Microsoft may have retreated from the smartphone operating system wars but that doesn’t mean it has given up on trying to get a foothold on other platforms. Today, at its Build developer conference, the company announced three new services that bring its overall cross-platform strategy into focus. On Android, the company’s Trojan Horse has long been the Microsoft Launcher, which is getting support for the Windows Timeline feature. In addition to that, Microsoft also today announced the new “Your Phone” experience that lets Windows Users answer text messages right from their desktops, share photos from their phones and see and respond to notifications (though that name, we understand, is not final and may still change). The other cornerstone of this approach is the Edge browser, which will soon become the home of Timeline on iOS, where Microsoft can’t offer a launcher-like experience. There are a couple of things to unpack here. Central to the overall strategy is Timeline, a new feature that launched with the latest Windows 10 update and that allows users to see what they last worked on and which sites they recently browsed and then move between devices to pick up where they left off. For Timeline to fulfill its promise, developers have to support it and as of now, it’s mostly Microsoft’s own apps that will show up in the Timeline, making it only marginally interesting. Given enough surfaces to highlight this feature, though, developers will likely want to implement it — and since doing so doesn’t take a ton of work, chances are quite a few third-party applications will soon support it. On Android, the Microsoft Launcher will soon support Timeline for cross-device application launching. This means that if you are working on a document in Word on your desktop, you’ll see that document in your Timeline on Android and you’ll be able to continue working on it in the Word Android app with a single tap. Kevin Gallo, Microsoft’s head of the Windows developer platform, tells me that if you don’t have the right app installed yet, the Launcher will help you find it in the Google Play store. With this update, Microsoft is also giving enterprises more reasons to install the Launcher. IT admins can now manage the Launcher and control what applications show up there. On iOS, Microsoft’s home for the Timeline will be the Edge browser. I’d be surprised if Microsoft didn’t decide to launch a stand-alone Timeline app at some point in the future. It probably wants to encourage more use of Edge on iOS right now, but in the long run, I’m not sure that’s the right strategy. The new Your Phone service is another part of the strategy (though outside of Timeline) and its focus is on both consumers and business users (though there is often no clear line between those anyway). This new feature will start rolling out in the Windows Insider Program soon and it’ll basically replicate some of the functionality that you may be familiar with from apps like Pushbullet. Besides mirroring notifications and allowing you to respond to text messages, it’ll also allow you to move photos between your phone and Windows 10 machines. Oddly, Microsoft doesn’t mention other file types in its materials, though it’ll likely support those, too. Going forward, we’ll likely see Microsoft embrace a wider range of these experiences as it looks to extend its reach into third-party platforms like Android.
The first thing to understand about media sharing app RapChat is that co-founder Seth Miller is not a rapper and his friend, Pat Gibson, is. Together they created RapChat, a service for making and sharing raps, and the conjunction of rapper and nerd seems to be really taking off. Since we last looked at the app in 2016 (you can see Tito’s review below), a lot has changed. The team has raised $1.6 million in funding from investors out of Oakland and the midwest. Their app, which is sort of a musical.ly for rap, is a top 50 music app on iOS and Android and hit 100 million listens since launch. In short, their little social network/sharing platform is a “millionaire in the making, boss of [its] team, bringin home the bacon.” The pair’s rap bonafides are genuine. Gibson has opened or performed with with Big Sean, Wiz Khalifa, and Machine Gun Kelly and he’s sold beats to MTV. “My music has garnered over 20M+ plays across YouTube, SoundCloud and more,” he wrote me, boasting in the semi-churlish manner of a rapper with a “beef.” Miller, on the other hand, likes to freestyle. “I grew up loving to freestyle with friends at OU and I noticed lots of other millennials did this too (even if most suck lol) … at any party at 3am – there would always be a group of people in the corner freestyling,” he said. “At the same time Snapchat was blowing up on campus and just thought you should be able to do the same exact thing for rap.” Gibson, on the other hand, saw it as a serious tool to help him with his music. “I spent a lot of time, energy and resources making music,” he said. “I was producing the beats, writing the songs, recording/mixing the vocals, mastering the project, then distributing & promoting the music all by myself. With Rapchat, there’s a library of 1,000+ beats from top producers, an instant recording studio in your pocket, and the network to distribute your music worldwide and be discovered…. all from a free app. Rapchat is disrupting the creation, collaboration, distribution, & discovery of music via mobile “We have a much bigger but also more active community than any other music creation app,” said Miller. While it’s clear the wold needs another sharing platform like it needs a hole in the head, thanks to a rabid fanbase and a great idea the team has ensured that RapChat is not, as they say, wicka-wicka-whack. That, in the end, is all that matters.
