Google launches the final beta of Android 11 – TechCrunch

With the launch of Android 11 getting closer, Google today launched the third and final beta of its mobile operating system ahead of its general availability. Google had previously delayed the beta program by about a month because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Image Credits: Google

Since Android 11 had already reached platform stability with Beta 2, most of the changes here are fixes and optimizations. As a Google spokesperson noted, “this beta is focused on helping developers put the finishing touches on their apps as they prepare for Android 11, including the official API 30 SDK and build tools for Android Studio.”

The one exception is some updates to the Exposure Notification System contact-tracing API, which users can now use without turning on device location settings. Exposure Notification is an exception here, as all other Android apps need to have location settings on (and user permission to access it) to perform the kind of Bluetooth scanning Google is using for this API.

Otherwise, there are no surprises here, given that this has already been a pretty lengthy preview cycle. Mostly, Google really wants developers to make sure their apps are ready for the new version, which includes quite a few changes.

If you are brave enough, you can get the latest beta over the air as part of the Android Beta program. It’s available for Pixel 2, 3, 3a, 4 and (soon) 4a users.

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Google updates G Suite for mobile with dark mode support, Smart Compose for Docs and more – TechCrunch

Google today announced a major update to its mobile G Suite productivity apps.

Among these updates are the addition of a dark theme for Docs, Sheets and Slides, as well as the addition of Google’s Smart Compose technology to Docs on mobile and the ability to edit Microsoft Office documents without having to covert them. Other updates include a new vertically scrollable slide-viewing experience in Slides, link previews and a new user interface for comments and action items. You can now also respond to comments on your documents directly from Gmail.

For the most part, these new features are now available on Android (or will be in the next few weeks) and then coming to iOS later, though Smart Compose is immediately available for both, while link previews are actually making their debut on iOS, with Android coming later.

Most of these additions simply bring existing desktop features to mobile, which has generally been the way Google has been rolling out new G Suite tools.

The new dark theme will surely get some attention, given that it has been a long time coming and that users now essentially expect this in their mobile apps. Google argues that it won’t just be easier on your eyes but that it can also “keep your battery alive longer” (though only phones with an OLED display will really see a difference there).

Image Credits: Google

You’re likely familiar with Smart Compose at this time, which is already available in Gmail and Docs on the web. Like everywhere else, it’ll try to finish your sentence for you, though given that typing is still more of a hassle on mobile, it’s surely a welcome addition for those who regularly have to write or edit documents on the go.

Even if your business is fully betting on G Suite, chances are somebody will still send you an Office document. On the web, G Suite could already handle these documents without any conversion. This same technology is now coming to mobile as well. It’s a handy feature, though I’m mostly surprised this wasn’t available on mobile before.

As for the rest of the new features, the one worth calling out is the ability to respond to comments directly from Gmail. Last year, Google rolled out dynamic email on the web. I’m not sure I’ve really seen too many of these dynamic emails — which use AMP to bring dynamic content to your inbox — in the wild, but Google is now using this feature for Docs. “Instead of receiving individual email notifications when you’re mentioned in a comment in Docs, Sheets, or Slides, you’ll now see an up-to-date comment thread in Gmail, and you’ll be able to reply or resolve the comment, directly within the message,” the company explains.

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Twitter says Android security bug gave access to direct messages – TechCrunch

Twitter says a security bug may have exposed the private direct messages of its Android app users, but said that there was no evidence that the vulnerability was ever exploited.

The bug could have allowed a malicious Android app running on the same device to siphon off a user’s direct messages stored in the Twitter app by bypassing Android’s built-in data permissions. But, Twitter said that the bug, patched in October 2018, only worked on Android 8 (Oreo) and Android 9 (Pie), and has since been fixed.

A Twitter spokesperson told TechCrunch that the bug was reported by a security researcher “a few weeks ago” through HackerOne, which Twitter uses for its bug bounty program.

“Since then, we have been working to keep accounts secure,” said the spokesperson. “Now that the issue has been fixed, we’re letting people know.” Twitter said it waited to let its users know in order to prevent someone from learning about the issue and taking advantage of it before it was fixed.

The notice sent to affected Twitter users. Image Credits: TechCrunch

Twitter said the vast majority of users had updated their Twitter for Android app and were no longer vulnerable. But the company said about 4% of users are still running an old and vulnerable version of its app, and users will be notified to update the app as soon as possible.

Many users began noticing in-app pop-ups notifying them of the issue.

News of the security issue comes just weeks after the company was hit by a hacker, who gained access to an internal “admin” tool, which along with two other accomplices hijacked high-profile Twitter accounts to spread a cryptocurrency scam that promised to “double your money.” The hack and subsequent scam netted over $100,000 in scammed funds.

The Justice Department charged three people — including one minor — allegedly responsible for the incident.

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Google-Fitbit deal to be scrutinized in Europe over data competition concerns – TechCrunch

In a set-back for Google’s plan to acquire health wearable company Fitbit, the European Commission has announced it’s opening an investigation to dig into a range of competition concerns being attached to the proposal from multiple quarters.

This means the deal is on ice for a period of time that could last until early December.

The Commission said it has 90 working days to take a decision on the acquisition — so until December 9, 2020.

