Google announces ‘Fi’ wireless service plans with pay-as-you-go data rates

Google HQ
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As expected, Google announced today that it’s getting into the business of selling consumer wireless service.

Google is now a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), selling cellular service that runs on T-Mobile and Sprint infrastructure. The new service will be available only on the Google-designed Nexus 6 phones for the time being, however.

Google’s service will be governed by software that allows connections to alternate between the Sprint and T-Mobile networks, depending on which has the strongest signal at a particular time and place. This software approach is increasingly being used by carriers to maximize the network capacity and speed derived from limited spectrum resources.

Above: The new wireless service will be available only on Google’s Nexus 6 phones.

Wi-Fi networks, Google says, will be used to route both voice and data service, which could reduce network congestion and help keep prices low.

Sprint and T-Mobile are the national carriers that have the least to lose from letting Google use their networks — and possibly take some of their subscribers — as the two have long trailed far behind market leaders AT&T and Verizon by subscriber count. Unfortunately the T-Mobile and Sprint networks don’t have the reach and tower density that the AT&T and Verizon networks do.

A report in the Wall Street Journal Tuesday said the service would be announced today, and that the move would “inject fresh uncertainty into a wireless industry already locked in a price war.” Many wireless consumers might wonder what “price war” the Journal is referring to, as most individual subscribers still pay around $75 per month for service.

Analysts don’t believe that the Google service will become available to, or practical for, enough consumers to pose any immediate threat to the market positions of AT&T and Verizon.

Reports of Google’s MVNO aspirations originally surfaced in February. Google’s Android chief Sundar Pichai referenced the initiative for the first time publicly during a keynote address at Mobile World Congress in early March. But he gave no details on the service or when it would become available.

Google’s end game in selling wireless service might be similar to its end game in selling its super-fast fiber broadband in select markets: It likely aims to apply pressure to market incumbents (AT&T and Verizon) to lower prices, improve service, and make terms more subscriber-friendly. This, of course, would give more people access to the wireless broadband that serves Google apps and services.

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WhatsApp voice calling now available on iOS

WhatsApp logos
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WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messaging service with 800 million users, now supports voice calling on iOS.

Already, the service had allowed Android users to make voice calls, but until now, those on iOS had to wait.

At F8, Facebook’s developers conference last month, WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton said that the functionality was coming in a “couple weeks,” although when asked directly by VentureBeat, he said it would be more like “several” weeks. In the end, it worked out to about four weeks.

During an F8 panel, Acton said WhatsApp had spent the last year refining and iterating voice calling before launching it on Android. To date, there had been ways to use the voice calling feature on iOS, and screenshots of the implementation had circulated, but it required a jailbroken iPhone. Now, everyone with one of Apple’s mobile devices will be able to make calls to each other via WhatsApp, although the feature will be rolled out slowly over the coming weeks.

On iTunes, WhatsApp wrote — in official app update release language — that calls made via the service “use your phone’s Internet connection rather than your cellular plan’s voice minutes.” That means users may incur data charges, but won’t have to utilize their carrier minutes.

 

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Gaming’s top 25 public companies generated $54.1B in revenue last year

All of these people are desperate to give Riot and its parent company Tencent more money.
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Gaming, it turns out, is a good way to add a few billion dollars to your bottom line.

In 2014, the top 25 public companies in the game industry made $54.1 billion in revenues, according to research-firm Newzoo. That’s up 10.4 percent year over year, and that growth comes from nearly all sectors that make up the gaming market. This is indicative of an industry that is healthy and expanding in several different ways — although nothing is growing as fast as mobile. These 25 public companies actually made up 65 percent of the $83.6 billion game market.

Tencent, the owner of developer Riot Games and its free-to-play mega-popular multiplayer online arena battler League of Legends, led all companies. Sony, Microsoft, EA, and Activision followed behind to round out the top five. In terms of mobile, Apple, Google, and Candy Crush Saga publisher King led the bottom half of the top 10. Publishers Nintendo and Ubisoft followed at No. 9 and No. 10, respectively.

