Apple tells Google to stay in its lane over security claims

Apple has hit back at a Google blog post, which emerged last week, suggesting its rival in the smartphone OS segment was ‘stoking fear’ amongst its users.

The presence of vulnerabilities is nothing to be too surprised about, though when the owner of one smartphone OS points out said vulnerabilities to a rival, egos are always going to flare up. This appears to be the case here, with Apple offering its rebuttal to the Google claims, attempting to calm the waters.

“Google’s post, issued six months after iOS patches were released, creates the false impression of ‘mass exploitation’ to ‘monitor the private activities of entire populations in real time,’ stoking fear among all iPhone users that their devices had been compromised. This was never the case,” the statement reads.

Firstly, Apple claims the vulnerability was narrow, not broad-based as suggested by the Google blog post. Fewer than 12 websites were able to exploit the vulnerability. Secondly, Apple has claimed these websites were only operational for two months, as opposed to the two-year period which Google is claiming.

The vulnerabilities were reported to Apple in a responsible fashion in February, though last weeks blog from Ian Beer of Google’s Project Zero is what is irking Apple.

What Google pointed out to Apple in February is that there were several nefarious websites which exploited a flaw in the iOS programming to allow hackers access to iPhone users’ contacts, photos and location, as well as data from apps like iMessage, WhatsApp, Telegram, Gmail and Google Hangouts.

The vulnerability covered each version of the OS from iOS 10 through to the latest version of iOS 12, though it was not immediately clear from the blog post whether any data was actually taken from users. Apple has not offered any insight here either.

As mentioned before, the idea of searching for vulnerabilities is not new. Bug Bounties are often offered to individuals and companies to find and report the flaws to the company which owns the software in a responsible manner. Interestingly enough, bug bounty platform HackerOne has recently announced it has raised $36.4 million in a series D round of funding led by Valor Equity Partners.

We suspect Apple isn’t that concerned about a flaw being highlighted, its more who did the highlighting.

Aside from a few very minor ‘also rans’, the smartphone operating system market is dominated by two players; Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS. This is where you have to take the severity claims about the vulnerabilities with a pinch of salt; it is of course in the benefit of Google to make the vulnerabilities seem as serious as possible.

The publication of the Google post could have come at a better time for Apple considering it is set to unveil its latest iPhone tomorrow (September 10).

“A lack of 5G support in the new iPhone won’t surprise anyone, though it will still disappoint operators looking for 5G devices to help them drive traffic to new 5G networks,” said Peter Jarich, Head of GSMA Intelligence.

“At the same time, new features that are expected – improved camera functionality, improved processor, upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 – may all seem incremental rather than revolutionary, particularly if the product line and form factor line-ups remain relatively constant.”

As it is unlikely the new iPhone will offer anything particularly innovative or revolutionary, combined with the high likelihood of it costing a small fortune, Apple will want to quash any negative connotations. The iLifers are extremely loyal, but with 5G attracting headlines around the world, some might be tempted to jump ship to a 5G-compatible device. Google’s claim of vulnerabilities might encourage a few more.

Google takes the fun out of new Android versions

Once a year, everyone used to gather around and have some fun guessing the name of the next Android, but Google is being a bit of a buzzkill with a refresh naming the next edition ‘10’.

Naming Android updates after deserts and tasty treats was a geeky quirk which brought a bit of sunshine, albeit for a short period of time. It is up there with the URL for the website of parent company Alphabet (abc.xyz), or the first doodle being of ‘Burning Man’ because that was where most of the office were on August 30, 1998.

But Google had to kill the fun.

“This naming tradition has become a fun part of the release each year externally, too,” Google said in a blog entry. “But we’ve heard feedback over the years that the names weren’t always understood by everyone in the global community.

Perhaps this is the end of ‘fun’ at Google as the company becomes increasingly corporate. Just like the removal of the ‘Don’t be evil’ clause in the company’s corporate code of conduct, perhaps this is a sign Google is growing up and the internal workings of the business will be more ‘appropriate’ for a company of its stature and influence.

There is of course a logical explanation for the move, but it is not as fun.

In some countries around the world, ‘L’ and ‘R’ are indistinguishable, while some deserts are not universally popular. For example, a pie is not thought to be a sweet treat everywhere, while the marshmallow would baffle some (For the Brooklyn Nine Nine fans out there, ‘what is this glutinous monstrosity in front of me’).