Commenting on opening an “in-depth investigation” in a statement, Commission EVP Margrethe Vestager — who heads up both competition policy and digital strategy for the bloc — said: “The use of wearable devices by European consumers is expected to grow significantly in the coming years. This will go hand in hand with an exponential growth of data generated through these devices. This data provides key insights about the life and the health situation of the users of these devices.Our investigation aims to ensure that control by Google over data collected through wearable devices as a result of the transaction does not distort competition.”

Google has responded to the EU brake on its ambitions with a blog post in which its devices & services chief seeks to defend the deal, arguing it will spur innovation and lead to increased competition.

“This deal is about devices, not data,” Google VP Rick Osterloh further claims.

The tech giant announced its desire to slip into Fitbit’s data-sets back in November, when it announced a plan to shell out $2.1BN in an all-cash deal to pick up the wearable maker.

Fast forward a few months and CEO Sundar Pichai is being taken to task by lawmakers on home turf for stuff like ‘helping destroy anonymity on the Internet‘. Last year’s already rowdy antitrust drum beat around big tech has become a full on rock festival so the mood music around tech acquisitions might finally be shifting.

Since news of Google’s plan to grab Fitbit dropped concerns about the deal have been raised all over Europe — with consumer groups, privacy regulators and competition and tech policy wonks all sounding the alarm at the prospect of letting the adtech giant gobble a device maker and help itself to a bunch of sensitive consumer health data in the process.

Digital privacy rights group, Privacy International — one of the not-for-profits that’s been urging regulators not to rubberstamp the deal — argues the acquisition would not only squeeze competition in the nascent digital health market, and also for wearables, but also reduce “what little pressure there currently is on Google to compete in relation to privacy options available to consumers (both existing and future Fitbit users), leading to even less competition on privacy standards and thereby enabling the further degradation of consumers’ privacy protections”, as it puts it.

So much noise is being made that Google has already played the ‘we promise not to…’ card that’s a favorite of data-mining tech giants. (Typically followed, a few years later, with a ‘we got ya sucker’ joker — as they go ahead and do the thing they totally said they wouldn’t.)

To wit: From the get-go Fitbit has claimed users’ “health and wellness data will not be used for Google ads”. Just like WhatsApp said nothing would change when Facebook bought them. (Er.)

Last month Reuters revisited the concession, in an “exclusive” report that cited “people familiar with the matter” who apparently told it the deal could be waved through if Google pledged not to use Fitbit data for ads.

It’s not clear where the leak underpinning its news report came from but Reuters also ran with a quote from a Google spokeswoman — who further claimed: “Throughout this process we have been clear about our commitment not to use Fitbit health and wellness data for Google ads and our responsibility to provide people with choice and control with their data.”

In the event, Google’s headline-grabbing promises to behave itself with Fitbit data have not prevented EU regulators from wading in for a closer look at competition concerns — which is exactly as it should be.

In truth, given the level of concern now being raised about tech giants’ market power and adtech giant Google specifically grabbing a treasure trove of consumer health data, a comprehensive probe is the very least regulators should be doing.

If digital policy history has shown anything over the past decade+ (and where data is concerned) it’s that the devil is always in the fine print detail. Moreover the fast pace of digital markets can mean a competitive threat may only be a micro pivot away from materializing. Theories of harm clearly need updating to take account of data-mining technosocial platform giants. And the Commission knows that — which is why it’s consulting on giving itself more powers to tackling tipping in digital markets. But it also needs to flex and exercise the powers it currently has. Such as opening a proper investigation — rather than gaily waving tech giant deals through.

Antitrust may now be flavor of the month where tech giants are concerned — with US lawmakers all but declaring war on digital ‘robber barons’ at last month’s big subcommittee showdown in Congress. But it’s also worth noting that EU competition regulators — for all their heavily publicized talk of properly regulating the digital sphere — have yet to block a single digital tech merger.

It remains to be seen whether that record will change come December.

“The Commission is concerned that the proposed transaction would further entrench Google’s market position in the online advertising markets by increasing the already vast amount of data that Google could use for personalisation of the ads it serves and displays,” it writes in a press release today.

Following a preliminary assessment process of the deal, EU regulators said they have concerns about [emphasis theirs]:

  • “the impact of the transaction on the supply of online search and display advertising services (the sale of advertising space on, respectively, the result page of an internet search engine or other internet pages)”
  • and on “the supply of ‘ad tech’ services (analytics and digital tools used to facilitate the programmatic sale and purchase of digital advertising)”

“By acquiring Fitbit, Google would acquire (i) the database maintained by Fitbit about its users’ health and fitness; and (ii) the technology to develop a database similar to Fitbit’s one,” the Commission further notes.

“The data collected via wrist-worn wearable devices appears, at this stage of the Commission’s review of the transaction, to be an important advantage in the online advertising markets. By increasing the data advantage of Google in the personalisation of the ads it serves via its search engine and displays on other internet pages, it would be more difficult for rivals to match Google’s online advertising services. Thus, the transaction would raise barriers to entry and expansion for Google’s competitors for these services, to the ultimate detriment of advertisers and publishers that would face higher prices and have less choice.”

The Commission views Google as dominant in the supply of online search advertising services in almost all EEA (European Economic Area) countries; as well as holding “a strong market position” in the supply of online advertising display services in a large number of EEA countries (especially off-social network display ads), and “a strong market position” in the supply of adtech services in the EEA.

All of which will inform its considerations as it looks at whether Google will gain an unfair competitive advantage by assimilating Fitbit data. (Vestager has also issued a number of antitrust enforcements against the tech giant in recent years, against Android, AdSense and Google Shopping.)