Going back to Tencent, not only did it top the list with $7.2 billion in gaming revenues (according to Newzoo estimates), but it also had the second largest growth at 37 percent year over year. Only Google, which grew from $1.4 billion in 2013 to $2.6 billion, is expanding faster at 89 percent.

Newzoo_Top10_Public_Companies_Game_Revenues_FY2014_v2

The above chart shows how the representation breaks down among the various kinds of gaming companies. Tencent is tops with its huge free-to-play PC games that are enormously popular in both established and emerging markets. Traditional gaming companies like Sony, Microsoft, and EA still make up the bulk of the spending, but mobile — led by Apple, Google, and King — is growing at a huge rate.

Only social games from companies like Zynga and Facebook have failed to crack the top 10, and that’s also the big gaming sector that is shrinking. The growth of mobile games suggests that casual spending has shifted from the Web to smartphones.

Beyond where gamers are playing, Newzoo also provided some insight about one of the places games come from. The research firm noted that Japan, which accounted for nearly 34 percent of all revenues in 2013 among the top 25 public companies, only made up around 30 percent in 2014. And that decline comes despite Sony’s 27 percent year over year growth to $6 billion in revenues.

“Without Sony, the numbers would have looked much worse,” reads the Newzoo report. “Tellingly, nine out of the 16 publicly listed Japanese companies reported a year on year decline in revenues in 2014.”

That could change in 2015 as Nintendo, one of the major Japanese game publishers, starts embracing mobile.

Newzoo has even more about this data in its most recent report, which you can find here.

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Hackers allegedly bring Microsoft’s Cortana to Android

Paisha Coffey as Cortana
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An Italian group of hackers calling themselves OrangeSec claim to have “ported” Microsoft’s Cortana digital assistant to Android. They affectionately named their creation “Portaña.”

There are some limitations. Portaña apparently only speaks Italian. It also doesn’t work offline.

The reason for the latter comes down to the fact Portaña is apparently communicating with Microsoft’s servers, and it’s not a strict port: the hackers have not recreated all the digital assistant’s features. Portaña naturally can’t interface and integrate with Android and its various features like Cortana does with Windows Phone.

OrangeSec merely leveraged Cortana’s backend to create a basic, but functional, Android assistant:

The group could try to expand Portaña’s feature set, but this looks more like a creation by fans eagerly awaiting an official release. They want to show what’s possible with a little work, not create a competitor.

When we asked Microsoft about Portaña, the company was careful not to reference it specifically.

“Cortana was first available for our Windows Phone customers in Spring of 2014, and we announced on January 21 that Cortana will come to PC and tablets later this year with the release of Windows 10,” a Microsoft spokesperson told VentureBeat. “We believe the best way to enjoy the full Cortana experience is as designed by Microsoft and available through Windows Phone and the Windows 10 technical preview.”

In other words, “Portaña is cool and all, but it’s no Cortana.”

There have been multiple rumors suggesting that Microsoft is planning to bring Cortana to third-party platforms, in particular Android and iOS. While the company hasn’t officially confirmed the plan, reports continue to suggest it’s in the pipeline, though the expected timeframe is unknown.

Still, this alleged hack shows that there is excitement surrounding Cortana, Microsoft’s answer to Google Now and Apple’s Siri. If and when Microsoft brings Cortana to other operating systems, it will be a first for a digital assistant from a major tech company.

For now though, the bigger test for Cortana will be Windows 10 on PCs. If the digital assistant becomes popular on the desktops of Android and iOS users, they will be much more interested in trying it out on their mobile devices.

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Forced Encryption Rendering Nexus Devices Useless

I have a Nexus 9 and a Nexus 6, both running Android Lollipop 5.01. Almost immediately I noticed that there was a lot of lag in the UI and performance was generally slow. After doing a lot of research it appears that forced encryption in 5.0x is a huge performance drag on hardware that would otherwise be quite snappy.

Lollipop 5.1 is rumored to be available but despite being on Nexus devices I have not received OTA updates (Verizon for the 6, T-Mobile for the 9). I can sideload 5.1 on the 6 but there is not image available as of yet for the Nexus 9.

