Microsoft is beta testing a feature that brings Cortana to Android’s lock screen

If you’re enrolled in the beta version of the Cortana app for Android, you’ve already got access to one of its more interesting updates in recent memory. As spotted by MSPoweruser, Microsoft has introduced a feature that brings its AI assistant front and center on Google’s mobile OS.

Enabling “Add Cortana to my lock screen” will add a shortcut to the app directly on top of a user’s existing lock screen – similar to what many Android manufacturers have implemented for their own camera apps. In its current form, at least, the shortcut appears accessible to anyone who picks up the handset, whether they know the password or not.

The play here for Microsoft is pretty straightforward – finding a new mobile avenue for the proliferation of its assistant as it continues to struggle to find a way forward with its own mobile operating system ambitions. By bringing Cortana to the front, the company is no doubt hoping some users will opt into its offering over Google Assistant.

It seems like a long shot for most users, given how deeply engrained Assistant is into Android, but hey, anyone who already installed Cortana on their Android handset was likely on the lookout for an alternative, or, at very least, a way to better integrate their mobile device with their Windows PC.

For its part, Microsoft also issued a pretty large upgrade to its Cortana app for Android and iOS just last month. No word on whether the feature is planned for the latter, but it’s easy to imagine pushback from Apple, should Microsoft get more aggressive with its personal assistant.

Google for Android gets new feature to deal with inconsistent internet connections

As more of the world’s population comes online for the first time, Google is focusing on making the its services more accessible. That means smaller sized apps for budget devices with limited space, and offline support to help deal with intermittent, spotty or weak internet connections.

We’ve seen the likes of YouTube, Google Maps, Google Translate and others given emerging market-friendly features, and today the Google (search) app for Android got a nifty addition that performs your searches when you’re offline.

Well, kinda, not quite, almost. Offline search is impossible, but Google has come pretty close. The app will now take your search query while you are offline, save it, then deliver the result as soon as your connection is reestablished. As Google itself pointed out in a blog post, that’s a nice little addition for when you find yourself without network in a channel, on an underground train or way out in the sticks.

“And if you’re worried about data charges or preserving battery life, don’t fret. This feature won’t drain your battery, and by fetching streamlined search results pages, it minimally impacts data usage,” the company added.

The feature is live on the Android version of the Google search app, which is significant seems how Android is the main operating system in emerging markets where new internet users are coming from. There’s no word on when, or even whether, it will roll out to the iOS version.

App downloads up 15 percent in 2016, revenue up 40 percent thanks to China

The app industry is continuing to grow, according to a new year-end analysis from app intelligence firm App Annie, out today, which found that app downloads, time spent in apps and revenue grew across the board over the course of 2016. Worldwide downloads were up 15 percent year-over-year, time spent in apps was up 25 percent, and the revenue paid to developers increased by 40 percent.

Downloads were roughly on the same path as last year, growing by 13 billion across the iOS App Store and Google Play to reach over 90 billion. Because of China, iOS downloads increased more this year than they did in 2015. In addition, non-game apps contributed to more download growth than games, in particular in categories like Finance, Travel, Photo & Video on iOS and Productivity, Tools, and Social on Google Play.

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Of course, downloads don’t tell the whole story, which is why App Annie examined the time spent using apps as well. It found that total time in apps was up by over 150 billion hours in 2016, reaching nearly 900 billion hours. However, this analysis was performed only on Android devices, excluding China, so it’s not the full picture.

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It’s worth comparing this metric with that from another year-end report, released earlier this month from rival firm Sensor Tower. Its analysis also found that time spent in mobile apps was growing (it believed it to be much higher: 69 percent across iOS and Android), and it found that actual app usage – meaning sessions (aka app launches) – was only up by 11 percent. App Annie is defining usage as “time spent in apps,” which is technically a different metric.

In addition, Sensor Tower’s report found that sessions that grew in apps like messaging, social, sports, and business at the expense of others, including games.

Those the two reports come up with different figures, the same overall trends are apparent: users are spending more time in their apps, and games may not be a growth leader, on some fronts at least.

