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Tom Maxwell

September 7, 2015

GOOG: 600.70

-5.55

Battered mobile technology manufacturer HTC has a new press event scheduled for September 29, to be held in Hankone, Japan, where a “double flagship” device will be released. That’s according to an image spotted by popular Twitter user @upleaks, who says in his tweet that the image was posted to HTC’s account on Weibo, the Chinese social networking equivalent to Twitter… expand full story

Porn app for Android takes pictures of users, holds them for $500 ransom

BBC News reports that security firm Zscaler recently discovered an app for Android which advertised itself as a way to access pornography, but which actually blackmailed its users for money:

Adult Player appeared to offer pornography, but secretly took pictures of users with the phone’s front-facing camera.

It then locked the user’s device and displayed a demand for $500 (£330) which was difficult to bypass.

Ransomware is the name given to malicious software which gains access to a computer — desktop or otherwise — and then threatens to wipe the device or release private information gathered from it if the owner doesn’t send the demanded amount of money. The BBC for its report quotes Intel Security as saying examples of this software appearing in the wild have increased 127% since 2014. “Apps like this rely on the embarrassment factor. If you don’t pay, your reputation is on the line,” said Raj Samani, chief technology officer for Intel Security.

One very important line in this story is somewhat buried, however:

The app was not available from vetted storefronts such as Google Play, but could be installed directly from a webpage.

What this means is that for someone to actually install this ransomware on their Android device, they’d have to intentionally bypass the security measures put in place specifically to prevent nightmares like what this software can do from occurring. And it’s clear that from descriptions of the app that its misbehaviors, like locking the device and constantly displaying messages across the system, would be blatant enough to trip up Google’s Bouncer anti-malware screening:

Zscaler said the app’s ransom message kept the phone’s screen switched on at all times, and reappeared if the handset was restarted.

Samani’s advice for steering clear of software like Adult Player is the same thing we heard during the desktop era:

Only download apps from the proper Google Play store. And if you receive an app download link in an email, don’t click it.

When it comes to software-based technology, attackers will always be digging from new exploits which means us consumers will always be on the defense. This is another case in particular, however, where the solution is simple: Download your apps and files from reputable providers, and if you need to download a new app store altogether, like Amazon’s, grab it straight from their official HTTPS-secured website.

September 3, 2015

GOOG: 606.25

-8.09

Sony has struggled in recent years to stand out in an ever-crowded smartphone market. During a keynote yesterday that saw Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai say that the “best is yet to come” for the Japanese technology company, we got to see a slew of much-anticipated Android-powered Xperia Z5 smartphones. We did not, however, learn what the prices would be. Now it seems we have, and they’re not cheap… expand full story

Everyone can use an Echo Dot: Just $50!

Samsung just wrapped up its keynote event at the IFA trade show here in Berlin where it spent most of its presentation time discussing the trend of software powering everything in our lives, called Internet of Things. One peculiar new service in particular was an in-car dashboard app that works with the company’s Galaxy line of Android smartphones.

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September 2, 2015

GOOG: 597.79

-20.46

Google restructures payment options for users of Maps APIs

Developers who want to do unique things with Google’s mapping technology, like plot markers on a map from a content management system, can now do it more affordably. Several Maps APIs have been moved to a payment model where you pay just for what you need.

With the move, the following APIs will begin to cost $0.50 per 1,000 requests after the first 2,500 in each 24-hour period: Geocoding, Directions, Distance Matrix, Roads, Geolocation, Elevation, and Time Zone APIs. This price will stay in place until developers pass 100,000 requests per day. Beyond that large number, developers will need to contact Google to request a premium license.

Previously developers who exceeded the 2,500 per day cap had to contact Google about purchasing one of its premium Google Maps for Work licenses, now called Google Maps for Business, which has been quoted as costing as much as $10,000 per year (Google doesn’t publicly list a price). Basically the APIs are now accessible to a much larger portion of those who want to use them.

Google Maps for Android gains richer local recommendation search

Google Maps on mobile has since last year had an Explore section where users can find the best restaurants to eat at and things to do in their area. With an update rolling out today to the Android app, it’s becoming a bit more easy to specify and narrow down exactly what you’re looking for.

Prior to today, Explore only used the inputs of distance and time of day to determine what to show you. Users can now, however, specify a nearby neighborhood, category, and type of cuisine to find, on top of the existing inputs. Tapping on a suggested place will bring up more detail like who the vibe is best, or least, suited for, and sometimes it’ll include why Google chose to recommend that place in particular.