While this feature is well intentioned, the fact remains that it should never have gone into production with the enormous performance penalty it imposes. Furthermore, Google knows of the issue and has removed the forced requirement but has not yet made a fix available to those devices that already have it.

As much as I like the Nexus hardware, I would not recommend buying any Nexus device until Google disables encryption.

You can now Google your lost Android phone

Google sign Carlos Luna Flickr
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Despite all its efforts in various markets, Google is still primarily a search company. So the fact that you can now use the search engine on your desktop computer to find your lost phone is really just business as usual.

If you’ve lost your Android phone, there is still an important requirement: You need to know where your computer is. The company also emphasizes you need the latest version of its main Android app for this to work. Once you’ve updated, just type in “find my phone” and let Google do what Google does best.

Google doesn’t explain the feature in depth, but we presume you also have to be signed in to Google for this feature to work. Here it is in action:

google_my_phone

If your phone is nearby, Google can ring it for you. If it’s further away, Google will show you it on a map.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because Google introduced a tool called Android Device Manager in August 2013. The website and app can find lost phones and tablets (running Android 2.2 Froyo and above) by ringing them or showing them on a map.

If, for whatever reason, your device cannot be found or retrieved, Android Device Manager also lets you securely erase all of the data on your device. This ensures your data doesn’t end up in the wrong hands.

Last month, Google brought this finding functionality to Android Wear and revealed that since launching the service, Android Device Manager has helped reunite almost 30 million users with their phones and tablets.

As we pointed out then, that’s not a huge number given that Android has over a billion users, but it’s still a sizable group. It’s a bit surprising that the company added Android Wear support before rolling out the feature to its main website. Still, now that it has, we almost can’t wait to lose our phone.

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BitTorrent and uTorrent apps for Android, iOS, and Windows Phone pass 100M downloads

BitTorrent headquarters in San Francisco.
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BitTorrent today announced an impressive milestone: 100 million mobile downloads, and counting, for its Android, iOS, and Windows Phone apps. The last milestone shared was 40 million, a figure crossed in November 2013, meaning downloads have more than doubled in under two years.

BitTorrent has a total of six mobile offerings: uTorrent/BitTorrent for Android, uTorrent/BitTorrent Remote for Android, uTorrent Remote for iOS (Web app), and uTorrent Remote for Windows Phone. While the company wouldn’t provided a breakdown when we asked, a BitTorrent spokesperson confirmed “the largest by far is the Android platform.”

This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Android is the only platform on which the company offers full-fledged clients (no computer required) as opposed to just Remote apps (for controlling a torrent client on your computer).

There are many BitTorrent clients and BitTorrent remote clients for iOS, but Apple doesn’t let any of them into its App Store. BitTorrent has yet to announce a proper Windows Phone app, and there is no indication that will change anytime soon. With Windows 10 coming this summer, many are certainly hoping.

To celebrate the 100 million download milestone, BitTorrent today updated its main Android app with a version 3.0 release. You can download it now from Google Play.

bittorrent_30_android

The biggest addition is integrated music and video players along with music and video libraries to help you find and play the media you have on your mobile device. The media player features a play queue and is also very easily accessible: just swipe left.

In its announcement, BitTorrent saved the best for last: the biggest improvement is the torrent core, which features download performance improvements, improved stability, and faster handling of magnet link data. “The result is a smoother, faster, more beautiful way to use BitTorrent on mobile devices,” BitTorrent said.

BitTorrent is experimenting a lot with its various offerings, so it’s nice to see the company still releasing updates for its core products. It’s certainly appreciated: 100 million mobile downloads is nothing to scoff at.

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Alcatel OneTouch SmartWatch looks smart for the price

Alcatel-OneTouch-Watch-hero
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I’m not sure if it makes a whole lot of sense to launch a new smartwatch at the moment, given the understandable excitement over Apple’s Watch launch. Yet that’s exactly what Alcatel is doing with their new OneTouch Watch, which is available for preorder now, for $149, and starts shipping later this month.