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App Annie’s report also noted that users are launching a lot of apps per month in many markets – over 30, in fact, in places like the U.S., U.K., China, India, Japan Brazil and South Korea. This is roughly the same figure as in previous years. Nielsen had said in 2015 that people used around 26 or 27 apps per month. However, other analysts have noted before that only five non-native apps see heavy use monthly.

2016 was also a good year for App Store revenue growth, App Annie says. Publishers were paid over $35 billion across the iOS and Android app stores, or 40 percent growth – that’s more than 2015’s growth rate. When third-party Android stores were included in the analysis, revenue increased to almost $89 billion.

Again, China’s influence came into play here, contributing to nearly half of the iOS App Store’s annual growth. The country also passed all others to becoming the leading source of App Store revenue in 2016.

Most of China’s App Store revenue comes from games, and role-playing games were especially popular last year. Fantasy Westward Journey, for example, has earned over $800 million since its 2015 release. China also saw the largest revenue gains in social networking, with Tencent’s QQ messaging app contributing substantially.

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Elsewhere in the world, games didn’t lose their edge when it comes to making developers money. The category generated 75 percent and 90 percent of revenue on the iOS App Store and Google Play, respectively. Of course, Pokémon Go’s impact cannot be overlooked here – the game reached $500 million in consumer spend in under 2 months’ time. By the end of 2016, it reached over $950 million in consumer spend – faster than some of the most successful games of all time, including Candy Crush, Puzzle & Dragons, and Clash of Clans.

The full report dives into other year-end trends, as well, including fintech apps’ popularity, the growth in video streaming (YouTube was number one in the U.S. and the U.K., but Netflix brought in more revenue), and increased use of shopping apps.

App Annie also noted that, based on downloads, Facebook earned 4 out of 5 of the top apps worldwide. The top 5 in order were Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram and Snapchat. This is a bit different from Nielsen’s list, which counted YouTube, Google Maps and Google Search in the top 5. By revenue, App Annie’s list was: Spotify, LINE, Netflix, Tinder and HBO Now.

HTC outs an always listening, dual-screen smartphone with its own AI assistant

Just when you thought HTC might be ready to hang up on its smartphone efforts, the Android underdog is turning up the volume and announcing what it describes as a “new direction” — in the form of a series of smartphones preloaded with its own AI assistant.

While mobile phones were originally a device for talking to other humans, before smartphones plus touchscreens turned devices (and people) into texting machines, analysts are spying signs of a renaissance for voice — as a control mechanism to speed up interacting with increasingly complex devices.

Every major smartphone device and OS maker has their own AI these days, from Apple’s Siri, to Microsoft’s Cortana, to Samsung’s Viv, to Amazon’s Alexa, to Google’s Assistant. HTC is finally following suit, unveiling what it’s calling the “HTC Sense companion” at a launch event today.

The company teased the launch of the new U series smartphones last month, hinting at the “For U” personalization it had in the pipeline. Today it announced two new Android handsets preloaded with the AI assistant: the HTC U Ultra, a 5.7 inch flagship phablet clad in glass on the front and back; and a more mid-tier option called the HTC U Play, with a 5.2 inch display.

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A spokeswoman for the company confirmed the AI assistant uses HTC’s “own in-built AI software”, but added it is also compatible with Google Now.

HTC says the Sense AI learns from the user’s “daily phone habits” to push relevant suggestions — giving examples such as reminders to charge your phone to avoid it running out of juice, or a prompt to wear warm clothes when the weather is cold, or suggestions for a restaurant for a forthcoming date.

A small second screen above the main panel is used to display suggestions from the Sense companion, and also for showing other personalized notifications — such as messages from priority contacts and favourite apps.

Get updated, not interrupted. The Dual Display on the HTC U Ultra is perfect for quickly accessing the people and things that matter most. pic.twitter.com/y5clZzE2oL

— HTC (@htc) January 12, 2017

HTC says the idea with the dual display is to free up the main screen for uninterrupted browsing, though it looks to offer a pretty incremental benefit in terms of the quantity of screen real estate that will not be periodically obscured by notifications. (But, depending on how intelligent its prompts are, it might help cut down on some navigating-related swiping).

The U Ultra flagship also includes four omnidirectional microphones to power an always listening feature aimed at making it easier for users to interact with the device and the AI via their voice. We’ve asked HTC for more details on how this functions — in terms of trigger word, and how it’s processing and storing users’ voice data — and will update this story with any response. (You can read the company’s privacy policy here.)

