Google closes data loophole amid privacy fears over abortion ruling

Google closes data loophole amid privacy fears over abortion ruling

Enlarge (credit: Lari Bat | Getty Images)

Google is closing a loophole that has allowed thousands of companies to monitor and sell sensitive personal data from Android smartphones, an effort welcomed by privacy campaigners in the wake of the US Supreme Court’s decision to end women’s constitutional right to abortion.

It also took a further step on Friday to limit the risk that smartphone data could be used to police new abortion restrictions, announcing it would automatically delete the location history on phones that have been close to a sensitive medical location such an abortion clinic.

The Silicon Valley company’s moves come amid growing fears that mobile apps will be weaponized by US states to police new abortion restrictions in the country.

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#android, #biz-it, #google, #period-trackers, #policy, #privacy, #roe-v-wade

Billing fraud apps can disable Android Wi-Fi and intercept text messages

Billing fraud apps can disable Android Wi-Fi and intercept text messages

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson)

Android malware developers are stepping up their billing fraud game with apps that disable Wi-Fi connections, surreptitiously subscribe users to pricey wireless services, and intercept text messages, all in a bid to collect hefty fees from unsuspecting users, Microsoft said on Friday.

This threat class has been a fact of life on the Android platform for years, as exemplified by a family of malware known as Joker, which has infected millions of phones since 2016. Despite awareness of the problem, little attention has been paid to the techniques that such “toll fraud” malware uses. Enter Microsoft, which has published a technical deep dive on the issue.

The billing mechanism abused in this type of fraud is WAP, short for wireless application protocol, which provides a means of accessing information over a mobile network. Mobile phone users can subscribe to such services by visiting a service provider’s web page while their devices are connected to cellular service, then clicking a button. In some cases, the carrier will respond by texting a one-time password (OTP) to the phone and requiring the user to send it back in order to verify the subscription request. The process looks like this:

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#android, #biz-it, #joker, #malware, #microsoft

Email client K-9 Mail will become Thunderbird for Android

K-9 Mail will become Thunderbird for Android in time.

Enlarge / K-9 Mail will become Thunderbird for Android in time. (credit: Mozilla)

The open source Mozilla Thunderbird email client has a long and storied history, but until now, that history has been limited to the desktop. That’s about to change, according to a post on the Thunderbird blog. Thunderbird will be coming to Android through the popular open source mobile email client K-9 Mail.

According to Thunderbird’s Jason Evangelho, Mozilla has acquired the source code and naming rights to K-9 Mail. K-9 Mail project maintainer Christian Ketterer (who goes by “cketti” in the OSS community) will join the Thunderbird team, and over time, K-9 Mail will become Thunderbird for Android.

Mozilla will invest finance and development time in K-9 to add several features and quality-of-life enhancements before that happens, though. The blog post lists these bullets on the features road map:

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#android, #email-client, #k-9-mail, #mozilla, #tech, #thunderbird

Mozilla releases Firefox version 100 this week

A special 100th-version splash page appears on the first launch of a new Firefox installation.

Enlarge / A special 100th-version splash page appears on the first launch of a new Firefox installation. (credit: Samuel Axon)

Firefox released its 100th update, and some fanfare accompanied the release on Mozilla’s blog about the web browser. Firefox 100 is available this week for both desktop and mobile versions.

To celebrate, Mozilla says it will be regularly sharing fan art inspired by Firefox throughout May. But while that 100 number carries some symbolic weight, the update itself isn’t particularly monumental.

On the desktop, subtitles and captions are now supported in Firefox’s picture-in-picture mode for videos. Three key websites officially support subtitles and captions in PIP: YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon Prime Video. Plus, the feature works on websites that support the WebVTT standard, like Twitter.

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#android, #browser, #firefox, #firefox-100, #https, #ios, #mozilla, #tech, #web-browser, #webvtt

Critical bug could have let hackers commandeer millions of Android devices

Critical bug could have let hackers commandeer millions of Android devices

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images)

Security researchers said they uncovered a vulnerability that could have allowed hackers to commandeer millions of Android devices equipped with mobile chipsets made by Qualcomm and MediaTek.

The vulnerability resided in ALAC—short for Apple Lossless Audio Codec and also known as Apple Lossless—which is an audio format introduced by Apple in 2004 to deliver lossless audio over the Internet. While Apple has updated its proprietary version of the decoder to fix security vulnerabilities over the years, an open-source version used by Qualcomm and MediaTek had not been updated since 2011.

Together, Qualcomm and MediaTek supply mobile chipsets for an estimated 95 percent of US Android devices.

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#alac, #android, #biz-it, #mediatek, #qualcomm

Data-harvesting code in mobile apps sends user data to “Russia’s Google”

Photo taken on October 12, 2021 in Moscow shows Russia's internet search engine Yandex's logo on a laptop screen. (Photo by Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP) (Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images)

Enlarge / Photo taken on October 12, 2021 in Moscow shows Russia’s internet search engine Yandex’s logo on a laptop screen. (Photo by Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP) (Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images) (credit: Kirill Kudryavtsev | Getty Images)

Russia’s biggest Internet company has embedded code into apps found on mobile devices that allows information about millions of users to be sent to servers located in its home country.

The revelation relates to software created by Yandex that permits developers to create apps for devices running Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, systems that run the vast majority of the world’s smartphones.

Yandex collects user data harvested from mobiles, before sending the information to servers in Russia. Researchers have raised concerns the same “metadata” may then be accessed by the Kremlin and used to track people through their mobiles.

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#android, #apple, #biz-it, #data-harvesting, #google, #ios, #security, #yandex

Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra review: The slab phone retirement plan

The Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra.

Enlarge / The Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra. (credit: Ron Amadeo)

Is there anything left to do in the slab phone market?

Samsung’s launch of the Galaxy S22 feels like a retirement plan for the company’s slab line. After killing the Galaxy Note line and skipping a 2021 release, Samsung is merging the S-Pen-equipped Note line and the Galaxy S line, cutting the slab phone flagships down to a single yearly release.

Look at the Galaxy Note 10 from 2019 and you’ll see that Samsung has essentially been recycling its design for three years now. It feels like Samsung is standing still, as if the plan is to have slab phones slowly ride off into the sunset while the company directs resources toward a future in foldables.

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#android, #ars-shopping, #gadgetology, #galaxy-s22, #samsung, #tech

Researcher uses Dirty Pipe exploit to fully root a Pixel 6 Pro and Samsung S22

Stylized illustration of a robot holding a smart tablet.

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images)

A researcher has successfully used the critical Dirty Pipe vulnerability in Linux to fully root two models of Android phones—a Pixel 6 Pro and Samsung S22—in a hack that demonstrates the power of exploiting the newly discovered OS flaw.

The researcher chose those two handset models for a good reason: They are two of the few—if not the only—devices known to run Android version 5.10.43, the only release of Google’s mobile OS that’s vulnerable to Dirty Pipe. Because the LPE, or local privilege escalation, vulnerability wasn’t introduced until the recently released version 5.8 of the Linux kernel, the universe of exploitable devices—whether mobile, Internet of Things, or servers and desktops—is relatively small.

Behold, a reverse shell with root privileges

But for devices that do package affected Linux kernel versions, Dirty Pipe offers hackers—both benign and malicious—a platform for bypassing normal security controls and gaining full root control. From there, a malicious app could surreptitiously steal authentication credentials, photos, files, messages, and other sensitive data. As I reported last week, Dirty Pipe is among the most serious Linux threats to be disclosed since 2016, the year another high-severity and easy-to-exploit Linux flaw named Dirty Cow came to light.

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#android, #biz-it, #dirty-pipe, #exploits, #linux, #vulnerabilities

Reddit’s iOS and Android app gets its biggest update in years

The Reddit app icon on a smartphone screen.

Enlarge / The Reddit iOS app icon. (credit: Getty Images | Yuriko Nakao )

The Reddit mobile app doesn’t often get big updates, but this week was an exception, with the company adding a new “Discover Tab” and menus for managing subscriptions.

In a blog post announcing the feature, Reddit says that one in five users joined at least one new community after using the Discover Tab. Jason Costa, Reddit’s director of product for content and communities, offered the following statement in the blog post:

We’re ushering in a new era of discovery on Reddit, with images and video top of mind. We’re making discovering relevant content and communities more intuitive with the Discover Tab. It’s a great new way for people to explore and engage with hundreds of thousands of communities around the world.

The Discover tab is now in the top-level app navigation, replacing the communities and subscriptions tab. Tapping it brings you to a scrollable grid list of Reddit content from a variety of subreddits you may not already be following.

