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, 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.


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:

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.
  • 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 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?

Give Me a…

Once again Lior earns brownie points for tossing me the subject of a post. He’s concerned about Google’s new foray into cross-marketing: both that they’ve done it at all, and that they’re doing it with a Swiss company instead of keeping the $$$ in the US.

Lior and I disagree. Of course we do. If we agreed, I’d just post the rant he sent me and be done for the day…

For those of you who don’t follow obsessively follow Android news, the story is that Google surprised the heck out of the tech world yesterday with their announcement of the code name for the next version of the Android OS, due out next month. Techies had been assuming for months that the name would be “Key Lime Pie”. Google, however, went with “KitKat” and has a full cross-marketing agreement in place with the candy bar.

Let’s take the easy one first. The Kit Kat name is, as Lior notes, owned by Nestle, a Swiss company. However, Google’s licensing agreement is with Hershey, an American company that owns the brand in the U.S. So those dollars are nominally staying in the country. On the flip side, there really isn’t any such thing as a national company: with Apple saving big bucks on taxes by routing funds through Ireland, Microsoft buying Nokia’s phone business, and on and on, it’s pretty clear that one country isn’t big enough to hold a tech giant. For that matter, Google Zurich is “Google’s largest engineering office in Europe, the Middle East and Africa”, so you could also think of this deal as being between a pair of Swiss companies.

As for the larger concern, the commercialization of the Android brand, frankly I’m surprised it’s taken this long. Google has passed up a heck of a lot of previous opportunities:

  • Cupcake – The first dessert-themed release and the first public release. Nobody knew it was going to be the start of a tradition at the time, so making a big corporate tie-in would have taken away from the real core message: “Hey, Android is here!”
  • Donut – Don’t even try to tell me that Dunkin’ Donuts wouldn’t have been a good match… Actually, it wouldn’t have been a good match. DD is much better known on the East Coast than the West, and Google would want to appeal to as wide an audience as possible while trying to get global traction for the OS.
  • Éclair – Now we’re starting to get into territory where a cross-brand might have made some sense. There aren’t any well-known eclair manufacturers, though, so a different dessert would have been necessary. How about Eskimo Pie, also a name owned by Nestle?
  • Froyo – The frozen yoghurt market is rather fragmented; I’m not sure Google could have found a single purveyor with the kind of national reach they would have wanted. Fortune cookie, anyone? Wonton Food, Inc. probably would have jumped at the chance.
  • Gingerbread – Again, not a lot of strong national brand identification. Hmm. Gingersnaps? Gelato? Not much better. They might have wanted to sit this one out from a marketing perspective.
  • Honeycomb – Post probably would have killed for the chance at this one. Too bad the cereal isn’t known as a dessert. On the other hand, considering how short Honeycomb’s useful lifespan was, positioning it as a breakfast might have helped.
  • Ice Cream Sandwich – Bay Area techies would have screamed with joy if there had been a deal in place with It’s-It. Too bad the rest of the country would have said “Huh? What’s that?” Mmm, It’s-It.
  • Jelly Bean – Jelly Belly, anyone? Or if Google wanted to boost their appeal in the UK, how about Jelly Baby? Ah for the lost opportunity for Dr. Who offering up Nexus devices. Or the really big name: Jello. Need I say more?

Moving on…

As I said, I’m not that concerned about Google tying themselves to Hershey on this release. Competing on the merits of the OS has taken Android about as far as possible against Apple. Now, with Apple apparently poised to release a lower-cost iPhone, Google needs to start raising Android’s profile with the non-techie public. “Like an iPhone, but cheaper” isn’t going to fly. “Tasty” will.

That said, Google, please don’t tie in every release to a corporate sponsor. No more than every other release, OK? Do that, and I’ll look forward to Lollipop/Lemon Bar/Lemon Meringue Pie just as eagerly as I look forward to Mounds/Mars Bar/M&M.

Oh, and how’s about you stick with products whose owners spell them consistently? I’m not looking forward to the next year’s religious wars over whether it’s “Kit Kat” or “KitKat”.

Box Cat

I’m trying something new today: a cellphone game review. Wish me luck!

The game is “Box Cat” from Noodlecake Studios, and it’s categorized on Google Play as “Arcade & Action”, quite different from my normal choice of untimed puzzle games. I prefer to think that this will allow me to bring a fresh perspective to today’s review, rather than leading me to review all the wrong things.

