There’s an engaging, highly addictive, and surprisingly educational game that recently debuted on the Internet called Geoguessr. The player is provided with five random Google Street View images in succession, and is asked to pinpoint on a map of the world where that image was recorded. You can base your guesses on all sorts of criteria (language on the street signs, what side of the road people are driving on, local flora, the presence of mountains or shorelines, etc.) and, if you’re lucky enough, might end up with the dead giveaway of a sign reading, say, “Welcome to Fairbanks, Alaska.”
Geoguessr demonstrates some of the whimsical potential for Google Street View, but the fact of the matter is that it’s become enormously helpful in all sorts of ways. The Houston Association of Realtors has an app, for example, that provides a Google Street View of every house listed for sale, and we assume this is true of realtors across the country. Additionally, Google is participating in the laudable task of cataloguing Hurricane Sandy relief efforts in partnership with the organization Historypin.
Recently, Google announced the addition of 1,001 new destinations in a move that appeals to virtual tourists. The new destinations include everything from Seville Cathedral in Spain to the Fullerton Heritage Promenade in Singapore, from the Bosque de Chapultepec in Mexico to Brazil’s Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady Aparecida, and a bit closer to home, the Mark Twain House and the Vermont State House.
Now, Street View raises some privacy issues, particularly in Germany, and those issues are sure to be hashed out over the next few years as we all try to come to grips with technology’s seeming incompatibility with privacy. That said, we can’t help but marvel at the breathtaking strides taken by Google to make the world available to everyone. They’re also going to have to come up with a new name for it, since “Street View” implies views from the street, and not so much the views from the Singapore Zoo or – get this – underwater.
As Google continues to roll out additions and enhancements, it’s obvious how Google set the gold standard for cartography in the 21st century.
Two and a half years is an awfully long time in the mobile tech industry – that’s three iPhones ago, to give you an idea – but it turns out that the most popular Android operating system was in fact released in December 2010. The operating system dubbed “Gingerbread” is currently installed on about 38.5% of all active Android devices. “Jelly Bean,” the most recent Android operating system, is running second at 28.4%, followed closely by the only very slightly older “Ice Cream Sandwich” at 27.5%. The remaining spots belong to the rest of the Android OS iterations with delectable names like “Honeycomb,” “Éclair,” “Froyo,” “Donut,” and “Cupcake.”
As a matter of fact, Jelly Bean only recently overtook Ice Cream Sandwich, which Google considers to be something of an Android milestone, but the fact that Gingerbread, an operating system that’s older than both of these, remains is both a curiosity and an embarrassment. Of course, Jelly Bean is likely to overtake Gingerbread fairly soon, but that’s likely to happen right about the time that Google rolls out Jelly Bean’s successor (expected later this year), at which point the race to the top starts all over again.
All this OS jockeying reveals one of the more intractable problems facing Android hardware and software: fragmentation. On the one hand, Android fragmentation allows both hardware manufacturers and software developers (including independent mobile app developers) nearly complete freedom and the opportunity to compete in a marketplace without having to go through the rigors of Apple’s maddening approval process. On the other, developers hoping to exploit Android’s coolest features while still appealing to the broadest possible audience are hamstrung by the fact that less than a third of Android consumers are using the most advanced OS.
Compromises are inevitable, of course, particularly when mobile app developers not only have to work with several operating systems, but also with a massive crowd of smartphones that all have different specifications. The good news for developers, however, is that Google promised to ensure that every new OS works on any Android smartphone produced in the 18 months prior to the OS’s release.
Consumers in affluent Western nations love their gadgets and the conveniences they provide, but almost none of us know where and how they’re made. Indeed, considering that components for any one device might be produced by any number of factories in any number of countries, companies themselves have a hard time keeping track of who exactly is working for them.
These issues have generated quite a bit of press over the last few months. The principal manufacturer of Apple’s iPhones, Foxconn Technology, routinely uses unpaid labor billed as “internships” and even had to erect suicide nets around their plants to discourage workers from leaping off their buildings. There’s also a not-insignificant chance you’re wearing a garment produced either by the Bangladeshi factory that recently collapsed, killing 1,127, or one like it.