HTC is also launching a premium, “ultra-hard”, sapphire glass edition of the Ultra, which comes with 128GB internal storage.

Elsewhere, HTC lauds the “ultra thin” design of the new U series glass-clad devices, which both have a waist measurement that’s 7.99mm at its thickest.

Both also have a front facing camera that can switch between 16MP high resolution images and a 4MP ultra pixel mode to suit lightning conditions. And there’s a new ‘selfie panorama’ mode option to offer a software alternative to wielding a selfie stick. Expect the usual smartphone color options (plus pink).

Also in the box: headphones that HTC claims can adapt to the ambient noise levels to auto adjust for the correct volume.

The company says the U Ultra and U Play will be arriving in multiple European markets next month. Pricing has yet to be announced.

Timing for any US launch is also not clear, though the company has tweeted the U Ultra will launch globally in Q1.

The HTC U Ultra will be rolling out in regions around the world in Q1 2017. Please check your local retailers for availability and pricing.

— HTC (@htc) January 12, 2017

What if the iPhone had never arrived?

Ten years ago the cellphone industry was as teeming with life as a coral reef. Weird, multi-colored Nokias and Samsungs flitted between fronds of seagrass while Sidekicks scuttled in and out of tiny sea caves. Blackberries lumbered through the coral like lions on the hunt, eviscerating all “serious” comers with better software. Apple had released a deeply embarrassing clownfish of a phone in a Motorola joint venture. Rap stars and fanboys paid thousands to get the latest cellphones and there was a website, Bengal Boy, dedicated to showing both bikini-clad women and Motorola PEBLs. It was a strange riotous ecosystem where you could upgrade your phone every few months and never run out of choices.

Now that coral reef is bleached bone white and space gray. There is one kind of phone, the black slab, and two manufacturers. A decade ago phones slipped, slid, and transformed. Now they just slide to unlock.

What would have happened had Cupertino not launched the iPhone when they did? I think Blackberry and Palm would still be alive, their OSes and software churning away on countless phones. The rise of the truly open cellphone – what Android was supposed to be but isn’t – would have created an entirely new ecosystem for cellphone apps and home-brew. We’d have Linux on mobile more than we do now.

Carriers would be more important. They would be able to make deals and sell exclusive and unusual phones. Apple stopped all that in an instant by making AT&T the hottest carrier in the world for a few months. Now a carrier’s sales are defined by Apple’s sales cycle, not the market’s. The latest Android phone from Google makes a solid thump on any carrier that picks it up but the iPhone can make a quarter or a year.

We’d also have some aesthetic differences in phones, at least more than we have now. While the small differences between cellphones are apparent to the aficionado most people either own an “Android” or an iPhone. A decade ago you could choose between multiple “stacks,” mostly written in Java, with very few real apps available for download with no real way to pay for them. Phones existed as self-contained microclimates designed for a few simple purposes. Doing business? Get a Blackberry. Feeling fancy? Get an LG Chocolate. Messaging a lot? Motorola Q was your style.

Apple and Samsung entered into a massive battle in about 2010. At this point most of the variations had died out and the Galaxy line competed with the iPhones on a feature-for-feature basis. GPS, retina displays, and great cameras appeared one after the other on phones from each manufacturer while once-great giants – HTC, LG, Sony Ericsson, Nokia – watched. The dream of an open Android quickly died under this pressure resulting in only two locked OSes and a few outliers. At this point it would be literally impossible to sell an alternative, open or not. Just ask Microsoft and RIM.

A world without iPhone would be interesting. Those once-mighty giants would still be running from the “three phones every six months” playbook releasing any number of specially defined handsets for their low, middle, and high-end segments. Palm would have continued to develop its surprisingly good PalmOS and would probably still be a powerhouse. Smaller manufacturers like HTC would be much bigger and Nokia would definitely be churning out phones that could double as paving stones.

The iPhone took away our choices. It took away software freedom and it defined a market full of ad-supported games and one-size-fits-all design. It made everything a me-too.

