Facebook’s new Android app goes light on the data

Facebook is serious about spreading its service to people in countries without fast cellular networks or cutting-edge smartphones. Its new Android app, Facebook Lite, which isn’t available in the United States or Europe, is targeted at people with poor internet service or who are limited to 2G networks.

Facebook Lite clocks in at a 252KB download — about one hundredth the size of Facebook’s main Android app, which is around 25MB depending on your device. The app is based on the software that Facebook on feature phones uses, but it sports Android-specific features like push notifications and camera uploads. Unlike Facebook’s main app, Facebook Lite also includes Facebook Messenger.


This isn’t the first version of Facebook targeted at developing countries — Facebook previously used the “Facebook Lite” moniker in 2009 for a similarly stripped-down version of its website found on the web at lite.facebook.com. Facebook shut that site down in 2010.

In addition to lightweight versions of Facebook for Android, Facebook continues to adapt its service to feature phones without browsers as part of the Facebook Zero project. As part of the Facebook-led Internet.org program, Facebook and Facebook Messenger don’t count against users’ data caps in regions of Zambia. Plus, Facebook owns WhatsApp, which is the most popular messaging service in many developing nations.

Facebook Lite is only available in eight countries to start. People in Bangladesh, Nepal, Nigeria, South Africa, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Zimbabwe with certain Android devices can download it from Google Play now.

Facebook’s director of global connectivity Chris Weasler spoke at Gigaom’s Structure Connect conference in 2014, telling a story about how Facebook employees reworked the Facebook app to make it 50 percent lighter on data usage after finding out they could barely use the service on Nigerian networks.


This app organizes iPhone screenshots and makes them useful

On mobile devices, screenshots end up in the camera roll alongside your other photos, even though a screenshot is a completely different type of image than a photograph. Screenshots are something you saw on your screen that you want to keep, whether it’s an ill-advised Facebook message you think is going to get deleted later, or your high score on Flappy Bird.

A new app from San Francisco and Bejing-based Landscape Mobile, simply called Screenshots, wants to be the go-to spot for collecting and sharing screenshots on your iPhone. It’s not the first screenshot manager, but the app hopes to go beyond simply organizing screenshots. With promised features like finding links embedded in screenshots, Screenshots wants to actually use the information contained in a screenshot to make users’ lives easier.


“A screenshot is like a photo of your digital life,” Founder Yue Zhuge said. “Screenshots are not a regular image. People don’t care about the visual aspect of a screenshots, they care about the information.”

The Screenshots app automatically takes all the screenshots from your camera roll and organizes them by the app they depict — so screenshots of Facebook are all in a single menu, for instance. Not only does that make it easier to delete or share, say, several Instagram screenshots at once, but it’s also an interesting organized look at the content you once thought was worth keeping. It can’t identify all apps, though, and sticks anything it doesn’t recognize in an “other” folder. Unfortunately, that category includes most games. The app also doesn’t require an update or sync. Screenshots should show up in the app as soon as you take them.


One handy feature is that Screenshots can strip the user interface from around an image in a screenshot, which is an easy way to “re-gram” Instagram photos other people posted. The developers offered an example in which a user can grab an image and link from Facebook and post it to Pinterest using Screenshots.

“We’re seeing if images can be used as a bridge between apps on mobile,” Zhuge said.

Screenshots can extract English text using an OCR process after uploading the screenshot to the cloud.The app also can extract the link from certain screenshots, so if you have a grab of a friend’s Facebook post, the app should be able to pull the link out of the image. It’s a trick that the same developers have used before in an app called Sight — which went a little farther, and acted a bit like a screenshot-based Instapaper by pulling full articles from text found in screenshots.

It sounds useful, especially considering the rise of the “screenshort” as a way to share a passage of text on social media. Unfortunately, Screenshots doesn’t work flawlessly yet. When analyzing screenshots, I found the app was reading the top bar of my iPhone screen included in the screenshots, so transcriptions invariably started with “AT&T LTE” and the time. I also had trouble getting Screenshots to recognize the links my friends posted on Facebook.

