Google releases the final Android O developer preview

Google today launched the fourth and final developer preview of Android O, the latest version of its mobile operating system. As expected, there are no major changes in this release and, according to Google, the launch of Android O remains on track for later this summer. There’s still some time left before the official end of the summer (that’s September 22, in case you wondered), but given that Android Nougat was on a very similar schedule, I expect we’ll see a final release in August.

The final APIs for Android O arrived with the third preview release, so today’s update is all about incremental updates and stability. All of the major Android SDKs, tools and the Android Emulator will get minor version bumps in the next few days and the Android Support Library (version 26.0.0) is now considered stable, but, like before, the focus here is on making sure that developers can test their apps before the final version rolls out to users.

For users and developers, the new version of Android brings better notifications support across the OS, picture-in-picture support, autofill and more. There also are new features that are meant to optimize your phone’s battery. While none of the changes are revolutionary, Android developers should probably test their apps on Android O as soon as possible (even if they don’t plan to support the new features). To do so, they also should update to the latest version of Android Studio, Google’s IDE for writing Android apps.

The Google Play store is now also open for apps that are compiled against the latest API.

The Android O developer preview is available as an over-the-air update for regular users, too (assuming you are brave enough to run pre-release software on your phone). It’s available for Google’s Pixel, Pixel XL, Pixel C, Nexus 5X, Nexus 6P and the Nexus Player. To get it, you can enroll here.

Last year’s update, Android Nougat, now has around 11.5 percent market share in the Android ecosystem. It’s no secret that it takes the Android ecosystem quite a while to adapt new OS versions, but with a considerable number of Google’s own Pixel phones in the market now, it’s probably a good idea for developers to jump on the Android O bandwagon soon.

Alexa is coming to the Amazon app on Android, starting this week

This spring, Amazon introduced Alexa to a wider audience by making the virtual assistant a feature that could be accessed within the retailer’s main shopping app. However, that integration – which allows you to ask Alexa about news, weather, basic facts, or use the assistant’s add-on “skills,” among other things – was available only for iPhone users. This week, Alexa is arriving on Android, as well.

Amazon hasn’t made a formal announcement about the launch but, when asked, the company confirmed the integration is indeed rolling out this week.

Looks like Alexa was just added to the Amazon app for Android! Who wants to try playing Deal or No Deal from their Amazon app? 🙂 pic.twitter.com/vnxBW11pA8

— Nick Schwab (@nickschwab) July 20, 2017

Hat tip to Nick Schwab, who noticed Alexa on Android today

It still seems a little odd for Alexa to be integrated with the Amazon shopping application, given that Amazon has a standalone Alexa app already available.

But Amazon is likely relying on its flagship app’s massive reach to market Alexa’s capabilities to a broader customer base – including those who may not quite understand yet what Alexa is or what she can do. It’s sort of like a way to try a demo of Alexa without actually having to buy an Echo or other Alexa-powered device.

Plus, given that Amazon’s app already had voice capabilities for things like checking on orders or finding products, it makes sense to simply augment those existing commands by integrating Alexa’s more powerful assistant.

As with the Alexa that ships on Echo speakers and other gadgets, the in-app version of Alexa can perform a similar set of functions, including answering basic factual questions about people, places, dates, music, sports and more, or give you an update on your daily news through the Flash Briefing feature, and more.

Alexa can also dole out information on weather and traffic conditions, or even play music for you while you shop within the Amazon app.

The in-app Alexa also lets you control smart home devices (to an extent), or use other Alexa skills that let you do things like play a game, order an Uber, place your Starbucks pick-up order, and more.

Above: Alexa in the iOS Amazon app

It doesn’t seem like Amazon shopping app users would really need to perform these sort of tasks from their Amazon app, but again, this feels more like an Alexa demo than an everyday use case. The idea is to get consumers familiar with Alexa, which could encourage them to purchase a hardware device, like the Echo or Echo Dot, to bring her into their home.

The Alexa feature isn’t live for all Amazon app users on Android at this time.

In fact, it seems that current Echo device owners got an early heads up on the integration by way of the Alexa companion app. In the Alexa app, a notification appeared alerting to a new Alexa device being automatically added to users’ accounts. (See above tweet). The new addition, as it turned out, was the Amazon mobile app. Surprise!

The notification card also includes options to customize Alexa, or dismiss the card.

As far as we can tell, there isn’t any new Alexa functionality included with the Android launch – it’s just now becoming available to Android users in addition to iOS. Like most releases of this scale, the feature is rolling out gradually, rather than hitting all users at once.

Google brings its GIF-making Motion Stills app to Android

Google last year introduced an app called Motion Stills that aimed to help iOS users do more with their Live Photos – including being able to crop out blurry frames, stabilize images, and even turn Apple’s Live Photos format into more sharable GIFs. Today, Google says it’s bringing Motion Stills to Android, along with a few changes.

Obviously, Android users aren’t in need of a Live Photos image editing tool. Live Photos, after all, are a format Apple introduced back in 2015, allowing iPhone users to snap photos that animate with a touch.

And with the introduction of iOS 11 later this year, Apple is rolling out a number of built-in tools for editing Live Photos, further eliminating the need for third-party applications in order to do things like cropping, picking out a key photo, or applying effects – like the new loop effect that will make your Live Photos play more like a GIF.

It makes sense, then, that Google would now find a use case for some of its Motion Stills technology on its own Android platform.