The regulator has also said it will further look at:

  • the “effects of the combination of Fitbit’s and Google’s databases and capabilities in the digital healthcare sector, which is still at a nascent stage in Europe”
  • “whether Google would have the ability and incentive to degrade the interoperability of rivals’ wearables with Google’s Android operating system for smartphones once it owns Fitbit”

The tech giant has already offered EU regulators one specific concession in the hopes of getting the Fitbit buy green lit — with the Commission noting that it submitted commitments aimed at addressing concerns last month.

Google suggested creating a data silo to hold data collected via Fitbit’s wearable devices — and where it said it would be kept separate from any other dataset within Google (including claiming it would be restricted for ad purposes). However the Commission expresses scepticism about Google’s offer, writing that it “considers that the data silo commitment proposed by Google is insufficient to clearly dismiss the serious doubts identified at this stage as to the effects of the transaction”.

“Among others, this is because the data silo remedy did not cover all the data that Google would access as a result of the transaction and would be valuable for advertising purposes,” it added.

Google makes reference to this data silo in its blog post, claiming: “We’ve been clear from the beginning that we will not use Fitbit health and wellness data for Google ads. We recently offered to make a legally binding commitment to the European Commission regarding our use of Fitbit data. As we do with all our products, we will give Fitbit users the choice to review, move or delete their data. And we’ll continue to support wide connectivity and interoperability across our and other companies’ products.”

“We appreciate the opportunity to work with the European Commission on an approach that addresses consumers’ expectations of their wearable devices. We’re confident that by working closely with Fitbit’s team of experts, and bringing together our experience in AI, software and hardware, we can build compelling devices for people around the world,” it adds.

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Microsoft’s new Family Safety app offers parental controls across phones, PCs and Xbox – TechCrunch

Microsoft’s new screen time and parental controls app, Microsoft Family Safety, is today launching publicly on iOS and Android, following a preview of the experience which had arrived earlier this spring. The app is designed to help parents better understand children’s use of screen time, set limits and create screen time schedules, configure boundaries around web access and track family members’ location, among other things.

The app competes with other parental control technologies, including those built into iOS and Android — the latter of which is also available as a standalone app, called Family Link. Like its competitors, Microsoft Family Safety will work best for those who have already bought into the company’s own ecosystem of products and services. In Microsoft’s case, that includes Windows 10 PCs and Xbox devices, for example.

Also like many screen time apps, Family Safety displays an activity log of how screen time is being used by kids. It can track the hours spent on devices, including Windows computers, phones and Xbox, as well as across websites and apps. It can also show the terms kids are searching for online.

Image Credits: Microsoft

A weekly report is emailed to parents and kids, with the hopes of encouraging discussions around healthy use of screen time. This was already a complicated subject before the pandemic. But now, with kids attending school at home and filling summer downtime with hours in games while parents still try to work without childcare, it has grown to be even more complicated.

Initially, parents may have just given up on screen time altogether, grateful for anything that gave them moments of peace. But with staying at home becoming a new normal, many families are now reconsidering what amount of screen time is healthy and how much is too much.

With the new app, parents can set screen time limits that apply across devices — including Xbox. These limits can be narrowly configured to allow for access to educational apps that facilitate online learning, while limiting other types of screen time — like gaming, for instance. When kids run out of time, they can ask for more and parents can choose whether or not to grant it.

Meanwhile, the web filtering aspects of the new app take advantage of Microsoft’s newer browser, Microsoft Edge, across Windows, Xbox and Android. The app will allow parents to set search filters and block mature content. Other content controls will notify parents if the child tries to download a mature game or app from the Microsoft Store, as well.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Parents also can control purchases by granting approval to kids’ requests, so there won’t be surprise bills later.

Plus, the app’s built-in location sharing means families can skip downloading additional family locator apps, like Life360, for access to basic location-tracking features — like those that show family members on a map, and lets you save favorite locations, like “Home.”

Image Credits: Microsoft

Since its preview period, Microsoft has expanded the app’s capabilities to include a handful of new features, including one that lets you block and unblock specific apps, a location clustering feature and an expanded set of options for granting more screen time (e.g. 15 or 30 minutes, 1, 2 or 3 hours, etc.). Accessibility options were also updated and improved, including improved visual contrast for low-vision users and additional context for screen readers.

You’ll note, however, that some of Family Safety’s experiences don’t fully extend to iOS and Android, like purchase controls and web filtering. On iOS, the app can’t even track screen time usage, as Apple makes no API available for this, even after launching its own screen time service and shutting down competing apps.

That’s due to how other platforms have their own operating systems and ecosystems locked down to encourage customers to only buy and use their devices. Unfortunately, that means families that have devices from a variety of vendors — like iPhone users who also game on Xbox, or Android users whose computer is a Mac, for instance — don’t have simple tools that let them manage everything from one place.

Microsoft says it will soon roll out two new features to Family Safety following its launch. These include location alerts and driver safety (e.g. aimed at teen drivers), and will be a part of a paid Microsoft 365 Family Subscription.

The new Family Safety app is rolling out now for iOS and Android as a free download. You may not be able to immediately access the app due to its phased rollout, but should sometime this week.