It’s too bad because I think Landscape Mobile could be on to something by pulling out interesting data from a screenshot. Some days my camera roll is positively filled with screengrabs, usually text. Screenshots is currently a great way to save, organize, and share them, but doesn’t yet fulfill its promise to extract the rich information inside.

Screenshots is a free download for iOS.

WhatsApp cracks down on people using unofficial clients

WhatsApp is banning users from its service for 24 hours because they were caught sending and receiving messages on an unofficial client that wasn’t made by WhatsApp.

Many users afflicted an were using Whatsapp+, one of the most popular third-party WhatsApp clients for Android phones. Android Police noted that people using another WhatsApp alternative, WhatsappMD, are also reporting being banned.

Last weekend, as BGR India pointed out, several tech-focused websites in India erroneously reported that WhatsApp+ was actually going to be the new WhatsApp app, for some reason — perhaps because its support for themes and emoji can be seen as improvements over the standard client. In a statement posted to its FAQ page, WhatsApp explained why it banned certain Whatsapp+ users, and it’s not because it feels threatened by an app with skins:

WhatsApp Plus is an application that was not developed by WhatsApp, nor is it authorized by WhatsApp. The developers of WhatsApp Plus have no relationship to WhatsApp, and we do not support WhatsApp Plus. Please be aware that WhatsApp Plus contains source code which WhatsApp cannot guarantee as safe and that your private information is potentially being passed to 3rd parties without your knowledge or authorization.

Another reason why WhatsApp might want to control the clients its users can access is to make upgrades and updates easier to deploy. For instance, WhatsApp recently added an encryption system to its Android app, and is currently working to bring it to other platforms, like iOS. Having a bunch of amateur-level unofficial clients floating around could make the development process more complicated. WhatsApp is rumored to be launching a browser-based version of the service soon, which would lessen cross-platform issues.

In the early days of WhatsApp, there were devices that the messaging service didn’t support, like those running WebOS or Sailfish or certain Nokia feature phones. Plus, third-party clients were able to pull of nifty tricks the main app would never attempt, like merging your SMS messages and WhatsApp messages. But WhatsApp is available for every major mobile operating system — including iOS, Android, Blackberry and Windows Phone. Considering that [company]Facebook[/company] paid $18 billion for WhatsApp, it’s safe to assume that the official clients have had more resources devoted to them than lesser-known apps on Google Play.

Unlike Twitter, which has had its own long-running saga with third-party clients, WhatsApp never invited other developers to produce third-party clients and the official API does not allow it. Several unofficial APIs exist for interested developers to produce a WhatsApp client, but the company has tried to exterminate those as well. In 2014, WhatsApp used DCMA takedowns to remove several unofficial APIs from GitHub.

Unfortunately for apps like WhatsApp+, whose developer bragged his app works again, the fix for users is simple: delete non-approved WhatsApp apps and install the official one.

Be My Eyes app harnesses volunteers to help sight-impaired people

The Danish developer Robocat, which I’ve previously covered for its Thermodo thermometer dongle, has fully launched a new app that could be of great use to visually-impaired people.

Robocat built the open-source Be My Eyes iOS app for a non-profit startup of the same name. It’s quite a simple concept: visually-impaired people use the camera on their mobile device to shoot live video of whatever it is they need distinguishing or reading, and a sighted volunteer on the other end tells them what they need to know.

“We have launched this locally in Denmark for few months now. We have about 700 helpers. [company]Apple[/company] is planning to feature the app in the App Store which will help to promote it and get more helpers,” Robocat founder and lead developer Willi Wu told me. “We are not only looking for helpers, but also blind people so they can get the help when they need it. So we are trying to get the word of mouth out to people who know blind people that could be useful for them.”