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#algorithmic-recommendations, #android, #ios, #reddit, #social-media, #subreddit, #tech

Android’s toothless “Privacy Sandbox” fails to answer iOS tracking limits

A large Google logo is displayed amidst foliage.

Enlarge (credit: Sean Gallup | Getty Images)

Google is announcing the “Android Privacy Sandbox” today, a move the company says will be “a multi-year initiative” to introduce “more private advertising solutions” into Android. After Apple made tracking opt-in in iOS 14, Android wants to be seen as matching its main rival. Today’s announcement is in addition to existing ad systems, not a replacement for them, so this will probably be even less effective than the “Privacy Sandbox” for Chrome.

Apple’s tracking changes blew up the advertising industry and are already costing ad-based companies like Facebook $10 billion in revenue for the year. Google, the world’s largest ad company, doesn’t seem to want to do that on Android.

Here’s how Google addresses iOS 14 in its blog post:

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#android, #google, #tech

Samsung’s giant 14.6-inch Android tablet has a Macbook-style display notch

Promotional image of mammoth computer tablet being used.

Enlarge / The Galaxy Tab S8 Ultra, with S-Pen and outrageously slim bezels. (credit: Samsung)

Android tablets might be showing new signs of life thanks to Google’s push with Android 12L, but Samsung never left the Android tablet market. Alongside Samsung’s announcement of the Galaxy S22, the company is also revving its tablet line, and for the first time ever, it’s supersizing Galaxy tablets with the Galaxy S8 Tab Ultra.

The Galaxy S8 Tab Ultra is a monster. Its 14.6-inch (370.8 mm), 120 Hz 2960 × 1848 OLED display has a 16:10 aspect ratio. The 326.4 x 208.6 x 5.5 mm (12.8 x 8.2 x 0.2 inch) aluminum body houses an 11,200 mAh battery, and it weighs a whopping 1.6 pounds (0.73 kg). It’s bigger than the top half of many laptops.

Samsung’s choice to build an ultrabig tablet came with the decision to slim down the bezels, which I don’t think anyone has ever asked for on a tablet. You can grip a smartphone around the side of it, so the bezel doesn’t contribute much. But you need something to hold onto with a tablet. Samsung went all out on the bezel war and added a MacBook Pro-like notch to the S8 Tab Ultra’s front display, which houses two 12MP front-facing cameras (one is a wide-angle lens).

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#android, #android-tablet, #ars-shopping, #galaxy, #tech

Android malware can factory-reset phones after draining bank accounts

Android malware can factory-reset phones after draining bank accounts

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images)

A banking-fraud trojan that has been targeting Android users for three years has been updated to create even more grief. Besides draining bank accounts, the trojan can now activate a kill switch that performs a factory reset and wipes infected devices clean.

Brata was first documented in a post from security firm Kaspersky, which reported that the Android malware had been circulating since at least January 2019. The malware spread primarily through Google Play but also through third-party marketplaces, push notifications on compromised websites, sponsored links on Google, and messages delivered by WhatsApp or SMS. At the time, Brata targeted people with accounts from Brazil-based banks.

Covering its malicious tracks

Now Brata is back with a host of new capabilities, the most significant of which is the ability to perform a factory reset on infected devices to erase any trace of the malware after an unauthorized wire transfer has been attempted. Security firm Cleafy Labs, which first reported the kill switch, said other features recently added to Brata include GPS tracking, improved communication with control servers, the ability to continuously monitor victims’ bank apps, and the ability to target the accounts of banks located in additional countries. The trojan now works with banks located in Europe, the US, and Latin America.

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#android, #bank-fraud, #biz-it, #factory-reset, #malware

Android 13 leaks: More Material You options, opt-in to app notifications

Android 13 leaks: More Material You options, opt-in to app notifications

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images)

The very first Android 13 developer previews won’t be out until at least March, but that isn’t stopping Android 13 leaks from popping up already. Of course, more features will be revealed in the coming months, but Android 13 is already shaping up to be a solid release.

More Material You color options

The headline feature of Android 12 was “Material You,” a top-to-bottom redesign and dynamic theming system that automatically changed the UI colors depending on your wallpaper. Set a primarily yellow background and Material You will apply various yellow hues to your app backgrounds, notifications, buttons, icons, and more. I think it looks great, but it might not be for everyone.

Android 13 looks to be expanding on the color system and giving users more options. Android Police’s Ryne Hager has screenshots from a prerelease build that show four different theming algorithms to pick from. There is “Tonal Spot,” which just seems to be the current Android 12 color system, and then three new color systems called “Vibrant,” “Expressive” and “Spritz.”

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#android, #android-13, #google, #tech

Volvo shows off the Polestar 3’s sweet new Android Automotive interface

The full Polestar 3 design isn't revealed yet, but Volvo released this camouflaged photo.

Enlarge / The full Polestar 3 design isn’t revealed yet, but Volvo released this camouflaged photo. (credit: Volvo)

Volvo, Qualcomm, Google are teaming up to make car infotainment even more smartphone-like than ever. If Wintel (Windows plus Intel) is the default software+hardware combo of the PC era, then the smartphone equivalent has got to be Android and Qualcomm (Andcom? Qualdroid?). Volvo is bringing this combo to the upcoming Polestar 3 electric SUV, which is due sometime in 2022. We also got a sneak peek at what the new interface would look like.

Volvo’s Polestar 2 was the first to ship Google’s Android Automotive OS in a car. Unlike Android Auto or Apple’s CarPlay, which run on your smartphone, Android Automotive OS has a custom version of Android preinstalled on the car, as the main car infotainment OS. Even if you have an iPhone, your car still runs Android. The Polestar 2 used an x86 chip (an Intel Atom A3900), but now Volvo is pairing a Qualcomm smartphone chip with its Google smartphone OS. The Polestar 3 will ship with Qualcomm’s “Snapdragon Cockpit Platform Gen 3,” and while that sounds unique, it is really just a repackaged smartphone chip with a few extra features.

The integration of cars with computer technology is always tough. Car development takes around five years, which can seem almost incompatible with the development pace of smartphones and computers. That’s still true of the 2022 Polestar 3. Qualcomm’s Gen 3 automotive platform was actually announced back in 2019, but design wins for the platform are just now being announced at CES 2022. Qualcomm says the Gen 3 automotive platform is based on the Snapdragon 820 SoC, an ARM flagship smartphone chip from 2016. You may remember this chip from phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S7 and the Google Pixel 1. The Polestar 2’s Intel Atom was also from 2016.

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#android, #cars, #polestar, #qualcomm, #tech, #volvo

Google fixes nightmare Android bug that stopped user from calling 911

Rotating lights flash on an ambulance.

Enlarge (credit: Eric Lagace / Flickr)

Android’s January security patch is out, and it’s addressing one of the nastiest Android bugs to come up in some time: certain apps can stop you from contacting 911 or other worldwide emergency services numbers.

In early December, a harrowing tale popped up in the GooglePixel subreddit from a user whose Pixel 3 crashed when they needed it most: while dialing 911 for their grandmother who “appeared to be having a stroke.” The whole phone subsystem seemed to immediately crash upon calling emergency services, with user “KitchenPicture5849” saying they couldn’t get the call to connect or hang up to try the call again. Luckily, a nearby landline was available after their Android phone let them down, and emergency services was able to be contacted.

After the crisis was over, the user gave calling 911 from their smartphone another shot, and Android crashed again, indicating it wasn’t a one-off bug. A check of their phone bill also revealed that KitchenPicture5849 never actually connected to 911. They say they also got a few other DMs from users reporting that they were experiencing the same bug.

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#android, #google-pixel, #tech

Google urges developers to adapt Android apps for Chromebooks

Google Play Store on Chrome OS.

Enlarge / Google is putting more emphasis on Android apps on Chromebooks. (credit: Google)

The number of people using Android Apps on Chromebooks grew 50 percent year over year, according to a blog post from Chrome OS product managers Fahd Imtiaz and Sanj Nathwani this week. The execs cited internal Google data recorded from 2020-2021.

In 2021, as some smartphones moved to Android 12, Google worked on updating Chromebooks to support Android 11, while attempting to boost security and performance by bringing Android on Chrome OS to a virtual machine, rather than a container. The company also improved its general usability, using runtime improvements to make the resizing and scaling of Android apps on Chromebooks work better, as well as app rendering.

As the developer-focused blog noted, Chromebooks on Chrome OS 93 or newer (the latest is Chrome OS 96) automatically run Android apps made for mobile devices in a window that’s set to stay in a “phone or tablet orientation.” And, yes, you can turn this feature off.

