The End of an Era

The mystique has come to an end.

According to multiple reports, Android will no longer have sweet-themed release names.

If this is true, Pie is a good way to go out, but it’s an interesting decision on Google’s part. Not only do they lose a wildly popular bit of their brand, but the stated reasons for making the decision don’t quite add up.

It’s a rare corporate decision that can’t be revisited. Change your logo and lose sales? Change it again to something closer to the original. Refocus on a new target market and take a bath? Bring back an old corporate spokesperson to re-engage with the original buyers (anyone remember when Snap, Crackle, and Pop vanished, only to return?)

But this is a decision Google can’t take back. If, a year from now, they announce that Android R will be named “Rice Pudding,” then retroactively the “Android Q” move will seem like a ploy to get free advertising from the media. Nor would (ahem) sugar-coating the news by claiming that Q was named Quisp (or Quince, or anything else really) within the company improve the look.

Why are they doing this? I’ve seen two claimed reasons.

The media focuses on the name rather than the new features. So? As long as users use the OS and manufacturers license the Google apps, do you think Google really cares whether the free advertising focuses on the name or the spiffy new Back button functionality?

People complained that the names weren’t inclusive enough. People switch phones for a lot of reasons, but I really doubt Google was losing business to iOS over the code names. But if I’m wrong about that, Google could improve the naming process. The company is already in the spotlight over diversity issues; improving representation in the group that chooses Android names would fall right in line with their efforts to do more improve representation throughout the company.

Of course, the reports could be wrong. Android Q will be out next month, possibly as soon as next week. Maybe we’ll find out that it’s actually named Quinoa–hey, if you can make rice pudding, why not a sweet quinoa-based cake?

Google I/O 2019

Welcome to my annual Google I/O Keynote snarkfest.

In years past, I’ve used Ars Technica’s live blog as my info source, but this year it appears they’re not at Google I/O. So all the snark that’s fit to print comes to you courtesy of Gizmodo’s reporting.

My apologies, by the way, for the later-than-usual post. Blame it on Rufus. No, not really. Blame it on Google for scheduling the I/O keynote speech at 10:00. But I did have to duck out to take Rufus to the vet for a checkup. He’s fine. The keynote is over. I’m caught up. Enjoy your post.

First up, Google is bringing augmented reality to search on phones. The demo involves getting 3D models in your search results. You can rotate them to see all sides and you can place them in the real world with an assist from your phone’s camera. Why do I suspect the porn industry is going to be all over this technology?

Seriously, though, it’s part of an expansion of the Google Lens technology we’ve been seeing for the past few years and integrating it into search. Other enhancements to Lens include the ability to highlight popular items on a recipe and displaying videos of recipes being made when you point the camera at a printed recipe.

Does anyone really want these features? If I’m at a restaurant, I’m going to pick the dish that sounds the tastiest, not the one the most people have ordered. My tastes aren’t necessarily yours, after all, and sometimes it’s the odd little dishes tucked away in the corner of the menu that are the most interesting. As for the cooking videos, I try to keep my phone in the case in the kitchen. I’d rather not wind up preparing pixel ‘n’ cheese or nexus stew. Silly of me, I know.

Anyway.

Remember last year’s big feature? Duplex, in case your memory is as short as mine. That’s the feature that let your phone make reservations on your behalf. Did anyone use it? Maybe a few people will try this year’s iteration which can make car reservations and buy movie tickets. I can’t say I’m thrilled at the possibilities this opens up.

Assistant, the voice behind “Hey, Google,” gets an update this year, as well. It’ll be able to figure out what you mean by personal references. Want directions to your mother’s house? Just ask. Because it’s good to know that, when you can’t remember where your relatives live, Google can.

Slightly more useful is a new driving mode, intended to reduce distractions. Speaking as someone who nearly got rear-ended yesterday by someone looking at the phone in her lap, I think the only legitimate “driving mode” would be one that turns the damn phone off as soon as you start the engine. Not that anyone is going to implement that.

Moving on.