“As a global operating system, it’s important that these names are clear and relatable for everyone in the world,” the blog states. “So, this next release of Android will simply use the version number and be called Android 10. We think this change helps make release names simpler and more intuitive for our global community.”

Fortunately, the team is not ditching the friendly robot which so many people associate with the Android brand. It’s getting a bit of a facelift, but here to stay (hopefully!).

Huawei unveils its answer to Android; Harmony

At the Huawei Developer Conference, the Chinese vendor has showcased Harmony OS, its in-house operating system to provide an alternative to Google.

Huawei claims the new OS is faster and safer than Android, but primarily aimed at IOT devices. That said, it can be mobilised at a drop-of-the-hat, should the Android situation continue to deteriorate. Until the point of no-return, Huawei devices will continue to make use of Android.

“We’re entering a day and age where people expect a holistic intelligent experience across all devices and scenarios,” said Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei’s consumer unit.

“To support this, we felt it was important to have an operating system with improved cross-platform capabilities. We needed an OS that supports all scenarios, that can be used across a broad range of devices and platforms, and that can meet consumer demand for low latency and strong security.”

Currently, Harmony OS is more of a competitor to Google’s IOT focused OS, Fuchsia, but it is not difficult to see this was developed with mobile in mind also. This is the scale of the threat which is facing Huawei’s smartphone business unit.

Looking through the technical details, Yu claims the OS is safer due to the fact there is there is no root access available. Using external kernel services, the microkernel is protected by isolation, while the system also applies formal verification, a mathematical approach to spot vulnerabilities that traditional methods might miss.

As you can see from Yu’s statement above, Huawei is putting a positive spin on the development, though many will be able to read between the lines.

Over the last 12-18 months, the US has been aggressively attempting to undermine the fortunes and prospects of Huawei. Many have connected the White House’s propaganda to the on-going trade ware between the US and China, though the underlying reasons are irrelevant; the ripples of posturing are going to have negative impacts.

With regard to the launch of Harmony OS, Huawei’s entry onto the Entity List, effectively banning it from working with any US suppliers, was the most important development. This of course includes Google and Android.

Huawei might downplay the importance of this move, though the implications are significant. The firm would be able to continue using Android, it is open source after all, but if it is no-longer a Google partner it would not be entitled to feature and security updates at the earlier possible time.

Don’t listen to Huawei here, this is massive and would relegate the performance of its devices down the segment.

This is a major threat to the momentum being generated in the consumer business. Huawei smartphones are becoming increasingly popular, though if you remove the Android OS, software which probably grants the Chinese vendor credibility in some markets, the consequences could be swift and drastic. In creating its own OS, some of these concerns will be removed, security updates will be timely, but you have to wonder whether it will be any good.

The power of Android is not just brand credibility through association with Google, or timely security updates and product innovations, but it is really good. There is a reason Android killed off competition and overwhelmingly controls market share; it is the best OS available.

Not only will Huawei have to create an OS which is just as good as Android, but it will also have to create the supporting ecosystem. If there are no apps, services or products which are compatible with the OS, Huawei smartphones become no more useful than a doorstop.

It is a difficult one to predict whether the launch of its own in-house OS will actually work. Not only does it have to navigate the pitfalls of a new software launch, but it also has to combat the growing anti-China rhetoric.

Such is the reliance of todays consumer on smartphones, there only needs to be one problem for noses to be turned up at Harmony OS. Android is so reliable, why would consumers want to deal with problems, even if they are incredibly rare. Let’s not forget, Huawei’s heritage is in hardware and it has had a gluttony of software problems over the last few years; we suspect there will be a few blunders.

Anything short of perfect will be a threat to the Huawei smartphone. Consumers rarely like change, though a poorly performing OS might force newly acquired smartphone customers back to Android and rival devices.

That said, it is not difficult to imagine the Huawei OS alternative becoming a preference in China and Chinese-friendly nations. In such market, Chinese alternatives are preferred to US which can be seen with the rise of companies such as Huawei, Alibaba, JD.com, Baidu and Tencent. Using the Chinese domestic market as a vehicle to scale is a common technique for Chinese technology companies in recent years before casting eyes onto the international horizon.

This is of course not the first threat Google has faced in the OS market. Samsung attempted to branch-off with the launch of Tizen, while Windows Mobile was another challenge. Both of these OS’ focused on performance and security, but neither were effective enough to have any material impact on Android. Harmony OS is a different trial however.

