Google’s iOS app comes with its GIF-friendly keyboard on the side

It’s no secret that Google is hoping to make its own lineup of search, navigation and email apps the go-to services for Apple users. The folks in Mountain View have even gone so far as to introduce new features in iOS apps months before rolling them out to their Android counterparts. Today, Google is trying to strengthen that hold on iPhone users with even deeper integrations of its flagship, search-focused app into Apple’s operating system.

After streamlining the app’s news feed late last year, the main Google app now brings the Gboard iOS keyboard under its wing. In other words, you no longer need the standalone app to get Gboard’s in-keyboard access to search, GIFs and emoji across all your iOS apps. It now comes installed with the Google app and users can set it up inside the Google app settings.

Today’s other big iOS update today is a live-updating “Trending on Google” widget that can be accessed through the app or pinned to your notification center for easy access to current search trends. The big search topics of the moment are displayed in blocks of Google primary colors, and tapping a topic will open a search tab with that subject. Finally, Google has also added or expanded the 3D touch functions throughout the app, so users can preview search results, bring up that trending widget or jump right into an incognito or voice search right from the home screen.

The updated version is live now in the App Store.

Source: Google Blog

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Google’s Uptime is all about snarky YouTube parties

Last year, Google created Area 120, an incubator where employees with (approved) ideas can spend their “20 percent time” on side projects. One of the groups has just released Uptime, an app that lets you meet friends, share YouTube videos and add stickers, “sparkles,” hearts and snarky comments. You can search for video content within the app, which can also will help you find friends “based on common connections within Uptime,” according to the FAQ. Ironically, it’s only available on iOS and not Google’s Android, at least for now.

The app is not unlike a feature called “Video Party” that we first saw on Microsoft’s now-defunct So.cl. Like that app, Uptime lets you watch YouTube videos together with others and make comments, but not to record or stream your own videos. It’s also a way to get daily video recommendations from friends so that you won’t miss the cat or kid video du jour. Other apps like Sean Parker’s Airtime give you similar YouTube party features but also let you chat over video.

It would make a lot of sense for Google to integrate the app into YouTube, rather than having it work as a standalone product. If it is planning to do that, running it in a limited way on iOS only would let the Area 120 group develop the features in a controlled way. If you have an iPhone and want to try it out, you can now grab it here.

Source: Uptime

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Google’s Android texting app has a new name

Despite how common texting is, its integration on Android has always lagged slightly behind, as Google appeared to focus on other things. Sometimes it wrapped the feature into other services/apps like Google Voice and Hangouts, but lately, the main Android texting app has been getting some tweaks too. The latest one brings a new name, as it goes from Google Messenger (probably frequently confused with the bot-laden Facebook Messenger) to Android Messages.

If your iPhone owning friends hate seeing green bubbles pop up in iMessage, it probably won’t do much to change that, and even for Android users, there’s very little changed beyond the name. The styling and features of the app are exactly the same, but with MWC 2017 about to kick off, maybe it has more plans in store. In the changelog, it notes that there is “Simpler sign-up for enhanced features on supported carriers,” so there could be easier access to RCS-enabled enhancements that bring its experience up to par with iMessage.

Of course, if there’s anything we know about Google, it’s that the company always has another new messaging scheme around the corner.

Source: Android Messages

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Google’s defense against anti-trust claims: ‘we’re open’

Google has a response for the European Commission’s anti-trust allegations. In a lengthy blog post, the tech juggernaut addressed the EC’s concerns point by point. That starts with the EC’s stance that Android isn’t in competition with Apple’s iOS mobile operating system, and Google citing the Commission’s own research that 89 percent of survey respondents feel that the two are competitors. That last bit is a recurring theme, with Google pointing toward the survey responses for the EC’s stance on Android’s “stable and consistent framework” across devices as well.

In perhaps the most poignant response, Google made a GIF that illustrates how many apps are typically pre-installed/bundled on Android devices versus the competition — something the EC directly called out. By Mountain View’s count, of the Samsung Galaxy S7 with Android 6.0.1’s 38 pre-installed apps, only 11 were from Google. Contrast that with 39 out of 47 on the Lumia 550 from Microsoft and 39 out of 39 from Apple on the iPhone 7 running iOS 10.0.2.

