Mozilla brings its private web browser Firefox Focus to Android

Late last year, Firefox introduced a new, private web browser for iPhone, called Firefox Focus. The browser by default blocks ad trackers and can erase your browsing history, including passwords and cookies. Now, over a half-year later, Firefox is bringing the Focus browser to Android devices, with some added functionality.

Like the iOS version, Firefox Focus remains a minimalistic browser experience. There aren’t many configuration options, or even things you’d think of as core browser features – like support for favoriting websites or opening new tabs. Instead, Firefox Focus is designed more for quick searches, or direct visits to URLs, without having to worry about whether your session is being tracked in some way.

Unfortunately, its lack of tabs in favor of simplicity is something that makes it less usable than competitive browsers – tabs are so common that it’s difficult to go without them. It’s also troubled by its choice of Yahoo* as its search engine default. That being said, the browser has appeal to privacy-minded users. Its App Store rating is currently showing as 4 out of 5 stars, following 485 ratings and reviews. (Mozilla claims it averages a 4.6 rating, however).

Mozilla also touts that Firefox Focus’ increased privacy has the perk of speeding up web browsing sessions, as ads and other web trackers can slow down pages from loading and impact performance.

In the new Android release, Firefox Focus has added a few other features, as well, including the ability to disable its built-in tracker blocker. The company explains that, at times, sites may not load properly with the blocker on, so this lets you quickly shut it off in order to view a particular web page.

Another new feature is the addition of an ad tracker counter, which largely serves to satisfy user curiosity about how many tracking ads are blocked while using the app.

Firefox Focus will also now remind you to erase your history, when it’s running in the background. You’ll receive a push notification that you can tap to launch the app again and take the necessary actions.

On Android, Firefox Focus can be set at the default browser, which means you would be able to use it with your apps like Facebook, when you want to read articles off the network without being tracked. (Of course, you can always manually launch another browser like Chrome when you need access to more advanced browser features.)

The new Firefox Focus browser is officially launching today on Google Play as a free download.

*Disclosure: Yahoo was acquired by Verizon, TC’s parent company by way of AOL; Post also updated as the option to switch search engines wasn’t available at launch, but was later added to iOS and now to Android’s publicly launched version of the app.

Google Play introduces ‘Android Excellence’ collections that showcase editorially selected top apps and games

At WWDC this month, Apple introduced an entirely revamped App Store that puts a much greater focus on editorial, with plans for stories about the apps, how to’s, interviews, and more, in addition to regular postings of curated lists and “app of the day” type features. Today, Google announced its own plans to expand editorial involvement on Google Play, with the launch of its new “Android Excellence” program.

The idea with “Android Excellence” is offer Google Play’s editors the ability to showcase the highest-quality apps and games on Android on a rotating basis. Like Apple’s “Editor’s Choice” round-ups which often highlight new iOS features or are top-tier examples of great design, the new “Android Excellence” collections will also be used to highlight the sort of apps Google wants developers to build for its own mobile platform.

Explains Google, those chosen for the new collections will deliver “incredible user experiences on Android,” take advantage of Google’s best practices, or have “great design, technical performance, localization, or device optimization.”

The collections are kicking off today, and will be broken into two groups – apps and games. These will be found in a revamped Editors’ Choice section of the Play Store, where Google is also featuring other app and game reviews curated by its editorial team. This section today includes themed round-ups – like “great runner games” or “travel apps for your next adventure,” for example – where editors also briefly explain why the app was selected for the list.

“Android Excellence” collections will be showcased below these themed lists on Google Play.

However, where Apple’s new App Store arriving in iOS 11 this fall is designed to encourage daily visits with an ever-changing selection of stories and recommendations, Google’s “Android Excellence” collections will only be refreshed quarterly. That may not be ideal for end users in terms of app discovery, as the collections may grow stale after a few weeks’ time. But for the app developers who gain the featured spot, it could be a significant means of attracting new downloads for a long period of time.

Alongside the launch of the new program, Google also announced its first Android Excellence apps and games lineups. They are as follows:

Android Excellence Apps

Android Excellence Games

AliExpress by Alibaba Mobile

B&H Photo Video by B&H Photo Video

Citymapper by Citymapper Limited

Drivvo by Drivvo

drupe by drupe

Evernote by Evernote Corporation

HotelTonight by HotelTonight

Kitchen Stories by Kitchen Stories

Komoot by komoot GmbH

Lifesum by Lifesum

Memrise by Memrise

Pocket by Read It Later

Runtastic Running & Fitness by Runtastic

Skyscanner by Skyscanner Ltd

Sleep as Android by Urbandroid Team

Vivino by Vivino

After the End Forsaken Destiny by NEXON M Inc.