The OneTouch Watch is the first smartwatch from Alcatel and joins a small lineup of gadgets that includes smartphones and tablets aimed at the price-conscious unlocked market. Unlike similar-looking watches from LG and Samsung that are based on the Android Wear OS (and which only sync with Android phones), the OneTouch Watch uses proprietary software that can be synced with either Android or iOS via Bluetooth, using Alcatel’s free OneTouch Move app. It also distinguishes itself by being one of the few smartwatches to offer a built-in heart rate monitor at such a low price point.

Alcatel-OneTouch-Watch-band

Above: The wristband is comfortable and can be easily adjusted. Photo by Simon Cohen.

Design

As an owner of the $100 Pebble (the original Kickstarter Edition) I’ve grown accustomed to the square, plastic, and – dare I say it – cheap look of my smartwatch. Accustomed to, perhaps, but not content with. I’ve always wished it had a classier design. Pebble’s $199 Steel model goes a long way to addressing that, but it still has that “I’m a digital watch” feel to it. The OneTouch Watch, on the other hand, delivers a smart, sophisticated-looking design with its circular face, brushed-metal body, single-button control, and black rubber strap. It is also far lighter than its materials and size suggest.

Alcatel-OneTouch-Watch-side

Above: The Alcatel OneTouch Watch has a single physical button, mounted on the side where a crown would usually sit. Photo by Simon Cohen.

The rubber strap uses a notched inner lining, which acts as a micro-adjustable track for the metal closure. As long as you order the right size — it ships in either small/medium or medium/large sizes — you should have no problem getting a perfect fit. Unfortunately, unlike the Pebble, you won’t be able to swap out the factory band for a different one if you grow tired of its look. That’s mostly because of Alcatel’s decision to incorporate the USB-charging tip into the end of the strap, where it lies concealed under a rubberized plastic tab.

Alcatel-OneTouch-Watch-USB-open

Above: The USB charging tip is cleverly concealed at the end of the band behind a rubber cover. Photo by Simon Cohen.

This design is both good and bad. The good part is that you don’t need to worry about an external (and oftentimes proprietary) charger. Anywhere you can find an open USB port, you can charge your watch. The bad part (other than not being able to swap bands) is that most of us don’t have nightstands with built-in USB ports. That means plugging your watch into a computer, which you hopefully don’t keep near your bed (right?), or plugging it into a spare USB wall charger since the OneTouch watch doesn’t ship with one. The company should at least consider including a USB cord to help with that. That said, the watch charges fully in an hour and only needs to be plugged in every couple of days under normal use. (Take that, Apple.) My only other complaint with the strap is the rubber retaining loop. It’s too stiff and barely allows the USB-tipped end of the strap to pass through it. It’s a minor niggle, but with an object that you could be putting on and taking off daily, it could become irritating.

Finally, there’s the face of the watch. It’s reminiscent of the Moto 360 in that the actual LCD portion has a rising-sun shape to it (circular, but with a flat bottom), but Alcatel has made the curious decision to use a permanent ring of hour markers around the perimeter instead of displaying these on the LCD. This might make sense on a watch with an hour-hand display that is permanently turned on, but as you’re about to read, that isn’t the case.

Alcatel-OneTouch-Watch-face

Above: You can select from three different face styles and many different wallpapers. Photo by Simon Cohen.

Display

I think you’re going to have a love-hate relationship with the OneTouch Watch’s LCD display. On the bright side, it’s bright! And crisp too. It’s readable in both dim and bright environments, and you can cycle through three levels of brightness to suit your taste. However, in order to read it, it needs to be turned on, and that’s something the OneTouch Watch is only willing to do for up to 15 seconds at a time once activated. You can activate it at any time by pressing the power key located on the side, or you can use the built-in accelerometer. You trigger this by executing a sharply defined move with your arm – almost any movement will do, but it cannot be gradual. There needs to be a distinct stopping action in order for the display to come to life. Gentle rolls of the wrist aren’t enough to trigger it, and there’s no way to configure the sensitivity. I found myself having to repeatedly (and using increasingly exaggerated movements) bring the watch into position to get it to respond.