Google might not be worried about losing market share in the Western markets, though in the emerging nations Huawei could find some traction. Not only are these nations which have better relationships with Chinese companies, but they present lucrative growth opportunities for Google. Should Huawei manage to launch the OS without major incident, we could be talking about three OS’ dominating the world not two.

Google points to security risk of Huawei ban, but what about commercial threat?

Google might have national security concerns about prohibiting Huawei from using the Android operating system, but it should also be worried about a potential threat to its market dominance.

If you are looking for a market with almost zero movement in terms of competitive threat, the OS segment is a prime example. With Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS, there is pretty much no-one else in the market worth considering. KaiOS has a fraction of the market, thanks to a focus on feature phones, while Nokia and Microsoft still have some legacy share, but realistically the duopoly of Google and Apple reign supreme.

That said, Huawei’s OS could prove to be a pain the Google’s side should all the pieces fall into place. It is of course a massive long-shot, but it is definitely a risk Google executives should be considering.

According to the Financial Times, Google has warned there could be some unintended consequences to the Huawei ban. With Huawei currently prohibited from using Android in any of its devices moving forward, Google is suggesting a rushed attempt to create an alternative could result in software bugs and an OS which is more susceptible to hacking. Huawei has already said it is progressing well with its own OS and should tensions between the US and China continue to rise, it will likely be debuted in the near future.

This is a risk but not something which is likely to concern the White House. It would not be a stretch to imagine the answer being ‘so what?’, if the Huawei OS has bugs that’s China’s problem. Google has reportedly approached the Commerce Department to request being exempt from the ban, allowing it to continue providing security updates to Huawei devices powered by Android, though it would seem these pleas have landed on deaf ears thus far.

Increasing the risk to national security is certainly an unintended consequence of Trump’s Executive Order to blacklist Huawei doing business with US firms, but there do seem to be more instances of friendly-fire each week.

During the immediate aftermath of the Huawei ban, several US firms were hit hard. US companies such as Xilinx, Skyworks Solutions, NeoPhotonics and Qorvo watched share price crumble away as they were effectively banned from engaging their biggest customer. Some have recovered slightly, but the damage has not been completely wiped out.

Another potential consequence to the ban is Huawei emerging on the other side of the conflict still intact. This could possibly be worst case scenario for the White House, as it would be a PR victory for the Chinese government and Huawei would be in a stronger position, no-longer dependent on the US. The OS market is one place US dominance could be notably challenged.

Huawei is currently the second-largest smartphone manufacturer in the world. This is down to a number of different factors, such as the price/quality comparison though its supremacy in the China market should not be underappreciated.

The China market itself might not be a massive concern to Google, as it is largely banned there, though other markets which are closely linked to China might be more of a concern. Android itself is an excellent springboard to profits for Google. Applications such as Gmail, Maps and Chrome as installed on devices as default, providing an outstanding link to monetization. As the second-largest smartphone manufacturer over the last few quarters, Huawei is a very good source of revenue for the Googlers.

If Huawei’s OS proves to be effective and it manages to convince international users that it is a brand which is worth persevering with, a third OS could enter the ecosystem. There are of course a lot of moving parts to consider, establishing trust with the consumer is going to be the biggest issue here as we suspect there will be some PR assault challenge the credibility of the OS and links to the Chinese government, but it is a realistic possibility. If it is anywhere near as good as Android, Huawei’s OS could gain market share and could chip away at Google’s profits.

That said, we can’t see Huawei making a significant challenge to Android’s dominance in the European markets, were the Huawei smartphone has seen good adoption trends, but there are others. Asia, for instance, or Africa, where Huawei’s cheaper devices may be more appealing than competitors. These are also nations which have largely managed to steer clear of being caught in the tension between the US and China.

As mentioned before, there is a lot which needs to go right for Huawei to gain a foothold and break the Android dominance around the world, but it is a realistic possibility, if only a long-shot. Usability and trust are two factors but developing the ecosystem would be another. The Google Play Store is a monstrous library of apps, and Huawei would have to offer something similar to be appealing to consumers.

Another unintended consequence is perhaps Huawei emerging as a more innovative and resilient player on the technology scene. By removing its reliance on US suppliers in certain areas of the supply chain, Huawei will be forced to move more capabilities in-house or search for new companies to plug the holes.