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First US apps based on Google and Apple Exposure Notification System expected in ‘coming weeks’ – TechCrunch

Google Vice President of Engineering Dave Burke provided an update about the Exposure Notifications System (ENS) that Google developed in partnership with Apple as a way to help public health authorities supplement contact-tracing efforts with a connected solution that preserves privacy while alerting people of potential exposure to confirmed cases of COVID-19. In the update, Burke notes that the company expects “to see the first set of these apps roll out in the coming weeks” in the U.S., which may be a tacit response to some critics who have pointed out that we haven’t seen much in the way of actual products being built on the technology that was launched in May.

Burke writes that 20 states and territories across the U.S. are currently “exploring” apps that make use of the ENS system, and that together those represent nearly half (45%) of the overall American populace. He also shared recent updates and improvements made to both the Exposure Notification API as well as to its surrounding documentation and information that the companies have shared in order to answer questions from state health agencies, and hopefully make its use and privacy implications more transparent.

The ENS API now supports exposure notifications between countries, which Burke says is a feature added based on nations that have already launched apps based on the tech (that includes Canada, as of today, as well as some European nations). It’s also now better at using Bluetooth values specific to a wider range of devices to improve nearby device detection accuracy. He also says they’ve improved the reliability for both apps and debugging tools for those working on development, which should help public health authorities and their developer partners more easily build apps that actually use ENS.

Burke continues that there’s been feedback from developers that they’d like more detail about how ENS works under the covers, and so they’ve published public-facing guides that direct health authorities about test verification server creation, code revealing its underlying workings and information about what data is actually collected (in a de-identified manner) to allow for much more transparent debugging and verification of proper app functioning.

Google also explains why it requires that an Android device’s location setting be turned on to use Exposure Notifications — even though apps built using the API are explicitly forbidden from also collecting location data. Basically, it’s a legacy requirement that Google is removing in Android 11, which is set to be released soon. In the meantime, however, Burke says that even with location services turned off, no app that uses the ENS will actually be able to see or receive any location data.

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Google’s ‘no choice’ screen on Android isn’t working, says Ecosia — querying the EU’s approach to antitrust enforcement – TechCrunch

Google alternative Ecosia is on a mission to turn search clicks into trees. The Berlin-based not-for-profit reached a major milestone earlier this month, having used ad revenue generated by users of its privacy-sensitive search engine to plant more than 100 million trees across 25 countries worldwide — targeted at biodiversity hotspots.

However, these good feels have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Ecosia has seen its monthly revenues slashed by half since COVID-19 arrived in Europe, with turnover falling from €2.6 million in February to just €1.4 million in June. It’s worried that its promise of planting a tree every 0.8 seconds is at risk.

It has also suffered a knock to regional visibility as a result of boycotting an auction process that Android OS maker Google has been running throughout this year as a response to a 2018 Commission antitrust decision that found the tech giant had violated EU competition rules in how it operates the smartphone platform — including via conditions placed on phone makers to pre-load its own services (like Google search) as device defaults.

An auction process now determines which rival search engines appear on a search “choice screen” Google began showing to Android users in Europe in the wake of the Commission decision. Currently, Google offers three paid slots to non-Google search engines via the auction. Android users setting up a new device always see Google’s own search engine as one of the four total options.

The tech giant’s rivals have consistently argued this “pay to play” model is no remedy for its anti-competitive behavior with Android, the world’s dominant smartphone OS. Although most (including DuckDuckGo) felt forced to participate in its auction process from the get-go. Forgoing the most prominent route to the Android search market isn’t exactly a luxury most businesses could afford.

Ecosia, a not-for-profit, was the last major holdout. But now it says it’s been forced to end its boycott in a bid to remain competitive in the region. This means it will participate in the next auction round for the Android choice screen — scheduled for the beginning of Q4. If it wins any per country slots it will appear as a search choice option to those Android users in the future, though likely not til next year, given the length of the auction process.

It remains highly critical of Google’s pay-to-play model, arguing it’s no remedy for the antitrust violations identified by the Commission. It also laments that EU lawmakers are taking a “wait and see” approach to determining whether Google’s “remedy” is actually restoring competition, given all the evidence to the contrary.

“The main reason why we boycotted the auction is because we think it’s highly unfair and anti-competitive,” says Ecosia CEO Christian Kroll, speaking to TechCrunch via video chat. “Not only do we think that fair competition shouldn’t be sold off in an auction but also the way the auction is designed basically makes sure that only the least interesting options can win.

“Since we have a business model where we use most of our revenues to plant trees we basically can’t really win in an auction model. If you’re already a search engine that’s quite well known… then you have a lot of cannibalization effects through this screen. So we’re basically paying for traffic that we would get for free anyway… So it’s just super unfair and anti-competitive.”

Kroll expresses emphatic surprise that the Commission didn’t immediately reject Google’s auction model for the choice screen — saying it seems as if they’ve learned nothing from the EU’s earlier intervention against Microsoft’s tying of its Internet Explorer browser with its dominant desktop OS, Windows. (In that case the saga ended after Microsoft agreed to implement a ballot screen offering a choice of up to 12 browsers, which paved the road for Google to later gain share with its own Chrome browser.)

For a brief initial period last year Google did offer a fee-less choice screen in Europe, pushing this out to existing Android devices — with search rivals selected based on their market popularity per country (which, in some markets, included Ecosia).

However, the tech giant said then that it would be “evolving” its implementation over time. And a few months later an auction model was announced as incoming for new Android devices — with that “pay-to-play” approach kicking off at the start of this year.