We’re not trying to send you on a guilt trip; the global economy is far too complex for consumers to keep tabs on every product they use. One company, however, is trying a daring experiment that, if successful, might change all that. It’s called Fairphone, and it hopes to do for mobile phones what has already been done for diamond mining and coffee.
Fairphone not only intends to produce a quality Android smartphone, they’re going to be absolutely transparent about how they make it. “Social values” are a central aspect of Fairphone’s business model, the company will use “conflict-free” components and materials, and will continue to highlight unfair and unjust practices in the industry. And while Fairphone clearly wishes to emphasize the ethics of the supply side, it’s also worth noting that the Fairphone device itself has some pretty impressive specifications.
Fairphone still has a bit of work to do. Having started out as a movement and evolved into a manufacturer, Fairphone is crowdsourcing its initial production run, and as of this writing has just over 3,000 orders (of 5,000 required) with 16 days remaining to meet the threshold. And unfortunately, for the moment it’s only available to European consumers, but if the experiment works, it could create a sea change in the way tech manufacturers do business.
This will fall squarely into the category of “first world problems,” but many of us find it something of a hassle to have to manage our phones, tablets, and laptop computers. There are almost always synching issues, which often lead to that sinking feeling you get when you wonder if the device in your briefcase is the one containing the files you’re going to need at work that day. It’s a bit like trying to remember whether or not you left the iron on, and it’s fantastically unpleasant.
Enter Casetop, a Kickstarter project that’s meant to streamline this very hardware problem. Casetop is essentially a laptop that uses your smartphone (any smartphone, whether Android, iOS, Windows, or even Blackberry) as its hard drive. In addition to giving your smartphone the benefit of a larger screen and a proper keyboard, Casetop boasts of its “mythical” battery endurance (30+ hours) as well as the ability to charge the phone to which it’s attached.
Priced at $250, the benefits of such a device would be legion. First, it would allow you to watch videos on a decently sized screen without having to shell out for a tablet. It already comes with a Bluetooth keyboard and has the capacity to add a Bluetooth mouse. Additional hardware plug-ins like, say, a projector, would make presentations a considerably easier affair than they are now.
All that said, we’re not making a plug for the device itself; there’s a possibility that the Casetop might not even hit the factory floor; as of this writing, it’s only achieved $76,000 of its $300k funding goal, with twelve days to go. What we’re more impressed with is the potential of the technology, and what it might change when it comes to consumers’ hardware demands. And naturally, we’d be interested to see how particular, third-party apps, especially game apps, function on a device with different resolutions and specifications than the one for which it’s intended. Android users are no strangers to fragmentation, of course, but that’s not the case for users of other smartphones.
It appears as though the news of the Blackberry’s demise were exaggerated. In spite of the lukewarm reception to Blackberry’s reboot, forward-thinking executives realized that to remain competitive in the smartphone market, not only was it going to have to provide a wide selection of apps, it was going to have to do so very quickly.
According to TechCrunch, the new Blackberry has been successful. At the moment, Blackberry boasts about 120,000 mobile apps, and about 20% of those were ported over from Android. This is obviously a significant number, and bodes well for the future of Blackberry.
Of course, not all the news is good. Blackberry’s decision to favor quantity over quality has had some significant negative impact in the short run. Most important among these is the fact that Blackberry users don’t like the Android apps very much. The problem lies in how the apps themselves are configured. Android apps are certainly available on the Blackberry, but that doesn’t mean they’re performing as well as they would on a smartphone running an Android operating system. Many of the apps’ key features remain unavailable because of hardware compatibility issues, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by Blackberry’s customers.
What’s worth bearing in mind, however, is that by allowing Android apps to be ported to Blackberry’s platform, it is not in fact the users that Blackberry is trying to woo. Blackberry’s straits have been sufficiently dire in recent years such that it’s betting its future on gamble after gamble after gamble – which is rather fun to watch, in the aggregate – and in this case Blackberry is doing its level best to seduce Android developers. It takes about five minutes and no money to port an Android app over to Blackberry, which allows the developers to kick the tires, but ultimately what Blackberry hopes to do is to seduce them into developing native apps for the new platform. Provided Blackberry stays afloat, this could open a lucrative new market for Android developers.
