Google add device location and remote wipe services to stock Android

Google innovate in every corner of the web, so why is Android Device Manager so late in arriving?

Articles and musings on mobile security seem to pop up daily around the web. Whether hackers have figured out a new method to crack  iPhones, a spate of illegitimate apps have found their way onto Google Play or Microsoft are furiously patching a widely reported vulnerability in Windows, security scares seem to be everywhere and everyone’s got an opinion. Security is definitely one of the biggest buzz words in the tech industry at the moment and with an ever growing amount of people completing more work on their personal devices, be it simple emails and communication, to the possibility of working on company documents, locking down your device has never been more important.

One thing that strikes me as odd then, is how Google, or to put it more correctly ‘stock Android’, hasn’t offered more security functionality for the end user until right now. It’s something that is available on all the competition, be that iOS, Windows Phone or BlackBerry. Each competing operating system has a suite of dedicated device applications and also web apps that allow you to track your device, ring it, message it and if possible hit the big red button to wipe it and clear out any personal data.

Apple have also recently promoted, although probably not as loudly as they should be doing, a feature in the upcoming iOS 7 that will not only wipe a device, but also require the Apple ID and password of the associated account before it can be used again. The actual deterrent this may provide in the ‘real world’ to the magpie like pickpockets attracted to shiny and expensive Apple gadgets is yet to be seen. Also technically speaking, there’s nothing to truly stop the more tech-savvy recipients of such stolen goods in getting round the block and resetting the device ready for resale. However it’s a welcome feature nonetheless, promotes a further air of security and is definitely one worth shouting about, especially if it does create even a mild decline in the theft of Apple devices.

android device managerWhat say you then Google? Until last week, “nothing”, would have seemed to be the answer. Google had had their annual I/O conference, Jelly Bean had undergone another point release update to 4.3 in recent weeks and nothing along these kind of lines was mentioned. Yet, almost out of the blue at the end of last week, the official Android blog posted that this very service, named Android Device Manager, will soon be made available via a web app and supplementary phone app, for all devices on Android 2.2 and over. For a company so steeped in data management, information assurance and software in general, arriving this late to the party seems very strange – is there a reason why?

The answer I think lies in what Android actually is – a basic and lightweight operating system. A free to obtain and compile OS that provides the absolute bare-bones software required to provide an interface for a mobile device. Android itself (stock Android that is, the kind you only get on Nexus devices), has almost nothing installed out of the box. If anyone with a Nexus wants to factory wipe back to stock, they may be surprised at how little there actually is. Without OEM software, a stock Android device is a lot like a clean PC install. Nexus vs. OEM is a bit like buying a bare bones PC from the techy shop on the high street vs. buying an HP laptop from PC World. With this incredibly empty device in your possession, it is then up  to you to install whatever you want to make it work how you wish. This has always been part of the Android ethos, to keep it as lightweight as possible and provide the end user with freedom. Seeing as Android Device Manager is going to be released as a separate service/app, most likely through Google Play with a web service, this continues to still be the case.

HTC, Samsung and others have included OEM solutions for locating and wiping their Android handsets and 3rd party apps are some of the most popular in Google Play. The reason behind Google’s lack of  an official alternative may be the old bugbear of fragmentation. Whatever your thoughts on the phrase, it’s true providing a service that accesses deep features of the device such as a factory reset or ringing / sending messages is made harder with multiple hardware configurations. OEMs know their devices and implementation of Android inside-out so making their own apps is easy. 3rd parties can also afford to make mistakes – customers can contact them if the app doesn’t work as expected on a particular device. Google can’t risk their own apps looking too shoddy; they have to follow their own guidelines to the letter as examples to the rest of the developer world and get it right first time.

google keyboard iconThe final thought of mine is in Google’s recent approach to using Google Play to make their services available separately. For instance Google Keyboard has been available on Google Play as a free download for several months now. This means even if you have an OEM device, you can download the ‘official’ Android keyboard. This has two benefits to the big G; first of all they can make their applications and services updateable outside of actual Android updates, which are often delayed by OEMs and carriers as they tinker with them to their own ends. They can also get hold of more customer data and feedback. As some OEMs strip out Google services to replace them with their own, Google lose that data.

This new approach of separate Google apps and services I believe is a move towards unifying Android. ICS / Jelly Bean has shown that the platform has matured into a stable OS that can work well across devices. Manufacturers are beginning to hold back on their skins somewhat (except Samsung of course) and these separate apps bring core Android functionality to those who may never have experienced it, despite maybe owning Android devices for some time.

This addition may be very late in arriving in the grand scheme of things, hopefully though it marks the start of something new. Android may have begun life as an experiment that has since gone on to take over the mobile world with the help of manufacturers, but perhaps Google are finally beginning to show some interest in the end users of their product.

Android fragmentation visualised

Android Fragmentation Diagrams

Fragmentation is a frequently debated subjected when it comes to Android handsets. There’s huge fragmentation when it comes to both the range of devices available and the version of the operating system that said devices run.