All of my playing was done on the Android version on a 2013 Nexus 7 (although I did a quick test on a two-generations-out-of-date Samsung phone to confirm that there were no gross abnormalities or unacceptable lack of response). There’s also an iOS version. The iOS version is $1.99, but Android users get a bargain, as that version is a dollar cheaper.

Perhaps the best one-sentence description of Box Cat is that it’s “Frogger” in reverse. The graphics support that notion: they hearken back to the days of 8-bit arcade graphics: blocky and cute. In Frogger, the goal was to get your frogs across a busy street without being run over. In Box Cat, the goal is to allow your cat to frolic in the street, smashing the oncoming cars into each other. That’s right, Box Cat is solid and strong enough to send a two-ton car spinning across five lanes of traffic. Not too surprising, I guess, since Box Cat is almost as big as the cars. Unlike Frogger, there’s no “splat” if you miss your timing.

You can control Box Cat in two different ways: with on-screen buttons and by tilting the device. I found that tilting worked well on the Nexus, but was very sluggish on the phone. I suspect that’s specific to the phone, though, as using the on-screen buttons was quite responsive.

There are three different game modes:

In Adventure Mode, Box Cat has specific tasks to accomplish: hit a car of a particular color or a certain number of cars, collect a certain number of coins, and so on. He* needs to meet your objective and then smash a “boss” truck before a timer runs out.

In Survival Mode, Box Cat is defending a stretch of road. He has to smash all of the cars that come along. The game ends when the timer runs out or three cars sneak past.

In Rush Hour Mode, there are twice as many lanes of traffic, which makes it much easier to rack up high-scoring combinations of vehicles by bouncing one into another. Box Cat’s goal is to score as many points as possible before the timer runs out.

* For purposes of the review, I’m assuming Box Cat is male. I don’t think I’m sexist here: as far as I’m concerned, women are just as free to play in traffic as men are. My assumption is strictly because Box Cat is a big, yellow feline whose looks remind me of Rhubarb.

The music is appropriate for the graphics, and if you fall in love with it, you can download the whole soundtrack as a “name your own price” digital album. My apologies to the composer, though. I think even the most dedicated devotee of 8-bit chiptune music would agree that it goes from cute to annoying much too quickly.

As expected, I suck at the game: I over-control and zip from one side of the screen to the other, I lock my focus in the center of the screen and lose track of what’s happening at the edges, and I absolutely can’t master the control for “Dash” mode (required to take out the boss truck in Adventure mode). Let me emphasize that those are NOT faults with the game: I have exactly the same experience whenever I play arcade-style games.

Despite my failings, though, I had a good time playing with Box Cat and will be keeping him on my gadgets. IMNSHO, well worth the price. One word of advice, though: If there is anyone within 50 feet of you while you’re playing, turn off the background music.

Google News and Notes

As promised, here’s my take on this morning’s Google announcements.

The most important is, of course, the announcement that Google is spending $600,000 to create free wifi in San Francisco parks. Thirty one parks are included; Google will build the necessary infrastructure and manage it for two years before turning it over to the city.

No, I’m not serious. Haven’t you figured that out yet? The story is true, but it’s hardly earthshaking, even if you live in San Francisco (and a good thing too, in light of the Bay Bridge’s seismic concerns.)

As expected, Google finally announced Android 4.3. Given the modest increase in version number and the fact that it’s still being called “Jelly Bean”, it should be no surprise that there aren’t major new features. It does have some nice tweaks, though:

  • Bluetooth 4.0 / Bluetooth Low Energy – This will allow Android devices to more easily connect to more devices and types of devices, including fitness gadgets and watches. Watches? See next item.
  • App access to notifications – There have been a heck of a lot of rumors about various companies working on smart watches. This new feature in Android 4.3 will allow apps to directly access OS notifications and, per the Android developer blog, update, delete, and push notifications to nearby Bluetooth devices (emphasis mine). Sure sounds like a useful thing for a watch, doesn’t it?
  • Multi-user restricted profiles – Let your kids use your phone? Now you can block them from taking certain actions (running particular apps, making in-app purchases, and so on). For those of us who don’t have kids, it should mostly be useful to keep our cats from getting out of the photography app and into the web browser to download kitty porn.
  • OpenGL ES 3.0 and new DRM APIs – I’m lumping these together because they’re largely invisible to consumers. The results, though, is that high-resolution graphics will be faster and smoother. The first consumer-visible change is that Netflix has already been updated to use the new DRM, allowing it to stream content in 1080p.