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#android, #chrome-os, #chromebook, #google, #tech

Google Play app with 500,000 downloads sent user contacts to Russian server

A robotic hand tries to activate a smartphone.

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images)

An Android app with more than 500,000 downloads from Google Play has been caught hosting malware that surreptitiously sends users’ contacts to an attacker-controlled server and signs up users to pricey subscriptions, a security firm reported.

The app, named Color Message, was still available on Google servers at the time this post was being prepared. Google removed it more than three hours after I asked the company for comment.

Ostensibly, Color Message enhances text messaging by doing things such as adding emojis and blocking junk texts. But according to researchers at Pradeo Security said on Thursday, Color Message contains a family of malware known as Joker, which has infected millions of Android devices in the past.

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#android, #biz-it, #google-play, #joker, #malware

Vivaldi 5.0 makes web browsing on Android tablets fun again

Vivaldi 5.0 makes web browsing on Android tablets fun again

Enlarge (credit: Vivaldi)

Vivaldi is one of our favorite web browsers, and the company (of the same name) behind it recently announced another major release. Vivaldi 5.0 is now available for Windows, Mac, Linux, and, perhaps most notably given the changes in this release, Android.

Version 5 of Vivaldi has some new features for the desktop, but much of what’s new and intriguing in this release is focused on mobile. In Vivaldi’s case, this means the Android version of the browser. (There is no iOS version of Vivaldi.) Android tablets get special attention in this release, with several features aimed at improving the web browsing experience on larger screens—something even Google hasn’t managed to do with its own mobile browser.

In fact, the idea that an app would be optimized for performance on Android tablets is almost unheard of these days. That unfortunate reality is central to our major complaint about the Android-powered iPad alternatives, where the software experience is universally subpar. I should note that Google is currently revamping the overall Android tablet experience by adding some improvements for larger screens that will roll into the next version of the mobile operating system. An early beta release is available now.

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#android, #google, #tablets, #tech, #vivaldi

DuckDuckGo wants to stop apps tracking you on Android

Gabriel Weinberg, creator of DuckDuckGo.

Enlarge / Gabriel Weinberg, creator of DuckDuckGo. (credit: Washington Post | Getty Images)

At the end of April, Apple’s introduction of App Tracking Transparency tools shook the advertising industry to its core. iPhone and iPad owners could now stop apps from tracking their behavior and using their data for personalized advertising. Since the new privacy controls launched, almost $10 billion has been wiped from the revenues of Snap, Meta Platform’s Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Now, a similar tool is coming to Google’s Android operating system—although not from Google itself. Privacy-focused tech company DuckDuckGo, which started life as a private search engine, is adding the ability to block hidden trackers to its Android app. The feature, dubbed “App Tracking Protection for Android,” is rolling out in beta from today and aims to mimic Apple’s iOS controls. “The idea is we block this data collection from happening from the apps the trackers don’t own,” says Peter Dolanjski, a director of product at DuckDuckGo. “You should see far fewer creepy ads following you around online.”

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#android, #biz-it, #duckduckgo, #privacy, #search, #smartphones, #tech

Android 12: The Ars Technica Review

Android 12: The Ars Technica Review

Enlarge

Welcome to Android API level 31, aka Android 12. Google’s latest OS had one of the weirdest rollouts ever. An anticlimactic source code release happened in the beginning of October, but if you wanted to run Android 12 on a device officially, you had to wait until Pixel 6 launch day, when Google also shipped Android 12 out to older Pixel devices.

In a way, this was appropriate for Android 12: a Pixel-centric release for what feels like a Google-centric OS. Android 12 rolls out Material You, a design style that Google says will someday follow you across the company’s ecosystem. It’s a Google-centric design that will probably not please a lot of big brands, but it looks great.

Besides Material You, there are also a million features to cover, like a new file system, a fresher and more upgradable Linux kernel, and notification changes. Let’s dive in.

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#android, #features, #tech

>1,000 Android phones found infected by creepy new spyware

>1,000 Android phones found infected by creepy new spyware

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images)

More than 1,000 Android users have been infected with newly discovered malware that surreptitiously records audio and video in real time, downloads files, and performs a variety of other creepy surveillance activities.

In all, researchers uncovered 23 apps that covertly installed spyware that researchers from security firm Zimperium are calling PhoneSpy. The malware offers a full-featured array of capabilities that, besides eavesdropping and document theft, also includes transmitting GPS location data, modifying Wi-Fi connections, and performing overlay attacks for harvesting passwords to Facebook, Instagram, Google, and the Kakao Talk messaging application.

“These malicious Android apps are designed to run silently in the background, constantly spying on their victims without raising any suspicion,” Zimperium researcher Aazim Yaswant wrote. “We believe the malicious actors responsible for PhoneSpy have gathered significant amounts of personal and corporate information on their victims, including private communications and photos.”

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#android, #malware, #surveillance, #tech

Netflix now comes with Android video games for paying subscribers

Only five Android-only games for now, but Ars Technica is famliar with more Netflix Games projects for smartphones in the pipeline.

Enlarge / Only five Android-only games for now, but Ars Technica is famliar with more Netflix Games projects for smartphones in the pipeline. (credit: Netflix )

After a region-limited tease earlier this year, Netflix’s gaming push officially begins this week in the form of a global update to the streaming company’s Android app. Starting tomorrow, all Netflix subscribers on Android will begin seeing a row labeled either “N Games” or “Games On Mobile” inside the normal video-streaming app. The games are exclusively for smartphones and tablets.

And if you don’t want to wait, you don’t have to. The games are now live.

Today’s announcement confirms what we already learned after a test version launched in late August exclusively in Poland. Netflix Games are downloaded to your Android device as opposed to being streamed from Netflix’s cloud servers. (Subscription services like Nvidia GeForce Now, Xbox Game Streaming, and Amazon Luna remain poised to vie for the “Netflix of gaming” crown, as they stream computationally intense games from server farms to your favorite screen.)

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#android, #gaming-culture, #netflix, #netflix-games

Firefox 94 for iOS and Android adds new features for bookmarks and tabs

Mozilla's current logo for Firefox.

Enlarge / Mozilla’s current logo for Firefox. (credit: Mozilla)

Today, Mozilla updated the mobile versions of its Firefox web browser on iOS and Android with an overhauled home page and a new tab management feature.

Mozilla wrote in a blog post today announcing the update that the mobile version of the browser is specifically designed for “on-the-go, short bursts of online interactions that are constantly interrupted by life.”

To that end, the new update seeks to make it easier to jump into previously abandoned or uninterrupted content. There’s a new “jump back in” feature that lets you go directly to your last opened tab.

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#android, #firefox, #firefox-94, #ios, #mobile, #mozilla, #pocket, #tech, #web-browser

Google halves its revenue share of in-app subscriptions on the Play store

Multicolored triangular logo.

Enlarge (credit: Google Play)

Google has made another tweak to the fee structure for apps hosted on the Google Play app store, again granting certain developers a larger slice of the pie. The change specifically affects apps that rely on recurring subscription revenue.

Previously, Google took a cut of 30 percent in the first year that a recurring subscription was active, then 15 percent in the years after that. Now, Google will take a cut of only 15 percent from the very start.

Some apps that fit the Play Media Experience Program, such as apps for distributing books or streaming video or audio, will see even smaller cuts—as low as 10 percent. To join that program, developers have to opt in.

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#android, #app-store, #apps, #developers, #google, #google-play, #subscriptions, #tech

You may soon be able to answer phone calls on your Chromebook

Samsung Galaxy Chromebook, on white background

Enlarge / Samsung Galaxy Chromebook. (credit: Samsung)

Chromebooks, which are powered by Chrome OS, are generally viewed as a simpler alternative to Windows and macOS systems. But as more Chromebooks flirt with four-figure price tags—take, for example, the Asus Chromebook Flip C436, Samsung Galaxy Chromebook, and recently announced Acer Chromebook Spin 514—consumers will start to demand at least a little more functionality. To that end, a feature being worked on in Chromium’s open source code reviews tool would give Chromebooks an ability that Windows and macOS machines already have.

Based on an “add feature” flag spotted in the Chromium Gerrit by Chrome Unboxed, you might soon be able to answer phone calls on your Chromebook through its Phone Hub feature. The description for the flag, made to “enable the Incoming/Ongoing call notification feature,” says that it “enables the incoming/ongoing call feature in Phone Hub.”

Currently, you can use Phone Hub to view your Android phone’s notifications and recently used Chrome tabs and send and receive text messages. The ability to answer phone calls would give you one less reason to pick up your phone. Windows users with Android devices already have this option via Your Phone, and macOS users with iPhones, iPads, and Apple Watches have the same ability with the Continuity feature.