Google is very, very sorry for whatever biases their machine learning technology has revealed. They’re working very, very hard to reduce bias.

Let’s be honest here. The problem isn’t the machine learning tools. It’s the humans who select the data that the machines learn from. Fix the developers’ biases and the machines fix themselves.

Onward.

More privacy features. Which seem to boil down to giving people more ability to delete whatever Google knows about them, but precious little to prevent them from learning it in the first place.

Oh, wait, one exception: there’s going to be an incognito mode for Maps, so you can get directions to the doctor’s office without Google being easily able to tie the request to your earlier searches. They’ll still know someone searched for the office and there are a number of ways they could tie it to you, but at least they’ll have to work for the data.

I’m a big fan of incognito mode in the browser, and I hope they roll it out everywhere sooner rather than later–and that’s no snark.

Furthermore.

Generating captions for videos on the fly seems like an interesting, if somewhat niche application. Applying the same technology to phone calls, though… If Google can pull that one off, it’d be a big win for anyone who’s ever tried to take a call in a noisy environment or even just sworn at the lousy speaker in their phone. Yes, and for those whose hearing isn’t the aural equivalent of 20/20 vision.

Looks like there’s a related effort to teach their voice recognition software to understand people with conditions that affect their speech. The basic idea there is good–but Google needs to beware of inappropriate extensions of the technology.

Correctly interpreting the speech of someone who’s had, say, a stroke, is a good thing. Suggesting that someone see a doctor because there are stroke-like elements in their speech is moving into dangerous waters, ethically speaking.

On to Android Q.

Support for folding devices, of course. That was inevitable. Moving apps from one screen to another, either literally or figuratively (when the device is folded and the screen dimensions change, for example).

Improved on-device machine learning, which will let phones do voice recognition themselves without help from Google’s servers. That’s a win for privacy and data usage.

Dark mode. Personally, I dislike dark mode; I find white text on a black background hard to read. But I know others feel differently. So enjoy, those of you who like that kind of thing.

More privacy features, including new controls over which apps have access to location data and when they have it.

OS security updates without a reboot? Would that Windows could do that. It’s a small time-saver, but worthwhile.

Focus Mode–which will also be retrofitted to Android Pie–maybe somewhat less useful: you can select apps to be turned off in bulk when you turn on Focus Mode. If the goal is to get you off your phone, this seems like a fairly useless diversion, because who’s going to put their important apps on the list? It does tie in with expanded parental controls, though, so there’s that.

Moving on.

Like your Nest thermostat? That’s cool. (sorry) Now all of Google’s smart home gear will be sold under the Nest name. I guess they figured with the demise of “Nexus,” there was an opportunity for an “N” name to distinguish itself.

So, no more “Google Home Hub”. Now it’s “Nest Hub”. Expect similar rebranding elsewhere. It looks, for instance, like Chromecast (remember Chromecast?) will be moving to Nest. NestCast? Or something stupid like “Google Chromecast from Nest”?

And, speaking of Pixel–we were, a few paragraphs back–we’re getting cheaper Pixel phones, as expected.

The 3a and 3a XL, starting at a mere $399, and coming in three colors. (Yes, we see what you did there, Google.) The usual black and white, naturally, but also something Google is calling purple. Looking at the photos, I’d say it’s faintly lavender, but maybe it’s the lighting.

Judging by the specs, it sounds like you’ll get roughly Pixel 2 levels of performance, except for the camera, which should be the same as the high end Pixel 3 models.

And, unlike Apple, who preannounce their phones*, the Pixel 3a devices are available online and in stores now.

* Remember signing up to get on the list to pre-order an iPhone?Fun times.

Moving on.

Bottom line: once again, we’re not seeing anything wildly new and different here. Granted, some of the incremental advances over the past year are large, but they’re all still evolutionary, not revolutionary.

And no, there weren’t any hints about what the Q in Android Q stands for.

Pie

Google startled the tech world yesterday by releasing Android P. Many techies were unprepared for the news, not expecting the release to happen until the twentieth.

