Mobile Tech


The Audacity of Droid

The Android mobile operating system is graduating soon to 2.0 status, and Google gave it a pretty nice present to celebrate: a free turn-by-turn navigation app called “Google Maps Navigation.” It’ll run on Android 2.0 phones with GPS, and it’ll use the phone’s cellular Internet connection to get live map information.

There’s a wide range of quality out there when it comes to smartphone nav apps, but the features Google mentions make its program sound like one of the better ones. There’s speech-activated location search, live traffic data with alternate routing, and integration with Street View so you can get an actual photo of what your destination looks like from the ground level.

It’ll take some testing and comparison work, but Google Maps Navigation could be on par with the kind of nav apps that sell for as much as US$100 on the iPhone. In fact, the day Google made its announcement, TomTom’s and Garmin’s stocks tanked, perhaps on fears that smartphone navigation apps are going to overtake dedicated dash-mounted devices and that Google is going to suck competitors dry by making its app free, perhaps with some advertising thrown in.

But that stance presumes that Google Maps Navigation is going to be made available to a wide range of smartphones, not just Android 2.0 phones. Of course, Google makes a ton of mobile apps for all sorts of devices. But in announcing Maps Nav, Android 2.0 is the only OS Google called out by name. Chances are it’s working on versions for other platforms, but there’s no guarantee they’ll come through. For example, Google makes apps that are baked right into the iPhone’s OS — namely a YouTube portal and a different map application called “Maps for mobile.” So Google and Apple have a previous working relationship. But Apple still refuses to approve Google’s Voice app for the iPhone, so the relationship hasn’t always been 100 percent cooperative. So I guess we’ll just have to wait’n’see.

Listen to the podcast (13:12 minutes).

Droid in the Flesh

Speaking of Android 2.0, it’ll make one of its first appearances on a phone from a company that’s been a smartphone wallflower for years — Motorola. It hasn’t had a certified hit since the Razr, but it’s betting big on a new handset, and it’s teamed up with Verizon to throw the gauntlet right onto iPhone’s toes.

The Droid wasn’t really a big surprise when Verizon and Motorola did their big official reveal this week. The Boy Genius Report posted some early photos and reviews, and the phone’s Web site was shown to the whole world a few days ago when someone temporarily made it live “by accident.” But now we’ve learned that it will go on sale Nov. 6 and it’ll cost 200 bucks with contract and rebate.

It’ll have Microsoft Exchange support, along with a whole boatload of Google apps, including Maps Navigation. It’s getting some very warm early reviews, so maybe this really is the big Motorola comeback. And if it really can give iPhone a run for its money, the platforms that stand the most to lose might not be iPhone at all but rather RIM and WinMo. iPhone will continue to do fine — might even do better if a competitor makes it work harder — and Android is heating up really fast. But those other two, says In-Stat’s Allen Nogee, are “kind of floundering and trying to find their way.”

Found Among Friends

Typing a topic into a search engine and then sorting through the results will usually give you an instantaneous mind-bending flood of information: Wikipedia articles, ads, shopping sites, academic reports, facts, false facts, more ads, good opinions, bad opinions and stupid opinions from literally all over the world, available for the price of a mouse click.

But seriously, who cares about all that junk? I want to know what my friends are saying about it, people I already know. If they weren’t geniuses, they wouldn’t be my friends.

Google’s new and experimental optional Social Search function won’t usurp its general search engine function, but it will add a new layer of data that you get if you search for terms while signed on to your Google account. Input the necessary facts about yourself, and your search results will suddenly start including relevant tweets and status updates that your friends are putting up on sites like Twitter, FriendFeed, LinkedIn and Flickr. Do a search for Nikon cameras, for instance, and you’ll get that three-sentence review that your old college roommate just posted about his new toy.

Did you notice that list did not include Facebook? The biggest social network of them all may have some privacy reservations about integrating real-time social media into Google results. Facebook updates are by default private, and members have been known to kick and thrash every time they sense their personal boundaries being violated.

That’s not to say zero Facebook info will show on Social Search. It’s just limited to data that anyone can access with a Google search without having to sign into a Google account, like publicly available profile pages. In fact, Google emphasizes that Social Search will show nothing that isn’t already public somewhere on the Web.

Who Moved My Stuff!?

If you really want to freak out your dog or cat, just rearrange the living room furniture — it drives pets bonkers. For a few minutes, they just don’t know how to deal with the change. Then all of a sudden it’s situation normal again. Facebook users react in pretty much the same way every time Mark Zuckerberg tweaks the interface even a little bit.

The latest minute tinker involves splitting posts into two feeds: Your Live Feed shows you every single thing your friends are doing, saying and thinking, while your News Feed just shows highlights. You can toggle between the two. News Feed items are chosen by Facebook based on what it determines to be the most enjoyable or important content posted by a user’s friends. It might have something to do with pleasing advertisers. Basically, it’s whatever Facebook wants it to be.

Naturally, users howled and screamed at how they think the changes are just the worst ideas ever, they look like crap, they’re hard to use, and they’re going to drive the whole world into cyberhermitage. Then they stood up, went to get a soda, came back and played some “Mafia Wars.” Happens every time.

McCain vs. the FCC

When you’re up against the FCC, things like letter-writing campaigns and huffy press releases are weak-sauce tactics. If you want to really shake the ground, get a name-brand U.S. senator on your side. John McCain has gone to bat for opponents of the Net neutrality mandates the FCC may soon codify. Neutrality opponents mostly include telecoms, who say that if the government interferes with how they manage their Internet tubes, then competition will stagnate, and consumers will suffer.