Fragmentation does of course come with its pros and cons, which are outlined in this OpenSignal article which has the accompanying diagrams and their data set. This is a really nice way to visualise the situation and shows just how vast the range of Android handsets is.

Below are screenshots of a couple of the diagrams. There are more available on the OpenSignal website and they’re interactive so be sure to check it out. There are visualisations for brand, device and OS fragmentation, as well as a comparison to the fragmentation of iOS, which is much lower.

Android device fragmentation 2013

Android device fragmentation 2013

[Read more...]

Android 4.3 adds better support for Hebrew and Arabic

Android language support

One of the new features for Android 4.3 that caught our eye was better support for ‘Hebrew, Arabic, and other RTL (right-to-left)’ languages, although what these other RTL languages are is not disclosed on the Google website.

We wouldn’t usually post about an individual feature of an update, but we are often asked about support for these two languages and have many good customers that make use of them.

With Android 4.3 Hebrew and Arabic is supported on the home screen, in settings and can be used in the Phone (dial pad) app and with People and Keep apps.

We should point out that at present the update will only apply to devices that are updated to Android 4.3, but now that it has been built into the stock offering we should start to see it included with manufacturer skins in the near future.

On a similar note, Android has also been translated for Africaans, Amharic (አማርኛ), Hindi (हिंदी), Swahili (Kiswahili), and Zulu (IsiZulu), which are all available in 4.3 Jelly Bean.

Google announces a new version of the Nexus 7

The new Nexus 7

Along with Android 4.3 and the Chromecast, Google has announced a new and improved version of its Nexus 7 tablet for 2013.

Despite its specs being heavily leaked prior to the announcement, one surprise inclusion for the Nexus 7 2013 edition is Qi wireless charging. It’s also 50g lighter than it’s predecessor and the display is also said to be very impressive. Here’s a run through of its other main features/differences and some official videos.

New Nexus 7 [Read more...]

Android 4.3 Rolling Out

Android 4.3 Jelly Bean Announced

Android jelly Bean

As anticipated Google has announced a new update to the Android operating system, bringing it up to version 4.3. It’s a relatively small update by Android standards, but this was to be expected given the wealth of announcements that were made a few months back at Google I/O.

Google has slowed the pace of its updates over the last 12 months and for now Android remains on Jelly Bean so we’ll have to wait a bit longer for the K release. 4.3 will start rolling out to Nexus devices today and will come to the Play editions of the S4 and HTC One shortly. Here’s a look at what’s new:

Android 4.3 Jelly Bean Features

  • Restricted profiles add to the multi-user feature that’s already available on Android tablets (it’s not currently available on smartphones). Restricted profiles are based on a master profile, but enable certain aspects of that profile to be restricted to a new user. For example, in-app purchases can be restricted, as can access to certain apps such as the calendar. This will mainly appeal to parents that want to allow their children to use a handset without granting them full access.
  • Faster switching from one user profile to another
  • Better Gaming. Without going too much into the technical details, Android game developers can now use OpenGL E.S 3.0 which will make for a more powerful and smoother gaming experience for users.
  • Virtual surround sound for an improved experience when playing back videos
  • Bluetooth Smart enables Android devices to connect to low powered Bluetooth devices, such as fitness sensors.
  • Dial Pad autocomplete. Only a small change but a welcome one nonetheless. A contact’s details can now be autocompleted from the dial pad by entering the start of a phone number. Previously autocomplete has only been available when entering the name of a contact.
  • Better text input – an improved algorithm for word recognition when using the on-screen keyboard.
  • Disabled apps tab – check to see which apps have been disabled by going to Settings > Apps
  • Enhanced photo daydream aka screen saver mode has been improved so that you can navigate through interesting albums from the lock screen
  • Language support added for Africaans, Amharic (አማርኛ), Hindi (हिंदी), Swahili (Kiswahili), and Zulu (IsiZulu).
  • Hebrew, Arabic and other right to left languages are now supported on the home screen, in settings and in Phone, People and Keep apps.
  • Setup wizard has been simplified so it’s easier when you set up an Android device for the first time

See the complete list at the official Android website

Stock Android keyboard now available in the Play Store

Official Android keyboard available for download

Google has made the stock Android keyboard, which comes as default with Nexus devices, available to download from the Play Store.

Until the Android keyboard was updated for 4.2 Jelly Bean, there was no contest between the stock offering and the likes of third-party apps such as Swiftkey and Swype. Personally I still prefer Swiftkey as my keyboard of choice, but there’s now little difference to be drawn between that and the stock keyboard.

The stock Android keyboard can be downloaded for free and is compatible with Android 4.0+ devices. SwiftKey is a paid app, but it’s a small investment to make if you do like the keyboard. There is a free version of the app that you can try for a month before buying.

The Google Keyboard can be downloaded here and includes an installation walk-through should you need it.