Huawei already had a sneak-preview of the damage which can be done through the US Entity List. ZTE was almost forced to extinction by the Trump signature on an Executive Order, which perhaps encouraged Huawei to invest more in HiSilicon, its own fabless semiconductor company based in Shenzhen. The more the White House forces Huawei to stand on its own, the more powerful Huawei could become.

The intended outcome of this action from the White House is surely to weaken China’s flagbearer in the telco and technology world, but if Huawei can ride the wave of adversity, it might just emerge as a much more powerful, innovative and influential player, free from any reliance on the US technology sector.

Qottab, Quindim or Quesito? Google releases Android Q beta

Every year Google releases a new version of Android, and while it is marginally entertaining to guess what sweetie it will be named after, it also provides a very useful roadmap for the future of mobility.

In controlling roughly 74% of the global mobile Operating System (OS) market share, Android is in a unique position to dictate how the ecosystem develops over the short- and medium-term. This year’s update appears larger and more wide-ranging than previous iterations, perhaps representing the significant changes to the industry in recent months.

“In 2019, mobile innovation is stronger than ever, with new technologies from 5G to edge to edge displays and even foldable screens,” said Dave Burke, VP of Engineering for Android. “Android is right at the centre of this innovation cycle, and thanks to the broad ecosystem of partners across billions of devices, Android’s helping push the boundaries of hardware and software bringing new experiences and capabilities to users.”

Privacy updates, gaming enhancements, features to accommodate for new connectivity requirements and addressing the foldable phone phenomenon, there is plenty for developers to consider this year.

Privacy as a product

New demands are being placed on developers around the world when it comes to privacy, but in truth, they have no-one to blame for the extra work than themselves.

This is not to say all developers have abused the trust of the consumer, but numerous scandals over the last 18 months and the opaque manner in which society was educated on the data-sharing machine has created a backlash. Privacy demands have been heightened through regulation and consumer expectations, meaning these elements are slowly becoming a factor in the purchasing process.

There are numerous privacy and security updates here which suggests Google has appreciated the importance of privacy to the consumer. Privacy could soon become a selling point, and Google is on hand with many of the updates based on its Project Strobe initiative.

Perhaps one of the most important updates here is more granular control of the permissions for individual apps. Users will not only have more control on what data is shared with which apps, but developers can no-longer request for consent for a catch-all data hoovering plan, while Google is also cracking down on un-necessary permissions. The team is updating its User Data Policy for the consumer Gmail API to ensure only apps directly enhancing email functionality have authorisation, while the same is being done for call functionality, call logs and SMS.

Data Privacy Survey

Source: GDMA: Global data privacy: What the consumer really thinks

Aside from the permissions updates noted above, users will also have more control over when apps can get location data. While some developers have abused the trust of users by collecting this data when irrelevant as to whether the app is open or not, users will now have the power to give apps permission to see their location never, only when the app is in use (running), or all the time.

There are other updates to the permissions side including audio collections, access to cameras and other media files. All of these updates represent one thing; privacy is a real issue and (theoretically) the power is being handed back to the consumer.

That said, Ovum’s Chief Analyst Ed Barton notes the critical importance of privacy features today, however, as Google could be considered one of the main contributors to the root problem, you must question how much trust the consumer actually has.

“It is noteworthy that privacy is something one might reasonably assume to have in most situations in modern life except in one’s digital life where the default expectation is that a vast digital platform knows more about you than your life partner and immediate family,” said Barton. “It is these circumstances which enables the concepts of privacy, personal data control and trust to be highlighted and used as marketing bullets.

“Privacy in something like an OS is meaningless unless you can trust the entity which made it so with Android Q the question, as always, is ‘how much do you trust Google’?”

Gaming enters the mainstream

Another major update to Android Q looks to target the increasingly popular segment of mobile gaming.

“Gaming remains one of the most popular genres on the app stores, while smartphones have allowed the industry to connect with the masses,” said Paolo Pescatore of PP Foresight.

“This has led to emergence of new games providers and a surge in casual and social gamers, while the arrival of 5G will open further opportunities for cloud based multiplayer games due to faster and more reliable connections and low latency. Mobile devices will be key in this new wave that also promises to bring virtual and physical worlds closer together providing users with immersive experiences.”

Capture

Source: KPMG: The Changing Landscape of Disruptive Technologies report

Here, there are two main updates which we would like to focus on. Firstly, Vulkan and ANGLE (Almost Native Graphics Layer Engine) to improve more immersive experiences. And secondly, improved connectivity APIs.

