Waze gets Google’s greenlight to be pre-installed on Android

When Google purchased Waze for roughly $1.15 billion in 2013, it was easy to assume that it would largely end up folded into Google Maps. But it looks as if Google has different plans for the mapping software. At Mobile World Congress this week, Waze announced that it would be included in the batch of apps that can be preinstalled on Android phones.

Obviously, now that Waze is an official Google Mobile Services app — joining apps like Gmail, Chrome, and Google Play — this leads to Waze possibly being pre-installed out of the box on future devices. But most Android phones already come with Google Maps, also a Google Mobile Services app, which is more than good enough for most users. This could lead to confusion and accusations of bloatware: Why does Google need to stick two different mapping apps on your device?

Waze actually has a couple of features that you won’t find on Google Maps, even though that app does track traffic as well. For instance, Waze recently added a feature called Places, which allows users to update or add information about places they’ve visited. Waze’s press release also points to its Connected Citizens program, which takes road reports from Waze users and passes them on to government departments, ostensibly to improve city efficiency. Waze still is best known for its feature that takes traffic into account when deciding the best route.

Google Maps taps into Waze data for its traffic reports, so users can benefit from Waze’s user reports without using the app. But Waze is much better at collecting reports than Google Maps is, and that’s probably why Google wants it on as many phones as possible.

Signal secure comms app for iPhone gains TextSecure compatibility

Open Whisper Systems has released version 2 of its Signal secure calling app for iPhone. This is an important iteration, as it introduces secure text messaging that’s compatible with the outfit’s TextSecure app for Android — for now, Open Whisper Systems’ secure voice app for Android, RedPhone, remains separate from that, though everything will come together later this year in a Signal app that works across iOS, Android and the desktop. As secure communications operations go, Open Whisper Systems has good credibility, offering end-to-end crypto, auditable open-source code and decent identity verification. The TextSecure protocol has also found its way into WhatsApp, which is why Android-toting users of that Facebook-owned messaging app enjoy extra security these days.

BlackBerry shows off affordable, touchscreen-only Leap handset

BlackBerry has launched a touchscreen-only smartphone — its first since the Z3 a year ago — called the Leap. It will be reasonably affordable at $275 off-contract when it goes on sale this April.

The handset has a five-inch display and will reportedly go on sale in Europe and Asia first. BlackBerry is pushing the security angle pretty hard on this one, no doubt as a partial reaction to efforts by the likes of Blackphone and Jolla to appeal to privacy-conscious businesses and consumers.

“Companies and everyday consumers are finding out the hard way that mobile security is paramount. BlackBerry Leap was built specifically for mobile professionals who see their smartphone device as a powerful and durable productivity tool that also safeguards sensitive communications at all times,” BlackBerry devices chief Ron Louks said in a statement.

Indeed, the company also used Mobile World Congress in Barcelona to announce the BlackBerry Experience Suite, which is actually three suites of services that will work across rival platforms including iOS, Android and Windows. Two of the bundles will cover productivity and communications and collaboration, while the third will provide encryption and privacy controls for emails and documents.

Security aside, BlackBerry is promising that the Leap can take up to 25 hours of “heavy use” before its 2,800mAh battery gives up. It has an eight-megapixel rear camera and 16GB of internal storage with extra microSD support. As with other recent BlackBerry phones, the Leap also comes with the Assistant voice-and-text command feature and two app stores, BlackBerry World and the Amazon Appstore.

According to reports of the MWC unveiling of the device, Louks also briefly held up an unnamed handset with a slide-out keyboard that will properly appear later this year.

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Google backtracks on Android 5.0 default encryption

When the Nexus 6 handset arrived late last year, it came with full data encryption enabled out the box. Google also pushed its hardware partners to do the same at first, but now appears to have quietly changed the requirement with a strong recommendation to enable encryption by default, reports ArsTechnica.

The same site noted performance issues with Google’s Nexus 6 in November, particularly with regards to read and write disk speeds, which it attributed to the encryption. How much of an impact did the tests show? In some cases, the new [company]Google[/company] Nexus 6 was slower than the Nexus 5 it was designed to replace, even though the handset had much improved internal components.