Search rivals, including DuckDuckGo and Qwant, immediately cried foul. Yet the response from the Commission has been to kick the can — with regulators offering platitudes that said they would “closely monitor.” They also claimed to be “committed to a full and effective implementation of the decision.”

However, the missing adjective in that statement is “fast.” Google rivals would argue that for a remedy to be effective it needs to happen really fast, like now — or, for some of them, the risk really is going out of business. After all, the Commission’s Android antitrust decision (which, yes, Google is appealing) already dates back two full years

“I find it very surprising that the European Commission hasn’t rejected [Google’s auction model] from the start because some of the key principles from what made the choice screen successful in the Microsoft case have just been completely disregarded and been turned around by Google to turn the whole concept of a choice screen to their advantage,” says Kroll. “We’re not even calling it the ‘choice screen’ internally, we just call it the ‘auction screen.’ And since we’re now stopping to boycott we call it the ‘no choice screen.’ ”

“It’s Google’s way to give the impression that there’s free choice, but there is no free choice,” he adds. “If Google’s objective here would be to create choice for the user then they would present the most interesting options, which are the search engines with the highest market shares — so definitely us, DuckDuckGo and maybe some other players as well. But that’s not what they’re trying to do.”

Kroll points out that another German search rival to Google, Cliqz, had to pull the plug on its anti-tracking alternative at the start of this year — meaning there’s now one less homegrown anti-tracking rival to Google in play. And while Ecosia feels it has no choice but to participate in Google’s auction game, Kroll says it also can’t know whether or not participating will result in Ecosia overpaying Google for leads that then mean it generates less revenue and can’t plant as many trees… Or, well, any trees if the worst were to happen.

(NB: Kroll was speaking to TechCrunch ahead of signing an NDA that Google requires participants of the auction to sign, which puts a legal limit on what they can say about the process once they’re involved — which, in turn, is a problematic element that another European search rival, Qwant, has also complained is unfair… )

“We don’t have any choice left, other than to participate,” adds Kroll. “Because we want to have access to the Android platform. So basically Google has successfully bullied everyone to play to its own rules — and it’s a game where Google is not only the referee but also they get a free ticket and they are also players…

“Somehow Google magically convinced the public but I think also the European Commission that they need to generate revenue in an auction because they have so many costs through the Android development and so on. It is of course true that they have costs… but they are also generating massive profit through the deals that they then make with the device makers and those profits are not at all shared.”

Kroll points out that Google shells out a (reported) $12 billion per year to be the default search engine in Safari on Apple’s iOS platform — even as it pays nothing to get in front of the vast majority of mobile searchers’ eyeballs via Android (and does the same with Chrome).

“If they would pay the same amount of money for those platform they would soon be bankrupt,” he argues. “So they are getting all this for free and they are also getting other benefits for free — like having the Play Store preinstalled, like having Google Maps preinstalled, YouTube preinstalled and so on — which are all revenue sources. But they’re not sharing any of those revenue. They just try to outsource all of the costs that they have to their competitors, which is I think very unfair.”

While Alphabet, Google’s parent entity, doesn’t break out Google Play revenue specifically from within a generic “advertising” bucket when it reports its financials, data from Sensor Tower for the first half of 2020 suggests it generated $17.3 billion in Play Store revenue alone over this six-month period, up 21% year-over-year. And Play is just one of the moneyspinners Google derives via “free” Android.

The Commission’s antitrust 2018 decision against Android Kroll argues that nothing has changed for search competitors like Ecosia, which are trying to offer consumers a more interesting value exchange for their clicks.

“What Google is doing very successfully is they’re just playing on time,” he suggests. “Our competitor, Cliqz, already went bankrupt because of that. So the strategy seems to work really well for Google. And we also can’t afford to lose access to those platforms… I really hope that the European Commission will actually do something about this because it has been done successfully in the Microsoft case and we just need exactly the same.”

Kroll also flags DuckDuckGo’s design suggestions for “a fair choice screen” — which we covered here last year, but which Google (and the Commission) have so far simply ignored.

He suspects regulators are waiting to see how the market looks in another year or more. But of course by then it may be too late to save more alternative search engines from a Cliqz-style demise, thereby further strengthening Google’s position. Which would obviously be the opposite of an antitrust remedy.

Commissioner Margrethe Vestager already conceded last year that another of her interventions against the tech giant — the Google AdSense antitrust case — is an example of “enforcement that hasn’t succeeded because it has failed to restore competition.” So if she’s not careful her record on failed remedies could dent her high-profile reputation for being an antitrust chief who’s at least willing to take on tech giants. Where competition is concerned, it must be all about outcomes — or what are you even doing as claimed law “enforcers?”

“I always fear that the point might come when big corporates are more powerful than our public institutions and I’m wondering if this point isn’t already reached,” adds Kroll, positing that it’s not clear whether the EU — as an economic and political project now facing plenty of its own issues — will have enough resilience to be able to enforce its own competition law in the near future. So really his key point is: If not now, when? (Or, well, how?)

It’s certainly true that there’s a growing disconnect between what the Commission is saying around competition policy and digital markets — where it’s alive to the critique that regulatory interventions need to be able to move much faster if they’re to prevent monopoly power irreversibly tipping these markets (it’s currently consulting on whether to give itself greater powers of intervention) — and its hands-off approach to how to remedy market failure. tl;dr: There’s no effective enforcement without effective remedies. So dropping the ball after the fact of a decision really defeats the whole operation.