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#android, #chrome-os, #chromebook, #google, #smartphones, #tech

Hundreds of scam apps hit over 10 million Android devices

Never put a GriftHorse on your phone.

Enlarge / Never put a GriftHorse on your phone. (credit: John Lamparsky | Getty Images)

Google has taken increasingly sophisticated steps to keep malicious apps out of Google Play. But a new round of takedowns involving about 200 apps and more than 10 million potential victims shows that this longtime problem remains far from solved—and in this case, potentially cost users hundreds of millions of dollars.

Researchers from the mobile security firm Zimperium say the massive scamming campaign has plagued Android since November 2020. As is often the case, the attackers were able to sneak benign-looking apps like “Handy Translator Pro,” “Heart Rate and Pulse Tracker,” and “Bus – Metrolis 2021” into Google Play as fronts for something more sinister. After downloading one of the malicious apps, a victim would receive a flood of notifications, five an hour, that prompted them to “confirm” their phone number to claim a prize. The “prize” claim page loaded through an in-app browser, a common technique for keeping malicious indicators out of the code of the app itself. Once a user entered their digits, the attackers signed them up for a monthly recurring charge of about $42 through the premium SMS services feature of wireless bills. It’s a mechanism that normally lets you pay for digital services or, say, send money to a charity via text message. In this case, it went directly to crooks.

The techniques are common in malicious Play Store apps, and premium SMS fraud in particular is a notorious issue. But the researchers say it’s significant that attackers were able to string these known approaches together in a way that was still extremely effective—and in staggering numbers—even as Google has continuously improved its Android security and Play Store defenses.

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#android, #biz-it, #google, #malware, #scam, #tech

The Surface Duo’s two-year-old Android OS will be updated sometime this year

If Microsoft wants to be taken seriously as an Android manufacturer, one of the things it will need to establish is a track record of reliable, on-time software updates. But as the company launches a second generation of the Surface Duo and the company’s first Android phone turns a year old, so far Microsoft has failed to impress.

The Surface Duo 1 shipped in September 2020 with Android 10, which was a full year old at the time, and Android 11 had already launched. The hope was that Microsoft would quickly update the Duo to the latest version of Android, but that never happened. Today the device is still running Android 10, which is now two years old, and Android 12 is about to ship. Microsoft has finally broken its silence about Surface Duo 1 updates, and the company tells The Verge it plans to update the device to Android 11 “before the end of this year.”

Assuming Microsoft follows through on its promise, the company’s $1,400 flagship device will be updated from a two-year-old operating system to a one-year-old operating system. Microsoft committed to three years of updates, and it has been delivering monthly security updates. But this is still worst-in-class update support, especially for the price. Samsung usually rolls out Android to its latest flagship three months after Google’s release, while OnePlus usually takes around a month—Microsoft’s one-year timeframe is really bad.

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#android, #microsoft, #surface-duo, #tech, #updates

Android to take an “upstream first” development model for the Linux kernel

The Linux Plumbers Conference is this week, and since Android is one of the biggest distributors of the Linux kernel in the world, Google software engineer Todd Kjos stopped by for a progress report from the Android team. Android 12—which will be out any day now—promises to bring Android closer than ever to mainline Linux by shipping Google’s “Generic Kernel Image” (GKI) to end-users.

Traditionally, the Linux kernel is forked several times before it hits an Android phone, usually by each stakeholder in an Android device. First, Google forks the Linux kernel into “Android common”—the Linux kernel plus a bunch of phone- and Android-specific changes. Then SoC vendors like Qualcomm, Samsung, or MediaTek fork Android Common to make an SoC-specific kernel for each major chip release. Then each device gets a fork of the SoC kernel for device-specific hardware support.

Android’s kernel fragmentation is a huge mess, and you can imagine how long and difficult the road is for a bugfix at the top of the fork tree to reach to the bottom, where end-users live. The official Android.com documentation notes that “These modifications can be extensive, to the point that as much as 50% of the code running on a device is out-of-tree code (not from upstream Linux or from AOSP common kernels).” It’s also a big time sink, and even Google phones typically ship kernels that start at two years old.

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#android, #google, #linux, #tech

Google abused dominant position of Android in India, antitrust probe finds

Google has abused the dominant position of Android in India to illegally hurt competitors in the world’s second largest internet market, a two-year antitrust probe by the nation’s watchdog has found.

The Android-maker reduced device manufacturing firms’ ability and incentive to develop — and sell — devices running alternative versions of Android (more popularly known as forks), the probe found, according to two people have have been briefed on the findings.

Additionally, the report found Google’s requirement to make it mandatory for device manufacturers to pre-install its apps to be in violation of India’s competition law.

More than five dozen firms including Amazon and Apple responded to queries from the Indian watchdog — the Competition Commission of India — during the course of the investigation, the report said.

The Indian watchdog also found issues with the way Google has enforced policies on Play Store, saying those are “one-sided, ambiguous, vague, biased and arbitrary.”

Google said it looks forward to engage with the CCI to demonstrate how “Android has led to more competition and innovation, not less.”

The report’s findings — which are yet to be formally published by the CCI — is the latest setback for Google in India, where it has faced strong criticism from local entrepreneurs in recent quarters and several other antitrust probes.

The Alliance of Digital India Foundation, a group of 350 startups, founders and investors, lauded the CCI report’s findings and said the watchdog’s step “is in line with the Indian digital ecosystem’s needs.”

#android, #asia, #google, #google-india, #government, #india

Google’s R&D division experiments with newsletters powered by Google Drive

Following entries into the newsletter market from tech companies like Facebook and Twitter, Google is now experimenting with newsletters, too. The company’s internal R&D division, Area 120, has a new project called Museletter, which allows anyone to publish a Google Drive file as a blog or newsletter to their Museletter public profile or to an email list.

The effort would essentially repurpose Google’s existing document-creation tools as a means of competing with other newsletter platforms, like Substack, Ghost, Revue, and others, which are today attracting a growing audience.

Google’s experiment was spotted this week by sites including 9to5Google and Android Police.

Reached for comment, an Area 120 spokesperson declined to share further details about Museletter, saying only that it was “one of the many experiments” within the R&D group and that “it’s still very early.”

From the Museletter website, however, there is already much that can be learned about the project. The site explains how Google Drive could be monetized by creators in a way that would allow Google’s newsletter project to differentiate itself from the competition. Not only could newsletters be written in a Google Doc, other productivity apps could also be used to share information with readers. For example, a newsletter creator could offer a paid subscription plan that would allow readers to access their Google Slides. A creator who writes about finance could publish helpful spreadsheets to Google Sheets, which would be available to their subscribers.

Image Credits: Google

To make this possible, Museletter publishers would create a public profile on their Google Drive, then publish any Google Drive file directly to it. This provides them with a landing page where they can market their subscriptions and showcase how many different Drive files they’ve made publically available across Docs, Sheets, and Slides.

Creators can also optionally publish to an email list — including a list brought in from other platforms. The newsletter subscriptions can be free or paid, depending on the creator’s preferences, but using Museletter itself will be free. Instead, the project aims to monetize with premium features like custom domains, welcome emails, and more.

The platform also promises tools and analytics to engage audiences and track the newsletter’s performance.

While the site doesn’t mention any plans for advertising, a success in this space could provide Google with a new ad revenue stream — and one that arrives at a time when the tech giant’s multi-billion dollar advertising market has a new challenger in the form of Amazon, whose own ad business could eventually challenge the Facebook-Google duopoly.

Google didn’t say when it plans to launch Museletter, but the website is offering a link to a form where users can request early access.

#amazon, #android, #area-120, #computing, #creators, #finance, #google, #google-sheeets, #google-slides, #google-docs, #google-drive, #media, #news, #newsletter, #newsletters, #publish, #publishers, #rd, #substack, #world-wide-web

Tile secures $40 million to take on Apple AirTag with new products

Tile, the maker of Bluetooth-powered lost item finder beacons and, more recently, a staunch Apple critic, announced today it has raised $40 million in non-dilutive debt financing from Capital IP. The funding will be put towards investment in Tile’s finding technologies, ahead of the company’s plan to unveil a new slate of products and features that the company believes will help it to better compete with Apple’s AirTags and further expand its market.

The company has been a longtime leader in the lost item finder space, offering consumers small devices they can attach to items — like handbags, luggage, bikes, wallets, keys, and more — which can then be tracked using the Tile smartphone app for iOS or Android. When items go missing, the Tile app leverages Bluetooth to find the items and can make them play a sound. If the items are further afield, Tile taps into its broader finding network consisting of everyone who has the app installed on their phone and other access points. Through this network, Tile is able to automatically and anonymously communicate the lost item’s location back to its owner through their own Tile app.

