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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Google will lose $50 million or more in 2018 from Fortnite bypassing the Play Store

Posted by | Android, android apps, Android games, Apps, epic games, fortnite, games, Gaming, Google, Mobile, play store, sensor tower | No Comments

When Fortnite Battle Royale launched on Android, it made an unusual choice: it bypassed Google Play in favor of offering the game directly from Epic Games’ own website. Most apps and games don’t have the luxury of making this choice – the built-in distribution Google Play offers is critical to their business. But Epic Games believes its game is popular enough and has a strong enough draw to bring players to its website for the Android download instead. In the process, it’s costing Google around $50 million this year in platform fees, according to a new report.

As of its Android launch date, Fortnite had grossed over $180 million on iOS devices, where it had been exclusively available since launching as an invite-only beta on March 15th, before later expanding to all App Store customers.

According to data from app store intelligence firm Sensor Tower, the game has earned Apple more than $54 million thanks to its 30 percent cut of all the in-app spending that takes place on apps distributed in its store.

That’s money Epic Games isn’t apparently willing to give up to Google, when there’s another way.

Unlike Apple, which only allows apps to be downloaded from its own storefront, Google’s platform is more open. There’s a way to adjust an Android device’s settings to download apps and games from anywhere on the web. Of course, by doing so, users are exposed to more security risks, malware infections, and other malicious attacks.

For those reasons, security researchers are saying that Epic Games’ decision sets a dangerous precedent by encouraging people to remove the default security protections from their devices. They’re also concerned that users who look for the game on Google Play could be fooled into downloading suspicious copycat apps that may be trying to take advantage of Fortnite’s absence to scam mobile users.

Google seems to be worried about that, too.

For the first time ever, the company is informing Google Play users that a game is not available for download.

Now, when users search for things like “Fortnite” or “Fortnite Battle Royale,” Google Play will respond that the app is “not available on Google Play.” (One has to wonder if Google’s misspelling of “Royale” as “Royal” in its message was a little eff u to the gamemakers, or just a bit of incompetence.)

In any event, it’s an unusual response on Google’s part – and one it can believably claim was done to serve users as well as protect them from any potential scam apps.

However, the message could lead to some pressure on Epic Games, too. It could encourage consumer complaints from those who want to more easily (or more safely) download the game, as well as from those who don’t understand there’s an alternative method or are confused about how that method works.

In addition, Google is serving up the also hugely popular PUBG Mobile at the top of Fortnite search results followed by other games. In doing so, it’s sending users to another game that can easily eat up users’ time and attention.

For Google, the move by Epic Games is likely troubling, as it could prompt other large games to do the same. While one odd move by Epic Games won’t be a make or break situation for Google Play revenue (which always lags iOS), if it became the norm, Google’s losses could climb.

At present, Google is missing out on millions that will now go directly to the game publisher itself.

Over the rest of 2018, Sensor Tower believes Fortnite will have gained at least $50 million in revenues that would otherwise have been paid out to Google.

The firm expects that when Fortnite rolls out to all supported Android devices, its launch revenue on the platform will closely resemble the first several months of Apple App Store player spending.

It may even surpass it, given the game’s popularity continues growing and the standalone download allows it to reach players in countries where Google Play isn’t available.

Meanwhile, there have been concerns that the download makes it more difficult on users with older Android devices to access the game, because the process for sideloading apps isn’t as straightforward. But Sensor Tower says this will not have a large enough impact to affect Fortnite’s revenue potential in the long run.

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Apple defends decision not to remove InfoWars’ app

Posted by | Alex Jones, Android, app-store, Apple, apple inc, Apps, hate speech, Infowars, iOS, iTunes, online marketplaces, play store, Policy, Social | No Comments

Apple has commented on its decision to continue to allow conspiracy theorist profiteer InfoWars to live stream video podcasts via an app in its App Store, despite removing links to all but one of Alex Jones’ podcast content from its iTunes and podcast apps earlier this week.

At the time Apple said the podcasts had violated its community standards, emphasizing that it “does not tolerate hate speech”, and saying: “We believe in representing a wide range of views, so long as people are respectful to those with differing opinions.”

Yet the InfoWars app allows iOS users to live stream the same content Apple just pulled from iTunes.

In a statement given to BuzzFeed News Apple explains its decision not to pull InfoWars app’ — saying:

We strongly support all points of view being represented on the App Store, as long as the apps are respectful to users with differing opinions, and follow our clear guidelines, ensuring the App Store is a safe marketplace for all. We continue to monitor apps for violations of our guidelines and if we find content that violates our guidelines and is harmful to users we will remove those apps from the store as we have done previously.

Multiple tech platforms have moved to close to door or limit Jones’ reach on their platforms in recent weeks, including Google, which shuttered his YouTube channel, and Facebook, which removed a series of videos and banned Jones’ personal account for 30 days as well as issuing the InfoWars page with a warning strike. Spotify, Pinterest, LinkedIn, MailChimp and others have also taken action.