Starting with the graphics side, Android Q will add experimental support for ANGLE on top of Vulkan on Android devices to allow for high-performance OpenGL compatibility across implementations. The team is also continuing to expand the impact of Vulkan on Android, with the aim to make Vulkan on Android a broadly supported and consistent developer API for graphics.

In short, this means more options and greater depth when it comes to creating immersive experiences.

On the connectivity front, not only has Google refactored the wifi stack to improve privacy and performance, developers can request adaptive wifi in Android Q by enabling high performance and low latency modes. There are of course numerous usecases for low latency throughout the connectivity ecosystem, but from a consumer perspective, real-time gaming and active voice calls are two of the most prominent.

Gaming has slowly been accumulating more support and penetrating the mass market, and some of the features for Android Q will certainly help this blossoming segment.

Foldable phones; fad or forever?

Considering the euphoria which was drummed up in Mobile World Congress this year, it should hardly come as a surprise the latest edition of Android addresses the new demands of the products.

“To help your apps to take advantage of these and other large-screen devices, we’ve made a number of improvements in Android Q, including changes to onResume and onPause to support multi-resume and notify your app when it has focus,” the team said in the blog announcement.

There are of course a number of useful features which come with the increased real-estate, one of which is being able to run more than one app simultaneously without having to flick back and forth, as you can see from the image below.

Google Update

There are of course advantages to the new innovation, but you have to question whether there are enough benefits to outweigh the incredible cost of the devices. The power of smartphone and the astonishing tsunami of cash in the digital economy is only because of scale. With Samsung’s foldable device coming in at $1,980, and Huawei’s at $2,600, these are not devices which are applicable for scale.

Google is preparing itself should the foldable revolution take hold, but mass adoption is needed more than anything else. The price of these devices will have to come down for there to be any chance of these devices cracking the mainstream market, and considering recent trends suggesting the consumer is becoming more cash conscious, they will have to come down a lot.

The price might also impact the development of the subsequent ecosystem. Developers are under time constraints already, and therefore have to prioritise tasks. Without the scale of mainstream adoption, few developers will focus on the new form factor when creating applications and content. With little reward, what’s the point? Price will need to come down to ensure there is appetite for the supporting ecosystem to make any use of this innovation.

We’ve been complaining about a lack of innovation in the devices market for years, so it is a bit cruel to complain when genuine innovation does emerge, but a lot of work needs to be done to give foldable screens as much opportunity for widespread consumer adoption.

AI Pie is Google’s latest recipe for Android

Google has released the latest version of the Android operating system, named Pie, which unsurprisingly bigs up artificial intelligence credentials for the digital economy.

While it is the hottest buzzword of 2018, Google has been plugging AI for longer than most, arguably creating a global leadership position which few can compete with. The AI exploits date back to 2014 with Google’s acquisition of Deepmind, an organization which underpins a huge amount of success in the area, though Pie looks like it is AI-ed up to its virtual eyes.

“The latest release of Android is here! And it comes with a heaping helping of artificial intelligence baked in to make your phone smarter, simpler and more tailored to you,” said Sameer Samat, VP of Product Management for Android & Google Play on the company blog. “Today we’re officially introducing Android 9 Pie.

“We’ve built Android 9 to learn from you—and work better for you—the more you use it. From predicting your next task so you can jump right into the action you want to take, to prioritizing battery power for the apps you use most, to helping you disconnect from your phone at the end of the day, Android 9 adapts to your life and the ways you like to use your phone.”

This is the AI dream which we have all been promised, but the industry has largely failed to deliver to date; genuine personalisation. Whether Google can live up to the bold promises remains to be seen, but the world is changing in the right way.

For AI to be moderately successful in terms of personalisation and acting in an intuitive manner, the assistant has to be used. It’s all about data which is local and specific to the user, allowing the power of machine learning technology to adapt platforms and services. The last couple of months have seen users become more accustomed and comfortable with the idea, which sets the scene for the reality which has been built up in our minds.

There are of course the more complicated aspects of the AI, such as predicting your next task or managing diaries, but the simpler ideas are the ones which users might find the most useful in the first instance. Adaptive battery performance, or adaptive screen brightness are two features which will improve the performance of devices. Users might not even know any changes have taken place, but there is the potential to enhance the digital experience.