Image Credits: Tile

Tile has also formed partnerships focused on integrating its finding network into over 40 different third-party devices, including those across audio, travel, wearables, and PC categories. Notable brand partners include HP, Dell, Fitbit, Skullcandy, Away, Xfinity, Plantronics, Sennheiser, Bose, Intel, and others. Tile says it’s seen 200% year-over-year growth on activations of these devices with its service embedded.

To date, Tile has sold over 40 million devices and has over 425,000 paying customers — a metric it’s revealing for the first time. It doesn’t disclose its total number of users, both free and paid combined, however. During the first half of 2021, Tile says revenues increased by over 50%, but didn’t provide hard numbers.

While Tile admits that the Covid-19 pandemic had some impacts on international expansions, as some markets have been slower to rebound, it has still seen strong performance outside the U.S., and considers that a continued focus.

The pandemic, however, hasn’t been Tile’s only speed bump.

When Apple announced its plans to compete with the launch of AirTags, Tile went on record to call it unfair competition. Unlike Tile devices, Apple’s products could tap into the iPhone’s U1 chip to allow for more accurate finding through the use of ultra-wideband technologies available on newer iPhone models. Tile, meanwhile, has plans for its own ultra-wideband powered device, but hadn’t been provided the same access. In other words, Apple gave its own lost item finder early, exclusive access to a feature that would allow it to differentiate itself from the competition. (Apple has since announced it’s making ultra-wideband APIs available to third-party developers, but this access wasn’t available from day one of AirTag’s arrival.)

Image Credits: Tile internal concept art

Tile has been vocal on the matter of Apple’s anti-competitive behavior, having testified in multiple Congressional hearings alongside other Apple critics, like Spotify and Match. As a result of increased regulatory pressure, Apple later opened up its Find My network to third-party devices, in an effort to placate Tile and the other rivals its AirTags would disadvantage.

But Tile doesn’t want to route its customers to Apple’s first-party app — it intends to use its own app in order to compete based on its proprietary features and services. Among other things, this includes Tile’s subscriptions. A base plan is $29.99 per year, offering features like free battery replacement, smart alerts, and location history. A $99.99 per year plan also adds insurance of sorts — it pays up to $1,000 per year for items it can’t find. (AirTag doesn’t do that.)

Despite its many differentiators, Tile faces steep competition from the ultra-wideband capable AirTags, which have the advantage of tapping into Apple’s own finding network of potentially hundreds of millions of iPhone owners.

However, Tile CEO CJ Prober — who joined the company in 2018 — claims AirTag hasn’t impacted the company’s revenue or device sales.

“But that doesn’t take away from the fact that they’re making things harder for us,” he says of Apple. “We’re a growing business. We’re winning the hearts and minds of consumers… and they’re competing unfairly.”

“When you own the platform, you shouldn’t be able to identify a category that you want to enter, disadvantage the incumbents in that category, and then advantage yourself — like they did in our case,” he adds.

Tile is preparing to announce an upcoming product refresh that may allow it to better take on the AirTag. Presumably, this will include the pre-announced ultra-wideband version of Tile, but the company says full details will be shared next week. Tile may also expand its lineup in other ways that will allow it to better compete based on look and feel, size and shape, and functionality.

Tile’s last round of funding was $45 million in growth equity in 2019. Now it’s shifted to debt. In addition to new debt financing, Tile is also refinancing some of its existing debt with this fundraise, it says.

“My philosophy is it’s always good to have a mix of debt and equity. So some amount of debt on the balance sheet is good. And it doesn’t incur dilution to our shareholders,” Prober says. “We felt this was the right mix of capital choice for us.”

The company chose to work with Capital IP, a group it’s had a relationship with over the last three years, and who Tile had considered bringing on as an investor. The group has remained interested in Tile and excited about its trajectory, Prober notes.

“We are excited to partner with the Tile team as they continue to define and lead the finding category through hardware and software-based innovations,” said Capital IP’s Managing Partner Riyad Shahjahan, in a statement. “The impressive revenue growth and fast-climbing subscriber trends underline the value proposition that Tile delivers in a platform-agnostic manner, and were a critical driver in our decision to invest. The Tile team has an ambitious roadmap ahead and we look forward to supporting their entry into new markets and applications to further cement their market leadership,” he added.

#airtag, #airtags, #android, #apple, #apple-inc, #apps, #bluetooth, #ceo, #computing, #dell, #find-my, #fitbit, #funding, #gadgets, #hardware, #intel, #iphone, #mobile, #plantronics, #recent-funding, #sennheiser, #skullcandy, #smartphone, #startups, #tc, #technology, #tile, #u1-chip, #ultra-wideband, #united-states

News aggregator SmartNews raises $230 million, valuing its business at $2 billion

SmartNews, a Tokyo-headquartered news aggregation website and app that’s grown in popularity despite hefty competition from built-in aggregators like Apple News, today announced it has closed on $230 million in Series F funding. The round brings SmartNews’ total raise to date to over $400 million and values the business at $2 billion — or as the company touts in its press release, a “double unicorn.” (Ha!)

The funding included new U.S. investors Princeville Capital and Woodline Partners, as well as JIC Venture Growth Investments, Green Co-Invest Investment, and Yamauchi-No.10 Family Office in Japan. Existing investors participating in this round included ACA Investments and SMBC Venture Capital.

Founded in 2012 in Japan, the company launched to the U.S. in 2014 and expanded its local news footprint early last year. While the app’s content team includes former journalists, machine learning is used to pick which articles are shown to readers to personalize their experience. However, one of the app’s key differentiators is how it works to pop users’ “filter bubbles” through its “News From All Sides” feature, which allows its users to access news from across a range of political perspectives.

It has also developed new products, like its Covid-19 vaccine dashboard and U.S. election dashboard, that provide critical information at a glance. With the additional funds, the company says it plans to develop more features for its U.S. audience — one of its largest, in addition to Japan —  that will focus on consumer health and safety. These will roll out in the next few months and will include features for tracking wildfires and crime and safety reports. It also recently launched a hurricane tracker.

The aggregator’s business model is largely focused on advertising, as the company has said before that 85-80% of Americans aren’t paying to subscribe to news. But SmartNews’ belief is that these news consumers still have a right to access quality information.

In total, SmartNews has relationships with over 3,000 global publishing partners whose content is available through its service on the web and mobile devices.

To generate revenue, the company sells inline ads and video ads, where revenue is shared with publishers. Over 75% of its publishing partners also take advantage of its “SmartView” feature. This is the app’s quick-reading mode, and alternative to something like Google AMP. Here, users can quickly load an article to read, even if they’re offline. The company promises publishers that these mobile-friendly stories, which are marked with a lightning bolt icon in the app, deliver higher engagement — and its algorithm rewards that type of content, bringing them more readers. Among SmartView partners are well-known brands like USA Today, ABC, HuffPost, and others. Currently, over 70% of all SmartNews’ pageviews are coming from SmartView first.

SmartNews’ app has proven to be very sticky, in terms of attracting and keeping users’ attention. The company tells us, citing App Annie July 2021 data, that it sees an average time spent per user per month on U.S. mobile devices that’s higher than Google News or Apple News combined.

Image Credits: App Annie data provided by SmartNews

The company declined to share its monthly active users (MAUs), but had said in 2019 it had grown to 20 million in the U.S. and Japan. Today, it says its U.S. MAUs doubled over the last year.

According to data provided to us by Apptopia, the SmartNews app has seen around 85 million downloads since its October 2014 launch, and 14 million of those took place in the past 365 days. Japan is the largest market for installs, accounting for 59% of lifetime downloads, the firm noted.

“This latest round of funding further affirms the strength of our mission, and fuels our drive to expand our presence and launch features that specifically appeal to users and publishers in the United States,” said SmartNews co-founder and CEO Ken Zuzuki. “Our investors both in the U.S. and globally acknowledge the tremendous growth potential and value of SmartNews’s efforts to democratize access to information and create an ecosystem that benefits consumers, publishers, and advertisers,” he added.

The company says the new funds will be used to invest in further U.S. growth and expanding the company’s team. Since its last fundraise in 2019, where it became a unicorn, the company more than doubled its headcount to approximately 500 people globally. it now plans to double its headcount of 100 in the U.S., with additions across engineering, product, and leadership roles.

The Wall Street Journal reports SmartNews is exploring an IPO, but the company declined to comment on this.