Google Stock Android Keyboard

Update for Gmail incoming

An updated interface for Gmail on desktop, Android and iOS will begin rolling out in the coming weeks. The new look will split your inbox into different tabs – Primary, Social, Promotions, Updates/Bills/Receipts – to help you better organise your email. 

New Gmail App

The tabs are customisable – you can select which email categories you want to fall under each tab – and can be individually disabled if you so choose. 

Within mobile apps, a swipe across from the left will reveal the sidebar menu, which can then be used to access your different tabs. This new interface is not a replacement, it’s an alternative, so you can switch back to one of the current inbox styles if you prefer. 

The updaed gmail will be rolling out gradually over the next few weeks. If you want to try it on desktop as soon as possible, keep an eye on the settings cog (top right) and then select Configure Inbox once the setting has appeared. 

You may also like to read Five Great Extensions for Gmail post. 

DuoLingo language learning app now available for Android

DuoLingo, the popular language learning app for iOS, has now launched for Android devices.

DuoLingo currently offers lessons for learning Spanish, German, French, Portugese and Italian. English can also be learned with Spanish, French, Italian or Portuguese as the base language. 

One of the main reasons for DuoLingo’s popularity on iOS is the way in which it gamifies the learning experience. The service is completely free and features no ads; it makes its money by providing a translation service, which is powered by its users. 

DuaLingo App

Interestingly, the creator of DuoLingo, Luis von Ahn, is the guy who created ReCAPTCHA, which helps to digitize books.  There’s a good TED Talk here that explains the business model for ReCAPTCHA and DuoLingo. It’s a funny presentation – we’ve all seen an inappropriate CAPTCHA or two. 

DuoLingo is currently available for Android smartphones with a tablet version of the app due to launch very soon.  

Google Calendar updated for Android

There is now an update live in the Play Store for Google Calendar, which brings colour coding for events and calendars, plus a new interface for choosing appointment dates and times.

If you make use of several different calendars, the easiest way to tell them apart is by assigning different colours to them. Previously it’s only been possible to do this using the desktop interface. The update also enables you to change the colour of individual events rather than using the colour assigned to that calendar. 

New Google Calendar

When adding a new event it’s now easier to pick a time and date. Clicking into an event’s time will bring up the interface shown above, which is much less fiddly than the old way of doing things. There’s also a new timezone picker and the process for scheduling recurring appointments has been simplified. 

Google Calendar Update

Google is steadily rolling out updates to many of its apps, having announced several improvements at Google I/O. It’s also just revealed that a new interface for gmail will be rolling out over the next few weeks.  

New phone software–download the features we want?

Unless you have been disconnected from the internet over the last few weeks you can not have failed to have noticed that Samsung have taken a serious barrage of comments regarding the memory or lack of usable memory on the Samsung Galaxy S4.

Whilst they are not alone in the way they report memory, they are perhaps the biggest culprits for excessive use of the available storage.

I currently have an S4 and after installing all my apps (no games) i have around 600MB left.  Thankfully I stream my music, but I do not have any room for the music to be stored in offline mode Sad smile.

Anyway, this has got me thinking…

Why when Samsung (and equivalents) announce cool features, why can we not download them as individual elements that can be installed at the users discretion?

This way if you wanted only 1 of the 30 features you will use less memory than installing all 30 that come currently pre-installed on the phone.

For example, I do not use S-Voice for anything other than the camera.  I have the other elements turned off, so can I remove these other elements?! It has been documented how you can speed up the home button by turning off S-Voice.  But for me I must have S-Voice on because I want to use it within the camera.

I do not use Smart Screen at all. It is doing no harm in the settings, but it must be eating up some memory.

Capture_20130520_164213

There is a very strong argument that you should just opt for stock Android and then customise it with apps.  However this does not appeal to all and I have to say even as a more seasoned Android user, I like some of the Samsung features.

When we consider the wider mass market, your mum who has an Android phone wouldn’t even contemplate some features or adding them onto a stock Android handset. Samsung put them there for convenience thus there is a lot of appeal.

So why not have any of it installed as standard.  Upon initial start-up explain what can be downloaded and then allow users to download the bits they want. Hey presto, everyone gets what they want.

The obvious advantage here would be the ability to customise your phone more than you can now.  Yes, we can turn features on or off, but if you never use some features they sit in the background chewing up memory etc.

However, I think currently there are too many disadvantages from the eyes of the manufacturer.

It isn’t that simple just to add and remove bits of software as it all ties in and is fundamental to the phone in many cases.

There is the potential for even greater fragmentation of devices making it more difficult for support.

Certain great features would be overlooked by the mass market reducing the chance of success for the handset in global sales; but maybe we could reverse the idea and uninstall bits?!

My knowledge is software how it integrates to the hardware not to mention the possibility of the above is limited; but what I do know is many apps can be downloaded and installed onto phones to take a stock feel to a heavily customised and much more powerful solution like a Samsung Galaxy, so it must be nearly possible.

Samsung with their ever-growing size and power, not to mention cash reserves could be the ones to pioneer this approach and satisfy almost all users don’t you think?

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