Of course, adapting the experience to the individual user is the image of AI which we have in our minds, and Google claims this is now possible. App Actions uses context and displays to predict what apps the user might want to use next, such as a news app is the smartphone detects you are on the way to the tube at 8am on a Tuesday morning. It might not be a gamechanger, but incremental steps forward are perfect when introducing new ideas, which could be deemed potentially intrusive by some.

Simplicity is the idea for the AI, and this has been rolled out throughout the display as well. With devices changing, Android needed to adapt as well, and soon enough navigating between screens, or searching for apps will become simpler. While we only have Google’s word to take on how good the operating system is right now, we do like the look of it. The Android team do tend to strike the right balance between usability and experience very well, and this looks to be the same.

First and foremost the update will be rolled out to Pixel devices, though devices that participated in the Beta program (Sony Mobile, Xiaomi, HMD Global, Oppo, Vivo, OnePlus and Essential) will get the Pie treatment towards the end of the year.

And of course…

Why not have a guess at what the next Android update could be named. Next up will be Q… this could be a tricky one…

Baidu rolls out another quarter of strong profit

Baidu has released financials for the last three months with its news product leading the charge for the Chinese search giant.

Total revenues stood at $3.93 billion, increasing 32% year-on-year, while mobile represented 77% of total net revenues, compared to 72% for the second quarter of 2017. The core business brought in $3.03 billion, a 28% rise, while net income was $967 million.

“We had another strong quarter in Q2 with search exhibiting robust revenue growth driven by AI-powered monetization capabilities and Baidu feed continuing strong traffic and monetization momentum,” said CEO Robin Li.

The potentially problematic news app, a similar proposition to the Facebook newsfeed, seems to have successfully negotiated regulatory landmines, reaching 148 million daily active users in June 2018, up 17% from the same period last year. While competitive offerings have been struggling to meet the censorship demands of the Chinese government, Baidu seems to have bowed suggesting there might be more successful numbers over the coming months. Competing video platform Bilibili was one which fell short of government expectations, leading to the app being temporarily removed from app stores by authorities.

The DuerOS, Baidu’s smartphone operating system based on an Android fork, had another successful period with the installed base reaching 90 million devices. Government officials might be keeping a close eye on the situation here, as a viable alternative to Android would be welcomed. AI investments across the Baidu business will improve capabilities here, as the team sign new partnerships with various different segments.

Baidu has now formed strategic partnerships with 20 global and domestic auto OEMs, including the BMW, Daimler and Ford. The autonomous vehicle space is a growing area, though other wins for the operating system are focused around the smart speakers. Not only does Baidu claim the DuerOS-powered Xiaodu Smart Speaker sold out 10,000 units within 90 seconds of its first two online sales, a partnership with InterContinental Hotels Group takes the smart speakers, and more importantly the OS, into the world of smart hotel rooms.

With the voice user interface set to become more important in the digital ecosystem over the next few years, DuerOS is certainly an area worth keeping an eye on.

Europe hits Google with €4.3bn fine for Android antitrust violations

Google has been handed a record €4.3 billion by the European Commission, with the bureaucrats claiming the search giant abused the dominant position of Android to bully consumers into using its search engine.

The European Commission, hereafter known as the Gaggle of Red-tapers, has given Google 90 days to end the activities, or face non-compliance payments of up to 5% of the average daily worldwide turnover of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. Google has been bundling its search engine and Chrome apps into the operating system, with the Gaggle also claiming it blocked manufacturers from creating devices that run forked versions of Android, and also making payments to manufacturers and telcos to ensure exclusivity on devices.

“Today, mobile internet makes up more than half of global internet traffic,” said Chief Competition Gaggler, Commissioner Margrethe Vestager. “It has changed the lives of millions of Europeans.

“Our case is about three types of restrictions that Google has imposed on Android device manufacturers and network operators to ensure that traffic on Android devices goes to the Google search engine. In this way, Google has used Android as a vehicle to cement the dominance of its search engine. These practices have denied rivals the chance to innovate and compete on the merits. They have denied European consumers the benefits of effective competition in the important mobile sphere. This is illegal under EU antitrust rules.”