Vestager clearly recognizes there’s a problem in the digital context — telling the EU parliament last year: “We have to consider remedies that are much more far reaching.” (Albeit, still not committing to having much more far-reaching remedies.) Yet in parallel she preaches “wait and see” as her overarching philosophy — a policy “push-pull,” which seems to be preventing the unit from even entertaining taking on a more agile, active and iterative role in supporting markets toward actual restoration of competition. At least not before a lengthy consultation exercise which further kicks the can.

If EU lawmakers can’t learn the lessons from their own relatively recent digital antitrust history (Microsoft tying IE to Windows) to effectively enforce what is a pretty straightforwardly similar antitrust case (Google tying search and its other services to Android), you have to question why they think they need new antitrust tools to properly tackle digital monopolies now, given they don’t seem able to effectively wield the tools they’ve already got.

It does rather look increasingly like the current crop of EU regulators have lost conviction — and/or fallen prey to risk aversion — in the face of platform power moves. (To wit: There are whispers the Commission is preparing to wave through Google’s acquisition of Fitbit, on paper-thin promises from Google, despite major concerns raised about privacy and increased data consolidation — which, if true, would again mean the Commission ignoring its own recent history of naively swallowing other similar tech giant claims.)

“My feeling is, what has happened in the Microsoft case… there was just somebody in the Commission crazy enough to say this is what the decision is and you have to do it… And maybe it just takes those kind of guts. That’s then maybe a political question. Is Vestager willing to really pick those battles?” asks Kroll.

“My feeling is if people really understand the situation then they would care but you actually need to do a little bit of explaining that it’s not good to have a dominant player that is in such an important sector like search, and that is basically shutting down the market for everybody else.”

Asked what his message is for the U.S. lawmakers now actively eyeing antitrust concerns around Google — and indeed much of big tech — Kroll says: “I’m a fan of competition and I also admire Google; I think Google is a very clever company, but I think there is a point reached where there’s so much concentration of power that it gets dangerous for society… We’ve been suffering quite a lot from all the dominance that Google has in the various sectors. There are just things that Google are doing that are obviously anti-competitive.”

One specific thing he suggests regulators take a close look at is how much money Google pays Apple to be the default search option on Safari. “It’s paying more money than it can actually afford to win the Safari search volume — that I think is very anti-competitive,” he argues. “They already own two-thirds of the market and they basically buy whatever’s left over, so that they can just cement their dominance.

“The regulators should have a very close look at that and disallow Google to participate in any of those bids for default positions in other browsers in the future. I think that would even be beneficial for browsers because in the long term there would finally be competition for those spots again. Currently Google’s just winning them because they’re running out of options and there are not many other search providers left to choose from.”

He also argues they need to make Google repair “some of the damage they’ve done” — i.e. as a result of unfairly gaining market share — by enforcing what he calls “a really fair choice screen”; non-paid and based on relevance for users. And by doing so on Android and Chrome devices. 

“I think until a year ago if you visited Google.com with your Safari browser or Firefox browser then Google would recommend to install Chrome. And for me that’s a clear abuse of one dominant position to support another part of your company,” he argues. “Google needs to repair that and that needs to happen very quickly — because otherwise other companies might [go out of business].”

“We’re still doing okay but we have been hit heavily by corona[virus] and we have a huge loss in revenue. Other companies might be hit even worse, I don’t know. And we don’t have the same deep pockets that the big players have. So other companies might disappear if nothing’s done soon,” he adds. 

We reached out to Google and the European Commission for comment.

A Google spokesperson pointed us to its FAQ about the auction. In further remarks which they specified could not be directly quoted they claimed an auction is a fair and objective method of determining how to fill available slots, adding that the revenue generated via the auction helps Google continue to invest in developing and maintaining Android.

A spokeswoman for the Commission told us it has been “discussing” the choice screen mechanism with Google, following what she described as “relevant feedback from the market, in particular in relation to the presentation and mechanics of the choice screen and to the selection mechanism of rival search providers.”

The spokeswoman also reiterated earlier comments that the Commission is continuing to monitor Google’s choice-screen implementation and is “committed to a full and effective implementation of the decision.”

However, a source familiar with the matter said EU lawmakers view paid premium placement for a few cents as far superior to what Google was offering rivals before — i.e. no visibility at all — and thus take the view that something is better than nothing.

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Google is making autofill on Chrome for mobile more secure – TechCrunch

Google today announced a new autofill experience for Chrome on mobile that will use biometric authentication for credit card transactions, as well as an updated built-in password manager that will make signing in to a site a bit more straightforward.

Image Credits: Google

Chrome already uses the W3C WebAuthn standard for biometric authentication on Windows and Mac. With this update, this feature is now also coming to Android .

If you’ve ever bought something through the browser on your Android phone, you know that Chrome always asks you to enter the CVC code from your credit card to ensure that it’s really you — even if you have the credit card number stored on your phone. That was always a bit of a hassle, especially when your credit card wasn’t close to you.

Now, you can use your phone’s biometric authentication to buy those new sneakers with just your fingerprint — no CVC needed. Or you can opt out, too, as you’re not required to enroll in this new system.

As for the password manager, the update here is the new touch-to-fill feature that shows you your saved accounts for a given site through a standard Android dialog. That’s something you’re probably used to from your desktop-based password manager already, but it’s definitely a major new built-in convenience feature for Chrome — and the more people opt to use password managers, the safer the web will be. This new feature is coming to Chrome on Android in the next few weeks, but Google says that “is only the start.”