It seems crazy to me that Explore in Google Maps was lacking this type of gradual search before, but it was. The new inputs make perfect sense, too — what if I specifically want to find a place to have drinks with friends, and also make sure it’s not too upscale of a place? You couldn’t narrow your results down that far before, but now you can. Well, that’s if you’re in the US or UK, where the Explore update is limited to for now. And if you happen to be in NYC, San Francisco or London, Google will even curate its suggestions into named sections like “Best places for classic Mission-style Mexican food.”

Aside from the new search, the UI has been updated a bit with a card-based interface for swiping through suggested places and their corresponding photos. This interface closely matches what Google rolled out to its search product on mobile for rich content results just a few days ago. Maps for Android also recently saw its directions interface updated with a similar tabbed design displaying duration estimates for every form of transportation to a given location.

Other location-based recommendation apps like Foursquare and Yelp have had what Google is rolling out now for quite a while, it’s worth noting. When I find an APK for this new update I’ll be sure to update this post.

Update: Two other minor updates targeted to business customers have also been included. Text inside a Sheets cell can now be partially formatted, rather than formatting all the text to one font style (i.e. italics), and Google’s fonts are preserved when opening a Docs or Sheets file in Microsoft Word and PowerPoint.

Google has today pushed a bunch of new features and general improvements to its Docs suite of web-based productivity apps. It’s the beginning of the school year so it’s no surprise that the company’s post on the changes is targeted towards teachers, but anyone using Docs will benefit.

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ASUS just wrapped up its IFA Berlin keynote address during which it showed off a range of new devices like the “world’s fastest Wi-Fi router,” plus some we’ve already seen like the Zenfone Selfie and Zoom. Afterwards we got a chance to take a hands-on look at the Android-powered ZenWatch 2. expand full story

September 1, 2015

GOOG: 597.79

-20.46

Through this big shift we’re in the middle of to a mobile world where native apps reign king, Google has held strong in its devotion to improving the user experience of the web. Today another example of that is a shift it’s making to penalize those sites which display app install interstitials that hide a significant amount of content. expand full story

August 28, 2015

GOOG: 630.38

-7.23

Motorola’s Android Wear-powered Moto 360 has disappeared from its U.S. website just as we’re expecting the company to unveil the 2nd-generation model next week at IFA Berlin. The change was first reported by Droid-Life.

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Google Chrome to begin pausing Flash ads around the web on September 1st

Adobe Flash is notoriously both resource intensive and ubiquitous on the web, which hasn’t helped the open web survive in the consumer shift to mobile devices that have smaller screens and processors. Flash isn’t even supported in most mobile environments anymore because of its poor performance. Google is as a result working hard to eliminate Flash content from its ad network and create a better web browsing experience. Today it announced September 1st is when it will begin pausing many of the Flash ads seen around the web for users of its Chrome web browser.

Fortunately for Google, it’s able to convert most of the Flash ads uploaded to its AdWords advertiser network to the less intensive HTML5 automatically. The company provides a section on its support site where advertisers can go to see what Flash ads are eligible for this conversion, and it has even made a step-by-step tool for converting ads which can’t be automatically converted or haven’t already been uploaded to Google’s servers.

Google first announced this shift back in June, and while the company has its own mobile operating system with a massive amount of native apps in the form of Android, it’s still a big proponent of the web. Perhaps because that’s where it was born, but really because the web isn’t closed off like mobile operating systems, and the underlying hypertext language of the web allows the company to easily scrape and index it for its Search business, among other things. The company introduced a setting to its Chrome browser in March which enables this disabling of Flash plugin content. Chrome for Android and iOS doesn’t support it at all.

Starbucks for Android v3.2 brings Material Design refresh

Whether or not you believe Starbucks coffee tastes burnt (I don’t), there’s always a reason to be happy when a popular app from a major company adopts Google’s new Material Design language. That’s just what the company did today with a new update.

Starbucks version 3.2 for Android is a gentle introduction to Material Design — the app continues to fall in line with the muted colors of the Starbucks brand, not too bright and bold like many early Material Design apps I’ve seen, and animations are subtle, like how the hamburger menu icon shifts during the transition of opening and closing the menu. Small details like elements appearing to open from a touch point remind you that it’s Material. It looks good.

Sadly, however, the app still lacks the new Order & Pay functionality Starbucks recently added to its iOS app and began promoting in stores, which allows customers to order menu items from their phone and pick them up when they arrive. Starbucks still labels that functionality as being in beta, though, so I’ll give them some slack. As a Starbucks loyalist I’m just glad to see them recognizing Android as a legitimate place to have a presence.

This update also brings added menu details so you can see all the menu items currently available at US stores (PSL, anyone?), and the obligatory “bug fixes.” It’s available on Google Play now.