CATS: Crash Arena Turbo Stars by ZeptoLab

Golf Clash by Playdemic

Hitman GO Square Enix Ltd

Horizon Chase by Aquiris Game Studio S.A

Kill Shot Bravo by Hothead Games

Lineage Red Knights by NCSOFT Corporation

Nonstop Knight by flaregames

PAC-MAN 256 – Endless Maze by Bandai Namco Entertainment Europe

Pictionary by Etermax

Reigns by DevolverDigital

Riptide GP: Renegade by Vector Unit

Star Wars™: Galaxy of Heroes by Electronic Arts

Titan Brawl by Omnidrone

Toca Blocks by Toca Boca

Transformers: Forged to Fight by Kabam

This is not the only way that Google is recognizing its favorite apps. Besides its Editor’s Choice page and its app recommendations, Google also continues to host its “Google Play Awards” at its I/O developer conference to select top apps and games across a number of categories, like “standout indie,” “standout startup,” “best Android Wear,” “Best VR experience” and more.

Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of overlap between the recent Play Award nominees and winners and the new Android Excellence collections. However, they are not exact duplicates.

The Android Excellence collections can be viewed here on Google Play.

Android Pay expands to Canada

Android Pay launched in Canada on Wednesday, with support for a number of major banks at launch, and additional banks to be added soon. The Android Pay debut in Canada was teased at Google’s I/O developer conference keynote earlier this month, and reported as imminent last week by MobileSyrup.

The launch today includes support for Visa and MasterCard credit and debit, as well as Interac debit cards (starting June 5) from leading national banks BMO, CIBC and Scotiabank, as well as from smaller regional and specialist institutions like ATB Financial, PC Financial, Desjardins, Banque Nationale and ATB Financial. Android devices running version 4.4 of the OS or higher will be able to add cards from these banks and make mobile payments at compatible, tap-enabled terminals – which are actually very prevalent in Canada.

American Express and Tangerine support are “coming later this summer,” Google says. The noteworthy absentees from this list of supporting financial institutions are RBC and TD, which are the largest of Canada’s “Big Five” banks. Both RBC and TD do support Apple Pay, though, indicating a willingness to support mobile payment options. Spencer Spinnell, Google’s Director of Emerging Platforms, would only say at a launch event that it “expects banks will come on board over the next several quarters.”

Spinnell also noted at a launch event that the progress of Android Pay represents the result of a tremendous amount of work, since it means bringing together and satisfying a large number of stakeholders, from merchants, to financial institutions, to payment networks and to customers. Unlike Apple, Google doesn’t charge transaction fees to any parties involved for use of Android Pay (Apple charges banks).

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Android Pay uses NFC tech to transfer tokenized payment information from the device to a merchant terminal. Like Apple Pay, which launched in Canada last year, Android Pay doesn’t pass on your actual original payment card details to a merchant, but instead generates a unique token to use for transactions. To use it, once you register your card you simply wake your device, authenticate using one of your phone login methods, and tap it to a payment terminal. Also, once your cards are registered, if they’re lost or stolen, you can use Android Pay to remotely lock or wipe or disable your card.

Android Pay first launched in the U.S. in 2015, and has been rolling out to additional markets gradually since then, covering 12 in total. Other new markets coming online this year include Brazil, Russia, Spain and Taiwan, and Google will also be offering improved loyalty card integration on the merchant side. Android Pay also works in-app with a range of partners, including Uber, 1-800 Flowers and more.

Android Pay has had 1.5 million new registrations per moth on average in the U.S. alone, Spinnell said, which he argued is all the more impressive given the current state of the contactless payment system in America, which lags its equivalents in Canada, the UK and other countries. He said that one in three Canadians who own smartphones have used their device to pay for something, and noted that in Q4 2016, Canadian contactless payments rose 120 percent. Spinnell also noted that eight out of 10 Canadian retailers support NFC capability, making the market an ideal target for an expansion of Android Pay.

Android creator Andy Rubin’s Essential Phone looks stunning and will cost $699

There’s been much speculation around the new project from Andy Rubin, the man responsible for developing Android, and now we have the answer. Well, part of the answer, at least.

Essential, Rubin’s new company, unveiled its first smartphone alongside an Amazon Echo-like device and a new operating system called “Ambient”. The three products were unveiled to the Verge, but all that Essential is providing at this point is renders and graphics so we’ll have to wait on the final verdict.