Presumably the lack of always-on is the primary ingredient to the OneTouch Watch’s superior battery life. Given that displays are the biggest draw of power, keeping the display turned off 99 percent of the time has to help a lot. There’s also the size of the display itself. As noted, it does not take up the entire surface of the watch face. Having a smaller LCD than other watches must also contribute to better battery life. But at what cost?

Alcatel-OneTouch-Watch-UI

Above: The OneTouch gives you access to its suite of apps via the touchscreen. Photo by Simon Cohen.

User interface

Using the OneTouch Watch is fairly straightforward. Once the display is brought to life via the power key or movement detection, you use a series of taps and swipes to navigate through the watch’s on-board options. These include the primary apps, such as weather, fitness/activity/heart rate, music, photo trigger, compass, and more. You tap once in the middle of the face to select an app or confirm an action, while a tap on the bottom of the face immediately below the display area but above the “6” numeral acts as the “back” function. The screen is very responsive, and apps open quickly.

Alcatel-OneTouch-Watch-Move-app-faces

Above: All customization is done via the free Alcatel OneTouch Move app (iOS and Android). Photo by Simon Cohen.

The OneTouch gives you only three styles of watch face to choose from:

  • A “classic” face with minute, hour, and second hands, plus hour and minute indicator lines that line up with the permanent marks on the watch’s dial and a day/date display
  • A “minimalistic” version of this face that dispenses with the markers and day/date, leaving only the three hands
  • A “digital” face that shows the hours and minutes in big, easy-to-read digits, with a seconds indicator showing dots around the circumference that go from dim to light as time progresses (oddly, these do not begin at the “12” marker, but instead go left-to-right in an arc around the visible portion of the display) and day/date

The analog watch faces are slightly hampered by the fact that all three hands and the hour/minute indicators are the same color (white), which can make it a little tricky to read quickly. This would be helped with a setting to alter the hand colors.

What it lacks in face styles, it more than makes up for in face backgrounds: any of 16 predefined images or textures, 16 predefined solid colors, or a custom setting that lets you pick from any photo on your phone or take a photo immediately. These settings are set from within the free OneTouch Move app, however — only the style can be set from the watch itself.

A note on the OneTouch Watch’s water resistance: Rated as IP67, the watch can certainly withstand casual dunking like having a shower, but oddly, when the accelerometer detects sufficient movement, it activates the watch face. From there, drops of water hitting the face are registered as taps and could cause undesirable operations. I don’t know any way to disable this.

Software and features

The heart of any smartwatch is the ability to deliver notifications to the user. Every other feature, in my humble opinion, is an add-on. The Pebble’s biggest draw for me was the ability to keep my phone in my pocket and be able to see who’s calling (or that I’m getting a call at all!) or texting or emailing. Calendar reminders and notifications from apps like Facebook Messenger are also helpful.

The OneTouch Watch can deliver all of these notifications, but due to a delay getting the OneTouch Watch fully certified for use with Apple’s API, I was only able to test a few, such as missed calls, calendar alerts, and text messages.

What I can report is that there needs to be greater control over how these notifications work. Calendar reminders, for instance, produce a series of vibrations that only stop once you’ve dismissed them with a swiping gesture or when the preset (and nonconfigurable) timer runs out after about 15 seconds. Text messages deliver a single, short vibration with no info displayed on the face until it was activated via motion or the power button. I’d much prefer to have a choice over how these notifications work so that I can tell the difference between a calendar reminder and an incoming call.

Alcatel-OneTouch-Watch-proximity

Above: Stray too far from your phone and the OneTouch Watch will remind you. Photo by Simon Cohen.