The SmartNews app is available on iOS and Android across more than 150 countries worldwide.

#aca-investments, #aggregation, #ai, #android, #apple-news, #apps, #funding, #google, #google-news, #japan, #machine-learning, #media, #mobile, #mobile-applications, #mobile-devices, #mobile-software, #new-aggregator, #news, #news-aggregation, #news-reading, #recent-funding, #smartnews, #software, #startups, #tokyo, #united-states

Epic Games appeals last week’s ruling in antitrust battle with Apple

Fortnite maker Epic Games is appealing last week’s ruling in its court battle with Apple, where a federal judge said Apple would no longer be allowed to block developers from adding links to alternative payment mechanisms, but stopped short of dubbing Apple a monopolist. The latter would have allowed Epic Games to argue for alternative means of serving its iOS user base, including perhaps, through third-party app stores or even sideloading capabilities built into Apple’s mobile operating system, similar to those on Google’s Android OS.

Apple immediately declared the court battle a victory, as the judge had agreed with its position that the company was “not in violation of antitrust law” and had also deemed Apple’s success in the app and gaming ecosystem as “not illegal.” Epic Games founder and CEO Tim Sweeney, meanwhile, said the ruling was not a win for either developers or consumers. On Twitter, he hinted that the company may appeal the decision when he said, “We will fight on.”

In a court filing published on Sunday (see below), Epic Games officially stated its attention to appeal U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers’ final judgment and “all orders leading to or producing that judgment.”

As part of the judge’s decision, Epic Games had been ordered to pay Apple the 30% of the $12 million it earned when it introduced its alternative payment system in Fortnite on iOS, which was then in breach of its legal contract with Apple.

The appellate court will revisit how Judge Gonzalez Rogers defined the market where Epic Games had argued Apple was acting as a monopolist. Contrary to both parties’ wishes, Gonzalez Rogers defined it as the market for “digital mobile gaming transactions” specifically. Though an appeal may or may not see the court shifting its opinion in Epic Games’ favor, a new ruling could potentially help to clarify the vague language used in the injunction to describe how Apple must now accommodate developers who want to point their customers to other payment mechanisms.

So far, the expectation floating around the developer community is that Apple will simply extend the “reader app” category exception to all non-reader apps (apps that provide access to purchased content). Apple recently settled with a Japanese regulator by agreeing to allow reader apps to point users to their own website where users could sign up and manage their accounts, which could include customers paying for subscriptions — like Netflix or Spotify subscriptions, for instance. Apple said this change would be global.

In briefings with reporters, Apple said the details of the injunction issued with the Epic Games ruling, however, would still need to be worked out. Given the recency of the decision, the company has not yet communicated with developers on how this change will impact them directly nor has it updated its App Store guidelines with new language.

Reached for comment, Epic Games said it does not have any further statements on its decision to appeal at this time.

#android, #app-store, #apple, #apple-inc, #apps, #ceo, #computing, #epic-games, #itunes, #judge, #mobile, #netflix, #operating-system, #software, #spotify, #technology, #tim-sweeney, #united-states

Google and India’s Jio delay their smartphone launch

The JioPhone Next, the much-awaited smartphone designed by Google and India’s Jio Platforms to tap hundreds of millions of users in the world’s second largest internet market, won’t launch on Friday, the Indian technology giant said Thursday midnight.

In a statement issued just now, Jio Platforms said it has been testing the smartphone with a “limited set of users for further refinement” and is “actively working to make it available more widely” around the time of Diwali festival, which is scheduled for early November.

The Indian firm, which operates the largest telecom network with over 400 million subscribers, blamed global semiconductor shortages for the launch delay and said it expects the additional two months “will” mitigate that.

The JioPhone Next smartphone, unveiled in June this year, was scheduled to launch on Friday. Neither of the firms had given any indication in recent days that they may have to postpone the launch. “The companies remain committed to their vision of opening up new possibilities for millions of Indians, especially those who will experience the internet for the very first time,” the Indian firm said in a press statement.

Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man and the chairman of Reliance Industries, which operates Jio Platforms, unveiling JioPhone Next at an event in June this year Image Credits: Jio Platforms

Powered by “extremely optimized Android” mobile operating system, the JioPhone Next phone is marketed to be an “ultra-affordable 4G smartphone” to tap the roughly 300 million users in India who are still on slower networks. The two firms have said that they plan to eventually launch the smartphone in other markets as well.

At an event in June, the two firms said the JioPhone Next will feature a “fast, high-quality camera” which will support HDR, and will be protected by the latest Android releases and security updates. It will also ship with a range of features, including Read Aloud and Translate Now that will work with any text on the phone screen, including web pages, apps, messages and even photos, the two firms have said.

Analysts have said in recent weeks that the JioPhone Next — whose price and tech specifications are yet to be revealed — could disrupt the Indian smartphone market — the world’s second largest — and help the telecom network further solidify its dominance in the country.

“At present, there are 430 million smartphone users, 115 million JioPhone users [Jio’s “smart” featurephone] and 320 million featurephone (2G) users in India. We believe smartphone users with devices priced above $100 are unlikely to opt for a sub $100 device,” analysts at Jefferies wrote in a report to clients this week. “That leaves 25% of smartphone users, i.e. 105 million smartphones, 115 million JioPhone users and 320 million featurephone users as the addressable market for JioPhone Next. Assuming replacement cycle of 2 years for smartphones and 3 years for JioPhone/featurephones, the addressable market for JioPhone Next could be 200m devices annually.”

The smartphone is the latest collaboration between the two firms. Last year, Google invested $4.5 billion in Jio Platforms and that’s where it first announced the plans to develop cheap smartphones with the Indian telecom operator. Facebook and scores of other firms have also bought stakes in the Indian firm. Jio Platforms operates a number of businesses including telecom giant Jio Infocomm, which competes with Airtel and Vodafone Idea; and e-commerce firm JioMart, which competes with Tata-owned BigBasket, SoftBank-backed Grofers, and Amazon and Walmart’s Flipkart.

#android, #asia, #hardware, #jio-platforms, #reliance, #reliance-jio

Epic Games to shut down Houseparty in October, including the video chat ‘Fortnite Mode’ feature

Houseparty, the social video chat app acquired by Fortnite maker Epic Games for a reported $35 million back in 2019, is shutting down. The company says Houseparty will be discontinued in October when the app will stop functioning for its existing users; it will be pulled from the app stores today, however. Related to this move, Epic Games’ “Fortnite Mode” feature, which leveraged Houseparty to bring video chat to Fortnite gamers, will also be discontinued.

Founded in 2015, Houseparty offered a way for users to participate in group video chats with friends and even play games, like Uno, trivia, Heads Up and others. Last year, Epic Games integrated Houseparty with Fortnite, initially to allow gamers to see live feeds from friends while gaming, then later adding support to livestream gameplay directly into Houseparty. At the time, these integrations appeared to be the end goal that explained why Epic Games had bought the social startup in the first place.

Now, just over two years after the acquisition was announced, and less than half a year since support for livestreaming was added to the app, Houseparty is shutting down.

The company didn’t offer any solid insight into what, at first glance, feels like an admission of failure to capitalize on its acquisition. But the reality is that Epic Games may have something larger in store beyond just video chat. That said, all Epic Games would say today is that the Houseparty team could no longer give the app the attention it required — a statement that indicates an executive decision to shift the team’s focus to other matters.

While none of the Houseparty team members are being let go as a result of this move, we’re told, they will be joining other teams where they will work on new ways to allow for “social interactions” across the Epic Games family of products. The company’s announcement hinted that those social features would be designed and built at the “metaverse scale.”

The “metaverse” is an increasingly used buzzword that references a shared virtual environment, like those provided by large-scale online gaming platforms such as Fortnite, Roblox and others. Facebook, too, claims the metaverse is the next big gambit for social networking, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg having described it as an “embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at.”

To some extent, Fortnite has begun to embrace the metaverse by offering non-gaming experiences like online concerts you attend as your avatar, and other live events. Ahead of its shutdown, Houseparty also toyed with live events that users would co-watch and participate in alongside their friends.

An Epic Games spokesperson tells TechCrunch the Houseparty team has worked on (and continues to work on) a number of other projects that focus on social. But some of the “multiple, larger projects” Epic Games has in the works remain undisclosed, we’re told.

In terms of social products, Houseparty’s technology now underpins all of Fortnite voice chat and the features they built are widely available for free to developers through Epic Games Services. They also worked on building out new social experiences, which have ranged from the social RSVP functions for Fortnite’s global events, like the recent Ariana Grande concert, to the upcoming “Operation: Sky Fire” event for collaborating quests and other game mechanics. More social functionality and new experiences are also being built into Fortnite’s user-generated content platform, Create Mode.