The phone is the most anticipated item here, and the firm has teased its unveiling over the past month.

The first thing to notice from the renders — again, these are company supplied graphics not independent product shots — is the impressive edge-to-edge screen and tiny bezel. The design is really quite striking. The screen starts at the top of the device, leaving a small space for the front camera, rolling down to the bottom with just a tiny gap.

Although we don’t know the size of the panel, it seems on the larger side. The screen is a blend of titanium and ceramic which, Essential asserts, makes it stronger than those offered by Apple and Samsung.

The device will ship with a Qualcomm 835 processor, 4GB of RAM and 128GB of on-device storage, according to The Verge. The front-facing camera has an eight megapixel sensor and is capable of recording 4K video, while the rear camera is 13-megapixel with a second monochrome sensor to help boost low-light shots. That’s a departure from a secondary lens for bokeh-style images as Apple has done with the iPhone 7 Plus.

In addition, as previously hinted at, the device will include a 360 degree camera that can be clipped on the device to enable a whole different kind of phone-based photography. Oh, and there’s no headphone jack but the device will ship with a dongle.

On the software-side, Essential hasn’t released details yet so we can only speculate that, in line with the device’s simple yet powerful approach, it’ll be a minimalist affair that doesn’t force bloatware on its users.

The $699 price tag, however, is official, and it could make the device a very interesting option. Although carrier distribution is a key make-or-break fact for hitting serious volume with U.S. released smartphones, the Essential Phone is sure to provoke curiosity among smartphone purists. There’s no word on availability, but the U.S. will be the first market for sales.

Essential’s Echo competitor — “Home” — is also notable.

The Verge reports — based on renders — that it’ll be a smart assistant/interface for controlling things like music, smart thermostats, smart lights, answer questions, etc. Beyond a large circular screen and standard features like voice activation, the exact details remain unclear.

One interesting twist is that Essential Home will avoid using the cloud for funneling and storing data where possible. That’s a deliberate attempt to handle privacy issues that smart home assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Home have thrown up. Instead, data and services will be managed locally unless absolutely necessary. That pitch is enough to color us intrigued to learn more.

“The home is your own space where you should be able to say what you want, without having to worry about your privacy,” Essential writes on its website.

The company also offers up information about Ambient, the OS behind the Home product too:

Ambient OS provides a set of services and abstractions that enable the development and execution of applications that run in the context of your home. With Ambient OS, your home is the computer. Ambient OS is aware of the physical layout of your home, the people that live in it, services relevant to both your home and the people within, and devices.

Key to Ambient OS is the belief that people should always be in control. To this end, it does not try to make your home smart by anticipating what you need. Instead, as it learns from people, it can suggest certain behaviors but in the end people decide whether or not use them.

No doubt there’s plenty more to come, not just from the Essential Home and Essential Home, but from Rubin himself. His newest venture, parent to Essential, is Playground and that’s an incubator design to work on multiple hardware projects beyond just smartphones and assistants. Having been the driving force behind Android, the world’s most popular operating system with over two billion devices, Rubin is spreading himself wider in a bid to top that achievement.

Headline image via The Verge

Cloak & Dagger is a newly-discovered Android exploit that lets hackers hide malicious activity

Researchers from Georgia Institute of Technology have released a full report on a new attack vector that affects Android up to version 7.1.2. The exploit, called Cloak & Dagger, uses Android’s design and screen behaviors against users, effectively hiding activity behind various app-generated interface elements that lets a hacker grab screen interactions and hide activity behind seemingly innocuous screens.

The team, Yanick Fratantonio, Chenxiong Qian, Simon Pak Ho Chung, and Wenke Lee, have created proof of concept users of the exploit including a bit of malware that draws an invisible grid over the Android screen that exactly mirrors – and can capture – the onscreen keyboard.

“The possible attacks include advanced clickjacking, unconstrained keystroke recording, stealthy phishing, the silent installation of a God-mode app (with all permissions enabled), and silent phone unlocking + arbitrary actions (while keeping the screen off),” wrote the researchers on a dedicated website. They discovered the exploit last August.

From the paper:

Cloak & Dagger is a new class of potential attacks affecting Android devices. These attacks allow a malicious app to completely control the UI feedback loop and take over the device — without giving the user a chance to notice the malicious activity. These attacks only require two permissions that, in case the app is installed from the Play Store, the user does not need to explicitly grant and for which she is not even notified. Our user study indicates that these attacks are practical. These attacks affect all recent versions of Android (including the latest version, Android 7.1.2), and they are yet to be fixed.