Naturally, the surprise didn’t stop anybody from playing the name game. Now that we know Android P, aka Android 9, is officially named “Pie,” the just-released OS is ancient history, and everyone is speculating about the name of next year’s release.

Let’s face it, there just aren’t a whole lot of foods beginning with “Q”–and most of those aren’t sweets by any stretch of the imagination. Quesadilla? Quiche? Quinoa? Goddess preserve us. Pun intended, because the most likely choice I’ve been able to come up with is Quince, which is frequently found (to the extent you can call it “frequent”) in jams, jellies, and preserves.

But you know, there is a dark horse candidate.

Quisp Cereal
(Image copyright Quaker Oats.)

It’s a sweet. No more so than any other sugared cereal, I suppose, but yeah, there’s a lot of sugar in those boxes. It wouldn’t be the first time Google has done a corporate tie-in for an Android release. And really, wouldn’t Android’s robot mascot look great with a propeller mounted on its head?

Android Robot
(Android Robot owned by Google, naturally.)

Come on, Google, make it happen.

If you think I’m pulling that idea out of my rear end, you’re partly right. But there is a possibility that Google is prepping us for a bit of MTV-generation nostalgia.

Consider: Why did they choose yesterday, August 6, to make the Android Pie release? 8/6 is hardly a date of significance to pie. But it starts to make more sense when you consider that news reports citing Google’s announcement started appearing around 9:00 (US PDT).

I can’t find the actual press announcement from Google, but… Allow reporters a bit of time to pull up their stories and add last-minute details. That would imply the release came out around 8:00. Might it have been 7:53:09? Just saying.
Counter-arguments that yesterday was three months after Google I/O will be cheerfully ignored. Secret conspiracies are much more fun. And besides, why do you think they chose the date they did for I/O?

Joking aside, there aren’t a whole lot of surprises in the release. Google revealed most of their plans at I/O back in May. And, of course, developers and the incurably brave have been using the public betas for the past three months.

Perhaps the biggest surprises are those of omission. Two big pieces of planned functionality–“Slices,” which will allow apps to export content to other apps and the “Digital Wellbeing” initiative, a set of features designed to make you put down your phone and interact with humans–aren’t included. Google says they’ll both be released “later” this year.

That’s a little disappointing. I was looking forward to seeing Digital Wellbeing in action; some of the announced bits of it sounded useful.

I guess I can spend the intervening time getting the hang of the new navigation. The changes to the Back button should be simple enough–either it’s there or it isn’t–but when it is, it should work more or less as it has in the past.

Doing away with the “Recent Apps” button will be tougher. I use that one a lot. Sure, I’ll eventually retrain my muscle memory to swipe up from the “Home” button and to swipe left/right through the apps instead of up/down. But the whole thing smacks of change for the sake of change.

Unless, of course, Android Quisp is going to introduce some startling new functionality behind a button located where “Recent Apps” used to be. In that case, getting the button out of the way now, in order to give sluggards like me a whole year to reprogram their brains, is an excellent idea.

I’ll undoubtedly have further thoughts on Android Pie once I get my hands on it. I’m still waiting for it to show up on my shiny new Pixel 2 XL. You’d think Google was being cautious with the rollout. It’s not like Android ever has unexpected bugs, right?

Google I/O 2018

As promised, here’s my usual cynical rundown of all the exciting things Google announced in the I/O keynote. As usual, thanks to Ars for the live stream.

Looks like a great year ahead, doesn’t it? See you Thursday.


Okay, okay. I just had to get that out of my system.

First up, Sundar admitted to Google’s well-publicized failures with the cheeseburger and beer emojis. It’s great that they’ve been fixed and that Google has apologized publicly. But when are they going to apologize for their role in inflicting emojis on us in the first place?

Anyway.