“Android hasn’t hurt competition, it’s expanded it,” Google’s Senior Vice President and General Counsel Kent Walker said in a statement. “Android is the most flexibe mobile platform out there, balancing the needs of thousands of manufacturers and operators, millions of app developers and more than a billion consumers.

“Upsetting this balance would raise prices and hamper innovation, choice and competition. That wouldn’t just be a bad outcome for us. It would be a bad outcome for the entire ecosystem, and — most critically — for consumers.”

And with that, the battle moves onward. Maybe the EC’s stance won’t leak ahead of the next round. Maybe.

Source: Google

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Allo brings Google’s ‘Assistant’ to your phone today

If you’re going to unveil a new messaging app, it had better do something unique. At this point, finding a place amongst entrenched options like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and iMessage is not an easy task. Google didn’t quite pull it off with Hangouts when it launched in 2013. Sure, it’s installed on basically every Android phone out there and anyone with a Gmail account has probably tried it, but Google’s messaging strategy never quite came together in a compelling or clear way.

So Google is rebooting yet again with Allo, a mobile-only messaging app that leverages the company’s biggest strengths in an effort to stand out from the pack. That strength is the vast amount of knowledge Google has about you and the world around you. It shows up in the app via the Google Assistant, a conversational chatbot that provides you and your friends with contextual info based on your chat history. The bot will show up across multiple Google products, including Google Home, but this is our first look at it in action.

It’s an outgrowth of what Google’s been doing for a long time with the Knowledge Graph and the info it serves you in things like Google Now, and that really is something no other app can do. I’ve been playing with Allo for about a week to see just how much the app can do — and where it still falls flat.

Getting set up is a simple affair: Once the app is installed, you create a profile linked to your phone number and Google account. From there, you’ll be able to see who in your phone’s contact list is using Allo to initiate a chat; you can also invite friends who don’t have the app to give it a shot. Then you can start a one-on-one chat, a group chat, an encrypted “incognito chat” or talk directly to the Google Assistant.

The Assistant is what really sets Allo apart from other chat apps, and it can provide you with a host of info depending on whether you’re in a private chat with it or bringing it into a conversation with other human beings. Probably the best way to sum up the Assistant is that it lets you bring info from around the internet right into your conversations without having to jump back and forth between apps.

If you’re planning dinner, for example, you can ask it to show you nearby Indian restaurants, and then tap on a specific result to get more details. Results from the Google Assistant typically have “chips” below them to prompt you to continue getting more info; you can pull up a map, call the location, see pictures inside and more with one tap. And because it understands natural language, you can follow up your query about Indian restaurants by saying “What about Chinese?” and it’ll know you’re interested in food, not the language.

This can be genuinely useful — it’s easy to share things like flight status, local weather and nearby points of interest with groups of people just by asking Google. And there’s lots of silly fun to be had as well. Google built in some games like “emoji movies,” where you have to guess the name of a film based on a series of emojis. You can also have it pull up pictures and GIFs from Google images, so it’s pretty easy to drop cute cat pictures to your group on the fly.

The downside to the Google Assistant is that it doesn’t quite live up to the promise of letting you do everything in the app, through the bot. Many times, tapping on various items will bounce you out to your browser, and while I can look up a bunch of restaurants with my friends, I can’t actually book one through OpenTable right in the app, for example. The Assistant doesn’t yet work with third-party services, so I can’t say “get us a table for four at 8PM.” That’ll come down the line, though.

When it can’t complete a task itself, you get bounced out to the web. Sometimes that makes sense — seeing a restaurant’s full menu is better in a browser than in a chat app, and getting directions to a location is a lot better in the proper Google Maps app. But the experience occasionally felt a bit more disjointed than I’d like. Google says the Assistant is considered only a “preview” right now, so it should become smarter and better integrated in time.

Chatting directly with the Google Assistant (rather than interacting with it in a chat with other humans) opens up more functionality. For the sake of privacy, it can do certain things only in private chat — you can ask it to get you directions to work, show you emails from yesterday, pull up your calendar agenda and more things based on your personal Google account. You can even have it pull images from Google Photos using natural language like “show me my pictures of dogs.”

The app also lets you set reminders and alarms as well as sign up for recurring “subscriptions.” You can search for a particular news item (I tried “Red Sox news”) and it’ll pop up every day at the time you specify. This is all well and good, but I don’t think a chatbot is the best place for a lot of these interactions. In fact, in a lot of cases, it’s easier to just say “OK Google” and ask your Android phone for this sort of help or info. Siri also does a lot of this on the iPhone at this point, as does the Google iOS app. Don’t get me wrong, the Google Assistant can be quite knowledgeable and useful, but in a lot of ways it’s just replicating things you can already do in Google search.