Peris Kimeli and Betsy Cheruyot were students at Kenyatta University thinking about launching a business when they applied for their first loans from the mobile lending company, Tala. Hoping to get a clothing business off the ground and make some money to live on while going to school, the two young Kenyans downloaded the Tala mobile app, and within minutes received loans totaling about $15. “Between us and poverty, we had about 200 shillings,” Kimeli said of her early days starting their business. “We were like, what are we going to eat? Our parents said, ‘No. We’re not going to send money… You go figure it out’ So we went and we did that.” Kimeli and Cheruyot took that $15 loan and went to Nairobi’s famous secondhand market, Gikomba, where they bought 15 dresses at 100 shillings each and resold them in dorms and hostels for 200 shillings. “Two remained, but we had no problem — since we could keep them, we could wear them. By the end of the month, we had 7000 [shillings],” Kimeli said. “We borrowed again — this time we borrowed 3000 [shillings] — we went out and bought some more dresses, and that’s how we’ve been.” Peris Kimeli and Betsy Cheruyot in Nairobi. Photo courtesy of Tala Similar stories are playing out in cities across the world — in countries like India, Mexico, the Philippines and Tanzania — all because of Tala, a young, Santa Monica, Calif.-based, financial services startup. Now in its fourth year, Tala has already distributed around $300 million in loans to 1.3 million borrowers like Kimeli. The company plans to continue expanding its geographical reach and range of financial services, thanks in part to $65 million in new financing from billionaire backed investment funds like Steve Case’s Revolution Growth fund. “We see Tala as a company building the future of finance. They have quickly become one of the leading mobile-first lenders in emerging markets where well over 3 billion consumers do not have access to traditional banks,” says Case. Shivani Siroya, the founder and chief executive officer at Tala, knows just how important — and transformational — outside investment can be for individuals in emerging markets. Siroya was introduced to the power of financial independence working with the United Nations Population Fund. “I ended up interviewing 3500 people, in person, across nine different countries,” Siroya says. “What I did was go to their homes with them. Walk with them to work and sit there in the back of their stores and tally how many customers came in and how many products they sold. How much money goes under the mattress and how much oney goes to allowances… These individuals are hard-working and they are credit worthy, but you couldn’t lend to them because they couldn’t be documented.” Siroya launched Tala in March 2014 to create a mechanism for providing credit scores to financial institutions so that these undocumented women could get the loans they needed to become financially independent and entrepreneurial, she says. What Tala’s founder quickly realized was that the easiest way to create credit scores that other financial institutions would recognize would be for Tala to start issuing loans itself. The app — available for download on Android devices — works by collecting data on texts and calls, merchant transactions, overall app usage, and personal identifiers on a mobile phone to create an instantaneous profile of its potential borrowers. Customers simply download the app, apply for a loan and receive a decision in seconds. Most Tala borrowers, actually receive their credit in less than 10 minutes. Shivani Siroya (Tala CEO) at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2017 Siroya started Tala’s lending in Kenya — in part because of the robust mobile payment infrastructure that exists in the country — before eventually expanding to the Philippines and then Tanzania. By the end of last year Tala had added operations in Mexico and India to span more geographies than any of the other unsecured mobile lenders in the market. The company boasts 215 employees across offices in Santa Monica, Nairobi, Dar Es Salaam, Manila, Mexico City, Mumbai, and Bangalore. Tala typically lends around $70 to its borrowers, but loans range from $10 on the low end to $500 at the high end. “The point of credit is leveraging your income to improve your quality of life,” Siroya says. Lower loan sizes could mean a product that’s geared more towards consumption than towards leveraging a product to invest for economic stability, she says. “We want to start at $10, because we realize that 70% of our customers are using this for working capital. They’re small business owners. That’s really the gap in the market,” says Siroya. Tala’s borrowers are usually paying back the loans within 30 days and the company charges a 11% to 15% interest on the money it disburses. The company raised its first capital in 2013 from Lowercase Capital, Google Ventures, and Collaborative Fund. With the new financing, led by Revolution, Siroya now has $50 million in equity to match another $11 million in credit facilities. In all, the company has raised $94 million in equity across three