But it also led the way for a la carte music sales, streaming, detailed mapping, photo sharing, and aesthetics. It helped us get from the early plastic age into a world of better and more recyclable materials. It moved us away from a riot of color to uniformity and it made manufacturers work harder on the little things instead of shipping and forgetting. It gave us Google, Twitter, and Facebook and propelled Uber into the stratosphere. It build countless millionaires who used its platform to build and sell great apps.

We lost a lot in the past decade. We lost fun. We lost fashion. We lost the entrepreneurial streak that once buoyed cellphone manufacturers. All that is gone, replaced by a cut-throat world of shipping the latest and the greatest to a public that is used to getting the best. There is still room for the unusual and the new in the world of cellphones but it usually trickles up from the low-end markets where there is still impetus for differentiation. Up in the rarified world of $500 handsets you basically get a black slab of glass whether you want it or not.

There has been a lot of talk about the future of mobile and I think it’s definitely about to change. Phones will become less interesting when we can talk to and see our interfaces using aural and AR. AI, however primitive, will kill our contact books and calendar apps. App stores will shrink and then explode as developers learn to use new techniques. Our phones will get thinner thanks to new battery systems and cloud computing will let us do more with less. In short, things are about to change as much as they did in 2007.

Here’s hoping the iPhone can keep up.

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    Sony Ericsson J300
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    N70
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    Motorola Q
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    LG Chocolate
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HMD’s first Nokia smartphone is heading to China

Nokia fans hankering to get their hands on a new smartphone with their beloved brand name — and without Microsoft’s unloved mobile OS — will need to go to China if they want to buy the first Android-powered from the Finnish phone maker that’s now licensing Nokia’s IP for phones.

The new device maker, HMD, was founded last year by a group of senior ex-Nokians, with the explicit aim of (exclusively) licensing Nokia’s brand name for new mobile hardware — having acquired the relevant rights from former owner, Microsoft back in May.

HMD’s first two mobiles, outted last month, were both features phones. But it’s now announced its debut smartphone: a “premium” handset it’s calling the Nokia 6, which is billed to launch in China in “early 2017”. The device will be distributed exclusively via local electronics ecommerce giant, JD.com, with a price-tag of 1699 CNY ($245).

So what kind of Nokia-branded Android smartphone will $245 buy you? A highly polished aluminum unibody handset, packing a 5.5 inch Gorilla Glass HD screen, which, at a quick glance, could pass for an iPhone.

Inside there’s a Qualcomm Snapdragon 430 processor, 4GB RAM, 64GB storage and the latest flavor of Google’s Android OS (Nougat). Also on board: dual speakers, Dolby Atmos audio, a 16MP rear camera and 8MP front facing lens (both f/2.0).

Commenting in a statement, CEO Arto Nummela, flagged factors such as the Nokia 6’s design, durability, entertainment and display features. “The Nokia 6 is a result of listening to our consumers who desire a beautifully crafted handset with exceptional durability, entertainment and display features,” he said.

Why is HMD focusing on China? It points to the size of the smartphone market — 552M+ users last year, with projected growth to 593M+ in 2017 — calling it “strategically important”. So this is absolutely about seeking to drive volume sales in a market that still has some growth potential, which, given what can even be size zero Android OEM margins these days, is as you’d expect.

Nummela goes on to suggest HMD will be expanding its portfolio quickly with additional handsets in the coming months — so again, it looks to be gearing up to push for volume sales.

“Our ambition is to deliver a premium product, which meets consumer needs at every price point, in every market,” he said. “We start today, with our premium, high quality Nokia 6; built to deliver a fantastic core user experience for Chinese consumers. We look forward to unveiling further products in the first half of this year.”

The fiercely competitive phone making space has not been kind to many a seasoned hardware firm in recent years. So it remains to be seen whether a Finnish Nokia IP licensing vehicle will find fairer business fortunes here or be forced to watch a veteran brand being drowned out amid all the noise.

According to Strategy Analytics’ 2016 Q3 smartphone market report, three of the top five device makers hailed from China — with fast-growing local challenger OEMs such as OPPO, Vivo and LeEco taking share from larger firm Huawei, for example.

The analyst dubbed competition in the Chinese market as “intense”, noting that Huawei’s growth more than halved in the quarter owing to this clutch of domestic rivals. HMD will clearly be hoping to add its name to the list of rising challenges in future years.