August 27, 2015

GOOG: 637.61

8.99

New Xperia Z5 press pictures leak from official channels

XperiaBlog.net is reporting that official Sony Mobile accounts across social media channels today inadvertently published press pictures of the yet-unannounced flagship Xperia Z5 smartphone. Note that we ourselves weren’t able to verify this.

Sony itself teased earlier this week the unveiling of a smartphone “with greater focus,” and that all would become clear on the 2nd of September. That date, of course, falls during IFA Berlin, the annual technology trade show where Sony will be present and has been known to unveil new hardware. The images seem to show the phone packing another one of Sony’s Exmor RS pixel-stacked image sensors, although XperiaBlog.net states that the images confirm this one is a 23MP sensor — Sony doesn’t publicly list a 1/2″ 23MP sensor on its sales site, so it would have to be one they haven’t announced yet.

Aside from that, the images show the phone in gold, white and dark turquoise colors, as well as an “Xperia” logo engraved on one side, which we haven’t seen on previous models. We predicted earlier this week that this new phone could come with Sony’s hybrid autofocus technology, which Sony says combines two technologies — Phase detection AF for quick response and Contrast detection AF for added precision — to allow “fast, accurate focusing in all situations, even if your subject is moving.” Sony’s software is widely panned for softening up images and doing other things to negatively degrade them.

There might not be any topic more heated in today’s digital space than advertising. In most cases, no ads is better than any ads at all. The reality right now is, however, that no ads still also means no money to pay writers at sites like this one. With all that said, Google’s AdWords team has beautified its full-screen in-app ads (don’t worry, we don’t use these).

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Android Auto gains computer emulator so you don’t have to work from your car

It seems crazy that this didn’t exist before, but today Google released Desktop Head Unit (DHU), a testing tool which emulates the Android Auto in-car experience on desktop computer hardware.

Once installed, you can connect your phone to your computer over USB and the companion app will behave as if it’s connected to a car which has Android Auto installed, while the emulator will display the Auto app you’re testing just like it would in a car with Android Auto.

Here’s my favorite part of the post, emphasis mine:

Now you can test pre-released versions of your app in a production-like environment, without having to work from your car. With the release of the DHU, the previous simulators are deprecated, but will be supported for a short period prior to being officially removed.

Auto developers who want to go back to working at their desks can head over to the blog post on the official Android Developers Blog to see all the details on how to get started with DHU.

HTC Desire 626 hits Verizon for $192 unlocked or $8/month

Verizon Wireless has begun selling HTC’s new Desire 626 mid-range Android smartphone. HTC back in May introduced a litany of new mid-rangers to the US market across every major carrier, including the Desire 526 which hit Verizon earlier this month.

The Desire 626 is a bit of a step up from the 526, sporting a larger 5-inch, 720p display, 8MP rear-facing and 5MP front-facing cameras, 1.5GB RAM, and a quad-core Snapdragon 210 processor. It also has a 2,000mAh battery and the storage can be increased through the microSD card tray.

Those are low-end specifications when put up against today’s flagships like the Moto X Style or OnePlus Two, but they come with a price to match: $192 fully unlocked or $8 per month on a 24-month contract. And for what it’s worth, the Desire 626 is a solid-built phone with a design that is quite attractive. It’s unlikely to pull HTC out of the rut it’s in right now, though. You should check out our full video review below if you’d like to learn more about the phone.

Google puts a lot of effort into making the world’s knowledge organized and accessible, and in particular it has a record through its Crisis Response project of making certain information more accessible during times of disaster. Today it released a blog post detailing how it’s doing more to help people be prepared.

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August 26, 2015

GOOG: 628.62

46.56

Sorry, Android users: Popular online food ordering service Eat24 has determined that you are less healthy on a nutritional basis than owners of Apple’s iPhone. That’s based on data it collected from its mobile app over a three month period, tracking information regarding how ordering habits differed across the rival platforms.

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Update: Google has posted a vague tweet to its Android account on Twitter, presumably in response to these reports. It simply says to “stay tuned” and ends with a #soon hashtag. Hard to draw many assumptions.

Android Pay will not go live today despite signals of otherwise from major fast-food chain Subway, and a purported leaked staff memo from McDonald’s, TechCrunch is now reporting.

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Nuance Communications is today releasing an updated version of its popular Swype Keyboard for Android, “the world’s most powerful keyboard,” which includes an all-new Swype Store with additional premium themes as well as an emoji keyboard. Swype is a popular alternative to the default Android keyboard due in part to its many customization options, like the ability to change the keyboard’s overall layout, key sizes, and a bunch more. expand full story

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