Right now the idea is to get traction on iOS before looking at other platforms, Wu said, pointing out that this is a non-profit venture. He added that the app’s points system and feedback makes it possible to rate the helpers.

As I say, it’s a straightforward concept that could be very useful, as long as that volunteer base grows sufficiently and becomes diverse enough to handle visually-impaired users who speak different languages, for instance. Other interesting apps in this space include KNFB Reader, which provides an audio read-out of printed text captured through the camera, and others that you can find listed here.

Here’s a video of how Be My Eyes works:

[vimeo 113872517 w=500 h=281]

This article was updated at 4.45am PT to note Wu’s comments on mobile platforms and volunteer rating.

Report: Over half of the mobile devices activated Christmas week run iOS

The first thing many people do after receiving a new tablet or smartphone for Christmas is to immediately go to the app stores to download software and games. Based on those downloads, it looks like Apple had a big Christmas, according to app analytics firm Flurry, which looks at those downloads to determine which brands of smartphones and tablets were the most popular gifts.

According to Flurry’s data, 51.3 percent of mobile devices activated in the week leading up to and including Christmas were from Apple, compared to 17.7 percent from Samsung and 5.8 percent from Microsoft.

flurry christmas screenshot

Flurry provides analytics for more than 600,000 apps, so although its data isn’t quite as accurate as device activations reported by Google and Apple, it’s likely to be pretty close. Still — there’s the possibility the apps Flurry tracks are more likely to be downloaded by iOS users than Android users, for instance. It’s also important to keep in mind that although Flurry’s stats are global, December 25th is not an important gift-giving day in most parts of the world, so the data will be skewed towards Western markets.

The data suggested that large phones were significantly more popular this Christmas than in years past, most likely due to both the popularity of the iPhone 6 Plus and rising screen sizes. Last year, Flurry estimated that 4 percent of new devices had screens between 5.0 and 6.9 inches. This year, 13 percent of new devices activated on Christmas can be categorized as a “phablet,” with their growth largely coming at the expense of tablets.

The Flurry report also marks a good showing for Microsoft and its line of Lumia phones running Windows Phone, coming in third behind Apple and Samsung with 5.8 percent of total devices activated in the week leading up to Christmas. That’s significantly higher than the 2.7 percent worldwide shipment market share for Windows Phone estimated by International Data Corporation earlier this month.

Flurry estimated that app downloads are 2.5 times higher on Christmas than on an average day in December.

Say goodbye to text in Grindr. It’s embracing the visual web

The new Grindr is all about that face. The company redesigned its iOS and Android app this month, abolishing text from a person’s first glance profile. If a user wants more information on someone than just their picture, they’ll have to click further to surface the profile summary. The matchmaking app for gay men also introduced a timing feature that tells two matches how long it would take them to walk to one another. It’s a little like Uber’s interface, but for your hookup — the bold new world of on-demand dating.

Despite the fact that it’s a comparably old app in smartphone years, Grindr has held sway over the gay male population since its launch in 2009. It’s self-funded with advertisements and subscriptions, and its biggest challenge is making sure it doesn’t lose its users to a new up-and-comer.

The redesign helps with that mission. By staying one step ahead of mobile dating trends, setting them instead of following them, Grindr hopes to keep its crown. And as Om Malik explored in this thoughtful post, the future of the web is visual. Images are easier and faster for our brain to process, they transcend language barriers, and they tap into our emotional reservoirs. As Om put it, “We are built to process visual data…That’s why the web is increasingly becoming visual.”

Grindr’s new imagery focus strips away any semblance of profile depth, arguably catering to a mobile dater’s more shallow instincts. But Grindr founder Joel Simkhai says he’s just giving the users what they want.

“One of the things we’re big believers in is men are visual creatures,” Simkhai says. “Copy and text are a lot less important. At this stage you’re not that interested in every little thing they’re interested in.”

The picture cues speed up people’s processing time for each profile. It allows users to swipe quickly through their choices, making faster split second decisions.

