Google launches Desktop Head Unit to emulate Android Auto apps on developers’ workstations

Android Auto

Google has announced a new tool designed to help developers build apps for Android Auto.

With Desktop Head Unit (DHU), Google is essentially letting devs emulate a car dashboard running Android Auto, thus making the testing process far more practical.

Android Auto: DHU

Above: Android Auto: DHU

Image Credit: Google

All a developer needs to do is connect their phone to a computer via USB, and the mobile device will think it’s connected to a physical car. They can then test it properly and iron out bugs, before releasing it to the public.

First announced at Google I/O in June 2014, Android Auto basically turns your car into an extensino of your Android phone, relying on the device to power the service. It’s compatible with maps, music, Web search, SMS, and telephone, however support is limited to only a handful of cars at present, though it is possible to retrofit some cars with Pioneer’s multimedia receivers.

Google says that with the launch of the DHU emulator, previous simulators on offer will be wound down.


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Samsung starts testing its Apple Pay competitor in the U.S.

SamsungPay-Trial_Main_3

Samsung Pay is now being beta-tested in the U.S. The new digital payment method will be available to select owners of Galaxy devices including the S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge+, and the Note 5.

Samsung Pay allows users to upload credit card information to their phone and use it as a way to pay at credit card-accepting retailers. Samsung claims that users can pay with their phone at 90 percent of retail locations in the U.S.

The new payment feature is an attempt to compete with Apple, Google, and other tech companies that have recently launched phone-based payment systems. It’s worth noting that unlike Apple Pay, which allows users to make purchases in stores and within native mobile apps, Samsung Pay is only for making purchases at physical retailers.

For now, the beta is selectively open to device owners with credit and debit cards from US Bank and Bank of America, according to the blog Droid Life.

Samsung is expected to formally launch the new payment feature on September 28, 2015. For more on Samsung Pay, check out our past coverage.

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Google On EU’s Anti-Competitive Claims: “Concerns Are Unfounded”

2408559508_2e384da635_o We’re a little over five years into the EU’s antitrust investigation of Google and today’s back and forth is about Google Shopping results. Back in April, Europe’s antitrust chief, Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said: Our preliminary view in the SO is that in its general Internet search results Google artificially favors its own comparison shopping service… Read More

The Pirate Bay is down, and CloudFlare can’t help

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After months of shaky service and false alarms, The Pirate Bay is down again. As always, the cause of the outage is unknown, but the site has been down for more than an hour, so this isn’t just another random blip.

The Pirate Bay, one of the most popular torrent sites on the planet, has frequent uptime issues. This could be a software or hardware problem, but it could also mean that the host has pulled the plug, for whatever reason.

The Pirate Bay is using CloudFlare, meaning visitors to the world’s most popular file-sharing website are seeing one of three generic and rather unhelpful messages (Error 520, Error 522, or Error 525):

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tpb_down_error_522

tpb_down_error_525

The suggestion to “Please try again in a few minutes.” is the only option users have. Alternatively, there are other major torrent sites, such as KickassTorrents, that often benefit from The Pirate Bay outages.

Because there are three different errors being served up, CloudFlare’s advice to The Pirate Bay owners is all over the place:

There is an issue between CloudFlare’s cache and your origin web server. CloudFlare monitors for these errors and automatically investigates the cause. To help support the investigation, you can pull the corresponding error log from your web server and submit it our support team. Please include the Ray ID (which is at the bottom of this error page). Additional troubleshooting resources.


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Contact your hosting provider letting them know your web server is not completing requests. An Error 522 means that the request was able to connect to your web server, but that the request didn’t finish. The most likely cause is that something on your server is hogging resources. Additional troubleshooting information here.

It appears that the SSL configuration used is not compatible with CloudFlare. This could happen for a several reasons, including no shared cipher suites. Additional troubleshooting information here.

At the end of January, The Pirate Bay came back online after its longest outage to date. The site is still having hiccups, however, with brief outages every few weeks. This one appears to be different, but the site almost always comes back out of the blue without so much as a hint that it was ever down.

Since the whole website is down, The Pirate Bay’s official blog is of course not reachable either. A Bing cache (the Google cache leads to a 404 page) shows that nothing has been posted since February.

Update: The Pirate Bay appears to be back up again.


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Don’t expect Apple to unveil a 4-inch iPhone on September 9

iphone-6-yanki01-flickr

The rumors have been flying for months about a possible 4-inch iPhone, but the device will reportedly not be announced at Apple’s September 9 event.

The good news is that Apple has indeed been developing the 4-inch screened device (which has the same features as last year’s iPhone 6), but it is not ready to ship, says 9to5Mac’s Mark Gurman, citing unnamed sources.

Gurman says Apple has developed an even smaller iPhone with a 3.5-inch screen, but that that device will likely never ship.

Another Apple phone, 2013’s iPhone 5c will likely be discontinued by Apple, Gurman says. The plastic-backed device was announced alongside the iPhone 5S, and offers components (the A5 chip from 2012, for example) and features that Apple feels are getting to old for the current market.

