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.

Huawei Android alternative set to go live

Huawei has been forced to accelerate the development of its own smartphone operating system by the threat of having Android support taken away.

Arguably the most crippling piece of collateral damage inflicted on Huawei as a result of it being the main proxy in the Trump vs Ping battle of wills was the announcement by Google in May that it might have to stop supporting Huawei Android smartphones as a result of it being put on the entity list, which strictly prohibits US companies from doing business with anyone on it.

Android is the only game in town for all smartphone makers apart from Apple. As Amazon discovered a few years ago, there is zero market demand for even a forked version of Android that doesn’t provide access to the Play Store – something that Google has in its power to take away if it an Android OEM fails to play by its rules.

So none of them would willingly repeat Amazon’s mistake, but Huawei may have that decision taken out of its hands. If that happens even a rubbish OS is better than nothing and Huawei wasted little time in leaking the existence of its own OS soon after the Google announcement.

Now we have Chinese state-run publication Global times quoting anonymous sources as saying this HongMeng OS is set to be released at Huawei’s developer conference later this week. If this does happen we’ll presumably get some choreographed screen-shots, Jobsian superlatives and defiant rhetoric.

Or maybe not. Before we get too carried away it should be noted that HongMeng seems to have originally been intended as an embedded/IoT OS and that Huawei will only use it in smartphones if forced to. We’re led to believe that we’ll start seeing it in tellies before long and that, if necessary, will debut in cheaper smartphones sold in China towards the end of this year.

With all due respect to Huawei and its developers it’s very hard to imagine them coming up with any kind of OS that users would consider an acceptable alternative to Android. It might just be able to get away with it in the Chinese entry-level market, where compatibility with just a few Chinese apps might suffice, but for everyone else Android is a deal-breaker.

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.

Huawei’s in-house mobile OS is a very long shot

This story includes additional reporting from Jamie Davies.

In response to the threat of an imminent Android ban Huawei has started banging on about its own mobile OS, but who would want to use it?

Huawei’s mobile business boss Richard Yu was reported by the South China Morning Post as saying “The Huawei OS is likely to hit the market as soon as this fall, and no later than spring next year.” From the report this seems more like a fork of the open source Android core OS, with novel apps and a Huawei app store, much as Amazon has done with its Fire devices range.

While this is pretty much the only option available to Huawei if Google does withdraw access to licensed parts of Android, such as the Play Store, it’s hard to see it as a viable solution. The Amazon Fire phone offers perhaps the best precedent to draw upon. The premium device ticked all the hardware boxes but used a forked version of Android without the Play Store and as a result found a new use as a paperweight across Washington state.

Huawei will be able to continue using Android, it is open source after all, though technical support is only supplied to licenced partners, while any updates are rolled out through the open source much later than for the licenced one. This will have notable impacts not only on performance, but security. The most recent WhatsApp spyware issues were corrected through such an update, though unlicensed partners would still be exposed to the risk.

The issue Huawei faces is in the ecosystem. Wang Chenglu, President of the software engineering segment of the consumer business, told media in September developing the OS wasn’t a particularly complicated issue, but getting apps, services and products into the ecosystem is.

Smartphones are no-longer communications devices. These devices, which are millions of times more powerful than the computers which sent spacecraft to space in the 60s, are the focal point of our lives. If calling and texting was all we did, there would not be an issue, but asking for directions, collecting loyalty points, watching movies, playing games, signing into work, paying bills… everyday more functionality is being put onto the devices, and all these apps will have to be migrated to the Huawei OS.

Without apps smartphones are no longer smart. Yes, you can use the internet browser to access most services that also have an app but the user experience is significantly diminished. Huawei has the resources to ensure a lot of the top apps are ported to its own OS, but not all of them. Ultimately, in a largely undifferentiated Android smartphone market, there’s no reason for consumers to accept any compromise whatsoever.

There have also been numerous reports that Huawei was shocked by the Google decision but, in hindsight, that was an inevitable consequence of being put on the entity list, which in turn followed from US President Trump’s executive order. Maybe it was the Trump decision that surprised Huawei but since the US has been steadily increasing its hostility towards it for months that too seems a tad naïve.

Appropriately enough for something that could be Huawei’s last hope this OS is reportedly called Project Z. This has apparently been on the back-burner for a while, but largely designed for the Chinese market where a lot of Android features are blocked anyway. While we can safely assume it has now been given top priority, Project Z is reportedly still miles away from completion.

Even if Huawei completed the development of its own OS today, that wouldn’t make much difference for the reasons previously stated. Chinese smartphone vendors have benefitted enormously from having access to Android, but their reliance on a third party operating system and platform was always a precarious position. The likes of Xiaomi and Oppo will be watching Huawei’s struggles carefully.

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.

Google focuses on UI, UX and AI with Android P

Internet giant Google has unveiled the new features that will come with the next major version of its ubiquitous mobile OS.

Android P (no desert identified yet but they seem to be spoilt for choice this time with all the pies, puddings and pavlovas on offer) focuses on using artificial intelligence to augment the user interface and user experience. One of the main things it seems to address is giving users more transparency and control over how they use their phones.

AI is especially handy for learning user behaviour and then using that knowledge to anticipate your every need. This can help with things like speed of loading popular apps and functions as well as optimising the performance of components such as batteries and screens.

In fact a big part of the Android P announcement concerns a collaboration with Google AI subsidiary DeepMind to produce Adaptive Battery and Adaptive Brightness that are both designed to make sure you only use exactly the amount of power you need.

Other new features include App Actions – an AI-drive cascade of actions anticipated from some clear catalyst, such as connecting to headphones. Slices offer a fragment of one of your apps as part of a search query to enable some actions without firing the whole thing up.

A new Dashboard will offer a bunch of analytics into how you use your apps so you can see just how much of your life you’re wasting dicking about on your phone. If you’re appropriately ashamed of your temporal profligacy you can set an app timer to cut you off if you spend too much time of Facebook or whatever.

One really useful feature is an enhanced Do Not Disturb that not only silences calls but all other types of visual interruptions like notifications too. The coolest part is that this feature is automatically activated when you place your phone face-down on a table and hopefully it includes the ability to keep the alarm going even when everything else is silenced. Lastly a feature called Wind Down will start shutting everything down at bed time to spare you from nocturnal tweeting.

Android P screens

The Beta of Android P is already available on the Google Pixel phones and will soon come to Sony Xperia XZ2, Xiaomi Mi Mix 2S, Nokia 7 Plus, Oppo R15 Pro, Vivo X21, OnePlus 6, and Essential PH‑1. AI is clearly here to stay but Google needs to make sure it’s just as easy to decline all this cyber help as to embrace it, or Android P runs the risk of alienating as many people as it pleases.

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