Image Credits: Google

 

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Telegram hits out at Apple’s App Store ‘tax’ in latest EU antitrust complaint – TechCrunch

Apple has another antitrust charge on its plate. Messaging app Telegram has joined Spotify in filing a formal complaint against the iOS App Store in Europe — adding its voice to a growing number of developers willing to publicly rail against what they decry as Apple’s app “tax.”

A spokesperson for Telegram confirmed the complaint to TechCrunch, pointing us to this public Telegram post where founder Pavel Durov sets out seven reasons why he thinks iPhone users should be concerned about the company’s behavior.

These range from the contention that Apple’s 30% fee on app developers leads to higher prices for iPhone users; to censorship concerns, given Apple controls what’s allowed (and not allowed) on its store; to criticism of delays to app updates that flow from Apple’s app review process; to the claim that the App Store structure is inherently hostile to user privacy, given that Apple gets full visibility of which apps users are downloading and engaging with.

This week Durov also published a blog post in which he takes aim at a number of “myths” he says Apple uses to try to justify the 30% app fee — such as a claim that iOS faces plenty of competition for developers; or that developers can choose not to develop for iOS and instead only publish apps for Android.

“Try to imagine Telegram or TikTok as Android -only apps and you will quickly understand why avoiding Apple is impossible,” he writes. “You can’t just exclude iPhone users. As for the iPhone users, the costs for consumers to switch from an iPhone to an Android is so high that it qualifies as a monopolistic lock-in,” — citing a study done by Yale University to bolster that claim.

“Now that anti-monopoly investigations against Apple have started in the EU and the US, I expect Apple to double down on spreading such myths,” Durov adds. “We shouldn’t sit idly and let Apple’s lobbyists and PR agents do their thing. At the end of the day, it is up to us – consumers and creators – to defend our rights and to stop monopolists from stealing our money. They may think they have tricked us into a deadlock, because we’ve already bought a critical mass of their devices and created a critical mass of apps for them. But we shouldn’t be giving them a free ride any longer.”

The European Commission declined to comment on Telegram’s complaint.

We also reached out to Apple for comment, but the company also declined to provide an on the record statement regarding Telegram’s complaint. A spokesperson did point to a piece of analyst research, from earlier this year, that found iOS had a market share of 15% versus Android’s 85%. They also flagged a separate analyst report, which looks at commission rates charged by app and digital content stores and marketplaces — suggesting this shows that rates charged for similar types of stores are generally also around 30%.

So the company’s overarching argument against “app tax” complaints continues to be the claim that: A) Apple can’t have monopoly power, given its relatively small mobile OS market share (versus Android); and B) the App Store fee is fair because it’s basically the same as everyone else charges. (On the latter point it’s true Google also takes a 30% cut via the Play Store. However the Android platform lets users sideload apps; whereas, on iOS, users would have to jailbreak their device to get the same level of freedom to freely install apps of their choice).

Apple’s arguments are also now being actively looked into by EU regulators. Last month the Competition Commission announced it’s investigating Apple’s iOS store (and Apple Pay) — saying a preliminary probe of the store had identified concerns related to conditions and restrictions applied by the tech giant.

Specifically vis-à-vis the App Store, the Commission said it’s looking at Apple’s mandatory requirement that developers use its proprietary in-app purchase system, and at restrictions it applies on the ability of developers to inform iPhone and iPad users of alternative cheaper purchasing possibilities outside of the App Store.

The investigation by EU regulators is just the latest in a series of major big tech antitrust probes under the bloc’s current competition chief, Margrethe Vestager — who has also been digging into Amazon and Facebook business practices in recent years, as well as hitting Google with a series of record-breaking antitrust fines.

Over in the U.S., meanwhile, lawmakers are also actively grappling with competition concerns that have long been attached to a number of tech giants — and are being exacerbated by the pandemic concentrating platform power. Apple is one of the tech giants of concern, though not, seemingly, top of U.S. lawmakers’ target list.

Yesterday, a hearing of the House Antitrust Subcommittee took testimony from four big tech CEOs: Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai — with Pichai, Bezos and Zuckerberg getting the most questions from lawmakers.

Cook did face a number of questions around how the company operates the App Store, though — including about the commission it charges developers and a specific line of enquiry on why it had removed rival screen time apps. Asked whether Apple could ever raise its 30% take on app subscriptions Cook sought to sidestep the question, saying the fee had remained unchanged since the launch of the store.

He then followed up by arguing Apple faces huge competition for developers — citing alternatives platforms such as Windows and Xbox as also fiercely vying for developers, and likening the competition to attract developers as akin to “a street fight for market share.”

The contention from complainants like Spotify and Telegram is that Cook’s claim of Apple facing fierce competition for developers’ wares, from its position as the world’s second largest smartphone OS by market share, does not stand up to scrutiny. But it’ll be up to EU regulators to determine how to define the market for smartphone apps and, flowing from that, whether they identify harm or not.

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Imint is the Swedish firm that gives Chinese smartphones an edge in video production – TechCrunch

If your phone takes amazing photos, chances are its camera has been augmented by artificial intelligence embedded in the operating system. Now videos are getting the same treatment.

In recent years, smartphone makers have been gradually transforming their cameras into devices that capture data for AI processing beyond what the lens and sensor pick up in a single shot. That effectively turns a smartphone into a professional camera on auto mode and lowers the bar of capturing compelling images and videos.