While it may seem odd to close an app that only last year experienced a boost in usage due to the pandemic, it appears the COVID bump didn’t have staying power.

At the height of lockdowns, Houseparty had reported it had gained 50 million new sign-ups in a month’s time as users looked to video apps to connect with family and friends while the world was shut down. But as the pandemic wore on, other video chat experiences gained more ground. Zoom, which had established itself as an essential tool for remote work, became a tool for hanging out with friends after-hours, as well. Facebook also started to eat Houseparty’s lunch with its debut of drop-in video chat “Rooms” last year, which offered a similar group video experience. And bored users shifted to audio-based social networking on apps like Clubhouse or Twitter Spaces.

Image Credits: Apptopia

According to data from Apptopia, Houseparty has been continually declining since the pandemic bump. To date, its app has seen a total of 111 million downloads across iOS and Android, with the majority (63 million) on iOS. The U.S. was Houseparty’s largest market, accounting for 43.4% of downloads, followed by the U.K. (9.8%), then Germany (5.6%).

Epic Games, meanwhile, said the app served “tens of millions” of users worldwide. It insists the closure wasn’t decided lightly, nor was the decision to shutter “Fortnite Mode” made due to lack of adoption.

Houseparty will alert users to the shutdown via in-app notifications ahead of its final closure in October. At that point, Fortnite Mode will also no longer be available.

#android, #app-store, #apps, #computing, #epic-games, #exit, #facebook, #fortnite, #gaming, #houseparty, #mark-zuckerberg, #metaverse, #mobile, #online-games, #roblox, #social, #social-networking, #software, #uno, #video-gaming

Tape It launches an A.I.-powered music recording app for iPhone

Earlier this year, Apple officially discontinued Music Memos, an iPhone app that allowed musicians to quickly record audio and develop new song ideas. Now, a new startup called Tape It is stepping in to fill the void with an app that improves audio recordings by offering a variety of features, including higher-quality sound, automatic instrument detection, support for markers, notes, and images, and more.

The idea for Tape It comes from two friends and musicians, Thomas Walther and Jan Nash.

Walther had previously spent three and a half years at Spotify, following its 2017 acquisition of the audio detection startup Sonalytic, which he had co-founded. Nash, meanwhile, is a classically trained opera singer, who also plays bass and is an engineer.

They’re joined by designer and musician Christian Crusius, previously of the design consultancy Fjord, which was acquired by Accenture.

The founders, who had played in a band together for many years, were inspired to build Tape It because it was something they wanted for themselves, Walther says. After ending his stint at Spotify working in their new Soundtrap division (an online music startup Spotify also bought in 2017), he knew he wanted to work on a project that was more focused on the music-making side of things. But while Soundtrap worked for some, it wasn’t what either Walther or his friends had needed. Instead, they wanted a simple tool that would allow them to record their music with their phone — something that musicians often do today using Apple’s Voice Memos app and, briefly, Music Memos — until its demise.

Image Credits: Tape It

“Regardless of whether you’re an amateur or even like a touring professional…you will record your ideas with your phone, just because that’s what you have with you,” Walther explains. “It’s the exact same thing with cameras — the best camera is the one you have with you. And the best audio recording tool is the one you have with you.”

That is, when you want to record, the easiest thing to do is not to get out your laptop and connect a bunch of cables to it, then load up your studio software — it’s to hit the record button on your iPhone.

The Tape It app allows you to do just that, but adds other features that make it more competitive with its built-in competition, Voice Memos.

When you record using Tape It, the app leverages A.I. to automatically detect the instrument, then annotate the recording with a visual indication to make those recordings easier to find by looking for the colorful icon. Musicians can also add their own markers to the files right when they record them, then add notes and photos to remind themselves of other details. This can be useful when reviewing the recordings later on, Walther says.

Image Credits: Tape It

“If I have a nice guitar sound, I can just take a picture of the settings on my amplifier, and I have them. This is something musicians do all the time,” he notes. “It’s the easiest way to re-create that sound.”

Another novel, but simple, change in Tape It is that breaks longer recordings into multiple lines, similar to a paragraph of text. The team calls this the “Time Paragraph,” and believes it will make listening to longer sessions easier than the default — which is typically a single, horizontally scrollable recording.

Image Credits: Tape It

The app has also been designed so it’s easier to go back to the right part of recordings, thanks to its smart waveforms, in addition to the optional markers and photos. And you can mark recordings as favorites so you can quickly pull up a list of your best ideas and sounds. The app offers full media center integration as well, so you can play back your music whenever you have time.

However, the standout feature is Tape It’s support for “Stereo HD” quality. Here, the app takes advantage of the two microphones on devices like the iPhone XS, XR, and other newer models, then improves the sound using A.I. technology and other noise reduction techniques which it’s developed in-house. This feature is part of its $20 per year premium subscription.

Over time, Tape It intends to broaden its use of A.I. and other IP to improve the sound quality further. It also plans to introduce collaborative features and support for importing and exporting recordings into professional studio software. This could eventually place Tape It into the same market that SoundCloud had initially chased before it shifted its focus to becoming more of a consumer-facing service.

But first, Tape It wants to nail the single-user workflow before adding on more sharing features.

“We decided that it’s so important to make sure it’s useful, even just for you. The stuff that you can collaborate on — if you don’t like using it yourself, you’re not going to use it,” Walther says.

Tape It’s team of three is dually based in both Stockholm and Berlin and is currently bootstrapping.

The app itself is a free download on iOS and will later support desktop users on Mac and Windows. An Android version is not planned.

#a-i, #accenture, #android, #apple, #apps, #artificial-intelligence, #audio-engineering, #berlin, #engineer, #iphone, #media, #microsoft-windows, #mobile, #operating-systems, #software, #sonalytic, #soundcloud, #soundtrap, #spotify, #startups, #stockholm, #tc

Driven by live streams, consumer spending in social apps to hit $17.2B in 2025

The live streaming boom is driving a significant uptick in the creator economy, as a new forecast estimates consumers will spend $6.78 billion in social apps in 2021. That figure will grow to $17.2 billion annually by 2025, according to data from mobile data firm App Annie, which notes the upward trend represents a five-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 29%. By that point, the lifetime total spend in social apps will reach $78 billion, the firm reports.

Image Credits: App Annie

Initially, much of the livestream economy was based on one-off purchases like sticker packs, but today, consumers are gifting content creators directly during their live streams. Some of these donations can be incredibly high, at times. Twitch streamer ExoticChaotic was gifted $75,000 during a live session on Fortnite, which was one of the largest ever donations on the game streaming social network. Meanwhile, App Annie notes another platform, Bigo Live, is enabling broadcasters to earn up to $24,000 per month through their live streams.

Apps that offer live streaming as a prominent feature are also those that are driving the majority of today’s social app spending, the report says. In the first half of this year, $3 out every $4 spend in the top 25 social apps came from apps that offered live streams, for example.

Image Credits: App Annie

During the first half of 2021, the U.S. become the top market for consumer spending inside social apps with 1.7x the spend of the next largest market, Japan, and representing 30% of the market by spend. China, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea followed to round out the top 5.

Image Credits: App Annie

While both creators and the platforms are financially benefitting from the live streaming economy, the platforms are benefitting in other ways beyond their commissions on in-app purchases. Live streams are helping to drive demand for these social apps and they help to boost other key engagement metrics, like time spent in app.

One top app that’s significantly gaining here is TikTok.

Last year, TikTok surpassed YouTube in the U.S. and the U.K. in terms of the average monthly time spent per user. It often continues to lead in the former market, and more decisively leads in the latter.

Image Credits: App Annie

Image Credits: App Annie

In other markets, like South Korea and Japan, TikTok is making strides, but YouTube still leads by a wide margin. (In South Korea, YouTube leads by 2.5x, in fact.)

Image Credits: App Annie

Beyond just TikTok, consumers spent 740 billion hours in social apps in the first half of the year, which is equal to 44% of the time spent on mobile globally. Time spent in these apps has continued to trend upwards over the years, with growth that’s up 30% in the first half of 2021 compared to the same period in 2018.

Today, the apps that enable live streaming are outpacing those that focus on chat, photo or video. This is why companies like Instagram are now announcing dramatic shifts in focus, like how they’re “no longer a photo sharing app.” They know they need to more fully shift to video or they will be left behind.

The total time spent in the top five social apps that have an emphasis on live streaming are now set to surpass half a trillion hours on Android phones alone this year, not including China. That’s a three-year CAGR of 25% versus just 15% for apps in the Chat and Photo & Video categories, App Annie noted.