The update is rolling out now to Nexus devices. It’s not on my Nexus 7 yet, but that’s no surprise: the last Jelly Bean update took almost a week to get to me. The usual delays getting it onto non-Nexus devices are also beginning now. Note that “usual delays” apparently also applies to the “Pure Android / Google Play Edition” devices from HTC and Samsung: Multiple sites are reporting that Google is not distributing updates for those devices. HTC and Samsung have yet to commit to release dates (HTC is saying “soon”; Samsung says “in the coming months”).

Also as expected, Google has taken the wraps off the new Nexus 7. As with Android, it’s a set of incremental improvements rather than something pathsetting.

  • The screen has been beefed up from 1280×800 to 1920×1200. Yes, slightly higher resolution than your HD TV. That’s actually the same resolution as my 24-inch monitor. I’ll be very interested to see how sharp that kind of pixel density looks; early reports are that it’s a huge improvement over the original Nexus 7.
  • The dimensions have changed a little. The new version is a smidge taller, and about half a smidge narrower and thinner. It’s also a squoosh lighter. Yes, those are precise technical terms. Not a major improvement, but those who have seen it in person say the change does make it slightly more pocketable.
  • The new quad-core CPU is supposed to be about 80% faster than the original’s CPU. Combined with a bump from 1GB of ram to 2GB, it should make for noticeably smoother performance, especially with a lot of apps running.
  • Wireless charging is a nice touch, but you’ll have to pay extra: it ships with the traditional micro-USB charger and cable.
  • HDMI out. Well, sort of. The micro-USB port is SlimPort-enabled, so with an appropriate adapter you can connect to a TV. The adapter is not, of course, included. It’s an improvement over the original Nexus 7, but feels like something of an afterthought–more on that below.

The new Nexus 7 will be in stores next Tuesday. Best Buy is taking pre-orders, and I imagine other sellers will be soon. For what it’s worth, Staples is showing a $20 discount on the old 16GB model and a $50 discount on the old 32GB model.

Should you buy it? IMNSHO, if you don’t already have a tablet, this is the seven-inch to buy. If you’re thinking about upgrading, it’s only worth it if you’re actually seeing limitations with your current one. Me? I do a lot of switching between ebook reader, news reader, and browser and I frequently see several seconds of lag on each switch, so yes, I’ll probably upgrade, but I won’t be in a huge hurry to do so. I’m not pre-ordering, but will grab one when I see it in a store.

Finally, there was one unexpected announcement: The Chromecast HDMI Streaming Media Player. This is Google’s response to Apple’s AirPlay. A $35 “box” roughly the size of a fat thumb drive, you plug it into an HDMI port on your TV and join it to your wifi network. Once that’s done, you can stream video from any app that supports the technology. Yes, “app”. Unlike AirPlay, which is an OS-level technology, Chromecast is built into individual programs. That means that it’s not tied to a single OS (AirPlay requires you to be solidly in Apple’s infrastructure). Chromecast is already available in Netflix’ app, is coming soon from Pandora, and in the Google Play media apps. It’s also in beta for the Chrome browser. Yes, anything you can display in your browser can be streamed to your TV on all OSes where Chrome runs (Windows, Mac, Linux, Android). Note that all of those media players are streaming only; that means that at the moment you can’t display local content, but that should be a temporary limitation: once media player apps pick up the necessary APIs, that problem will be solved. My guess is that we’ll start seeing Android apps with the support next week and desktop programs not long after.

This is why I said that the HDMI/SlimPort support on the new Nexus 7 feels like an afterthought: if Chromecast lives up to its billing (and the early reports suggest that it does–though granted that’s based on not much more than demos), why would anyone want to tether their tablet to the TV when they can get the same result wirelessly?

No surprise, the Chromecast is sold out directly from Google already. Best Buy is expected to be selling it next week. If you can’t wait, you can order it from Amazon. Mine is supposed to arrive Friday. If it does, I’ll check it out over the weekend and publish a report here on Monday.