Gurman adds that for those who still like 4-inch phones, Apple will continue to offer the iPhone 5s, and will even be dropping the on-contract price down to zero.

 

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Instagram breaks out of the box with portrait and landscape support for photos and videos

instagram-engagement

Instagram is making it easier for people to post photos to its service without having to unnecessarily crop and adjust their work. The company announced that it’s adding support for landscape and portrait formats. This applies to both photos andvideos starting today.

That’s right, folks. You no longer have to abide by the square ratio that Instagram has had for years. Although the company says that the iconic square format “has been and always will be part of who we are,” it’s more about the visual story that users want to tell, and sometimes constraining that to a ratio that works for Instagram, probably isn’t sufficient.

So when you choose a photo or a video within Instagram, tap the format icon to adjust the orientation to be portrait or landscape. After you’ve shared the photo, the full-sized version will appear to your followers, but in your profile grid, it’ll be shown as a center-cropped square — Instagram wants to keep the clean feel in some places.

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 10.06.43 AM

Filters are also being tweaked: now you just need one set of filters for all types of moments, no matter whether you’re sharing a photo or a video. Instagram says you can also adjust the intensity of the filters for videos.

For a long time, photographers have been using workarounds to share their uncropped photos on Instagram. Tools like Instasize have become popular for helping modify entire photos into the square format so it can be shared on the Facebook-owned photo social network. But slowly, Instagram has started to adapt these features into its service, starting with its collage-enabling app Layout.


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Of course, the support for portrait and landscape modes will certainly benefit Instagram to keep and gain users amid new competition from the likes of EyeEm and others. EyeEm has many of the same features of Instagram, but doesn’t abide by a specific square format. Today’s announcement gives Instagram’s more than 300 million users better control in how they want to tell their story and highlights the company’s efforts on better appealing to the photo community.

Here’s an example of the new possibilities on Instagram, featuring the trailer for the upcoming film “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”:

Instagram Photo

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Commerce Sciences lands $4M to become the ‘Robin Hood’ of website personalization

Personalization envisioned on Commerce Science's website.

For larger websites, the days of one-experience-fits-all-visitors are long gone.

Today, Palo Alto-based Commerce Sciences announced it has scored a $4 million investment — including backing from Google executive Eric Schmidt’s fund — to make site personalization more available to small- to mid-sized businesses.

“We’re the Robin Hood of website personalization,” CEO and cofounder Aviv Revach told me, describing his company’s goal of making website personalization — and A/B testing to judge what works — easier and cheaper to do for smaller guys.


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Along with the new investment funding, the company is announcing the launch of a new self-service version of its personalization platform, with dozens of behavioral attributes for defining visitors.

In the previous version, Commerce Sciences managed several more limited personalization tools for clients.

If Commerce Sciences is Robin Hood, it’s operating in an increasingly fruitful Sherwood Forest. A recent VB Insight report, “Marketing Personalization: maximizing relevance and revenue,” found that between 70 and 94 percent of marketers have seen increases in key site performance indicators like sales by employing personalization.

In particular, 40 percent saw an increase of 10 percent or more in converting visitors into customers because of site personalization techniques, with 13 percent of those reporting a 50 percent increase.

Commerce Sciences offers a one-click ability to set up marketing efforts for segments of visitor types, by just adding a small JavaScript tag to each page in a site. The page then becomes editable for adding or changing components, according to automated campaigns for specific groups of visitors.

Pre-templated campaigns include collecting email addresses, offering upsell coupons, and rescues of abandoned shopping carts. They can be automatically set up for specific groups of users, such as first-timers or repeat visitors who are defined by up to 40 different behaviors.

A menu of one-click campaigns in Commerce Sciences' updated platform.

Above: A menu of one-click campaigns in Commerce Sciences’ updated platform.

Image Credit: Commerce Sciences

A new visitor who has just put $50 of products into a shopping cart, for instance, could then immediately be enticed with a 10 percent coupon to buy more. A/B testing can show if it makes a difference, compared to a visitor who doesn’t get a coupon at that point.

Revach points to Adobe Target, Maxymiser (recently bought by Oracle), SiteSpect, and Monetate as competitors in personalization, but he noted they are designed for enterprises and are more complex.

With rates beginning at $300 a month and increasing based on traffic volume, Commerce Sciences is shooting for the lower end of the market.

Its self-service model is complemented by personal consulting from Commerce Sciences experts at no additional charge, including a “success plan” at kickoff for each new client company, assistance in setup, and monthly half-hour calls for the length of the contract.

Revach noted that Optimizely “democratized A/B testing, back in 2010,” and that a similar democratization is now occurring for site personalization.

In fact, Commerce Sciences’ key competitor may turn out to be Optimizely, which recently announced a beta personalization service to accompany its popular A/B testing service.

Andrew Jones, the VB Insight analyst who authored the personalization report, pointed out to me that the tagline on Commerce Sciences’ website is: “Single platform for A/B Testing & Personalization.”

That “might be as well be Optimizely’s [tagline] now,” he said.