Image Credits: App Annie

Thanks to growth in India, the Asia-Pacific region now accounts for 60% of the time spent in social apps. As India’s growth in this area increased over the past 3.5 years, it shrunk the gap between itself and China from 115% in 2018 to just 7% in the first half of this year.

Social app downloads are also continuing to grow, due to the growth in live streaming.

To date, consumers have downloaded social apps 74 billion times and that demand remains strong, with 4.7 billion downloads in the first half of 2021 alone — up 50% year-over-year. In the first half of the year, Asia was the largest region region for social app downloads, accounting for 60% of the market.

This is largely due to India, the top market by a factor of 5x, which surpassed the U.S. back in 2018. India is followed by the U.S., Indonesia, Brazil and China, in terms of downloads.

Image Credits: App Annie

The shift towards live streaming and video has also impacted what sort of apps consumers are interested in downloading, not just the number of downloads.

A chart that show the top global apps from 2012 to the present highlights Facebook’s slipping grip. While its apps (Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and Facebook) have dominated the top spots over the years in various positions, TikTok popped into the number one position last year, and continues to maintain that ranking in 2021.

Further down the chart, other apps that aid in video editing have also overtaken others that had been more focused on photos or chat.

Image Credits: App Annie

Video apps like YouTube (#1), TikTok (#2) Tencent Video (#4), Bigo Live (#5), Twitch (#6), and others also now rank at the top of the global charts by consumer spending in the first half of 2021.

But YouTube (#1) still dominates in time spent compared with TikTok (#5), and others from Facebook — the company holds the next three spots for Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, respectively.

This could explain why TikTok is now exploring the idea of allowing users to upload even longer videos, by increasing the limit from 3 minutes to 5, for instance.

In addition, because of live streaming’s ability to drive growth in terms of time spent, it’s also likely the reason why TikTok has been heavily investing in new features for its TikTok LIVE platform, including things like events, support for co-hosts, Q&As and more, and why it made the “LIVE” button a more prominent feature in its app and user experience.

App Annie’s report also digs into the impact live streaming has had on specific platforms, like Twitch and Bigo Live, the former which doubled its monthly active user base from the pre-pandemic era, and the latter which saw $314.2 million in consumer spend during H1 2021.

“The ability of social media users to communicate with each other using live video – or watch others’ live broadcasts – has not only maintained the growth of a social media app market, but contributed to its exponential growth in engagement metrics like time spent, that might otherwise have saturated some time ago,” wrote App Annie’s Head of Insights, Lexi Sydow, when announcing the new report.

The full report is available here.

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Report: India may be next in line to mandate changes to Apple’s in-app payment rules

Summer is still technically in session, but a snowball is slowly developing in the world of apps, and specifically the world of in-app payments. A report in Reuters today says that the Competition Commission of India, the country’s monopoly regulator, will soon be looking at an antitrust suit filed against Apple over how it mandates that app developers use Apple’s own in-app payment system — thereby giving Apple a cut of those payments — when publishers charge users for subscriptions and other items in their apps.

The suit, filed by an Indian non-profit called “Together We Fight Society”, said in a statement to Reuters that it was representing consumer and startup interests in its complaint.

The move would be the latest in what has become a string of challenges from national regulators against app store operators — specifically Apple but also others like Google and WeChat — over how they wield their positions to enforce market practices that critics have argued are anti-competitive. Other countries that have in recent weeks reached settlements, passed laws, or are about to introduce laws include Japan, South Korea, Australia, the U.S. and the European Union.

And in India specifically, the regulator is currently working through a similar investigation as it relates to in-app payments in Android apps, which Google mandates use its proprietary payment system. Google and Android dominate the Indian smartphone market, with the operating system active on 98% of the 520 million devices in use in the country as of the end of 2020.

It will be interesting to watch whether more countries wade in as a result of these developments. Ultimately, it could force app store operators, to avoid further and deeper regulatory scrutiny, to adopt new and more flexible universal policies.

In the meantime, we are seeing changes happen on a country-by-country basis.

Just yesterday, Apple reached a settlement in Japan that will let publishers of “reader” apps (those for using or consuming media like books and news, music, files in the cloud and more) to redirect users to external sites to provide alternatives to Apple’s proprietary in-app payment provision. Although it’s not as seamless as paying within the app, redirecting previously was typically not allowed, and in doing so the publishers can avoid Apple’s cut.

South Korean legislators earlier this week approved a measure that will make it illegal for Apple and Google to make a commission by forcing developers to use their proprietary payment systems.

And last week, Apple also made some movements in the U.S. around allowing alternative forms of payments, but relatively speaking the concessions were somewhat indirect: app publishers can refer to alternative, direct payment options in apps now, but not actually offer them. (Not yet at least.)

Some developers and consumers have been arguing for years that Apple’s strict policies should open up more. Apple however has long said in its defense that it mandates certain developer policies to build better overall user experiences, and for reasons of security. But, as app technology has evolved, and consumer habits have changed, critics believe that this position needs to be reconsidered.

One factor in Apple’s defense in India specifically might be the company’s position in the market. Android absolutely dominates India when it comes to smartphones and mobile services, with Apple actually a very small part of the ecosystem.

As of the end of 2020, it accounted for just 2% of the 520 million smartphones in use in the country, according to figures from Counterpoint Research quoted by Reuters. That figure had doubled in the last five years, but it’s a long way from a majority, or even significant minority.

The antitrust filing in India has yet to be filed formally, but Reuters notes that the wording leans on the fact that anti-competitive practices in payments systems make it less viable for many publishers to exist at all, since the economics simply do not add up:

“The existence of the 30% commission means that some app developers will never make it to the market,” Reuters noted from the filing. “This could also result in consumer harm.”

Reuters notes that the CCI will be reviewing the case in the coming weeks before deciding whether it should run a deeper investigation or dismiss it. It typically does not publish filings during this period.

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Chrome Beta to experiment with a more powerful New Tab page, web highlights, and search changes

Google is launching a new version of its Chrome Beta browser today that’s introducing some fairly notable changes to its user interface and design. The browser will introduce an updated New Tab page, which will now include cards directing you back to past web search activities, instead of only a list of shortcuts to favorite websites. Other changes aim to make it easier to navigate search results and to highlight and share quotes from the web.

The New Tab page’s update will be one of the first changes Chrome beta users may notice.

The idea behind this design change is about getting you back quickly to past web activities without a need dive into your browsing history to remember which sites you had been using for things like recipes or shopping. It can also help you to return quickly to your recent documents list in Google Drive, in a handy bit of cross-promotion for Google services.

Image Credits: Google

The page will now feature what Google is calling “cards,” not just links, which could direct you to things like a recently-visited recipe site where you had been browsing for ideas, a Google doc you need to finish editing, or a retailer’s website where you had left your shopping cart filled with things you may like to purchase at a later date. The latter ties into Google’s larger investment in online shopping, which has already seen the search giant trying to grab more marketshare in the space by making product listings free and partnering with e-commerce platforms like Shopify.

Google is rightly concerned about Amazon’s surging advertising business, which is a large part of the retailer’s “Other” category that grew 87% year-over-year to generate $7.9 billion in the second quarter. Now, it’s capitalizing on Chrome’s New Tab real estate to elevate shopping activity in the hopes of pushing users to complete their transactions.

Another change aims to make it easier to do web research. Google says that often, users searching for something on its platform will navigate to multiple web pages to find their answer. The new version of Chrome will experiment with a different way of connecting users to their search results by adding a row beneath the address bar on Chrome for Android that will show the rest of the results so you can navigate to other web pages without needing to hit the back button.

Image Credits: Google

A new “quote cards” experiment, also coming to Chrome Beta on Android, will allow users to create a stylized image for social sharing that features text found on websites. Taking a screengrab of a website’s text is something that’s already a common activity, and particularly for people who want to share a key point from a news article they’re reading with followers on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. With this new feature, you’ll be able to long press text to highlight it, then tap Share and select a template by tapping on the “Create Card” option from the menu.

All features are a part of the Chrome Beta browser. To enable experiments, you can type chrome://flags into the browser’s address bar or click on the Experiments beaker icon, and then enable the flags. The associated flags for these experiments are #ntp-modules flag (New Tab page), #continuous-search (search results changes), and #webnotes-stylize flag (quote cards).

Experiments don’t necessarily become Chrome features that roll out more broadly. Instead, they offer Google a way to capture large-scale user feedback about its new design ideas, so the features can be tweaked and fine-tuned before a public release.

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