The three issues here are as follows:

  • Manufacturers are required to pre-install the Google Search app and browser app (Chrome), as a condition for licensing Google’s app store, which manufacturers confirmed was a ‘must have’ feature as part of the investigation
  • Payments to certain large manufacturers and mobile network operators on condition that they exclusively pre-installed the Google Search app on their devices
  • Prevented manufacturers wishing to pre-install Google apps from selling devices running on alternative versions of Android that were not approved by Google, known as Android Forks

EC Google antitrust diagram

Google will of course appeal the fine, and will likely use its own legal might to tie the Gaggle up in more red-tape than the boresome bureaucrats ever thought possible, but this is a notable decision. Not only has the European Commission come to the conclusion Android has a dominant position in the European market, some 80% of smartphone run on the OS, but it has determined Google actively sought to inhibit competition, and therefore negatively impact the experience and choice of the consumer.

One of the conclusions Google has found issue with is the competition between Android and Apple’s iOS. The Gaggle has decided the two are not competing with each other, due to the fact Apple devices are not tailored towards the low-end of the market, therefore Android maintains a monopoly over poorer demographics and regions. The Gaggle also notes there is a ‘cost’ to switching to iOS, including loss of data, contacts, and having to learn how to use a new OS, which counts against the search giant. Google disagrees with this point, even quoting the Gaggle’s own research that suggests 89% of respondents believe the two OS’ compete.

Another important aspect to note is the openness of Android. This is an additional bugbear of the Gaggle, pointing towards the limited opensource nature of the OS as a negative, though Google contends this point. Should Android be make more open to developers and users, the fragmentation in the ecosystem could be boggling. Google argue it needs to maintain control to ensure consistency and experience. This argument is less clear cut, as there are positives and negative outcomes on both sides.

“To be successful, open-source platforms have to painstakingly balance the needs of everyone that uses them. History shows that without rules around baseline compatibility, open-source platforms fragment, which hurts users, developers and phone makers,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in a blog post. “Android’s compatibility rules avoid this, and help make it an attractive long-term proposition for everyone.”

Overall, this is of course not a new argument. The European Commission found fault with Microsoft bundling Internet Explorer with its Window OS in years gone, while Google has constantly been under the microscope in Belgium. The Gaggle does not seem comfortable with the idea of relaying revenues to other aspects of the ecosystem, a business model which is becoming more common in the digital era.

For a service to be free, there has to be a value exchange. As it stands, device manufacturers get an Android licence for free under the condition Google products are set as default. Google spends an unknown amount every year to ensure Android is the best OS on the market, and monetizes the experience through its search engine. Should it be proven Google is operating illegally, the practise should be adjusted, but we would argue there would be detrimental impact to the consumer should it be stopped completely.

The only other alternative is to charge the device manufacturers for the right to use Android. We suspect this will never happen, but we have no doubt this expense would be passed onto the consumer, who will probably end up using Google anyway as the search engine is arguably the best on the market.

The payments to manufacturers and telcos is not the most above-board business we’ve ever come across, and perhaps preventing the development of Forks is suspect, though this point is much more nuanced; Google is rightly claiming fragmentation of the OS and applications would impact experience. That said, we don’t have too much of an issue with the conditional bundling of other services with the Play Store and Android OS; Google has to make money after all; it doesn’t offer software as a charity.

The European Commission will continue to argue the dominant position of Google will impact innovation, though the Google party line can be summed up pretty simply; its helping develop the ecosystem:

“The free distribution of the Android platform, and of Google’s suite of applications, is not only efficient for phone makers and operators – it’s of huge benefit for developers and consumers,” said Pichai. “If phone makers and mobile network operators couldn’t include our apps on their wide range of devices, it would upset the balance of the Android ecosystem. So far, the Android business model has meant that we haven’t had to charge phone makers for our technology, or depend on a tightly controlled distribution model.”

The outcome of this saga is unlikely to be known for months. Google’s lawyers will do everything possible to complicate the situation, lobbyists will be charged and the PR machine will start cranking, but there is the potential to have a very fundamental impact on the industry. Will Google bow to demands and lose its grip on search? Could it start charging a license fee Android? Or might it just say screw everyone else and keep Android exclusively for its own Pixel devices in Apple-esque style?

Huawei prepares itself for potential Android ban

With tensions continuing to escalate between the US and China, Huawei is reportedly preparing for the worst-case-scenario by developing its own mobile operating system.

According to The South China Morning Post, Huawei has been building an alternative to the Android operating system, a project which will be accelerated in light of the rapidly deteriorating relationship between the US and China. Should Huawei face the same penalties as ZTE, its ambitions to be the world’s premier smartphone manufacturer would be severely dented as it could be left without an effective operating system to power devices.

