Google I/O 2017

So, yeah, Google I/O again. Are you as thrilled as I am? You’re not? But they’ve announced such exciting things!

Well, OK, when you come right down to it, they really only announced one thing: Google’s focus is changing from “Mobile first to AI first”. And let’s be honest here: that’s pretty much what they said last year, too.

But what does AI first look like?

For starters, Gmail will start doing “Smart Reply”. This is the same idea as in last year’s Allo text messaging app: pre-written, context-sensitive messages. I haven’t used Allo–anyone want to comment on whether the smart replies are any more accurate than the word suggestions when you’re typing?

Potentially more exciting is their application of image recognition technology. Their example is being able to take a picture of a flower and have your phone tell you what kind it is and whether it’s going to trigger your hay fever. Since I’m sitting here sniffling despite massive doses of anti-histamines, I have to admit that actually sounds like a good use of technology. Presumably over time, the tech will learn about non-botanical parts of the world.

Yes, I’m kidding. It can also recognize restaurants and show Yelp reviews. That’s nice, but not nearly as useful. Ooh, and it can translate signs. (Their demo showed Japanese-to-English translation. I want to know if it can handle Corporate-to-English.) If there are dates on the sign–for example, an ad for a concert–it can add the event to your calendar. It can even ask if you want it to buy tickets.

Basically, it’s playing catchup with Alexa–including adding third-party programmable actions and voice calling–with a few little steps ahead of Amazon.

Case in point: Google Assistant, the brains behind “OK, Google” is getting more smarts and the ability to hold a typed conversation. So you’ll get a running record of your interaction, so when you realize you’ve been following one association after another, you can scroll back and check the answer to your original question. Could be handy, especially if you get stuck on TV Tropes.

Moving on.

AI first also means Google Photos is getting added smarts, starting with something Google calls “Suggested sharing”. Yup. It’ll nag you to share your photos with the people in them. 95% of the pictures I take seem to be of the cats. Is it going to create Google accounts for them so I can share the photos? Or do they already have accounts?

More seriously, if Google knows who the people are, but they’re not in my address book, will it still urge me to share the photos? Sounds like that’s an invasion of privacy just waiting to happen.

Moving on.

Android O (no name announced yet, naturally. They’ll undoubtedly wait until release time for that) is getting the usual slew of features and tweaks. Picture-in-picture, notifications on Home screen icons, improved copy/paste. That last will not only let you select an entire address with a single tap, but offer to show it in Maps. I’d rather it offered to add it to my contacts for future reference, but maybe that’s just me.

Google also made a point of stressing that all of these new “AI first” features happen on your device, without any communication back to Google. That’s actually reassuring. I’m sure the results are reported back–your phone will tell Google you were checking on the hay fever potential of that weird flower that appeared in your back yard, but at least the actual picture won’t wind up in Google’s archives waiting for a hacker to drop by.

There’s also going to be an Android O lite. Called Android Go, it’ll be stripped down to work on cheap phones with limited memory. I wonder if that means they’ll start offering it for popular but abandoned devices that can’t handle recent Android versions. Nexus 7, anyone? Nexus 9, for that matter?

Moving again.

Yes, the rumors are true: Google is working with third-parties to launch a VR headset that doesn’t need a separate phone. Hey, anyone remember how big 3D was a few years ago? How long before VR is as critical to the entertainment experience as 3D?

And one last move.

Ever used Google to find out what movies are playing nearby? Soon you’ll be able to use it to find out what jobs are available nearby. Searching by title, date, and commute time. Why do I think the popularity of that last filter is going to be very strongly geographically linked?

Honestly, I’m not seeing anything here that gives me a major “gosh-wow” feeling. Some interesting possibilities and appeals to niche markets, yes, but most of what they’ve announced are obvious extensions of last year’s announcements. We can give them points for consistency, I suppose.

Google I/O 2016

We’re in Google I/O week, so I suppose I should do my annual summation of the keynote and highlight what we can expect to see heading our way.

Google is very excited about “the Google Assistant”. It’s a collection of technologies–natural language processing, voice recognition, geographic awareness, and on and on–intended to provide context-aware help and advice.

From what I can see, a large part of it is the next stage in the evolution of “Google Now” and “Now on Tap”. Ask the assistant about movies, and it’ll give recommendations tailored to your local theaters, what you tell* it (or what it already knows!) about your family and your tastes, and let you buy tickets. All from within the search app.

* Yes, “tell” as in “speak aloud”. Voice recognition, you dig?

Nothing new and earthshaking, but definitely keeping the pressure on Apple and Amazon. Especially Amazon–there’s going to be a “Google Home” device later this year that’s built around the Google Assistant technology. Like Amazon’s Echo–but since it’s from Google, of course it’ll be zillions of times better.