The new funding, following an initial $1.8 million in seed funding, will support a new office in Chicago in addition to the current ones in Palo Alto and Tel Aviv. Besides Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors fund, participants in this round included Genesis Partners, KGC Capital, and LiveRamp founder Auren Hoffman.

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The hidden costs of the on-demand economy

An Uber car in San Francisco.
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Despite what economists like to think, people do not always make rational economic decisions. That’s nowhere more apparent than in today’s service-centric, app-based consumer Internet.

The fact is, people are willing to pay more — often a lot more — for services that are pleasant to use. Uber, Zipcar, Munchery, and Washio all prove the point. They cost more than old-school alternatives that have been around for years, but make up for that by offering an experience that just feels nicer.

What’s more, they bury their cost disadvantages by creating false comparisons.


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For example, Uber’s founder Travis Kalanick frequently talks about how he wants to make Uber a cheaper, more convenient alternative to owning a car. That’s a reasonable comparison to make, but only at first glance.

Investor Megan Quinn, a partner at Kleiner Perkins and an investor in Uber, recently broke it down in a post titled “I don’t own, I Uber.” It’s worth a read. She estimated that the cost of owning, parking, and maintaining a car ran her $10,281 a year, while in a comparable period the following year, after she’d sold her car, she spent $4,656 on Uber, taking frequent trips with the car service in London and in San Francisco.

So by Quinn’s estimate, using Uber whenever you need to get around is less than half the cost of owning a car. Sounds like a great deal, right?

The issue is that many people who live in dense cities already don’t own cars, for the exact reasons Quinn points out. Parking in particular, is especially pricey, accounting for $4,200 of Quinn’s total. If you have access to free parking at your house, Uber may still be cheaper than ownership, but the difference shrinks.

But the high cost of owning a car in the city has been true for years and years, long before Uber ever came on the scene. It’s just that city dwellers used to take cabs (at a comparable cost to Uber) or public transit (generally far, far cheaper). In New York, you can buy 12 monthly unlimited-use MetroCards for $1,398. Even if you have to supplement that with the occasional cab ride or car rental, you could still live in a city with decent public transportation and get around for $3,000 a year, without relying on Uber, Lyft, or any of the modern car services.

In San Francisco, I occasionally use Uber, Lyft, or a taxi to get from point to point. Business Insider did a detailed analysis of Uber vs. taxi prices last year, and UberX came out on top in almost every situation. In my experience, it’s not always so clear. For instance, during a peak demand period one recent evening in August, Uber was advertising rates at 200 percent normal, while Lyft was at 150 percent to 180 percent. (I checked a couple of times, hoping the rates would go down, but instead they went up.) At that rate it would have cost me about $20 to go from downtown to the train station. I reserved a Lyft, it promised to arrive in 1 minute, but more than 5 minutes later I was still waiting. Meanwhile, empty taxis kept driving past me. Eventually I got tired of waiting, canceled the Lyft, and hailed a cab. Ten minutes later I was paying a $10 taxi fare (with tip) and getting out of the car at my destination.

You could do a similar analysis for Zipcar. Sure, it’s super convenient to rent through Zipcar, and compared to traditional car rental agencies the experience is light years better. Also, you can rent a car for just a few hours. But if you’re renting a car at $7 to $10 an hour, it doesn’t take long before the daily rate is far higher than what you could get through Avis or Enterprise, where it’s common to be able to rent a car for $60 a day. If you’re not in a crowded city center, rates are even better – often $40 per day or lower.

Munchery: Similar deal when it comes to food. Prices for Munchery’s delivered meals have come down a lot, but they still run $8 to $10 per person. For a four-person family, that is easily $40 a meal. You can cook your own food for half that price — but at far less convenience, of course. I recently spoke with Munchery founder Tri Tran on NBC Bay Area’s “Press:Here,” and he spoke about how much time this could save an individual or family. That’s true. But the cost is definitely higher than cooking for yourself.

My point is this: Uber, Lyft, Munchery, and Zipcar are all wonderful examples of companies using mobile tech and smart back-end logistics to deliver services in a far more delightful and convenient way than before. But the same fact that makes them such good businesses means that, economically, they’re not such a good deal for consumers: There is a lot of potential profit margin baked into their fees. And when their executives start talking about what a good deal they are, watch out: They’re probably not comparing themselves to the most economical alternative.

For consumers, that simply means buyer beware: You are paying for the extra convenience and for the experience of using an app that actually knows who you are. Add surge pricing, and the extra cost could be quite high.

For these businesses and their competitors, there’s a deeper lesson: They may be vulnerable to future disruption by businesses that offer a similar level of convenience, but which are more competitive on price.

Imagine, for instance, that a savvy municipal bus service got its act together and made it super easy to find a bus route to your destination via an app or mobile site. Or imagine a car rental agency that learned how to keep track of its customers so you didn’t have to fill out six pages of paperwork every single time you went to pick up a subcompact car. Established, low-cost companies like these might have a hard time embracing the kind of customer-first, experience-centric model that startups have built themselves around. But it’s not in principle impossible.

That’s something investors need to keep in mind when evaluating these companies and others like them: There is a price for convenience.

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