The most recent report from the mobile app analytics firm Distimo provides some interesting information about the Amazon Appstore, the largest third-party app store for Android. The number of downloads of free applications is considerably higher in Google Play than in the Amazon Appstore. This is no big surprise, considering that Google Play is slightly more than ten times bigger than Amazon’s U.S. Appstore.
That might make Amazon’s app outlet seem like small potatoes in comparison to Google Play, but Amazon is clearly thinking ahead. Two years ago, Amazon’s Appstore was only available in the United States, but last year it added the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Spain. Additionally, Amazon announced that it planned to expand to over 200 more countries in 2013, many of which – Australia, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, India, South Africa and South Korea – maintain healthy levels of demand for mobile applications.
So while the number of free applications downloaded remains considerably higher in Google Play than it does in Amazon’s Appstore (and probably will for the foreseeable future), that number doesn’t tell the whole story. Paid applications, for example, performed quite well in comparison to Google Play, and some apps even outperformed Google Play, in spite of the considerably smaller current customer base.
Amazon’s relatively new to the mobile application scene, and it’s certainly going to be a while before it can be considered one of the bigger kids on the block. But its impressive performance thus far, in addition to its aggressive expansion plans, certainly seem to suggest that Amazon’s Appstore will be a major player by and by. Distimo certainly thinks so, at any rate: “The Amazon Appstore is rapidly becoming more and more competitive with Google Play. The number of applications in the Amazon Appstore has grown significantly in the last year, especially in terms of paid applications where the Amazon Appstore and Google Play are nearly neck and neck in terms of downloads.”
Smart phones began to outnumber “dumb” phones last month, which tells us something about the pervasiveness of mobile technology in the twenty-first century. In fact, the versatility and usefulness of the smartphone is getting to the point where we think there isn’t much it can’t do, and this is of course the moment when NASA steps in and turns it into a satellite.
A “nanosatellite” or “PhoneSat,” to be more precise, but in either case they’re unassailably cool. To be fair, it’s not as if NASA merely shot some phones into space and watched them spin about the earth a few times before their orbits decayed and they melted on re-entry. Rather, NASA is using the phones – all Google HTC Nexus Ones – as the satellites’ onboard computer. The smartphones themselves are encased in four-inch metal cubes and are hooked up to external lithium-ion battery banks and more powerful radios for sending messages from space. Still, the total price tag for each individual unit is in the $3,500-$7,000 range, which is, we assume, the cheapest satellite ever put into space.
NASA is able to reduce costs so drastically because the off-the-shelf components that run these new satellites include most of the technology that their regular, multi-million dollar kin are kitted with: faster processors, a virtual OS, multiple sensors, high resolution cameras, and a number of different radios.
Of course, these nanosatellites won’t be doing anything too terribly useful on their first run. The primary mission is to stay in orbit for as long as possible while transmitting images captured by the camera as well as data relevant to the smartphone’s state of orbital and mechanical health. Ultimately, NASA hopes to use these smartphone-powered satellites to test their usefulness, to qualify new technologies for space flight, to reducing costs, and perhaps most importantly, to conduct heliophysics missions – that is, to keep tabs on what our sun is up to, which is pretty important, considering it has both the power and the habit to disrupt our technologies on a global scale.
Since the typewriter was invented in 1867, human thumbs have been relegated to the unglamorous task of occasionally tapping the space bar. The QWERTY keyboard layout was invented only a few years later, but since most of us are holding our keyboards in our hands rather than on our desks these days, it’s strange that nothing’s been done to update our hardware.
Until now, that is. A research team at the Max Planck institute developed a new keyboard layout called KALQ that enables faster thumb-typing on mobile devices. The new layout consists of a split keyboard with sixteen keys on the left, and twelve on the right, including all the vowels. The layout is specifically designed both to reduce the movement time of thumbs, as well as to maximize the alternation between each of the sides. Its name is derived from the “home row” on the bottom of the right side of the screen.