rounds. Steve Murray, a managing partner of Revolution Growth — and former director on the board of business lending startup Kabbage — will be joining Tala’s board of directors with the latest round. Previous investors, including the growth investment firm IVP, Data Collective, Lowercase Capital, Ribbit Capital, and Female Founders Fund, also participated in Tala’s latest financing. “We have been fortunate to invest in Twitter and Dropbox and a lot of other companies. but when I think about the companies that we have had the opportunity to back that will have the greatest impact on the world, Tala is certainly one of them,” says IVP general partner, Jules Maltz. “That’s because it has the opportunity to reach the 2 billion people who are unbanked and don’t have access to financial products.” Those 2 billion include thousands just like Nairobi’s budding new entrepreneurs, Kimeli and Cheruyot. “I believe in the magic of taking risks and new beginnings,” says Kimeli. “If we hadn’t began on that day, we could have just been desperate now. As in, we might not have a place to eat, maybe. It’s good to take risks, to start something new.”
Yesterday was a rough one for ZTE. A year after pleading guilty to violating sanctions with Iran and North Korea, the U.S. Department of Commerce brought the hammer down and announced a seven-year export restriction on goods sporting U.S. components. That applies to more than a quarter of the components used in the company’s telecom equipment and mobile devices, according to estimates, including some big names like Qualcomm. The list may well also include Google licenses, a core part of the company’s Android handsets. According to a Bloomberg unnamed source, ZTE is evaluating its mobile operating system options as its lawyers meet with Google officials. Many of the internal components can be replaced by non-U.S. companies. ZTE can likely lean more heavily on fellow Chinese manufacturers to provide more of the product’s internals, but it’s hard to see precisely where it goes from here with regard to an operating system. There’s an extremely small smattering of alternatives open to the company, but none are great. Each would essentially involve the company working to build things, including app selections, from the ground up — and likely play a much more central role in the OS’s development. As for Google’s role in all of this, ZTE certainly isn’t make or break for Android’s fortunes. Still, it’s a pretty sizable presence. As of late last year, it commanded 12.2 percent of U.S. market share, putting it in fourth place behind Apple, Samsung and LG. It’s certainly in Google’s best interest to maintain as many prominent hardware partners as possible — though, not if it comes with the added risk of upsetting the DOC in the process.
Android Auto — Google’s system for powering your car’s dash display from your phone, and the company’s answer to Apple’s CarPlay — is going wireless. You can leave your phone in your bag, and it’ll still be able to push your apps and content to your in-dash screen. Alas, there’s a catch: to get it all working wirelessly at this point, you’ll need to have some pretty specific gear. You’ll need the right phone (Pixel or Pixel XL, Pixel 2 or Pixel 2 XL, Nexus 5X, or Nexus 6P) and the right head unit — and for now, that means one of just a handful of units announced by JVC/Kenwood earlier this year. The list of compatible devices will grow in time (Google says to expect more “this year”) — but if you want wireless right this second, the options are quite limited.
Barring any sort of major shakeup at Google’s mobile division, there are two things we know for sure about the next Android’s name: it will start with the letter “P” and it will be a dessert food. That already narrows things down quite a bit — you’ve got pudding, pecan pie, peanut brittle… Then, of course, there’s Popsicle — a fact the company might well be alluding to in its new Spring Wallpaper Collection. 9to5Google noted a colorful array of frozen confections in amongst the selections. Granted, it’s not thematically too far from the rest of the outdoor, sunshine-themed offerings. Google’s never shied away from such cheeky suggestions — and it’s certainly teased us before, including in the lead up to Oreo. Though that could just as easily mean it’s a bit of a red herring — remember Android Pocky? It’s worth noting that Popsicle is, in fact, still a trademarked name — like Kleenex and Xerox and Frisbee. Of course, that hasn’t stopped Google in the past. See such recent examples as Kit-Kat and Oreo. And while Popsicle-owner Unilever has flexed its muscles maintaining its ownership of the name, it’s hard to imagine a better/cheaper promotion than stamping your name across the latest build of the world’s most popular mobile operating system. There is, of course, the issue of the fact that the Popsicle name isn’t as globally synonymous with the ice pop as it is here in the States. You may know it, perhaps, as an ice lolly, ice block or ice drop, depending on where you happen to be reading this. Whatever the case, Google’s probably just happy that we’re talking about it at all.
