How Tech Titans Know To Pull The Plug On Projects

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pullplug Not every new idea is destined to be great. Sometimes even the most promising concepts end up in the scrap pile. You probably never heard about Google Here, but the project was so big that Alphabet CEO Larry Page himself made the final decision to abandon it. Aimed at smartphone users, Here would have allowed companies to interact with users by location. For instance, someone in a Gap… Read More

November 29th 2015 Android

Big Offline Google Maps

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I don’t know about you, but my Google Maps for Android has just enabled the new offline features. Even if you have the latest version of the app, you still need to wait until these features are enabled because they’re gradually rolled out.

My first disappointment is that the new features are still limited. The biggest size for an offline area you can download is 120,000 square kilometers and there are many countries that are bigger than that. I downloaded London’s map and checked the size of the map: 332 MB. It also expires in 29 days (maps need to be updated at least every 30 days).

It looks like Google’s maps include too much information, they take up too much space and there’s no way to download some simplified maps.

Let’s try one of the smallest countries in Europe: Liechtenstein, which has an area of only 160 square kilometers. The offline map has 62 MB. New York? 409 MB. Los Angeles? 356 MB. Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing, Bangkok? Not available because of licensing issues.

Forget about downloading the map for an entire country. Google Maps still can’t replace the Here app or paid navigation apps.

November 25th 2015 Android

Google Maps Lets You Download Areas of the World for Offline Viewing

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Google Maps can be quite an incredible tool for people trying to figure out where they’re going. For many, it has replaced the traditional GPS navigation system in their vehicles as it offers similar functionality.

Unfortunately, there are times when you just can’t get a good connection, and that can really get you into trouble if you have no idea where you are or how to get to your destination. That changes now as Google is now letting Maps users download entire areas of the world so they can access these places whether they have an Internet connection or not.

The functionality was actually first unveiled earlier this year at Google I/O, but it’s now gradually rolling out to Android users. iOS will soon follow.

The company explains in a blog post:

Now you can download an area of the world to your phone, and the next time you find there’s no connectivity—whether it’s a country road or an underground parking garage—Google Maps will continue to work seamlessly. Whereas before you could simply view an area of the map offline, now you can get turn-by-turn driving directions, search for specific destinations, and find useful information about places, like hours of operation, contact information or ratings.

You can download an area by searching for a city, county or country, for instance, and tapping “Download” on the resulting place sheet, or by going to “Offline Areas” in the Google Maps menu and tapping on the “+” button. Once downloaded, Google Maps will move into offline mode automatically when it recognizes you’re in a location with spotty service or no connectivity at all. When a connection is found, it will switch back online so you can easily access the full version of Maps, including live traffic conditions for your current route. By default, we’ll only download areas to your device when you are on a Wi-Fi connection to prevent large data fees.

Google says it plans to introduce additional offline features for Google Maps, though it doesn’t get specific.

Images via Google

November 11th 2015 Android, Google, Technology

Full-Featured Offline Google Maps

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Google Maps has a really cool mobile app for Android and iOS, but most of its features aren’t available when you’re offline. You can cache maps for small regions and that’s pretty useful, but what if you want to cache the maps for an entire country or use navigation and driving directions when you’re in a different country? The Here app offers this feature for free and now you can use it in Google Maps too.

“Now you can download an area of the world to your phone, and the next time you find there’s no connectivity — whether it’s a country road or an underground parking garage — Google Maps will continue to work seamlessly. Whereas before you could simply view an area of the map offline, now you can get turn-by-turn driving directions, search for specific destinations, and find useful information about places, like hours of operation, contact information or ratings,” mentions Google.

“You can download an area by searching for a city, county or country, for instance, and tapping ‘Download’ on the resulting place sheet, or by going to ‘Offline Areas’ in the Google Maps menu and tapping on the + button. Once downloaded, Google Maps will move into offline mode automatically when it recognizes you’re in a location with spotty service or no connectivity at all. When a connection is found, it will switch back online so you can easily access the full version of Maps, including live traffic conditions for your current route.”

