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

 

Oreo Go shows Google hasn’t forgotten about developing markets

Google has shown it is a company for the people after releasing Android Orea Go Edition, a slimmed down version of its latest OS, better suited for phones on the lower end of the market.

The OS is designed for devices 512 MB to 1 GB of memory, which wouldn’t normal be able to handle the requirements of the OS without freaking out. Just to put things into perspective, most flagship phones have 4 GB of memory, while the iPhone X have 3 GB and the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 has 8 GB.

“To make sure billions more people can get access to computing, it’s important that entry-level devices are fully functioning smartphones that can browse the web and use apps,” Sagar Kamdar, Director of Product Management for Android.

“At Google I/O this year, we gave an early look at a project we called ‘Android Go’ to make this possible. We’re excited to announce that this software experience – Android Oreo (Go edition) – is ready, and launching as a part of the Android 8.1 release tomorrow.”

The idea behind this OS is simple; make an OS which works in markets where lower-end phones are more common. If Google didn’t produce the Go Version, there would be a couple of hundred million customers who probably wouldn’t use Android, as the features would be too high spec for the devices. That is lost advertising revenues from a couple of hundred million people, which doesn’t fly for Googlers.

One of the big focus areas here is surrounding the apps. Once you have the OS and the preinstalled apps on entry-level phones there is often little remaining space for anything else, such as music or games. Google has said it has optimized the preinstalled Google apps to take up 50% less space. There are also features which allow the user to determine which apps use data while idle.

Some of the new apps include Google Assistant Go, YouTube Go, Google Maps Go, Gmail Go, Gboard, Google Play, Chrome, and the new Files Go app, The Files Go app is a new data management tool which helps by removing spam, duplicate images or unused apps from devices.

While users in the Western markets are unlikely ever to directly experience such features, it’s a very useful move for the Googlers in the developing areas. Year-on-year profit growth has started to level off for the internet giant, though this is primarily due to success; there is only so much revenue which can be realized of one user. To continue staggering growth, Google will have to look to new markets, but also create localized products for these markets. That is the basis of the Go Edition.

Another interesting localized product is ‘two-wheeler mode’ in Google Maps, which has been launched in India. India is the largest two-wheeler market in the world, and the millions of motorcycle and scooter riders have different navigation needs than drivers of cars. This new feature of Google Maps shows routes not accessible to cars and trucks, customized traffic and arrival time estimations.

Right now, two-wheeler mode is only available in India, but there will be plenty of markets around South-East Asia which would be suitable for it as well. And we’re sure there will be a criminal underbelly in some Western markets which could find it useful also.

Microsoft finally gives up on the mobile OS game

It was certainly prolonged, sometimes awkward and completely foreseeable, but Microsoft has finally accepted it isn’t up to making its mobile operating system work.

With a series of tweets over the weekend, Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President for Windows, Joe Belfiore has seemingly put the final full stop on the obituary for the Windows mobile OS. Windows has not been able to cultivate the same cult-like dedication of Apple, but there might be a few disappointed fans out there. We’ve never come across any of them, but there surely is at least one out there, and it certainly isn’t Belfiore himself.

As you can see from the tweets below, Microsoft was always onto a bit of a loser. Its failed attempt into mobile couldn’t attract the numbers, and its attempt to create an alternative to iOS and Android couldn’t either. Simply put, without the audience there wasn’t really a compelling business case to tempt developers to create apps for the OS.

Telecoms.com first called this back in 2014, prompting much outrage from the fanboys of the Windows community (we knew they were somewhere) in the comments section. As soon as the decision to make products platform-agnostic was made, the foot was planted on the slippery slope to irrelevance. Microsoft won’t be leaving the sulkers high and dry, but they certainly shouldn’t wait for any new bells or whistles.

All is not lost though, as while this has been an expensive mistake, attention can now be paid to the areas where Microsoft is a bit more competent.