Google has been testing their AI’s ability to diagnose and predict diabetic retinopathy and other health conditions. I’m hoping this is not being done via smartphone. Or, if it is, it’s fully disclosed and opt-in. I’m quite happy with my medical professional, thanks, and I really don’t want my phone to suddenly pop up a notification, “Hey, I think you should see an ophthalmologist ASAP. Want me to book you an appointment?”

I do like the keyboard that accepts morse code input. That’s a nice accessibility win that doesn’t have any glaring detrimental impact on people who don’t need it.

That said, I’m less enthusiastic about “Smart Compose”. I’m not going to turn over writing duties to any AI. Not even in email.

But I do have to wonder: would it improve the grammar and vocabulary of the typical Internet troll, or will it learn to predict the users’ preferences and over time start composing death threats with misspellings, incoherent grammar, and repetitive profanity? Remember what happened with Microsoft’s conversational AI.

And I’ve got mixed feelings about the AI-based features coming to Google Photos. I pointed out the privacy concerns about offering to share photos with the people in them when Google mentioned it last year. Now they’re going to offering the ability to colorize black and white photos. Didn’t Ted Turner get into trouble for doing something of the sort?

More to the point, how many smartphones have black and white cameras? Taking a B&W photo is a conscious decision these days. Why would you want Google to colorize it for you?

Fixing the brightness of a dark photo, though, I could totally get behind.

Moving on.

Google Assistant is getting six new voices, including John Legend’s. Anyone remember when adding new voices to your GPS was the Hot Thing?

More usefully, it’ll remain active for a few seconds after you ask a question so you don’t have to say “Hey, Google,” again. Which is great, as long as it doesn’t keep listening too long.

That said, it’ll help with continuing conversations, where you ask a series of questions or give a sequence of commands; for example, looking up flights, narrowing down the list, and booking tickets.

And, of course, they’re rolling out the obligatory “teach little kids manners by forcing them to say please” module. If it starts responding to “Thank you,” with “No problem,” I will make it my life mission to destroy Google and all its works.

Moving on.

Smart displays–basically, Google Home with a screen–will start coming out in July. I can see the utility in some areas, but I’m not going to be getting one. On the other hand, I haven’t gotten a screenless GH, nor have I enabled Google Assistant on my phone. I just don’t want anything with a network connection listening to me all the time. But if you’re okay with that, you probably ought to look into the smart displays. It will significantly add to the functionality of the home assistant technology.

Good grief! You thought I was joking about your phone offering to make a medical appointment for you? Google isn’t. They’re going to be rolling out experimental tech to do exactly that: your phone will call the doctor’s office and talk to the receptionist on your behalf.

Not just no. Not just hell no. Fuck no! No piece of AI is going to understand my personal constraints about acceptable days and times, the need to coordinate with Maggie’s schedule, and not blocking my best writing times.

Moving on.

Google is rolling out a “digital wellbeing initiative” to encourage users to get off the phone and spend time with human beings.

Just not, apparently, receptionists and customer service representatives.

It’s a worthy cause, but let’s face it: the people who would benefit most won’t use it, either because they don’t recognize the problem, or because being connected 24/7 is a condition of employment. I’m sure I’m not the first to point out that Google employees are likely to be among the most in need of the technology and the least likely to use it.

Moving on.

The new Google News app will use your evolving profile to show you news stories it predicts will interest you. No word on whether it’ll include any attempts to present multiple viewpoints on hot-button topics, or if it’ll just do its best to keep users in their familiar silos. Yes, they do say it’ll give coverage “from multiple sources” but how much is that worth if all the sources have the same political biases bases on your history of searches? Let’s not forget that Google’s current apps with similar functionality allow you to turn off any news source.

Moving on.

Android P (and, as usual, we won’t find out what the P dessert is until the OS is released) will learn your usage patterns so it can be more aggressive about shutting down apps you don’t use.

It’ll offer “App Actions” so you can go straight from the home screen to the function you want instead of launching the app and navigating through it.

Developers can export some of their content to appear in other apps, including your Google searches.

The AI and machine learning functionality will be accessible to developers. Aren’t you thrilled to know that Uber will be able to learn your preferences and proactively offer you a ride to the theater?