For all the good of Android’s open-source approach, one of the clear and consistent downsides is that the onus to issue software updates falls on the manufacturer. That can mean frustration for those waiting for the latest and greatest feature updates — and in some cases, it can put your phone at risk with delayed or missed security updates. A pair of researchers at Security Research Labs recently shared a study with Wired highlighting some of these risks. The team’s findings are the result of testing 1,200 Android handsets from all the major manufacturers over the course of two years, examining whether manufacturers had offered the security patches as advertised. According to SRL, missed security patches were discovered on a wide range of different handsets across manufacturers. Sony and Samsung were both flagged as having missed some security patches — in some cases in spite of reporting that they were up to date. “It’s almost impossible for the user to know which patches are actually installed,” one of the researchers told the site. Xiaomi, Nokia, HTC, Motorola and LG all made the list, as well, while TCL and ZTE fared the worst in the study, with, on average, not having installed more than four of the patches they claimed to have installed on a given device. In a statement provided to TechCrunch, Google pointed to the importance of various different means used to secure the Android ecosystem. The company believes that the SRL findings might not tell the full story when it comes to keeping devices secure. “We would like to thank Karsten Nohl and Jakob Kell for their continued efforts to reinforce the security of the Android ecosystem,” the company writes. “We’re working with them to improve their detection mechanisms to account for situations where a device uses an alternate security update instead of the Google suggested security update. Security updates are one of many layers used to protect Android devices and users. Built-in platform protections, such as application sandboxing, and security services, such as Google Play Protect, are just as important. These layers of security—combined with the tremendous diversity of the Android ecosystem—contribute to the researchers’ conclusions that remote exploitation of Android devices remains challenging.” The company also pointed us to this year in review post, which sheds a bit more light on the matter.
I recently received a review unit of the Embrace Smart Mirror. It’s essentially a 24-inch Android tablet mounted behind a roughly 40-inch mirror. It works well when third-party software is installed. Here’s what I learned. It’s impossible to get a good photo of the smart mirror I tried a tripod, a selfie stick and every possible angle and I couldn’t get a picture that does this mirror justice. It looks better in person than these photos show. When the light in the bathroom is on, the text on the mirror appears to float on the surface. It looks great. The time is nice and large, and the data below it is accessible when standing a few feet away. When the room is dark, the Android device’s screen’s revealed because it can’t reach real black. The screen behind the mirror glows gray. This isn’t a big deal. The Android device turns off after a period of inactivity and is often triggered when the light to the bathroom is turned on. More times than not, people walking into the room will be greeted with a standard mirror until the light is turned on. There are a handful of smart mirror apps, but few are worthwhile This smart mirror didn’t ship with any software outside of Android. That’s a bummer, but not a deal-breaker. There are several smart mirror Android apps in the Play Store, though I only found one I like. I settled on Mirror Mirror (get it) because the interface is clean, uses pleasant fonts and there’s just enough customization, though it would be nice to select different locations for the data modules. The app was last updated in July of 2017, so use at your own risk. Another similar option is this software developed by Max Braun, a robotistic at Google’s X. His smart mirror was a hit in 2016, and he included instructions on how to build it here and uploaded the software to GitHub here. Kids love it I have great kids that grew up around technology. Nothing impresses these jerks, though, and that’s my fault. But they like this smart mirror. They won’t stop touching it, leaving fingerprints all over it. They quickly figured out how to exit the mirror software and download a bunch of games to the device. I’ve walked in on both kids huddled in the dark bathroom playing games and watching YouTube, instead, of you know, playing games or watching YouTube on the countless other devices in the house. That’s the point of the device, though. The company that makes this model advertises it as a way to get YouTube in the bathrooms so a person can apply their makeup while watching beauty YouTubers. It works for that, too. There is just a tiny bit of latency when pressing on the screen through the mirror. This device isn’t as quick to use as a new Android tablet, but because it’s