And speedy selection is, after all, the hallmark of mobile dating. Grindr arguably pioneered the industry, launching years in advance of the more heterosexually inclined Tinder app. When Grindr makes design decisions, it’s worth watching in case the rest of the mobile dating players follow suit.

But Simkhai doesn’t think we’ll see Tinder, Hinge, or other mobile dating apps minimize profile text any time soon. “Our target market is men and their target market is women because that’s what they need to make their app successful,” Simkhai says. “Women prefer it to be a little slower.”

Old Grindr profile (left) New Grindr profile (right)

Old Grindr profile (left) New Grindr profile (right)

Ford axes MyFord Touch, replacing it with a new in-dash system

Ford is replacing the much-reviled MyFord Touch with a new infotainment system based on Sync AppLink, its more successful in-dash connected car platform. The new system will be called Sync 3, and it will start rolling off lots in model year 2015 Fords and Lincolns and completely replace MyFord Touch in 2016.

The nomenclature [company]Ford[/company] uses for its connected car system is a bit confusing because, like all automakers, Ford has different hardware and software packages for different vehicles. Ford just takes the extra-confusing step of giving all them different names. What it boils down to is this is: Sync is the name of the voice command and control system available in almost all Ford vehicles. AppLink is the operating system available in many Sync-enabled Fords that lets you integrate apps from your smartphone into the dashboard. Finally, MyFord Touch (or MyLincoln Touch) is the touchscreen-controlled infotainment system used in fancier cars and trucks.

The MyFord Touch interface

The MyFord Touch interface

The odd thing is that Ford’s lower-end platform, AppLink, has been far more successful and useful than its higher-end platform. MyFord Touch doesn’t support third-party apps like music streaming services. It was panned by consumers and critcs for being slow and awkward to use, and even Ford chairman and namesake Bill Ford admitted the system was a dud when it first launched.

Ford has been fixing those problems over the last two years. But it seems that now the company is ready to throw in the towel, and you can’t really blame it given that it has the far better technology in AppLink to fall back on. Ford is also switching up vendors for Sync 3, replacing [company]Microsoft[/company] as the core OS provider with [company]BlackBerry[/company]’s QNX automotive platform.

According to Don Butler, Ford executive director of connected vehicles and services, Sync 3 will remain in MyFord’s upscale category, becoming standard in high-end Fords and Lincolns and an option in mid-range vehicles. While it will have the same voice command and app features as lower-end Sync AppLink vehicles, it will support a larger capacitive touchscreen, letting drivers use pinch and swipe gestures the way they do on tablets.

Butler added that Sync 3 will also sport simpler, more intuitive voice commands. Instead of commanding your car to “Play Artist: Beyonce,” you can just say “Play Beyonce” or name a song or album. The system should be smart enough to figure out what you mean.

Sync 3 will also introduce direct integration with Siri Eyes Free, which means you’ll be able to use the iPhone’s voice assistant features with one long push of the command button on the steering wheel and interact with Siri over the car’s user interface. That’s not the same thing as support for CarPlay, which will bring [company]Apple[/company] services and third-party iPhone apps into the dashboard. Butler said CarPlay and Android Auto integration are coming, but wouldn’t reveal a timeline.

Ford SYNC 3 Apps Screen

With AppLink, Sync 3 will be able to grok with your phone, accessing dozens of different apps from [company]Pandora[/company] and Spotify to Glympse and Scout. I’ve been a bit surprised that Ford hasn’t announced support for any new AppLink apps lately — and it’s doing very little to publicize the apps it does support — but maybe that will change with the overhaul of Sync.

Finally, there’s one more feature worth mentioning. Sync 3 will be able to connect to your home’s Wi-Fi network while your car is sitting in your garage. At first, Ford is using that for updates so when Sync 3.1 emerges you won’t have to upgrade your system at your dealer or with a USB drive. But Butler said Ford has bigger plans to use that wireless interface to connect your vehicle to the cloud and the connected home.