The new feature is gradually rolling out in the latest version of Google Maps for Android and it will soon be added to the iOS app. 6 years after launching turn-by-turn navigation, this feature works offline and Google Maps can finally replace paid navigation apps.

November 11th 2015 Android, Mobile

Chrome OS Isn’t Going Away, Says Google

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Rumors of Chrome OS and Android merging into one operating system have seemingly been happening nearly as long as the two operating systems have existed alongside each other.

Sergey Brin even reportedly mentioned as far back as 2009 that the two would likely one day converge.

Late on Thursday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Google plans to fold Chrome OS into Android, citing people familiar with the matter, adding that Google engineers have been working for two years to combine the operating systems, having made new progress.

The report indicates that Google plans to unveil the new single operating system in 2017, while showing off an early version next year. It also says the new combined version of will give PC users access to the Google Play store. Technically, they already have access, so I’ll take this to mean they’ll be able to use Android apps on PCs. Chrome OS will remain as an open source OS that Google engineers will maintain, it says.

Google has responded to the report, downplaying any notion that Chrome OS is going away, but not exactly denying its accuracy.

Hiroshi Lockheimer, SVP Android, Chromecast, Chrome OS tweeted this:

The future of the two operating systems as described by the Journal could still be seen as in line with that tweet. It does say Chrome OS will be maintained by Google even as it’s open source, and it does not say that Chromebooks are going away, which considering said momentum, would be ridiculous.

In August, NPD reported that Chromebooks were outselling Windows laptops.

Image via Google

October 31st 2015 Android, Google, Technology

Google to Merge Android With Chrome OS

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Wall Street Journal reports that Google works on integrating Chrome OS into Android and will release a unified OS that runs on phones, tablets, laptops and more. “The company plans to unveil its new, single operating system in 2017, but expects to show off an early version next year.”

So why kill Chrome OS and switch to Android? Chrome OS has a small desktop market share, while Android is the dominant mobile OS. There are a lot more apps in the Google Play Store than in the Chrome Web Store and Google had a hard time convincing developers to build Chrome apps. Google even ported the Android runtime to Chrome, so that you can run Android apps in Chrome OS.

Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, has recently said that “mobile as a computing paradigm is eventually going to blend with what we think of as desktop today”. Most likely, Google wants to bring Android to the desktop and provide a coherent experience. This solves some of the issues with Chrome OS (the lack of apps, low market share), but brings more challenges (Android is less secure than Chrome OS, it’s updated less often, has a more complicated interface, it doesn’t have a windowing system, apps aren’t optimized for desktop).

I like Chromebooks because they’re simple devices that require no maintenance. There are few things you can change, few things that can go wrong. It’s easy to share them with other people, you don’t have to worry about backups or saving your data.

Pixel C’s announcement makes more sense now. It’s an Android tablet developed by the Chromebook Pixel team. “We think the Pixel C’s tablet and keyboard experience really unlocks new ways to both play and be productive on one device,” mentioned Google.

Google has a lot of work to do. Android’s tablet interface is pretty poor, there’s no native multi-window support, Chrome for Android doesn’t support extensions, apps and themes.

Chromebooks were all about the web, but native apps turned out to be more important for users. Better performance, better integration with the operating system, better interface – native apps trumped web apps and Chrome OS couldn’t find a way to turn the tide.

October 30th 2015 Android

Android Auto Backup

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One of the best features from Android Marshmallow is auto backup for apps. Android used to have a backup feature that only worked for system settings and a few apps that enabled it. Now Google saves the settings and data for all the apps and backs it up to Google Drive, so you can quickly restore it when needed.

I’ve checked the Android section from Google Dashboard and noticed the difference between Nexus 7 running Android 4.3 and Nexus 5 running Android 6.0. While Nexus 7 only backed up system settings, the wallpaper and some data for Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Keyboard, Nexus 5 backed up the data for almost all the apps: from QuickPic Gallery to MyFitnessPal, from Firefox to Opera Mini and Angry Birds 2. There are still some apps that don’t support auto backup, but at least the feature is now opt-out instead of opt-in.