Google Assistant will also be part of two new apps: “Allo” and “Duo”. Allo is the next generation of text messaging, replacing “Hangouts”. The GA will listen in on your exchange of messages, allowing it to pre-write replies for you (presumably going beyond simple “yes” and “no” answers) and letting you to ask it for context-sensitive help. Their example of the latter is giving you restaurant recommendations based on your current location (or an area you’ve been discussing) and food preferences. Oh, and it’s got emoticons and variable font sizes. Yay.

Duo is video chat. Call screening, performs well when bandwidth is tight, switches between wi-fi and cellular as appropriate. What can you say about video chat? Oh, it’s cross-platform, Android and iOS. I doubt any Apple-only conversations will move off of Facetime, but it ought to be nice for integrated families and businesses. (Maybe it doesn’t have GA. If not, look for that at next year’s I/O.)

Moving on.

Google can’t decide what to call Android N. They’re taking suggestions from the Internet. If you’ve got any ideas, go to https://android.com/n/ And no, they’re not offering any prizes. I’d suggest “Nutmeg,” but how would you turn that into a statue for the front lawn? There’s still the possibility of another corporate tie-in. “Nerds,” anybody?

We already know a lot about what’s new in N–new graphics APIs, split screen/multitasking, compiler improvements (and a partial return of the Just-in-Time compiler that was removed in Lollipop. The idea seems to be to provide faster installs by letting apps run with the JIT compiler at first, then compile them in the background, presumably while you’re not using the device for anything else. The user messaging for background compilation failures will be interesting. “Why does it say I need to delete some pictures to install Duo? It’s already installed and working fine!”

Other changes: Encryption will be done at the file level instead of the disk level. Other than developers and the NSA, nobody will notice. Background OS updates: assuming your carrier actually approves an update, your phone will install it in the background, then make it live with a simple reboot. No more half-hour waits for the monthly security patches to install. Assuming you get the patches, of course.

Virtual reality. Yep, as expected, Google is joining the VR craze with support for it baked into Android–on capable devices, naturally. Even some current Nexus phones fall short–Nexus 5X, I’m looking at you.

Android Wear 2.0. Hey, your watch can do more stuff without talking to your phone. Sigh

Instant Apps. It’s not strictly correct in a technical sense, but think of a bundle of web pages packaged as an app that runs on your device without installation. Seems useful, especially if you’ve got limited bandwidth, but unless you’re a developer, you probably won’t even notice when you transition from the Web to an Instant App.

So, some interesting stuff, and–as usual–a lot of “meh”.

Ick!

If you’ve got a sensitive stomach, you might want to stop reading this post now.

Still here? The subtitle of this post is “How do you disinfect a tablet?”

The short answer appears to be “You don’t.” But let’s back up a bit.

A few weeks ago, I dropped my Nexus 9 (poor Kei-kun!). It landed on edge (wince) in the litter box (double-wince). Fortunately, I had just emptied the box, so there weren’t any, ah, chunks of ickiness. That also meant the top layer of litter was about as clean as it gets. And, since the tablet was in its case, the only part to come in contact with the contents of the box was the screen.

Have I mentioned that there are many good reasons to keep your tablet in a case that provides full coverage? No? Consider it mentioned.

Step One was to get the tablet out of the case. Easily done. I set the tablet and case on newspaper* and moved on.

* I have one thing to say to my friends who tease me about still reading the newspaper instead of getting all my news online: “Nya, nya!”

Step Two was to wash my hands. Thoroughly. Several times.

Step Three: Research!

I couldn’t find any reputable sites that gave instructions for decontaminating tablets or phones–though quite a few warned against spraying Apple screens with any kind of cleaning fluid. Apparently the coating Apple uses to minimize fingerprint smudges is very vulnerable to cleaners. Since, as far as I can tell, Nexus devices don’t have a similar coating–a quick look at all the smudges on my poor tablet made that obvious–I moved on.

OK, I can’t sterilize Kei-kun. What about disinfection? There are quite a few click-bait articles referencing a somewhat questionable study that claim phones are covered with something like 18 times as many bacteria as toilet seats. Most of the articles take great pleasure in telling you there’s nothing you can do about it; A few suggest using alcohol, though it’s unclear whether you’re supposed to use it to disinfect the device or just drink enough that you don’t care how disgusting your phone is. sigh

How about benign neglect? I tried to figure out how long bacteria live on glass and plastic. Turns out it depends on the specific bacteria, the kind of plastic, the humidity, and probably several thousand other factors. The range is from “a couple of hours” to “months”.

At this point, it had been a couple of hours, and I was suffering from tablet withdrawal. No way was I going to make it for months. I sprayed the tablet and case with an alcohol-based screen cleaning solution–carefully avoiding the buttons, camera, and speakers–and went to bed.

Step Four: Ignore the case. I figured that most of the bacteria on it would either die or get bored and go in search of a more interesting habitat within a couple of days. And, as long as I washed my hands, using the tablet was no more of a health risk than cleaning the darn box. I went through an unusually large amount of soap over the next couple of days.

I also noticed that the tablet was running hot. Mostly just warm, but when installing app updates, it got uncomfortably hot on a couple of points. Since I’d been using in the case, I had no idea whether the amount of heat I was feeling was normal.