The exploit depends primarily on Android’s SYSTEM_ALERT_WINDOW (“draw on top”) and BIND_ACCESSIBILITY_SERVICE (“a11y”) to draw interactive elements over real apps. For example, in the image above, the team drew a reasonable facsimile of the Facebook password field over the real password field for the app. The user then typed in their real password into the seemingly real password field. However, when the Facebook app is closed you can see the remaining password field hanging in space.

The easiest way to disable this exploit in Android 7.1.2 is to turn off the “draw on top” permission in Settings>Apps>”Gear symbol”>Special access>Draw over other apps.

“All the attacks discussed by this work are still practical, even with latest version of Android (Android 7.1.2, with security patches of May 5th installed),” the researchers wrote. We will update this post with comment from Google and the team.

Chinese trio carve up a quarter of global smartphone sales in Q1: Gartner

The global smartphone market grew 9.1 per cent in the first quarter of this year, according to Gartner’s latest stats, and growth is being driven by a trio of Chinese device makers.

Smartphone sales in the quarter totaled 380 million units, with China’s top three mobile makers, Huawei, Oppo and Vivo, collectively carving out almost a quarter (24 per cent) of those sales, according to the analyst, up seven percentage points year on year.

The analyst says smartphone buyers are spending a bit more to get a better device, which is pushing up the average selling prices of devices and positively affecting the three makers as they have focused on adding higher end features at affordable price points.

Aggressive marketing and sales promotions have also helped the three grow by taking share in markets such as India, Indonesia and Thailand.

The top two smartphone makers by global marketshare, Samsung and Apple, faired less well. Samsung’s sales declined 3.1 per cent in the first quarter of 2017, to leave it with 20.7 per cent of the market. While Apple’s sales were flat, meaning its marketshare shrunk to 13.7 per cent down from 14.8 per cent year on year.

While Samsung has said preorders for the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus were up 30 per cent year on year, Gartner flags the absence of the Note 7 — which the company recalled and ultimately discontinued last year after problems with exploding batteries — as a contributing factor to its Q1 sales decline, along with what the analyst dubs “fierce competition” at the entry level smartphone segment that’s playing into the hands of the Chinese device makers.

Apple is also increasingly facing fierce competition from Chinese brands, Gartner says, dubbing its performance in the market as “under attack” — and noting that third placed Huawei edged closer, racking up sales of 34 million units in the quarter.

Despite Huawei holding third place in the global smartphone ranking steadily for multiple years it’s also under pressure from domestic upstarts, with Oppo continuing to catch up — growing its sales 94.6 per cent in the quarter and retaining its number one position in China.

Fourth placed Oppo’s focus on selling via a large network of bricks-and-mortar retailers is helping it beat market incumbents such as Samsung and Huawei, according to Gartner, while its focus on camera, fast charging and offline retail has helped it grow sales internationally.

Fifth placed Vivo sold close to 26 million smartphones in the quarter, grabbing 6.8 per cent marketshare, with growth of 84.6 per cent. Gartner says it’s seeing growth from emerging markets in Asia/Pacific, including India, where Vivo’s sales grew more than 220 per cent.

How far can Android go?

On the OS front, it’s very clearly now a tale of two: Android and iOS, with Chinese smartphone makers’ success helping Google’s platform grow its share by two per cent in the quarter, to take 86.1 per cent of the market. While iOS declined from 14.8 per cent to 13.7 per cent, year over year.

Gartner says it expects continued growth from Android thanks to Google’s announcement of Android Go, which targets the entry-level smartphone segment. So the question really is how far can Android go in terms of marketshare?

The ‘other’ smartphone OS category shrank to just 0.2 per cent marketshare, clocking sales of around 820,000 units in the quarter.

Ford to add Android Auto and CarPlay to 2016 Ford SYNC 3 cars via update

Ford is updating a large number of 2016 model year cars equipped with SYNC 3 infotainment software, adding Android Auto and CarPlay to the vehicles with a free, over-the-air update via Wi-Fi, or using either USB or going through their dealer. The upgrade will be available for around 800,000 vehicles in total, giving a huge number of Ford car owners the chance to get big infotainment improvements without having to buy a newer model car.

The OTA update option is also a big step for Ford – it’s the company’s first for software, and it’s one of the major reasons that Ford recently hired around 400 new mobile smartphone engineers, the company tells me.

