” a Facebook spokesperson told us earlier this month.

But the social network is just one of scores of companies involved in a sprawling, opaque and seemingly interlinked data gathering and trading ecosystem that Android supports and which the researchers set out to shine a light into.

In all 1,200 developers were identified behind the pre-installed software they found in the data-set they examined, as well as more than 11,000 third party libraries (SDKs). Many of the preloaded apps were found to display what the researchers dub potentially dangerous or undesired behavior.

The data-set underpinning their analysis was collected via crowd-sourcing methods — using a purpose-built app (called Firmware Scanner), and pulling data from the Lumen Privacy Monitor app. The latter provided the researchers with visibility on mobile traffic flow — via anonymized network flow metadata obtained from its users. 

They also crawled the Google Play Store to compare their findings on pre-installed apps with publicly available apps — and found that just 9% of the package names in their dataset were publicly indexed on Play. 

Another concerning finding relates to permissions. In addition to standard permissions defined in Android (i.e. which can be controlled by the user) the researchers say they identified more than 4,845 owner or “personalized” permissions by different actors in the manufacture and distribution of devices.

So that means they found systematic user permissions workarounds being enabled by scores of commercial deals cut in a non-transparency data-driven background Android software ecosystem.

“This type of permission allows the apps advertised on Google Play to evade Android’s permission model to access user data without requiring their consent upon installation of a new app,” writes the IMDEA.

The top-line conclusion of the study is that the supply chain around Android’s open source model is characterized by a lack of transparency — which in turn has enabled an ecosystem to grow unchecked and get established that’s rife with potentially harmful behaviors and even backdoored access to sensitive data, all without most Android users’ consent or awareness. (On the latter front the researchers carried out a small-scale survey of consent forms of some Android phones to examine user awareness.)

tl;dr the phrase ‘if it’s free you’re the product’ is a too trite cherry atop a staggeringly large yet entirely submerged data-gobbling iceberg. (Not least because Android smartphones don’t tend to be entirely free.)

“Potential partnerships and deals — made behind closed doors between stakeholders — may have made user data a commodity before users purchase their devices or decide to install software of their own,” the researchers warn. “Unfortunately, due to a lack of central authority or trust system to allow verification and attribution of the self-signed certificates that are used to sign apps, and due to a lack of any mechanism to identify the purpose and legitimacy of many of these apps and custom permissions, it is difficult to attribute unwanted and harmful app behaviors to the party or parties responsible. This has broader negative implications for accountability and liability in this ecosystem as a whole.”

The researchers go on to make a series of recommendations intended to address the lack of transparency and accountability in the Android ecosystem — including suggesting the introduction and use of certificates signed by globally-trusted certificate authorities, or a certificate transparency repository “dedicated to providing details and attribution for certificates used to sign various Android apps, including pre-installed apps, even if self-signed”.

They also suggest Android devices should be required to document all pre-installed apps, plus their purpose, and name the entity responsible for each piece of software — and do so in a manner that is “accessible and understandable to users”.

“[Android] users are not clearly informed about third-party software that is installed on their devices, including third-party tracking and advertising services embedded in many pre-installed apps, the types of data they collect from them, the capabilities and the amount of control they have on their devices, and the partnerships that allow information to be shared and control to be given to various other companies through custom permissions, backdoors, and side-channels. This necessitates a new form of privacy policy suitable for preinstalled apps to be defined and enforced to ensure that private information is at least communicated to the user in a clear and accessible way, accompanied by mechanisms to enable users to make informed decisions about how or whether to use such devices without having to root their devices,” they argue, calling for overhaul of what’s long been a moribund T&Cs system, from a consumer rights point of view.

In conclusion they couch the study as merely scratching the surface of “a much larger problem”, saying their hope for the work is to bring more attention to the pre-installed Android software ecosystem and encourage more critical examination of its impact on users’ privacy and security.

They also write that they intend to continue to work on improving the tools used to gather the data-set, as well as saying their plan is to “gradually” make the data-set itself available to the research community and regulators to encourage others to dive in.  

Google has responded to the paper with the following statement — attributed to a spokesperson:

We appreciate the work of the researchers and have been in contact with them regarding concerns we have about their methodology. Modern smartphones include system software designed by their manufacturers to ensure their devices run properly and meet user expectations. The researchers’ methodology is unable to differentiate pre-installed system software — such as diallers, app stores and diagnostic tools–from malicious software that has accessed the device at a later time, making it difficult to draw clear conclusions. We work with our OEM partners to help them ensure the quality and security of all apps they decide to pre-install on devices, and provide tools and infrastructure to our partners to help them scan their software for behavior that violates our standards for privacy and security. We also provide our partners with clear policies regarding the safety of pre-installed apps, and regularly give them information about potentially dangerous pre-loads we’ve identified.
This report was updated with comment from Google

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