And, of course, the much-ballyhooed navigation designed for a single thumb. The “recent apps” button will go away and the “Back” button will only appear when Android thinks it’s needed. And some functionality will be accessible via swipes starting at the “Home” button. Because the “Back” button wasn’t confusing enough already.

I do like the sound of a “shush” mode that triggers when you put the phone face down. I’m using a third-party app to do that with my phone now. Very handy when you want to be able to check in periodically, but don’t want to be interrupted. Sure, you can set the phone to silent, but putting it face down is faster and you don’t have to remember to turn notifications back on.

On to Google Maps.

It’s going to start letting you know about hot and trending places near you and rate them according to how good a fit they are for you. I’ve got serious questions about how well that’s going to work, given the number of times Google’s guessed wrong about which business I’m visiting. If they start telling me about popular Chinese restaurants because there’s a Panda Express next door to the library, I’m gonna be really peeved.

Oh, and businesses will be able to promote themselves in your personalized recommendations. How delightful. Thanks, Google!

Okay, the new walking navigation sounds useful. Hopefully it will learn how quickly you walk so it can give reasonably accurate travel time estimates. Hopefully there’s also a way to get it to make accommodations for handicaps.

Of course, if you don’t want to walk, Google–well, Waymo–will be happy to drive you. Their self-driving program will launch in Phoenix sometime this year. Which seems like a good choice, since they’re unlikely to have to deal with snow this winter.

I guess people in Phoenix will be getting a real preview of Google’s future. Not only will their phones preemptively book their medical appointments, but they’ll also schedule a self-driving car to get them there. Will they also send someone along to help you put on the stylish white jacket with extra-long sleeves and ensure you get into the nice car?

OS Power Up?

My phone is running Android Oreo.

As I type this, my iPad is downloading iOS 11.

And I’m asking myself why. It’s not like either OS introduces new features on my years-old devices. Yes, there are security fixes. Those are important, certainly, and in both cases installing the entire update is the only way to get those fixes.

Okay, yes, some of my current disenchantment is depression brought on by looking at the current news. But still, why do we have to have major OS updates on an annual schedule?

Remember, Android and iOS upgrades are free. Google and Apple aren’t making any money directly off of them, and they’re spending a bundle to tout the new features. Sure, the iOS release is tied to the release of new iPhones, which is where Apple lives. But they’d sell just as many iPhone 8s and iPhone Xs if they came with iOS 10 point something.

For the record, it’s not just phones and tablets. OS X is doing the same thing. Windows is even worse–we’re getting two upgrades a year.

And every time an upgrade comes out, we get reports of bricked phones and scrambled computers, followed by the eternal reminder that “it’s impossible to test every combination of hardware.”

I’m not suggesting the OS vendors should stop upgrading their software. Just thinking the annual upgrade cycle might possibly have more downsides than up.

What about a slipstreamed approach: roll out new features year-round in a series of smaller upgrades that’ll be less likely to break things?

Of course there are problems there. Problems in design, development, and testing. I may not be doing much formal QA these days, but I haven’t forgotten that much about software development. But the approach works well at the application level. It’s worth a try at the OS level.

On a related note, remember a couple of years ago when I griped about software upgrades violating user expectations? I just found a nice example of not doing that in iOS 11.

For the past couple of iOS releases on iPad, swiping up from the bottom of the screen with four or five fingers has brought up the list of running apps. Quick and easy, and I’ve gotten used to it. (Windows users, think “Alt-Tab”.)

In iOS 11, Apple introduced a new “Dock”: a list of frequently-used and currently-running apps. You can pop the dock up over your current program by swiping up with a single finger. And swiping up a second time brings up the new-and-improved list of running apps.

But, and here’s the important thing, the four-finger swipe still works! Even though there’s now a new route to the task switcher, I can still use the old route.

Mind you, I wouldn’t be surprised if the four-finger gestures disappear in a later release, but at least my muscle memory is safe for another year.

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.