Although Twitter has not banned or otherwise censured Jones — despite InfoWars’ continued presence on its platform threatening CEO Jack Dorsey’s claimed push to want to improve conversational health on his platform. Snapchat is also merely monitoring Jones’ continued presence on its platform.

In an unsurprising twist, the additional exposure Jones/InfoWars has gained as a result of news coverage of the various platform bans appears to have given his apps some passing uplift…

Well, the bans were great for Infowars app downloads. It’s the No. 4 news app in Apple’s App Store today, ranking above all mainstream news organizations.

(And yes, Apple and Google deleted some Infowars content but kept their apps available.) pic.twitter.com/NrJf0IIbnd

— Jack Nicas (@jacknicas) August 7, 2018

So Apple’s decision to remove links to Jones’ podcasts yet allow the InfoWars app looks contradictory.

The company is certainly treading a fine line here. But there’s a technical distinction between a link to a podcast in a directory, where podcast makers can freely list their stuff (with the content hosted elsewhere), vs an app in Apple’s App Store which has gone through Apple’s review process and the content is being hosted by Apple.

What percentage of people who discussed Infowars today understood the distinction between a podcast directory, actual file hosting, and whether software would allow manually adding a feed or listening to content?

— Ricky Mondello (@rmondello) August 7, 2018

When it removed Jones’ podcasts Apple was, in effect, just removing a pointer to the content, not the content itself. The podcasts also represented discrete content — meaning each episode which was being pointed to could be judged against Apple’s community standards. (And one podcast link was not removed, for example, though five were.)

Whereas Jones (mostly) uses the InfoWars app to live stream podcast shows. Meaning the content in the InfoWars app is more ephemeral — making it more difficult for Apple to cross-check against its community standards. The streamer has to be caught in the act, as it were.

Google has also not pulled the InfoWars app from its Play Store despite shuttering Jones’ YouTube channel, and a spokesperson told BuzzFeed: “We carefully review content on our platforms and products for violations of our terms and conditions, or our content policies. If an app or user violates these, we take action.”

That said, both the iOS and Android versions of the app also include ‘articles’ that can be saved by users, so some of the content appears to be less ephemeral.

The iOS listing further claims the app lets users “stay up to date with articles as they’re published from Infowars.com” — which at least suggests some of the content is identical to what’s being spouted on Jones’ own website (where he’s only subject to his own T&Cs).

But in order to avoid failing foul of Apple and Google’s app store guidelines, Jones is likely carefully choosing which articles are funneled into the apps — to avoid breaching app store T&Cs against abuse and hateful conduct, and (most likely also) to hook more eyeballs with more soft-ball conspiracy nonsense before, once people are pulled into his orbit, blasting them with his full bore BS shotgun on his own platform.

Sample articles depicted in screenshots in the App Store listing for the app include one claiming that George Soros is “literally behind Starbucks’ sensitivity training” and another, from the ‘science’ section, pushing some junk claims about vision correction — so all garbage but not at the same level of anti-truth toxicity that Jones has become notorious for for what he says on his shows; while the Play Store listing flags a different selection of sample articles with a slightly more international flavor — including several on European far right politics, in addition to U.S. focused political stories about Trump and some outrage about domestic ‘political correctness gone mad’. So the static sample content at least isn’t enough to violate any T&Cs.

Still, the live stream component of the apps presents an ongoing problem for Apple and Google — given both have stated that his content elsewhere violates their standards. And it’s not clear how sustainable it will be for them to continue to allow Jones a platform to live stream hate from inside the walls of their commercial app stores.

Beyond that, narrowly judging Jones — a purveyor of weaponized anti-truth (most egregiously his claim that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax) — by the content he uploads directly to their servers also ignores the wider context (and toxic baggage) around him.

And while no tech companies want their brands to be perceived as toxic to conservative points of view, InfoWars does not represent conservative politics. Jones peddles far right conspiracy theories, whips up hate and spreads junk science in order to generate fear and make money selling supplements. It’s cynical manipulation not conservatism.

Both should revisit their decision. Hateful anti-truth merely damages the marketplace of ideas they claim to want to champion, and chills free speech through violent bullying of minorities and the people it makes into targets and thus victimizes.

Earlier this week 9to5Mac reported that CNN’s Dylan Byers had said the decision to remove links to InfoWars’ podcasts had been made at the top of Apple — after a meeting between CEO Tim Cook and SVP Eddy Cue. Byers’ reported it was also the execs’ decision not to remove the InfoWars app.

We’ve reached out to Apple to ask whether it will be monitoring InfoWars’ live streams directly for any violations of its community standards and will update this story with any response.