Nexus 6 side

Google did say in September of 2014 that the then called Android L software — later to become Android 5.0 Lollipop — would have encryption enabled by default out of the box. New devices with Android 5.0, however, don’t have the security feature enabled: The new $149 Moto E with LTE, is a perfect example. So what’s changed?

According to Ars, Google’s Android Compatibility Definition document is what’s changed; specifically, the section on disk encryption with Google making emphasis on what it recommends:

If the device implementation has a lock screen, the device MUST support full-disk encryption of the application private data (/data partition) as well as the SD card partition if it is a permanent, non-removable part of the device. For devices supporting full-disk encryption, the full-disk encryption SHOULD be enabled all the time after the user has completed the out-of-box experience. While this requirement is stated as SHOULD for this version of the Android platform, it is very strongly RECOMMENDED as we expect this to change to MUST in the future versions of Android.

Essentially, Google has gone back to having encryption as an option for new Android 5.0 devices, not a requirement: They must support it but it isn’t necessary to enable it by default. However, the last sentence in the guidelines indicates that hardware partners should be ready for this to change back in a future version of Android.

From security standpoint, this is a bit of a disappointment. If encryption impacts performance, however, Google has little choice here.

The concern I have is that most mainstream Android users won’t know that they should enable encryption their device or simply don’t know how. My hope is that if Google reduced the requirements due to performance, it finds a way to address the root cause of the issue and then get device encryption back as a default option.

Podo: It’s like a selfie stick that you just stick to things

Meet Podo. It’s a Bluetooth-enabled camera that fits easily in the palm of your hand, and connects to your Android or iOS device. There’s not a lot to say about this device, other than a certain class of people will probably really, really see the value in buying a tiny cube that sticks to walls, mirrors or any smooth, solid surface and lets you snap a selfie with ease.

Obviously, you could use it for more than taking a selfie. It might be fun to set it up to snap photos of your pet sleeping in a hard to reach location or less positively, could become a boon to voyeurs everywhere. The photos it snaps are transmitted wirelessly back to your device via the Bluetooth connection.

The device is part of a Kickstarter campaign launching Monday with an early bird special of $79 per Podo and a regular Kickstarter price of $89 per camera. The regular price will be $99. Podo was founded in 2013 and had raised $1.5 million. It was part of the Highway 1 incubator and the camera is expected to ship by August.

Sony’s new Xperia Z4 tablet has a slick docking keyboard

Sony hasn’t debuted a handset at this week’s Mobile World Congress, but it does have a new high-end Android tablet coming in June. The Xperia Z4 tablet boasts a 2560 x 1600 resolution screen, is fully waterproof and has an optional Bluetooth keyboard that turns the 10.1-inch slate into a mini Android laptop of sorts.

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Typical of Sony’s tablet efforts, the company is keeping the design slim at 6.1 millimeters and packing it with power. Inside the Xperia Z4 tablet is an eight-core 2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 810, the same chipset you’ll find in the newest phones coming from MWC. The slate will have 32GB of internal flash storage, a microSD card slot, 3GB of memory and available in both a Wi-Fi and LTE model. The company says the 6,000 mAh battery is good for 17 hours of video playback.

Audio should sound good on the Xperia Z4 tablet, which includes an FM radio inside. Sony’s new tablet supports high-resolution audio file playback and the company’s Clear Audio+ technology, something I’ve found to be quite good when using the Sony Walkman.

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An add-on accessory has my interest here too: The optional BKB50 Bluetooth keyboard adds a typing and trackpad experience to the Xperia Z4. Sony’s new slate fits into a slot on the keyboard, giving you up to a 130-degree tilt angle when using the tablet. Sony says the BKB50 has NFC for pairing with the Xperia Z4 and supports dock detection.

Neither product has a price tag yet and they won’t be available for a few months yet, so you have time to save up if you want a waterproof Android 5.0 tablet that you can use with a keyboard customized to get the most of this slate.

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Amid new watches, Android Wear crosses 1M downloads

The number of Android Wear downloads has crossed the into the one to five million range on Google Play, suggesting that around one million people are wearing smartwatches powered by Google software.