In an era of TikTok and vlogging, there’s a huge demand to easily produce professional-looking videos on the go. Like still images, videos shot on smartphones rely not just on the lens and sensor but also on enhancement algorithms. To some extent, those lines of codes are more critical than the hardware, argued Andreas Lifvendahl, founder and chief executive of Swedish company Imint, whose software now enhances video production in roughly 250 million devices — most of which come from Chinese manufacturers.

“[Smartphone makers] source different kinds of camera solutions — motion sensors, gyroscopes, and so on. But the real differentiator, I would say, is more on the software side,” Lifvendahl told TechCrunch over the phone.

Smart video recording

Imint started life in 2007 as a spin-off academic research team from Uppsala University in Sweden. It spent the first few years building software for aerial surveillance, just as many cutting-edge innovations that find their first clients in the defense market. In 2013, Lifvendahl saw the coming of widespread smartphone adaptation and a huge opportunity to bring the same technology used in defense drones into the handsets in people’s pockets.

“Smartphone companies were investing a lot in camera technology and that was a clever move,” he recalled. “It was very hard to find features with a direct relationship to consumers in daily use, and the camera was one of those because people wanted to document their life.”

“But they were missing the point by focusing on megapixels and still images. Consumers wanted to express themselves in a nice fashion of using videos,” the founder added.

Source: Imint’s video enhancement software, Vidhance

The next February, the Swedish founder attended Mobile World Congress in Barcelona to gauge vendor interest. Many exhibitors were, unsurprisingly, Chinese phone makers scouring the conference for partners. They were immediately intrigued by Imint’s solution, and Lifvendahl returned home to set about tweaking his software for smartphones.

“I’ve never met this sort of open attitude to have a look so quickly, a clear signal that something is happening here with smartphones and cameras, and especially videos,” Lifvendahl said.

Vidhance, Imint’s enhancement software suite mainly for Android, was soon released. These days, it can enhance precision, reduce motion, track moving objects, auto-correct horizon, reduce noise, and strengthen other aspects of a video in real-time — all through deep learning.

In search of growth capital, the founder took the startup public on the Stockholm Stock Exchange at the end of 2015. The next year, Imint landed its first major account with Huawei, the Chinese telecoms equipment giant that was playing aggressive catch-up on smartphones at the time.

“It was a turning point for us because once we could work with Huawei, all the other guys thought, ‘Okay, these guys know what they are doing,’” the founder recalled. “And from there, we just grew and grew.”

Working with Chinese clients

The hyper-competitive nature of Chinese phone makers means they are easily sold on new technology that can help them stand out. The flipside is the intensity that comes with competition. The Chinese tech industry is both well-respected — and notorious — for its fast pace. Slow movers can be crushed in a matter of a few months.

“In some aspects, it’s very U.S.-like. It’s very straight to the point and very opportunistic,” Lifvendahl reflected on his experience with Chinese clients. “You can get an offer even in the first or second meeting, like, ‘Okay, this is interesting, if you can show that this works in our next product launch, which is due in three months. Would you set up a contract now?’”

“That’s a good side,” he continued. “The drawback for a Swedish company is the demand they have on suppliers. They want us to go on-site and offer support, and that’s hard for a small Swedish company. So we need to be really efficient, making good tools and have good support systems.”

The fast pace also permeates into the phone makers’ development cycle, which is not always good for innovation, suggested Lifvendahl. They are reacting to market trends, not thinking ahead of the curve — what Apple excels in — or conducting adequate market research.

Despite all the scrambling inside, Lifvendahl said he was surprised that Chinese manufacturers could “get such high-quality phones out.”

“They can launch one flagship, maybe take a weekend break, and then next Monday they are rushing for the next project, which is going to be released in three months. So there’s really no time to plan or prepare. You just dive into a project, so there would be a lot of loose ends that need to be tied up in four or five weeks. You are trying to tie hundreds of different pieces together with fifty different suppliers.”

High-end niche

Imint is one of those companies that thrive by finding a tough-to-crack niche. Competition certainly exists, often coming from large Japanese and Chinese companies. But there’s always a market for a smaller player who focuses on one thing and does it very well. The founder compares his company to a “little niche boutique in the corner, the hi-fi store with expensive speakers.” His competitors, on the other hand, are the Walmarts with thick catalogs of imaging software.

About three-quarters of Imint’s revenues come from licensing its proprietary software that does these tricks. Some clients pay royalties on the number of devices shipped that use Vidhance, while others opt for a flat annual fee. The rest of the income comes from licensing its development tools or SDK, and maintenance fees.

With a staff of around 40, Imint now supplies its software to 20 clients around the world, including the Chinese big-four of Huawei, Xiaomi, Oppo and Vivo as well as chip giants like Qualcomm and Mediatek. ByteDance also has a deal to bake Imint’s software into Smartisan, which sold its core technology to the TikTok parent last year. Imint is beginning to look beyond handsets into other devices that can benefit from high-quality footage, from action cameras, consumer drones, through to body cameras for law enforcement.

So far, the Swedish company has been immune from the U.S.-China trade tensions, but Lifvendahl worried as the two superpowers move towards technological self-reliance, outsiders like itself will have a harder time entering the two respective markets.

“We are in a small, neutral country but also are a small company, so we’re not a strategic threat to anyone. We come in and help solve a puzzle,” assured the founder.

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