Last week it was reported the US Department of Justice launched an investigation to see whether Huawei violated US sanctions against Iran. ZTE’s issues started with a similar probe, while the anti-China sentiment in the country combined with suspect activity at ZTE, took the firm down a worrying path. Huawei should certainly be worried about suffering the same fate.

As it stands, Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS are the world’s two dominant operating systems. There have been various attempts to break this strangle-hold, Microsoft’s Windows Mobile OS or Samsung with its Tizen system for example, but none have come close. Considering the tensions between the two nations, Huawei finds itself in a precarious position, with its smartphones and wearable devices dependent on the US Android system.

ZTE is certainly taking the brunt of US aggression at the moment, though Huawei has also been under the spotlight. Numerous reports have been produced pointing the espionage finger at Huawei, and it would surprise few if a chain of events unfolded, leading Huawei to the same position as ZTE; a ban from including any US product or IP in its supply-chain. For the devices business, this would be a disaster unless an alternative operating system could be produced.

As it stands, Huawei is the most popular smartphone brand in China and third worldwide. Progress has been very encouraging in the developed markets, where Chinese brands have traditionally struggled; being banned from using the Android operating system would put an end to this momentum. Sources close to the situation claim this is very much being viewed as worst-case-scenario, as one of the reasons the OS has not been released yet is that is simply isn’t as good as Android.

Worryingly for Huawei is the scrutiny which will be placed on a Chinese OS. While some European countries have confirmed a suspicious eye is watching Huawei, these governments might sleep easier knowing a US firm controls the operating software. Should Huawei (a supposed puppet of the Chinese government to the paranoid) control both the hardware and the software, intelligence agencies could be spurred into a state of panic.

Pancake, Popsicle or Pavlova? Google releases preview of Android P

Releasing the developer preview of the latest Android update in March has become a bit of a tradition for Google, and this year’s preview hasn’t disappointed.

Perhaps the most notable change this year is support for the latest edge-to-edge screens with display cut out for the camera. Handset manufacturers have a habit of copying the latest iPhone release, so the notch at the top of the screen will have to be accommodated for. Support for the cut out essentially makes it easier for developers to manage how a screen cut out affects an apps content.

While this is one of the more notable updates, it isn’t the one which we like the look of. Android P adds platform support for the IEEE protocol known as Wi-Fi Round-Trip-Time (RTT). It sounds very technical and scientific, but for those of us who aren’t that way inclined it is a feature which improves indoor positioning.

Apps will be able to use the RTT APIs to measure the distance to nearby RTT-capable wifi Access Points. By essentially bouncing a signal off a couple of these different Access Points, the app will be able to triangulate a more accurate position indoor, with Google claiming it could be as accurate as 1-2 metres. The APIs will start to open up a whole new array of features for apps such as disambiguated voice control and more accurate location-based information.

Micro-location technologies and beacons were a talking point in the industry a couple of years back but never really took off. The technology was clumsy and clunky, while consumers were less accepting of random notifications. Consumers are a bit more passive when it comes to intrusive notifications nowadays, so why not have another crack at making the micro-location technology work again.

Other new features include:

  • Adjusted format for message notifications, including more space to see who is messaging, add replies and images and use smart replies
  • New camera APIs which will allow the user to stream the feed from multiple cameras on the device simultaneously
  • Support for HDR VP9 Profile 2 to allow developers to deliver HDR-enabled movies from YouTube, Play Movies, and other sources on HDR-capable devices
  • Neural network APIs to accelerate on-device machine learning on Android
  • Client-side encryption of Android backups to enhance privacy

On the privacy side of things, Android P will also further limit the ability of background apps to access user input and sensor data. This has been a feature in previous updates, though Google has chosen to step up the efforts once again. Some of the limitations include accessing the microphone or camera, while accelerometers and gyroscopes will receive less information. Apps which require access to events will have to use a foreground service.

What is worth noting is that these are only a handful of the changes which will be made, and there are of course no promises that anything released in this preview will be gospel. There are a couple of cool features to look forward to, but now onto the important question; what do you think the Googlers will name it?

Improved indoor positioning will add a new dimension for some apps

Improved indoor positioning will add a new dimension for some apps

Apps with immersive content will be able to build the experience around the cut out

Apps with immersive content will be able to build the experience around the cut out

Message notifications will also get quite a bit of a revamp

Message notifications will also get quite a bit of a revamp