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Last month, estimates of 720,000 Android Wear smartwatches shipping in 2014 were reported, causing some to consider Google’s watch ambitions to be a flop. At the time, Android Wear downloads were in the 500,000 to 1,000,000 range.

I noted then there were several reasons not to be surprised or disappointed by the Android Wear numbers; only a few watches were even available for much of the measured time period and that the platform was still young yet. Simply put: It’s going to take time for [company]Google[/company] to mature the software and for hardware makers to make more attractive watches.

Watch-Urbane

This week, two companies are doing just that. LG is showing off its Watch Urbane while Huawei has debuted its fashionable Huawei Watch made with stainless steel case and sapphire crystal. These join the handful of previously available watches, some of which have had less than inspiring designs while others such as the Moto 360 have stood out with solid looks. Motorola is adding customized options for its watch later this month.

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Given that there are now a million Android Wear downloads, it’s reasonable to assume one of three things with earlier estimates. One, the 720,000 shipments in 2014 was accurate and there was nearly a 50 percent jump in Android Wear sales over the past two months. Two, the shipment estimate was low to begin with. Or three, the most likely scenario to me, is a combination of both: Estimates were low and a meaningful number people did buy an Android Wear watch in either January or February.

Unfortunately, we’ll likely never know for sure. While Google can easily tell how many Android phones with its services are bought through phone activations, you don’t activate an Android Wear watch; it’s an extension of an Android phone. The best proxy we have to determine Android Wear sales is the number of downloads for its companion app, which are now one million or more.

The next cross-over point for the Android Wear app happens once it’s downloaded more than 5 million times. If the software and hardware keep improving, I think there’s a chance we see that this year; perhaps in the late second or third quarter, depending on the platform’s maturity, device design and pricing. And as they say, “a rising tide lifts all boats,” so I anticipate next week’s Apple Watch exepcted launch will raise overall consumer awareness of smartwatches, which could help Android Wear sales.

New Qualcomm deal opens the door for more Cyanogen-powered phones

Cyanogen has quietly become the most important company working on Android not named Google.

On Monday, it announced a new partnership with chip giant Qualcomm which will result in Cyanogen’s version of Android being pre-installed on Qualcomm’s reference designs. Given that Asian smartphone manufacturers often heavily rely on reference designs to build the devices that they ultimately take to market, this could lead to a significant spike in devices sold with Cyanogen pre-installed.

To date, Cyanogen has been pre-installed on three devices, the Oppo N1, the OnePlus One, and the Micromax Yureka, according to the company. None of them have been huge sellers or widely available in the United States. On the tails of this announcement with Qualcomm, Cyanogen will be announcing later this week that its software will be pre-installed in at least one new device.

OnePlus One camera app

The Qualcomm deal means that Cyanogen’s software will be provided for devices running low-to-mid range Snapdragon 200, 400, and 600 line of chips, as opposed to the 800 series that’s used in pricey devices like the HTC One M9, so it’s unlikely that there will be a truly premium device with Cyanogen pre-installed in the near future. It’s more likely that Cyanogen will start popping up in affordable devices in developing markets.

It’s hard to tell what Google thinks of Cyanogen. Google’s head of Android Sundar Pichai commented earlier on Monday that he played with Cyanogen’s phone but he doesn’t “know their value yet” and he questions “the premise of building something without Google services.”

Google’s version of Android is built on top of an open source version of Android. But most of Android’s best features are closed-source and come directly from Google. If Cyanogen was to build up its own app store, and possibly use Microsoft’s office and mapping software — certainly possible, given that Microsoft is rumored to be an investor in Cyanogen — then it could become a real rival to Google’s global Android ambitions.

Cyanogen already sports a few interesting features that Google can’t match at the moment, like Nextbit’s cloud-based device syncing. Cyanogen also supports theming, which is a popular feature not included in mainstream Android. Cyanogen could become an attractive Google alternative for Chinese phone makers, who don’t usually pre-install Google services.

Cyanogen started as a alternative firmware project for Android tinkerers, and it’s starting to grow up as a company, releasing a new logo on Monday. As it gets its software into more devices and raises more money, it could end up becoming a bigger rival to Google itself.