If you’re constantly worried about losing your phone or leaving it on the table at Starbucks, you’re going to love the OneTouch Watch’s anti-loss feature. It notifies you as soon as your watch and phone move too far from one another. This distance is remarkably short — as little as 12 feet, by my reckoning, a much shorter leash than the one that Pebble uses (often the full 32 feet Bluetooth is capable of). While this is a good thing when you’re out and about, at home or the office, where you might be in the habit of parking your phone and then go wandering off, it can be a hassle, constantly reminding you with a vibration that you’ve gone too far. At one point I seemed to be sitting right on the edge of connectivity and the alarm would activate every 30 seconds or so. Really annoying. You can disable this feature in the Move app, but it seems a shame to have to resort to that. You know you’ll forget to re-enable it.

Alcatel-OneTouch-Watch-music-play

Above: You can control the music on your smartphone, with volume represented by the purple line. Photo by Simon Cohen.

One of my favorite extra features on the Pebble is the ability to control basic music functions on my iPhone like play/pause and skip forward and back. When on-the-go, hauling out your phone can be impractical. The OneTouch has this feature too, and even one-ups the Pebble with the ability to control volume. However, all of these functions require taps on the watch face while the watch is awake, so eyes-free operation is impossible (the Pebble makes use of its three physical buttons for these tasks). When a track is playing, forward and back controls are locked out — you have to pause before skipping. There is no progress bar or timer to show you where you are in the song’s timeline and no information about the album — just track title and artist. Moreover, when in music control mode, the OneTouch Watch will not show you the current time (isn’t this supposed to be a smartwatch?). These facts severely reduce the benefit of being able to remote-control your smartphone’s tunes from your watch. Interestingly, if you don’t currently have a music app open on your phone, selecting the music app on the OneTouch Watch does nothing, whereas the Pebble can trigger the last selected playlist regardless of the state of playback on the phone.

Alcatel-OneTouch-Watch-move-app-steps

Above: The Move app gives you access to a wealth of health and activity tracking, such as steps taken and heart rate. Photo by Simon Cohen.

The OneTouch Watch also comes equipped with a full suite of health and activity tracking tools including a heart-rate sensor — something you won’t find on a smartwatch at such a low price without venturing away from major brands or going with a fitness-specific device. The heart rate sensor works in conjunction with the accelerometer to provide an easy-to-read dashboard of your current and historical achievements. Using five screens (Steps, Calories, Distance, Duration, and Sleep) plus a dedicated heart rate area, you can quickly see how you’re doing against your goals. Goals are set within the Move app, but progress against the goals can also be seen on the Watch. It’s hard to say how accurate these readings are compared to any other watch, but it at least gives you a way to measure them, and that’s the most important thing.

N.B.: For the moment, the Alcatel OneTouch Watch remains closed to third-party app developers. Because of this (and the fact that it isn’t built on a platform like Android Wear), development of the product’s features will be done exclusively by Alcatel. If this changed, it will greatly enhance the OneTouch’s ability to compete with other smartwatches like the Pebble and Android Wear products.

Conclusion

At $149, the Alcatel OneTouch Watch is an attractively priced, good-looking, cross-platform smartwatch with a competitive set of features and a battery that can last several days on a charge. The built-in USB charging tip makes for a convenient if somewhat limiting design choice. Its bright touchscreen display is easy to read in all conditions, but activating it can be troublesome and could frustrate people who check their watch frequently to tell the time.

However, the OneTouch’s big drawback at the moment is the software. With too few customizations for how notifications work and how watch faces are displayed, potential buyers may want to wait until revisions to the code make these more usable and reliable. That said, Alcatel still has a few weeks before they ship the OneTouch Watch, and it’s possible they will have sorted out these bugs on their final production run (my tester unit was a pre-production model).

Finally, if you’re hoping to see regular updates to the watch’s feature set, you might be disappointed because of the lack of a third-party app development ecosystem.


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Opera Launches Redesigned Opera Mini For Android

discover Opera Mini, the little brother to Opera’s regular mobile browser, is getting a major makeover on Android today. The company says the new design, which is pretty much in line with the regular Opera mobile browser, is meant to give the browser a more native look and feel. If you’re confused about why Opera offers both its regular mobile browser and Opera Mini on Android,… Read More