The company says the Android app includes a new recording experience where everything you shoot is immediately transformed into short, sharable clips. To use this feature, you simply capture a Motion Still with a tap, like taking a photo. If that sounds a lot like Google is introducing its own take on Live Photos, well…you’d probably be right.

Another new feature called Fast Forward lets you reduce a longer recording into a short clip, as well. This works with recordings up to a minute long, and the video is processed right on your phone. You can adjust the playback speed from 1x to 8x after recording. Google details some of the technology it’s using to make this possible, including how it encodes videos with “a denser I-frame spacing to enable efficient seeking and playback;” and the use of “adaptive temporal downsampling in the linear solver and long-range stabilization.”

Or, in human speak, it’s making more stable, smoother clips you can easily share with friends, even if the original footage was super shaky.

The company shows this off in a sped-up clip of a bike ride over a dirt path:

Meanwhile, in terms of turning regular recordings into GIFs, Google introduced new technology as well. It says it redesigned its existing iOS video processing pipeline to use a streaming approach that processes each video frame as it’s recording. It then stabilizes the image while performing the loop optimization over the full sequence. Again, translated, this means you can quickly make a recording and immediately get a smoothed-out GIF to share as a result.

The company says the new app is meant to be a place where Google can continue to experiment with short-form video technology, and hints that some of the improvements may make their way to Google Photos in the future.

The Motion Stills app for Android is available as a free download on Google Play and works on Android 5.1 and higher.

Adobe launches redesigned Lightroom for Android

Adobe launched an update for its Lightroom photo management and editing apps on iOS and Android today. The iOS app for iPhone and iPad is getting a few new features, including support for Adobe’s selective brush, a new details tab and an interface update for the iPad version. That’s all pretty nice, but the biggest news here is that Adobe also completely redesigned the Android app from the ground up.

Adobe has long been an iOS-first shop and while it now offers most of its apps on Android, too, it often felt as if the teams spent far more time polishing the iOS apps than the Android versions. Lightroom on Android was always a pretty competent mobile version of the desktop experience, but it never felt all that snappy and native.

“We wanted to provide the best Android experience possible so we redesigned Lightroom for Android from the ground up to be faster, more efficient, and, well, more Android-y,” Adobe says in today’s announcement. “Every screen has been redesigned with the goal of ensuring a natural, native Android experience while providing the highest quality, professional-grade mobile photo editing app ever.”

Sadly, new features like Selective Brush, which complements the currently available linear and radial gradients, and the Detail tab that gives you global control over sharpening and noise, are still coming to iOS first. Chances are we’ll have to wait a little bit longer to get these on Android.

Google’s new experiment Triangle lets you block individual apps from using mobile data

Google recently began testing a new tool for helping people better manage the mobile data used by their smartphones. The new Android app, called Triangle, is currently being tested in the Philippines, and lets you do things like view your data balance, see which apps are accounting for the most data usage and even block individual applications from using your mobile data, among other things.

The problem of limited data is not one that’s as common here in the U.S., where unlimited data plans are the norm, and bandwidth is more readily available. However, in a number of emerging markets, mobile data usage is often a concern. With Triangle, Google is experimenting with a different way to cut down on mobile data by giving users more granular control over how that data is being used.

This isn’t Google’s first attempt at offering better data usage controls for mobile consumers. The company, years ago, added a “Data Saver” mode to its mobile Chrome browser, for example, and it has introduced built-in data-saver controls in select devices, like the Data Saver feature in its Pixel phones.

Triangle, by comparison, offers more fine-grained control over your applications compared to what’s provided within Pixel.

At the individual application level, Triangle users can customize how their apps are allowed to use data by choosing between options like 10 minutes at a time, 30 minutes or “Always.”

Users are also able to see their prepaid mobile data balance on carriers like Globe and Smart, as well as get an overview of their data-hogging apps. The carriers are offering data rewards through Triangle, as well, which lets users download and try new apps without impacting data, and encourages the use of existing apps in exchange for extra data added to their accounts.

Google did not make a formal announcement about Triangle’s launch, but the app was being discussed in online forums just last month. We understand, however, that Google began experimenting with Triangle in April.

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The company declined to speak about its future plans for the app, including if or when it expected to release Triangle to other emerging markets, or even developed ones like the U.S. for those who aren’t on unlimited data plans. Though experimental, Triangle is an official Google product — not one from its internal incubator, Area 120.

When asked, a company rep only offered the following statement: “We’re currently doing tests in the Philippines on ways to help users better manage their mobile data. We have nothing further to announce at this time.”

Triangle is currently a free download on the Google Play Store in the Philippines.

Android Pay adds support for American Express in Canada

Android Pay launched at the end of May in Canada, but at the time American Express was listed as “coming later this summer” in terms of support. AmEx users didn’t have to wait long, it turns out, because support just went live for their credit cards in Android’s mobile payments platform in the country.

AmEx joins a decent list of major Canadian banks, as well as MasterCard, Visa and Interac debit. There are still a few major Canadian banking holdouts, including TD and Royal Bank, but I’m personally pretty happy with the American Express addition, since it means I can finally use it in stores and in-app for payments.

It’s dead simple to set up, and then you can pay just by tapping your phone at contactless payment terminals. Just in time to hit the Beer Store or the LCBO ahead of the coming Canada Day weekend (that was all secret code exclusively designed for Canadian readers and expats).

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