Step Five: Return table to case. I was figuring another couple of days of excessive handwashing, and life would be back to normal. A couple of hours after I started using the case, the Nexus rebooted. And again forty-five minutes later. Back out of the case and back to the Internet.

Interestingly, overheating Nexus 9s seem to be a thing. The consensus is that it could be caused by a hardware problem or a corrupted system file, and either condition can be caused by dropping the tablet.

Step Six: Use tablet without a case and switch to a “smart cover” to protect the screen without allowing heat to build up. I figured that would hold me until the Android Marshmallow rollout. Upgrading the OS would then replace the entire system, and–hopefully–resolve the overheating problem. And it does seem to have helped. The tablet is definitely running cooler. I’m just not sure it’s running cool enough to risk putting it back in the case.

Which, of course, means that it could give out on me at any moment, case or not. I had some hope that Marshmallow’s auto-backup system would give me some peace of mind. Early reports were that it would back up all apps unless developers specifically opted out. However, it turns out that’s only true if the app has been targeted for API 23*. Older apps won’t be backed up.

* That is, the app needs to be compiled with the Marshmallow SDK and have the Marshmallow feature-set turned on. This is easy to do, but good software practices require app testing before making such a change. As of this writing, approximately a week after I got the upgrade, exactly two non-Google apps are being backed up: my alarm clock app and Yelp.

So I’m back to using the command line backup tool I talked about back in January. And running with the less-secure smart cover instead of the case. Pray for me and poor Kei-kun.

Google, can we please get a backup system that Just Works?

Googlesauce

Equal time again. Since I covered Amazon’s new cheap tablet and Apple’s latest releases, it’s only fair that I do the same for the new toys Google announced this morning.

The new phones are the Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X. (Disclosure: My current phone is a Nexus 5.)

The 6P has, unsurprisingly, an approximately 6 inch screen; the screen is a hair larger than an iPhone 6’s screen, even though the phone itself is a tad smaller. It’s got the “best camera ever,” fingerprint recognition for authentication, and front-facing stereo speakers.

The 5X is, as best I can tell, the 6P, but with a smaller screen and slightly less powerful processor.

Incremental improvements. Am I going to trade in my Nexus 5? Nah. If I was looking to upgrade my phone, I’d give the 5X a close look, but I don’t see enough of an improvement to make me retire the 5–although, given my ongoing complaints about the quality of the photos I post on Fridays, that “best camera ever” sounds attractive. I’ll be keeping an eye on the hands-on reviews once the phones get into consumer’s hands. That’ll be in October.

Moving on to Marshmallow, we heard about most of the new features back in May, so there weren’t a whole lot of surprises. Simplified, more granular permissions should good, as does 30% longer battery life thanks to the “Doze” mode. One surprise was the extension of voice recognition to third-party apps. We’ve been able to launch apps by voice for a while, but now the apps will be able to implement internal voice controls. Given the interpretation time, I wouldn’t expect more than a few controlled choices (“Do you want to resume the video where you left off or start over?”) but it could help with hands-free operation; don’t forget that Google is pushing Android into the automotive space. Marshmallow will start rolling out next week–to the Nexus 5, 2013 Nexus 7, and Nexus 9. It won’t be released for the original 2012 Nexus 7.

On the software side, we’ve got family plans for Google Music, enhanced sharing and album management for Google Photos, and new services coming to Chromecast, including Showtime, Sling TV, and Spotify.

And, to take advantage of the new services, there are two new Chromecasts. One is an enhanced version of the original, with faster Wi-Fi support (including the 5GHz band), a built-in HDMI cable, and bright, shiny colors. The other is an audio-only model, intended for connecting your streaming music–including Google Music, naturally–to your existing audio system. There’s no HDMI output, just digital optical and headphone outputs. Both are available today at the same $35 price the original Chromecast sold for.

The audio Chromecast seems like an interesting idea–a convenient way to get your music onto better speakers than a typical monophonic Bluetooth one without having to route the sound through a TV. If the Wi-Fi is really solid, this could give you a significant fraction of the Sonos feature set for a small piece of the price. Don’t forget to add in the cost of a digital audio cable when you do your price-to-performance calculation, though!

And then there’s the Pixel C. Windows laptop/tablet combination devices are popular at the moment. Blame Microsoft Surface for starting the trend. Apple is onboard: the iPad Pro is the iOS equivalent. And now Google is going there.

Ten inch screen, 2560×1800 touchscreen, running Android (not stated, but presumably Marshmallow). Cool feature: there’s no physical connection between the tablet and the keyboard. They’re held together with magnets in open, closed, and stand-up positions–and the keyboard charges inductively when they’re touching.

You can buy the tablet without the keyboard. So think of this as the new Nexus 10. $499-$599 depending on memory, plus $149 for the keyboard. So that’s $200-$300 cheaper than the iPad Pro (although without the stylusApple Pencil). Still significantly more expensive than a standard Windows 10 convertible device, but you always pay a premium for “cool,” right? No firm date for availability, but Google promises it’ll be out in time for Christmas. Give one to all your loved ones!