sealed in a way to keep out moisture, it’s safe to go in a steamy bathroom. Adults will find it frivolous I have a lot of gadgets in my house, and my friends are used to it. Their reaction to this smart mirror has been much different from any other device, though. “What the hell is this, Matt,” they’ll say from behind the closed bathroom door. I’ll yell back, “It’s a smart mirror.” They flush the toilet, walk out and give me the biggest eye roll. I’ve yet to have an adult say anything nice about this mirror. It is frivolous A smart mirror is a silly gadget. To some degree, it’s a crowd-pleaser, but in the end, it’s just another gadget to tell you the weather. It collects fingerprints like mad, and the Android screen isn’t bright enough to use it as a regular video viewer or incognito TV. As for this particular smart mirror, the Embrace Smart Mirror, the hardware is solid but doesn’t include any smart mirror software. The Mirror is rather thin and easily hangs on a wall thanks to a VESA port. There are physical controls hidden along the bottom of the unit, including a switch to manually turn off the camera. It’s certified IP65, so it can handle a bathroom. A motion detector does a good job turning the device on. If you don’t have kids, it should stay smudge-free. The Embrace Smart Mirror does not ship with any smart mirror software. The instructions and videos tell users to add widgets to the Android home screen. This doesn’t work for me, and I expect a product such as this to include at least necessary software. Right now, after this product is taken out of the box, it’s just an Android tablet behind a mirror, and that’s lame. Thankfully there are a couple of free apps on the Play Store to remedy this problem. At $1,299, the Embrace Smart Mirror is a hard sell, but is among the cheapest available smart mirrors on the market. Of course, you can always build one yourself — as The Verge points out, it’s rather easy.
Google Play Audiobooks is getting a major update today that adds a number of new features to the service that were sorely missing when it launched earlier this year. None of these are groundbreaking, but they’ll help Google reach feature parity with some of its competitors while injecting a bit of its proprietary smarts into the process, too. Maybe the most useful new feature in today’s release is Smart Resume. Instead of picking up in the middle of a sentence or even word when your audiobook playback gets interrupted (maybe by Google Maps giving you directions or a friendly passerby who is asking for directions while you are clearly listening to an audiobook). Depending on the length of the interruption, this new feature will smartly rewind to the beginning of the word or sentence to help you stay in the flow. Also new in this update are the ability to set bookmarks so you can easily go back to your favorite part of a book and the ability to speed up the audio — or slow it down so you can really savor your favorite passage in Ulysses. Both of these features were definitely missing in the first release. If you’re a regular Google Assistant user and are already making use of the recently launched Routines feature, you’ll be happy to hear that you can now choose to continue your audiobooks when you wake up or start your commute. And if you have family that’s spread around the world, you’ll be happy to hear that support for Google’s Family Library, which allows you to share Google Play purchases like apps, games, movies, e-books and audiobooks, is now rolling out in 13 new countries: Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Russia, Spain, Switzerland, Chile, Mexico, Japan (audiobooks only) and South Africa. All of these new features are now available on iOS and Android.
Public places may soon be filled with secret pieces of art unlocked by looking through the lens of AR, if Artopia’s cheerily creative app catches on. It essentially lets you geocache your 3D scribbles so anyone else can find, appreciate, and share them. Artopia, currently in beta for Android and iOS, is a straightforward combination of AR painting and real world discovery. You make your art by selecting brushes, colors, and so on and moving your phone as you would the brush. Grab objects and move them around, attach them, etc. When you’re done, save it and its precise location is saved to Artopia’s service. Now anyone passing by will be able to see it (a map shows nearby creations) and who made it, give it a like, and maybe draw some complementary work nearby. It’s simple (in concept, not in execution), but also a thoroughly pleasant and natural combo. Of course, there will also be a report button in case someone draws a fence of phalluses around your house (for example), and the usual caveats of crowd-sourced content and moderation apply. Artopia was created by Kuwaiti developer Omar Khalil, so the density of art might be a bit higher around the American University of Kuwait. But if this sounds like something you’re into, apply to get into the beta and start filling the parks and streets around your neighborhood with color and shape.