The Android section from Google Dashboard shows a lot of useful information about your Android devices (IMEI number, registered date, last activity date, carrier) and it also lets you delete backup data. “Please note that new backup data will be created if backup is enabled on any of your Android devices,” informs Google.

The list of apps backed up to Google Drive is also available in the Settings section of the Google Drive app for Android. You can enable or disable the backup feature, automatic restore, reset network settings, add backup accounts. The nice thing is that all this data doesn’t use your Google Drive storage quota, but each app is limited to 25MB.

“Apps running on the new backup system aim to save their data every 24 hours, but there are a few requirements for the backup system to trigger automatically. The new backup system uses the JobScheduler API introduced in Lollipop and only triggers a backup if the device is connected to power, on Wi-Fi, and has been idle for at least an hour. The data then gets encrypted and uploaded to Google Drive,” reports Ars Technica.

It’s worth pointing out that reinstalling an app from the Play Store restores its settings and data. This way, you won’t lose your data when you uninstall an app and you don’t have to reconfigure an app you’ve previously used. In my opinion, this is a game-changing feature.

The new backup service is powered by Google Play Services, so it can be improved without updating the operating system. Hopefully, Google will allow users to disable backup for certain apps, remove the 25MB limitation and backup even more data.

October 29th 2015 Android

Newer Is Not Always Better

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With all this talk about Android and software updates, I realized that one of the biggest Android advantages is that you can install custom firmware or downgrade to an old Android version.

My old Nexus 7 tablet from 2012 doesn’t support the latest Android release. Instead of installing custom firmware from some independent developers, I decided to go back to the smoothest Android version I can find. Asus skimped on quality storage and Nexus 7 was pretty slow and laggy, especially when using Android 5.x.

Google has a page with factory images for Nexus devices and it’s pretty easy to install any Android version that’s officially available. You have to backup your data, enable USB debugging and run some scripts.

I’ve installed Android 4.4.4 and Nexus 7 was much smoother, but there was still room for improvement. Android 4.3 was even better and I decided to keep it. It’s like having a completely new device, even if it runs some outdated software released 2 years ago.

It’s difficult to optimize new software for old hardware, especially if manufacturers don’t care about quality, cut costs and ship poorly made devices with obvious design flaws. On there other hand, Google has its own issues with software optimization, memory leaks, battery draining software and other bugs. When properly optimised, Android runs well and users are happy, but this doesn’t happen often. With so many devices to update, manufacturers and even Google take shortcuts when it comes to old phones and tablets. Some stop updating them, others release unfinished software, hoping to encourage users to buy new hardware, while others spend more time improving the software for the latest flagships.

Thankfully, you can downgrade and go back to a software that actually works well. Apple devices rarely allow you to downgrade and usually for a limited time, so you’re stuck with phones and tablets that are suddenly slow, laggy and crashy.

This post was written on my Nexus 7 running Android 4.3.

October 28th 2015 Android

Google’s Play

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Android started as an open platform that brought together many competing companies. iPhone’s launch changed Android’s development and was an important reason for Android’s success. Phone manufacturers and carriers wanted an “iPhone killer” and Android was a good bet, but it still had a lot of rough edges and there were many missing features. This was a great opportunity for manufactures to fill in the gaps, create their own user interfaces and develop their own apps and widgets that brought value and differentiation.

Here’s an image from Android’s original SDK emulator:

Why did Google acquire Andy Rubin’s company and invested in Android? One of the reasons was to make a better platform for developing mobile apps. Google already had a few mobile apps for feature phones, Symbian, Blackberry and it was very difficult to add new features and to test the applications because of the inconsistent APIs and their implementations. Android seemed like an interesting opportunity, but Google never anticipated that it will take over the world. It’s obvious that Android became the dominant mobile OS because so many companies invested in Android, hoping to come up with better phones than Apple’s iPhone.