By the way, from the photos, it looks like the keyboard uses the same layout as Chromebooks. Personally, I find the omission of “Home” and “End” keys extremely annoying on my Chromebook. But then, I write novels. Maybe they’re not necessary for the e-mails that Google talks about.

I worry a little about that inductive charging. That’s not hugely efficient. I’m concerned about how hard the tablet’s runtime will be affected. Again, we’ll have to wait for the reviews.

Bottom line: Google’s got some incremental improvements coming our way, but nothing really earth-shattering. The Chromecast Audio is, I think, the most intriguing thing in the pipeline.

No Safety

Does it seem like there has been an unusually large number of highly-publicized security issues lately?

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen two different “Take over or destroy an Android phone” vulnerabilities. With, of course, the obligatory notation that the majority of vulnerable systems will never be patched because carriers don’t want to test and deploy OS updates for hundreds of models of phones they don’t sell anymore.

So then we get the mandatory calls for everyone to switch to iOS*. Because of course, Apple doesn’t release OSes that can crash when they receive a text message. Or stop supporting older devices. (For anyone who has trouble detecting sarcasm in print, yes, a couple of months ago, a bug that allowed many iOS+hardware combinations to be crashed via SMS was widely discussed. And the forthcoming iOS 9 will be the first release in quite some time that doesn’t orphan any Apple hardware.

* Not, I’m pleased to see, from mainstream media, only from the most vocal, least thoughtful Apple fans. Maybe there’s hope for the press.

Then there’s the widely-reported story that recent model Fiat Chrysler vehicles are hackable over the Internet. And Chrysler’s decision to distribute the fix by mailing USB drives to car owners. (Colin Neagle has a nice piece in NetworkWorld on why this is such a bad idea*.) Realistically, Fiat Chrysler can’t be the only automaker distributing vulnerable software. Remember: Internet connections are two-way. If your car stereo supports Pandora or your GPS downloads live traffic data, you had better hope the manufacturer has included good defenses against attack.

* Although Mr. Neagle missed one scenario. After decades of being told to reinstall software (and even operating systems–yes, I’m looking at you, Microsoft) to fix problems, how many of those Jeep owners are going to decide their car isn’t running right, and reinstall the patch? I don’t think it would do much harm to reinstall it over itself–though I can imagine scenarios where that could cause a problem–but what about six months or a year down the road, after the dealer has upgraded the car’s software. Does Chrysler’s software update system guard against downgrades?)

And the vulnerabilities keep coming. Ars Technica has a couple of security-related stories on the front page today. Another automotive issue: a security researcher has found a way to hijack the remote starting capability in GM’s OnStar-equipped cars. It’s not a vulnerability in the car’s software; the problem is in the smartphone apps. Until GM releases a fix, they’re advising car owners not to use the remote start capability.

And it’s not just cars and phones that have vulnerabilities. An easy-to-exploit crash in Bind* was just patched. Of course, just because it’s been patched doesn’t mean the fixed version has been deployed on all–or even most–servers. Or that all of the related bugs have been found and fixed.

* Bind is the most commonly used DNS software–the tool that translates easy to remember names like, say, koiscribblings.com into the numeric codes that computers use to locate each other. The ability to easily crash Bind is the ability to disable large chunks of the Internet by making it impossible for individual computers to talk together.

I could go on, but I’ll spare you.

So are there more vulnerabilities being reported than in the past? Or are they just getting more publicity?

I’m not trying to suggest that we’re all doomed. But it’s clear that the people creating all of our spiffy new gadgets are thinking “spiffy” first and “secure” much further down the priority list. That means it’s up to us, the consumers, to think about security. If you decide a bluetooth-enabled door lock is too risky, don’t buy it–and send the company that makes it an e-mail explaining why. Same thing for your next car, burglar alarm, or refrigerator purchase. Make your own safety and privacy one of your criteria, and tell the losers where they fell short. The only way to move security up the priority list is to make the connection between poor security and lost sales explicit.

The Decline of Civilization–And Google I/O, too.

Today is the first day of Google I/O, the Big G’s annual excuse to shut down a couple of blocks around San Francisco’s Moscone Center. As always, I’ll be giving you my first reactions to their plans for the coming year–at least those plans that they warn us about.

While we’re waiting for the keynote address, though, I wanted to vent about a couple of signs of the encroaching End of Civilization As We Know It. If you’re not in the mood for my curmudgeonly rantings, feel free to skip ahead.

Still here? Good.

According to today’s SF Chronicle, Ross Dress for Less stores has settled a lawsuit brought by 2,400 of their janitors. The suit alleged that Ross and their janitorial contractor, USM Inc., failed to pay the janitors minimum wages and overtime between 2009 and earlier this year.