Of course, alternatives to QWERTY are nothing new, and mobile users are used to falling back on predictive text and autocorrect to make up for its shortcomings on phones and tablets, often with hilarious results. KALQ, however, represents the first significant advance in typing speed on mobile devices. How fast? With the current QWERTY configuration, average users manage about 20 words per minute, whereas with just a few minutes of practice, KALQ users pumped out an impressive 37 wpm, a 34% increase in typing speed. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the testing was conducted using non-native English speakers, so it’s conceivable that a native user could rise as high as the 49 wpm predicted by the model.
Of course, one of the benefits of using Android devices is that the gatekeepers of the mobile app stores allow developers to monkey around with the native software, which isn’t the case for iOS. And since a KALQ app will be available for Android some time this month, Android users will be outpacing iPhones in typing speed (at least for a while).
Last week Facebook wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg and HTC’s Peter Chou announced the arrival of Facebook Home. It turned out not to be, in spite of a slew of rumors to the contrary, a Facebook phone, but rather a series of Facebook apps that “turns your device into a Facebook phone.” An app called Coverfeed overhauls both the home screen and the lock screen, which provides a constant stream of full-screen photos and newsfeed updates, in addition to a notifications interface that doesn’t feel bulky or in the way. According to David Pierce of The Verge, “it feels incredibly native”.
Another feature incorporated into Facebook Home is called “chat heads,” which is essentially a messaging service that allows you to keep tabs on all your conversations by tapping on little round icons of your friends’ faces. Keeping true to its new philosophy that smartphones should be about people, and not about apps, chat heads works both with your phone’s native SMS messaging software as well as with Facebook messenger itself. In other words, the most important thing is the conversation itself, not the platform that’s providing it.
As with any new tech product or service, of course, a great deal of criticism accompanied Facebook’s announcement. Naturally, we have to bear in mind that every tech company wants you to spend more time with their product, but as Huffpost Tech remarked, Facebook “just invited itself to be the DNA of your most personal device.”
With Facebook Home installed on your smartphone, it’s going to take an extra gesture or two for you to access all those things your phone does that aren’t Facebook: work e-mails, news aggregators, fitness trackers, etc.
Of course, no one’s holding a gun to anyone’s head, so if you’re not interested in Facebook Home, then all you’ve got to do is not download it. Facebook Home is only being included (for now) on a single device, the HTC First, and Mashable confirmed that users can easily disable it should they choose to do so.
In any event, with this announcement there’s no longer any question as to whether Facebook is taking mobile seriously or not, but we’ll have to wait a few weeks before we’ll really know what Android users as a whole really think about it.
It’s hard to believe that Apple introduced their iPhone Software Developer Kit only five years ago. Since then, an entire new segment of the global economy has exploded, and brought what would have been considered the stuff of science fiction to the devices just about everyone carries around in their pockets.
We haven’t yet reached the full potential of smartphone technology, but one of the more exciting avenues that lies ahead involves peripherals. And if you thought your smartphone could do some pretty cool stuff now, just wait and see what happens when it’s working with other devices.
This isn’t a blog post about the iWatch or Google Glasses, which seem to be hogging all the press lately. Consider, for example, the smart thermostat Nest. As tech guru Bill Campbell pointed out recently, “You would think that people would yawn at something as boring as a thermostat,” Campbell said. “So, I’ve been surprised at how it has done and is doing.” Not only does Nest allow you to control your thermostat from your iPhone, but it also learns your habits and patterns and creates a temperature-setting schedule based on them.
Or consider the TED on health care delivered by Eric Dishman. Dishman was diagnosed with two rare kidney disorders and was told (twenty years ago) that he had at most three years to live. Dishman talks a lot about innovating health care, and one of his mainstays involves mobile peripherals. With the right attachments, an iPhone can detect malaria in the blood, act as a stethoscope, monitor blood pressure, or even provide an ultrasound. The very obvious (and necessary) benefit here is not only for people in remote locations; if simple, relatively cheap devices can perform as well as advertised, it will vastly reduce health care costs across the board while increasing the quality of care.
The potential for simple mobile technology is impressive in its own right, but once peripherals are brought into the mix, that potential is nearly limitless.