For CarPlay, users will still also need to upgrade their vehicle’s USB hub to make this work (which will also incur a dealer visit and a cost), but for those on Android, all that’s required is a simple software installation. The USB install method is also faster, but the Wi-Fi update option is the start of the company’s efforts to really increase its OTA update program, which will be used for security improvements as well as infotainment bumps.

Even with a dealer visit and hardware upgrade for CarPlay, this sounds like a worthwhile thing for 2016 vehicle owners to do. CarPlay and Android Auto are huge upgrades vs. most in-car software, offering navigation and entertainment options that follow you from your phone to your car.

Retroactively offering this kind of thing to car owners is a definite change in tone for car makers, since they typically use these kinds of things as incentives to get people interested in vehicle model updates. But as data becomes increasingly important to automakers as a business, it makes sense to encourage greater in-car use of devices.

Google will now let users pay with any card they have on file, not just those saved in Android Pay

Google is today making it easier for users to make payments within third-party apps and mobile website, as well as in Google Assistant, when they’re out and about. No longer will the company rely that the card users want to pay with be preloaded in Android Pay – they’ll be able to choose from any payment card they’ve previously used with their Google Account.

The company says it’s expanding this access to payment options through its Google Payment API – the tool that lets merchants and developers integrate payments in their own sites and applications.

The move makes sense as Android Pay is struggling for traction compared with rival Apple Pay. As one report noted in April, Apple Pay has 86 million users versus just 24 million for Android Pay.

However, Google itself has collected payment card data from its customers across a variety of services, including the Play Store, the Google Store, YouTube, or even stored in its Chrome web browser. By allowing users to pick one of these saved payment methods instead of Android Pay, it will be easier for users to make payments – they won’t have to pull out their payment card in public, for example, or take time to re-enter data that Google already has on file.

For developers, Google promises this change will deliver faster checkouts, more conversions, reduced cart abandonment, and increased sales.

More details are on the Payment API website here.

Featured Image: SaimonSailent/Shutterstock

App developers can now advertise on the Google Play homepage and app listing pages

Google announced today a change to its Google Play platform that will allow app makers to now place ads on the Google Play home page and app listing pages. These ads are an expansion of Google’s previously announced “Universal Ad Campaigns,” which are designed to simplify the process of advertising across Google’s online properties – including the Google Play Store, Search, YouTube, the AdMob in-app network and the millions of sites on the Google Display Network.

The new Google Play Store ads will only be available through Universal Ad Campaigns, Google says, and are designed to reach customers while they’re browsing through the Play Store looking for something new to install and try.

The new ad placements will allow developers to reach a wide audience, Google notes, adding that Android reaches over 2 billion active devices every month, and Google Play is available in more than 190 countries around the world.

Alongside the launch of the new ads, Google also announced expanded Smart Bidding options in Universal Ad Campaigns, to allow developers to better target a specific subset of users – like those who are more loyal, or spend more within in-app purchases, for example.

Developers can now tailor bids by business goals like target cost per acquisition (tCPA) or target return on ad spend (tROAS). This will roll out to iOS and Android developers in the months ahead.

Also newly launching is a measurement program called App Attribution Partners, which integrate data from seven third-party measurement providers directly in AdWords. Launch partners for this program include Adways, AppsFlyer, Apsalar, CyberZ, Kochava and TUNE.

Google’s TensorFlow Lite brings machine learning to Android devices

While discussing the future of Android at Google I/O, Dave Burke, a VP of engineering, announced a new version of TensorFlow optimized for mobile called TensorFlow lite. The new library will allow developers to build leaner deep learning models designed to run on Android smartphones.

As Google rolls out a greater number of AI-enabled services that run on Android, it makes sense to use a dedicated framework that is faster and less bloated. Google is open sourcing its work and plans to release an API later in the year.

Last year, Facebook announced Caffe2Go — a version of Caffe designed for the purpose of running deep learning models on mobile devices. It became the core of Style Transfer, Facebook’s real-time photo stylization tool and provided the foundation for future products and services.

Unfortunately, training is still too computationally intensive to be preformed on smartphones. But even ignoring training, pre-trained models can still be a slog to deal with. If models can run on device, at the edge, they can avoid the cloud and internet all-together. This enables more reliable performance in any environment.

TensorFlow lite drives home the point that Google cares about the nexus of AI and mobile devices. The next phase of Google’s work in this space will require dedicated hardware to maximize the benefits of using TensorFlow lite in the real world.