The settlement? $1 million. That’s right. Each of the janitors will receive a smidgen over $400 to compensate them for as much as five years of missing wages. Rubbing salt in the wound, Ross is also paying $1.3 million to the lawyers who negotiated the settlement.

Two questions: Are Ross and USM facing a criminal investigation into whether they did in fact conspire to cheat their janitors? (The newspaper article doesn’t say anything one way or the other; my guess is no.) And, has anyone checked with the janitors at the lawyers’ offices to see if they’re getting minimum wage and overtime? (Again, my guess is no.)

Moving on.

As I’ve said before, I don’t much care for basketball. Living in the Bay Area, though, it’s hard to avoid getting caught up in the current excitement over the Warriors*. So I watched about fifteen minutes of last night’s game while I was exercising. Mind you, that was about five minutes of actual game time.

* For those of you who don’t have the excuse of headlines screaming “40 YEARS IN THE MAKING” to clue you in, the Warriors are the local professional basketball team. They just made it to the finals, the NBA’s equivalent of the World Series, for the first time since James Naismith crossed the Delaware and brought a burning bush to the basketball-impoverished masses. Or something like that.

The game has changed a lot since I watched it in my misspent youth. Back then, when a team put up a shot, most of the players from both teams converged on the basket to go after a rebound. Today, the offensive team mostly heads for their own basket to play defense, conceding the rebound.

And that’s the other thing that’s changed. Back in my day (Damn kids!), after scoring, the smart teams put pressure on their opponents, making it difficult for them to move the ball into shooting range. Today, they just foul the worst freethrow shooter on the court.

According to the commentators, this is the height of strategy. And why not? It’s the same kind of thinking that figures it’s cheaper to settle a lawsuit than to pay the legally-mandated minimum wage.

Sorry, I don’t buy it. If the rules of the game are structured so that you’re better off breaking the rules than actually playing the game, then your sport needs to be fixed.

It’s an easy fix, too. All you have to do is award five points for a successful free throw. When it’s more expensive to commit a foul than to play the game, teams will stop committing strategic fouls.

Until that happens, though, I won’t be watching any more basketball.

Enough. On to Google I/O.

  • Android M – Lots of bug fixes. Oh, and a few improvements. A couple of them are even interesting.

    Apps will now request permission when they try to do stuff instead of getting blanket permissions when you install them. That means you can block some actions but allow others. Don’t want to let that new game have access to your address book? On the whole, that’s a win for users, but it’ll be interesting to see how developers handle the brave new world where users can block apps’ access to the ad network.

    Apps can “claim” web pages, so if you try to go to a particular website, you’ll get the equivalent app instead. From a user perspective, I think this one’s a step backward. I have the WordPress app installed on my tablet and use it occasionally for managing this blog. That doesn’t mean I want the app to open every time I try to access a WordPress blog–or even my blog.

    Android Pay is getting a facelift. You won’t need to open the app anymore. Whoopie. I hope they’re also improving the reliability. I got so many failures to connect with the terminal that I’ve given up on Android Pay.

    Doze sounds promising: if the tablet doesn’t move for an extended period, it’ll go into a power-saving deep sleep mode. If users can control the timeout, it’ll be big win. And an even bigger one if we can control what happens when it wakes up and all the suspended apps try to grab updates at once…

    Interestingly, the preview of Android M is only available for the Nexus 5, 6, 9, and Player. No Nexus 7. Apparently that “might” come later. Combined with the outrageous delay in bringing Android 5.1 to the Nexus 9, it does suggest that Google’s Android team may be a bit overextended, and that the Nexus 7 is going to be completely unsupported soon.

    I haven’t seen any hints of what the dessert name for M will be. I’d love it to be Marshmallow, if only because I want to see the statue they put on the Google lawn. I suspect we’ll get some hints once people start poking at the developer preview.

  • Brillo & Weave – A slimmed down Android for connected devices and a protocol to tie them together. We’ve talked about the security risks in “Internet of Things” devices before. I’m not sure I really want Google making it easier to create app-enabled locks.
  • Machine Learning/Context Sensitivity – They made a big deal out of this across all their products. Searches that understand pronouns and references to the data you’re looking at. Enhancements to Google Now to be more aware of where you are and what you’re doing–they’re calling it “Now on Tap”. (The example was recognizing that you’ve just landed at the airport and offering a Google Now card to “order an uber”. Given Uber’s recent bad press–quite the antithesis of Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” mantra–is that really a company Google wants users to associate them with?)

    The new Google Photo sounds potentially useful, though. Every picture you store will be automatically tagged so you can search for things like “Photos of my nephew at Folklife last year.” If the recognition works well, the advantages are obvious. If it doesn’t work well, then we’ve got a repeat of Flickr’s recent image tagging fiasco. The fast, simple sharing functions sound good too. As always, the gotchas are in the implementation details (security, security, security!)