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Here are the five things I learned installing a smart mirror

Posted by | Android, computing, Gadgets, GitHub, play store, smartphones, tablet computer | No Comments

I recently received a review unit of the Embrace Smart Mirror. It’s essentially a 24-inch Android tablet mounted behind a roughly 40-inch mirror. It works well when third-party software is installed. Here’s what I learned.

It’s impossible to get a good photo of the smart mirror

I tried a tripod, a selfie stick and every possible angle and I couldn’t get a picture that does this mirror justice. It looks better in person than these photos show. When the light in the bathroom is on, the text on the mirror appears to float on the surface. It looks great. The time is nice and large, and the data below it is accessible when standing a few feet away.

When the room is dark, the Android device’s screen’s revealed because it can’t reach real black. The screen behind the mirror glows gray. This isn’t a big deal. The Android device turns off after a period of inactivity and is often triggered when the light to the bathroom is turned on. More times than not, people walking into the room will be greeted with a standard mirror until the light is turned on.

There are a handful of smart mirror apps, but few are worthwhile

This smart mirror didn’t ship with any software outside of Android. That’s a bummer, but not a deal-breaker. There are several smart mirror Android apps in the Play Store, though I only found one I like.

I settled on Mirror Mirror (get it) because the interface is clean, uses pleasant fonts and there’s just enough customization, though it would be nice to select different locations for the data modules. The app was last updated in July of 2017, so use at your own risk.

Another similar option is this software developed by Max Braun, a robotistic at Google’s X. His smart mirror was a hit in 2016, and he included instructions on how to build it here and uploaded the software to GitHub here.

Kids love it

I have great kids that grew up around technology. Nothing impresses these jerks, though, and that’s my fault. But they like this smart mirror. They won’t stop touching it, leaving fingerprints all over it. They quickly figured out how to exit the mirror software and download a bunch of games to the device. I’ve walked in on both kids huddled in the dark bathroom playing games and watching YouTube, instead, of you know, playing games or watching YouTube on the countless other devices in the house.

That’s the point of the device, though. The company that makes this model advertises it as a way to get YouTube in the bathrooms so a person can apply their makeup while watching beauty YouTubers. It works for that, too. There is just a tiny bit of latency when pressing on the screen through the mirror. This device isn’t as quick to use as a new Android tablet, but because it’s sealed in a way to keep out moisture, it’s safe to go in a steamy bathroom.

Adults will find it frivolous

I have a lot of gadgets in my house, and my friends are used to it. Their reaction to this smart mirror has been much different from any other device, though.

“What the hell is this, Matt,” they’ll say from behind the closed bathroom door. I’ll yell back, “It’s a smart mirror.” They flush the toilet, walk out and give me the biggest eye roll.

I’ve yet to have an adult say anything nice about this mirror.

It is frivolous

A smart mirror is a silly gadget. To some degree, it’s a crowd-pleaser, but in the end, it’s just another gadget to tell you the weather. It collects fingerprints like mad, and the Android screen isn’t bright enough to use it as a regular video viewer or incognito TV.

As for this particular smart mirror, the Embrace Smart Mirror, the hardware is solid but doesn’t include any smart mirror software. The Mirror is rather thin and easily hangs on a wall thanks to a VESA port. There are physical controls hidden along the bottom of the unit, including a switch to manually turn off the camera. It’s certified IP65, so it can handle a bathroom. A motion detector does a good job turning the device on. If you don’t have kids, it should stay smudge-free.

The Embrace Smart Mirror does not ship with any smart mirror software. The instructions and videos tell users to add widgets to the Android home screen. This doesn’t work for me, and I expect a product such as this to include at least necessary software. Right now, after this product is taken out of the box, it’s just an Android tablet behind a mirror, and that’s lame. Thankfully there are a couple of free apps on the Play Store to remedy this problem.

At $1,299, the Embrace Smart Mirror is a hard sell, but is among the cheapest available smart mirrors on the market. Of course, you can always build one yourself — as The Verge points out, it’s rather easy.

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Google says it removed 700K apps from the Play Store in 2017, up 70% from 2016

Posted by | Android, Apps, Google, Google Play, harmful apps, malware, play store, Security | No Comments

 The relatively open nature of Android has made it a target for malware authors and other bad actors of all stripes who often try to get their wares onto your phone through both the official Google Play Store, third-party app stores and any other way they can think of. For most users, though, the main Android app store is Google’s own Play Store and as the company announced today, the… Read More

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Google Play adds Android Instant Apps via a ‘Try it Now’ button, among other changes

Posted by | Android, android apps, Android developers, Apps, developers, Google, Google Play, google play console, instant apps, Mobile, play store, TC | No Comments

 Google today is announcing a number of changes to its Google Play app store, the most notable being a new way to try apps immediately without having to first install them on your mobile device. The new feature takes advantage of “Android Instant Apps” technology – Google’s attempt at bridging the mobile web world with that of native applications. Instant Apps were… Read More

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