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Google will announce its MVNO in the “coming months”: Sundar Pichai

Google’s long rumored move to becoming a wireless carrier took one step closer to reality on Monday. At Mobile World Congress, Google’s second-in-command executive Sundar Pichai confirmed that Google is working on a becoming a mobile virtual network operator, and revealed that the Google will announce its MVNO in the coming months.

Although Pichai’s remarks on the subject were brief, he laid out Google’s aims and set expectations for the service. It’s not going to be taking on AT&T or Verizon head-on. Instead, it’s a “small scale” experiment of sorts, meant to push carriers to implement new Android features that Google’s been working on. One example Pichai provided is that when a call drops on one end, the Google MVNO will be able to automatically bring the call back.

In that way, Google’s MVNO seems like a sibling to its line of Nexus phones: It’s not meant to be a commercial force revenue- and sales-wise, but it’s intended to show Google’s long roster of partners what’s possible when they trust Google’s technology and leadership.

“It’s a very small-scale compared to the rest of the OEM industry, but it pushes the needle. I think we’re at the state where we need to think of hardware, software, and connectivity together,” Pichar said, according to the Verge. “We don’t intend to be a carrier at scale, and we’re working with existing partners.”

The fact that Google’s MVNO isn’t commercially-focused shouldn’t be a surprise. When the recent rumors of Google’s carrier ambitions started flying last month, my colleague Kevin Fitchard wrote that Google has no intention to get into the low margin business of selling minutes and data:

I could definitely see Google trying to temporarily shake things up in the industry, as the Information suggests, with a new approach to the technology and business model of wireless (it’s doing much the same thing with Google Fiber). But in the long-term, selling minutes and gigabytes, climbing towers and fielding phone calls from irate customers is not the kind of utility business Google wants to be in.

Now that it’s been confirmed that Google is becoming a wireless carrier, albeit at a small scale, speculation will center on which carrier it’s buying capacity from (likely T-Mobile and Sprint), where the service will be available (California? Or areas with Google Fiber?), and whether it will work with non-Android devices.

1:00pm ET: This story has been updated to clarify Pichai’s remarks. Google will be announcing its MVNO in the coming months, not launching it, according to Google PR, which implies availability may be some way off.

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Microsoft’s new budget Lumias are all about the services

Microsoft has unveiled a couple new handsets, the Lumia 640 and 640 XL, at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The phones themselves are pretty low-priced for their decent specifications, but what’s particularly interesting about them is the degree to which they’re delivery devices for Microsoft’s services.

Both the 5-inch Lumia 640 and the 5.7-inch Lumia 640 XL, which cost from €139 ($155) and €189 respectively, come bundled with the [company]Microsoft[/company] Office apps and a year’s subscription to Office 365 that can be used across the phone itself as well as one PC or Mac and one tablet. That includes a terabyte of OneDrive storage and 60 Skype World minutes per month.

Bearing in mind that the same bundle of services usually costs €69/$69 per year, that’s a pretty sweet deal, and it may tempt quite a few budget phone buyers into using Microsoft’s subscription services.

What’s more, Microsoft also announced a “Universal Foldable Keyboard” – a fairly thin Bluetooth affair – that will work with not only Windows devices but also iOS and Android devices. Microsoft has been putting out some decent Office apps for those rival platforms of late, and the keyboard is just one more way for it to keep users of almost any device thinking of the Microsoft brand and heading for its services.

Sure, the company didn’t unveil any new flagships on Monday – these will probably appear closer to the release of Windows 10 – but it did demonstrate how its mobile hardware and software strategies are coming together nicely as the Nokia handsets acquisition shrinks in the rear view mirror.

Here are the specs for those new Lumias, by the way: The 640 and 640 XL are both based on a 1.2 quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor and a gig of RAM. The XL has a 3,000mAh battery as opposed to the smaller phone’s 2,500mAh affair, and a beefier camera too at 13 megapixels versus eight megapixels. Both devices have a dual-SIM option.

The 640 will cost €139 for the 3G version and €159 4G version, and will ship in April. The 640 XL will cost €189 for the 3G version and €219 for the 4G version, and will appear first in March.

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