  • I’m going to skip most of the rest of the goodies. Many of them are around ease of use. Good to know, but not all that interesting in detail. I did find the announcement that the enhancements to the developers’ tools will include the “Cloud Test Lab”. Google will perform some level of automated tests on your app across multiple devices with different hardware and software configurations. This kind of testing is, IMNSHO, not hugely useful for large, complicated apps, and there are definitely potential security concerns when the app needs to connect back to your corporate network for test data. But it can be useful. If any of my former cow-orkers use the Cloud Test Lab, I’d be interested in hearing how you like it.
  • Of course, Google is also working on a number of other projects: driverless cars, wireless Internet access via balloons, and so on. All part of this nutritious breakfastusing “technology to solve problems for everyone in the world”. That includes a new version of last year’s favorite Google I/O gizmo: Cardboard, the low-cost virtual reality device. The new version supports larger phones and is easier to construct. The software is also supposedly significantly improved. Last year, it took a few days for templates to show up online. If the same holds true this year, all of you with those lovely phablets will have a chance to check out VR on a budget.

Bottom line from my perspective: Google’s making some useful moves, playing some catch-up to Apple, and really only making one dumb move. If Brillo and Weave meet a quick death or get stuck in an endless pre-development stage, I’ll consider this the most worthwhile Google I/O yet.

Interesting Times, Part 2

Welcome back. Last time, I implied that Google had made a big mistake in designing Android. Today, I’ll explain.

I can summarize the problem in one simple sentence. It’s impossible to back up your Android device.

Really.

There are some partial methods:

  • Turn on “Back up my data”. (Android prompts you to turn it on when you’re setting up the device, but if you declined, you can find it in the “Backup & reset” section of the Settings app.) This sounds good. According to the menu in Lollipop, it will back up “app data, Wi-Fi passwords, and other settings to Google servers”. Unfortunately, the description is somewhat misleading. Your Android settings will be backed up. So will a list of all of the apps you’ve installed. What won’t be backed up is the settings of all those apps. Game progress? Not backed up. List of websites in your RSS reader? Not backed up. Configuration of your e-book reader, social network apps, and weather app? Not backed up–unless you’re using Google’s own apps. The problem is that Google has made the APIs for saving configuration and app state optional. The number of developers who actually use them is miniscule.
  • Install a backup app. There are some. Some of them even work–but only for data the individual apps have marked as public. As part of Android’s security model, apps are largely prevented from accessing any data but their own. In order to do a full backup, you need to root the device. That requires a user to gather instructions and software from several places around the Internet and risk bricking the device. In many cases, it will void the warranty and prevent automatic installation of OS updates–and configuring the device to allow rooting will wipe all of the data on the phone. Yeah, the same data you were trying to back up.
  • Use the backup tool from the developer’s kit. Uh-huh. The average user isn’t going to use any tool that requires them to type commands. Heck, never mind the fact that the average user doesn’t back up their computer and wouldn’t see the point in backing up their phone; the portion of users who would even install a command line program is too small to count. Not that it would help much if they did. Google warns that backing up app data isn’t fully supported, and may not work.

The bottom line here is that as soon as you install one non-Google app, you have almost certainly lost the ability to move your electronic life from one device to another.

That’s not just a problem for people whose devices suddenly drop dead. It affects anyone who wants to upgrade to a new phone (Gotta have that larger screen, right?); anyone who needs to change carriers; and, of course, anyone who doesn’t trust Google to keep their data safe when the NSA comes calling.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much Google can do to repair the problem at this point. Google doesn’t review apps at a level of detail that would allow them to require apps to use their backup APIs. Future versions of the OS could introduce a limited form of root access (similar to Windows’ “Administrator mode”), but that wouldn’t help anyone using a device with an older OS–which is most users*.

* As of January 5, Google’s own numbers show that less than 0.1% of users have picked up Lollipop since its November launch. Less than 40% have even gotten as far as last year’s KitKat release. Hell, nearly 8% are still using Gingerbread, which hasn’t received any updates since 2011.

Security is a spectrum. Every vendor has to strike a balance between user freedom and protecting users from themselves. In this case, Google put the balance point in the wrong place. How many would-be phone upgraders, faced with the task of re-entering all their app settings have changed their minds? A little more freedom, and we might not have all of those Gingerbread and Honeycomb users still clutching their aging hardware and praying that it won’t die on them.

Google I/O 2014

A couple of weeks ago, I hit the high points of Apple’s WWDC keynote. In the interest of fairness and equal time, here’s a look at the early announcements from Google I/O.

If there’s a unifying theme of Google’s announcements this year, it’s “unification.” A platform for wearable devices (currently a codeword for “watches”) that ties the watch to a phone with shared notifications and alerts; a platform for cars that essentially allows your phone to display information and apps on a dashboard screen; a single card-based design* across all platforms; an “Android TV”; the ability to use a watch as a security fob for a phone or tablet; Android apps running in Chrome OS; cross-platform cloud APIs allowing status to be seamlessly moved among Android, iOS, and desktop applications; mirror any (recent) Android device to Chromecast; health APIs to integrate health data across apps; everything is voice activated and context-aware. I’ve probably missed a few, but you get the idea.