While Android was open source, Google created a few proprietary apps that weren’t part of the Android Open Source Project (AOSP). The most important proprietary Google app was Android Market, which is now called Google Play Store, but Google developed other apps as well: Gmail, Google Search, Google Maps etc. Over time, many open source apps were replaced by proprietary Google apps: the music player became Google Play Music, the calendar app became Google Calendar, the browser became Chrome etc.

Android Market/Google Play is Google’s own service and it was licensed to phone manufactures subject to confidential terms and conditions. According to the distribution agreements (MADA) revealed by companies like HTC and Motorola, Android Market was bundled with other Google apps and services, including Google Search and Network Location Provider, which had to be the default search and location services. “Devices may only be distributed if all Google Applications [listed elsewhere in the agreement] … are pre-installed on the Device,” mentions one of the distribution agreements.

The list of bundled Google apps increased over the years, as Google released more and more apps. Phone manufacturers were allowed to bundle competing apps from third-party companies and you’ll find many phones that include Whatsapp and Hangouts, Microsoft OneDrive/Dropbox and Google Drive, Facebook and Google+. Here’s a screenshot from Samsung Note 4, courtesy of Gsmarena, which shows that Samsung preinstalled Facebook and Google+, Hangouts, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, Instagram and Google Photos.

While many Android users complain that their phones have too much bloatware, some companies aren’t happy that Google ties the Google Play Store with other Google apps and some default settings (Google = default search engine, Google Network Location Provider = default location provider).

Deutsche Telekom will file an anti-trust charge against Google, complaining that “Google uses its Android mobile operating system to unfairly promote its own products like Google Maps and online search over those of rivals”. According to New York Times, “a number of large tech companies, including Oracle and Nokia, as well as small start-ups like Aptoide, a Portuguese online marketplace for smartphone applications, already have filed complaints to European officials connected to the Android investigation.” The European Commission has opened a formal investigation into Google’s mobile operating system and the Federal Trade Commission started a similar investigation last month.

Is it fair for Google to bundle the Play Store with other apps and to dictate its own terms and conditions? It’s obvious that the Play Store is the most important Android app and few people outside of China would buy an Android device that can’t access the Play Store. By now, Google Play Store and the associated Google Play Services are hard to separate from Android, even if they’re not technically part of Android. This is Google’s play: it’s holding the keys to more than 1 million apps and dictates its own terms to phone manufacturers. Many of Google’s apps are actually useful and they are hard to beat by competitors (Google Maps, Google Search, Gmail, YouTube), but some of the apps aren’t the best in their category and Google uses distribution agreements to promote them (Hangouts, Keep, Play Books).

Back in 2008, Android Market was just another Android app store, but now it’s the most important by far and it also comes with APIs that tie Android apps to the Google Play Store. I think it’s not fair to tie Play Store licensing with bundling other Google apps and Google should use separate distribution agreements for them, just like Facebook and Microsoft.

October 23rd 2015 Android

If You’ve Been Wanting a Pepsi-Branded Smartphone, It’s Apparently on the Way

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PepsiCo China has been developing a branded smartphone with a licensing partner that uses the Android operating system and will debut on Oct. 20 in Beijing, according to MobiPicker

The mobile-focused news site said the device will be called the Pepsi P1, which will have a  5.5-inch display screen and cost around $205. 

Update: A PepsiCo spokesperson emailed Adweek late Monday afternoon, stating that the effort is China-only and "similar to recent globally licensed Pepsi products which include apparel and accessories. Pepsi has always moved at the speed of culture, and today technology is a key cultural pillar at the heart of consumer interaction. Pepsi has no plans to get into the mobile phone manufacturing business, but we are committed to engaging with consumers in innovative ways to grow our brand. We'll share more news as it becomes available."

It still appears to be completely uncharted territory for a packaged-goods brand. And it will be fascinating to watch whether the P1s become popular in China and intriguing to see if Coca-Cola follows suit with a similar phone.

In the carbonated soft drinks category, Coke had a market share of 63 percent in 2014, while PepsiCo's share was around 30 percent, per Chinadaily.

October 13th 2015 Android, Mobile, Technology