McCain has introduced the Internet Freedom Act of 2009, a bill that would essentially negate many of the principles of Net neutrality by calling for unfettered competition for Internet activity, with some exceptions thrown in as far as national security is concerned.

By putting a bill out there for consideration, McCain has at least made a gesture of support for neutrality opponents. But realistically, this Internet Freedom Act will be forever singing “I’m Just a Bill,” according to Frost & Sullivan Program Manager Mike Judd. Even if it cleared the house and the senate, the Obama administration has made Net neutrality an important issue, and good luck overriding that veto. Judd told us the bill “doesn’t stand a chance in hell, in fact. It is a political statement. McCain is saying that Net neutrality is a bad thing, and he wants to go on record with that opinion.”

Clouds to Go With the Smog

The next time Gmail has one of its little tantrums, the entire city government of Los Angeles could end up feeling the pinch. The LA City Council has unanimously voted to adopt Google Apps as the go-to software of choice for its 30,000 employees.

A pilot project will begin in June, and a five-year deal with Computer Services Corporation will reportedly save LA $5.5 million dollars over the city’s existing vendor, Novell. CSC will serve as the systems integrator.

There’s still a little trepidation about bringing Google’s cloud services to LA City Hall. The word “Gfail” means exactly what it sounds like, and it’s been known to happen. Then there’s the whole security issue. You might remember what took place a few month ago with Twitter: Someone guessed one Twitter employee’s password, signed onto her Google account, and accessed a ton of internal Twitter information by way of shared document access. Twitter cofounder Biz Stone said it wasn’t a huge embarrassment — as he put it, it was sort of like having someone search through your underwear drawer.

But a city like Los Angeles probably has much dirtier underwear than Twitter, so the council voted to include a penalty provision in the contract that would hold CSC liable if the service is breached and data is stolen.

Don’t Lose That Number

Unless you’re trying to hide, you probably aren’t too keen on getting yourself a new cellphone number. It’s like changing your name. You have to tell everyone who ever calls you, and you just know they’re going to keep your old number in their speed dial until the third or fourth time they get it wrong. Then they’re just going to ask again.

But that’s what the early users of the new Google Voice service have sort of had to do. Google Voice is absolutely not a telecom service, according to Google. So don’t call it that. They’ll know. They have ways. It’s an online software application that does stuff like gathering all your various phone numbers together under one single number, offering cheap rates on international calls, transcribing voicemail into email messages, and once in a while accidentally making those voicemail messages searchable to Google users, though they say that’s been fixed.

Google Voice is still only available by invitation, but those who’ve activated their accounts have only been able to do so by getting a new phone number. Well no more of that nonsense. Now users can use their existing phone numbers, but in that case the service is sort of hobbled. You get everything except SMS through email; call screening, recording and blocking; conference calling and the so-called “Listen In” feature, which lets you hear a voicemail live as the caller is recording it. That shouldn’t sound creepy at all, but for some reason, it does.

Sonic Search

I don’t know if this trick is so relevant now that we have Shazam, but if you ever hear a song that you like and you want to buy but you can’t tell who sings it and the DJ isn’t saying anything, try to remember a line or two of lyrics — verbatim, no paraphrasing. Then do a Google search with that line inside quotation marks, and you’ll probably get your song.

Turns out that trick is not such a masterstroke of genius on my part; Google says two of its top 10 queries of all time are music-related. Now it’s done what Google does best and come up with a way of making some money from it.

Last week, we heard chatter that Google was getting ready to come up with its own music service — Gtunes or something. That’s not exactly what happened, but it is getting into the music business by partnering with a bunch of music companies and online vendors for its new Discover Music search service.

Google is good at selling one thing, and it’s not music. So with Discover Music, Google’s sticking with what it knows and providing music-enhanced search results that point fans in the direction of its partnered sites, like Lala, Imeem, MySpace, Pandora and Rhapsody. They sell the music, not Google — Google sells ads. The deal also draws in the Big Four record labels — EMI, Warner, Universal and Sony.

In Discover Music, users will get results if they type in an artist’s name, an album’s name, a song’s name, or even a few lyrics from a song that they happen to remember hearing on the radio.

All Grown Up, Ready for Netflix

The PlayStation 3 may have had kind of an awkward adolescence, but it was just a late bloomer, and now it’s growing up to be a confident, popular little video game system. It slimmed down, it changed its whole attitude on pricing, and it’s moving in on Xbox territory by hooking up with Netflix.

Although its selection of online, streamable movies and TV shows is kind of limited, Netflix has managed to make friends with all sorts of Web-connected hardware devices, like Blu-ray players, TiVos — even TVs themselves. Netflix has actually been available on the Xbox for some time, but only through an Xbox Live Gold membership, which costs $50 per year. And truth be told, applications like PlayOn already supply a workaround to get Netflix and other Web channels on all modern game consoles — only it costs $40 and requires some hefty home networking.

But now the game has changed. PS3 users will get Netflix access without having to pay anything above the cost of their Netflix subscription. It’s hard to say whether this is going to be the thing that tips the scales in favor of PlayStation. It’s really all about the games. But it definitely can’t hurt, either.

Weird thing about setting up Netflix for PS3 — it works on BD Live technology, so instead of Sony just pushing out a firmware update, users will have to actually stand up, walk to the console, and insert a real, physical disc in order to get the movies going. Netflix subscribers can get the disc free for the asking, but still … weird.

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