* Does anyone else remember Palm’s card-based UI for PalmOS (later WebOS)? Everything old is new again…

We did see previews of the next version of Android, and we’ll see many more over the next few months. Google is releasing a developers’ preview of the so-called “L release” today, ahead of the public release this fall. We still don’t know the most important piece of information about the release: the food name. Speculation is rampant, with “Lollipop” the leading candidate, but Google remains quiet on the subject, fueling speculation about the possibility of another corporate tie-in. “Laffy Taffy,” anyone? (I hope Google does do a few more corporate tie-ins. I’d love to see Android 7 hit the market in 2016 under the name “Nerds”.)

So everything Google touches can talk to everything else Google touches. They look the same, they talk the same language. For good or bad, this sounds like Apple’s tightly integrated, similar-appearance infrastructure. Google’s variation on the theme relies on third parties for most of the hardware, but the core is the same: once you buy one Google device, it’s much easier for your next device to also be Google.

As with Apple, WWDC announcements, Google has a lot of evolution going on, but nothing truly revolutionary.

The revolution is happening outside of Moscone Center. As it happens, I was in San Francisco yesterday, and happened to go past Moscone shortly before the keynote. Here’s what was happening:
gio

That’s right. You know it’s a serious protest when there’s a brass band! (Ars is reporting that a couple of protesters even managed to briefly interrupt the keynote.)

Apparently Google is solely responsible for San Francisco’s apartment evictions and the world-wide inability of non-tech workers to earn a living wage. According to a flier* the protesters were handing out, and to the bits of the loudspeaker-delivered speech I heard, Google has an obligation to increase wages for employees of other companies, support tenant rights, and (my favorite) “End all tax avoidance schemes.”

* The flier is a bit of a WQTS moment, by the way. The illustration is poorly centered, and three of the five sentences include grammatical errors. My favorite: “Do you have an idea for an app that would alleviate the imbalances in Silicon Valley or have other thoughts to share?” Wouldn’t it be nice if somebody could write an app that would have thoughts to share?

Guys, Google may be big, but they aren’t that big, and they really have no moral, ethical, or legal obligation to solve all of the world’s problems.

Even if they did, do you really want to live in a world where Google is responsible for setting fare wages and policing housing markets? I don’t, and I’d be surprised if the protesters would either.

Equal Time

OK, so you can blame today’s post on Lior. In all fairness, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t trying to trigger a post when he sent me an email about last week’s posts, but that’s just what he’s done. So if you’re sick about my curmudgeonly rantings about mobile devices, send your complaints about today’s post to Lior.

The gist of his email was that I hadn’t done full justice to Google’s decision to merge the Android Home Screen app into the Search app. What I said was that it’s “an interesting move on Google’s part to tie Android users closer to their own tools.” That’s true, but Lior is correct that it doesn’t really address what’s going on.

The immediate results of the change are small; essentially, it allows Google to easily integrate Google Now cards* into the Home Screen. In KitKat, they’ll only show up on the leftmost screen, but they could easily spread to other screens, and they’re well-positioned to move into the rest of the system.

* Google Now, for the uninitiated, is Google’s ongoing project to provide relevant information before you search for it. For example, by noting that you frequently search for movie showtimes on Friday afternoons, it might start showing you movie information on Fridays. Similarly, receiving an airplane boarding pass in your Gmail account could trigger Google Now to create a calendar event for the flight, offer directions to the airport, and suggest attractions and events at your destination–all based on searches you’ve made in the past. Those directions, for example, might be for public transit if you’ve frequently searched for bus or subway routes. The events might emphasize concerts if you search for music.

Don’t forget that Google search goes beyond the traditional keyboard entry these days. Tapping the microphone icon allows you to use voice input, and the most recent iterations of search steal a page from Google Glass and let you trigger voice input by saying “OK, Google”. The Moto X phone has voice input integrated throughout the phone, not just on the Home Screen–and remember that Motorola is now owned by Google. I expect that we’ll see “OK, Google” spreading across the rest of the OS in the next Android release.

A bit of additional evidence that Google is pushing Android toward tighter and tighter integration with Google’s own services: In KitKat, the familiar Gallery app has been decoupled from the Camera app and pushed aside. It’s received almost no updates in KitKat–not even a new high-resolution icon like the rest of the Google apps. At the same time, the Google+ Photos app has been renamed to simply “Photos”. It looks like the next Android release may well do away with Gallery and push users into the Google+ service so that all your photos are tied to your Google identity. Fun, fun!

And one more change in KitKat is the integration of Search into the dialer and incoming call screens–they’ll now automatically do Google searches for phone number information. Next time Lior calls me, I won’t just see his name, I’ll get his picture (which will probably be added his entry in my address book), and perhaps a link to his Google+ profile. That’s going to happen even if Lior is calling from his new cell phone with a number that isn’t already in my address book.

Google is the new Santa: They see you when you’re sleeping, they know when you’re awake (and given how deeply the NSA has penetrated Google’s infrastructure, you damn well better be good.) The Apple patent I griped about last week has some serious implications for physical security. Google’s moves don’t have the same physical ramifications, but they sure do have some nasty implications for your privacy and online security.

Last Week In Review

There was a lot going on in the world last week — much of it was even relevant to this blog*. Most of it was far from time critical, though, so I didn’t feel compelled to drop everything and put fingers to keyboard (I almost wrote “put pen to keyboard”, which seems like it could work, but would probably be a bit messy.) Instead, I bring you this assemblage of short items summarizing last week.

* Meaning, of course, “Casey found it interesting.”

  • Putting the most important story first, to ensure that it gets seen even by those with short attention spans. I hasten to note that nobody who regularly reads this blog could be suffering from that problem — the comment is aimed at the occasional drop-in reader. A moment of silence in memory of George Thornton, who passed away Sunday, 27 October. Mr. Thornton will be remembered for decades to come as the prime mover in the famous “Exploding Whale” fiasco. I won’t even attempt to summarize the events of 12 November 1970; I invite you to watch the video embedded below, and then to visit the commemorative website for more information. Let us mourn the passing of a mind that thought dead whales and dynamite were a natural combination. I’ll skip the inevitable jokes about proper disposal of Mr. Thornton’s remains, and simply refer you to the comment section of the NBC News story, where all of the jokes have already been made.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1_t44siFyb4
  • Google Announcements As many of you are aware, Google announced — and began shipping — the new Nexus 5 phone and Android KitKat. The phone is, as expected, similar to LG’s G2, and the OS is, as expected, similar to Android Jelly Bean. What’s most interesting, however, is what didn’t get announced (and thanks to go Ars Technica for pointing these out.) On the hardware side, Google’s Android.com promotional website was updated to include the Nexus 5; the updates include photos of what appears to be an unannounced 8-inch tablet. Since the Nexus 7 was just updated a few months ago, it seems improbable that this would be a replacement; however the Nexus 10 has not yet been updated. Perhaps this is Google’s next entry into the “large tablet” space, and intended to compete head-to-head with the new iPad Mini. Over on the software side, KitKat all but drops the standalone Home screen app that provides the home screen and app drawer: it’s now a stub that redirects calls over to the search app. Yes, you read that correctly: the home screen and app drawer are now part of the search app. It’s an interesting move on Google’s part to tie Android users closer to their own tools, and I look forward to seeing how device manufacturers and carriers react, as this will certainly affect their ability to differentiate their devices through home screen tweaks and proprietary UIs.
  • A major milestone in my professional development has been reached. With a rejection on Sunday, 3 November, I now have enough that each finger could claim one. Yep, rejection number 10. I realize the email was a form letter, but I take heart in the fact that they chose to use the form that says they “enjoyed reading” my submission, and that I should “feel free” to send them other works. Much better than the form that threatens lawsuits for mental damage and warns of restraining orders.
  • Halloween musings A few follow-ups to my comments on Halloween.
    • Apparently a lack of sidewalks isn’t quite the barrier to trick-or-treating that I had thought. Our modest decorations (a giant spider, a few themed lights, and a talking dog skeleton) sufficed to bring in almost 40 candy bandits, a new record.
    • For the record, there was only one zombie and no Miley Cyruses (Cyrusi?). There were also a couple of cats (hurray for tradition!) and fairy princesses. Most of the rest were clearly costumes, but not anything I recognized. I suspect my lack of engagement with most current popular entertainment is a drawback in these situations.
    • Reese’s Cups were far and away the most popular item in the candy bowl. KitKats were a distant second (sorry Google), and Mounds bars barely even registered on the consciousness of the average trick-or-treater.
    • Trick-or-treaters who politely ask “How many may I have?” are a distinct minority. I’ll allow you to write your own “decline of civilization” comments; my own suspicion is that politeness has always trailed well behind the lust for candy among the pre-teen set.
    • No wildly creative costumes this year. However, since the few older kids were obviously towing younger siblings and mostly declined candy, I forgive them their lack of effort. I’ll give them mild props for making a small effort and save my scorn for the parents that made no effort to costume at all, but sent their urchins to the door with an extra bag “for Daddy”.
  • The importance of conjunctionsCJ Maggie spotted this place on our way to dinner Sunday night, and I’m really looking forward to trying them out for breakfast. I’ve never had ham, bacon, or chorizo juice before. Should be quite the tasty — and artery-hardening — experience! (Lest you think this is entirely in jest, be aware that the Internet is full of suggestions for what to do with ham juice (stock, pea soup base, beans), bacon juice (mostly related to eggs), and even chorizo juice (predominantly potato-related). Hint: most people call these items “grease” or “fat”. I’m all for regional dialects and variant word usages, but when it leads to straight-faced suggestions regarding large glasses of liquid pig squeezings, I draw the line…) Seriously, guys, would it kill you to add an “and” before the last word?