Beyond the Assistant, Allo has the messaging basics covered, but there are few surprises here. You can tap and hold the “send” button and then scroll up and down to increase or decrease the size of text — Google calls this “yelling” or “whispering.” It’s quite similar to the “loud” and “gentle” settings Apple added to iMessage in iOS 10, if you’ve checked that out. Google has also added in the “smart reply” feature that originated in Inbox. It’ll analyze the content of your chats or photos and offer suggestions. I found it to be pretty hit-or-miss; it’s handy to have it offer up a quick yes or no reply, but deeper replies don’t usually work out terribly well.

Naturally, Allo also has stickers; there are 29 different sets you can download, for starters, some of which are animated. They’re nice, and Google notes the name of the artist who created each set, but they’re not wildly different from what’s out there already. And as of yet, there isn’t a way to add more third-party options.

You can share your location or photos in Allo, but I ran into one surprising omission during my testing: On Android, you can’t see content from Google Photos and add them to a chat — you can access only images you’ve shot directly on your phone or downloaded to storage. There are work-arounds — you can go to Google Photos directly and share a photo to Allo from there — but it still seems like a strange omission. On Android, you can add text to photos and draw on top of them (a la Snapchat), a feature that’ll be coming to iOS down the line.

Allo also offers end-to-end encryption in “incognito” chats. The Google Assistant isn’t allowed here, and the participants in the chat can decide how long they want the messages to stick around for. You can set the chat expiration time as long as a week or as short as five seconds (you can also make it so messages don’t disappear). Most users probably won’t bother with this feature, but apps like Telegram made highly secure chat a feature of note, so it makes sense to see it pop up here.

Overall, there’s not a lot to make Allo stand out from the competition beyond the Google Assistant. And unfortunately, the Assistant feels a bit like it’s under construction, still. The breadth of information that Google has access to, both about a user as well as the world around him, is stunning, and it’s great to tap into. But Google has already given us a plethora of ways to do that; Allo is just another. The difference is that Allo makes it easy to bring that data into a conversation with other humans.

That’s the killer feature. But it’s not a simple one to explain, and it’s not something that becomes immediately useful. Some co-workers and I goofed around with Allo for several days, but the Assistant never elevated itself to a must-have feature. It was fun to show off and experiment with, but it didn’t feel like enough to keep any of us conversing in the app over the many other options we already have available to us. I’d like to keep giving it a shot, because it feels like it could be useful under the right circumstances. The trick is getting your friends to use it long enough for those situations to arise.

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Duo, Google’s supersimple video chat app, arrives today

Back in May at its I/O developer conference, Google introduced a pair of new communication apps: Allo for text-based communication and Duo for video calling. Allo is the more interesting of the two, with its deep usage of the intelligent Google Assistant bot — but Duo is the one we’ll get to try first. Google hopes it’ll stand out among a bevy of other communications apps thanks to a laser focus on providing a high-quality mobile experience. It’s available today for both the iPhone and Android phones.

“The genesis of Duo was we really saw a gap when it came to video calling,” Nick Fox, Google VP of communications products, said. “We heard lots of [user] frustration, which led to lack of use — but we also heard a lot of desire and interest as well.” That frustration came in the form of wondering who among your contacts you could have video calls with, wondering whether it would work over the wireless connection you had available and wondering if you needed to be calling people with the same type of phone or OS as yours.

To battle that, Google made Duo cross-platform and dead simple to use. You can only call one person at a time, and there’s barely any UI or features to speak of. But from a technology standpoint, it’s meant to work for anyone with a smartphone. “It shouldn’t just work on high-end devices,” said Fox. “It should work on high-end devices and on $ 50 Android phones in India.”

Google designed it to work across a variety of network connections as well. The app is built to provide HD video when on good networks and to gracefully and seamless adjust quality if things get worse. You can even drop down to a 2G connection and have video pause but have the audio continue. “We’re always prioritizing audio to make sure that you don’t drop communications entirely,” Fox said.

All of this is meant to work in the background, leaving the user with a clutter-free UI and basically no buttons or settings to mess with. Once you sign into the Duo app with your phone number (no Google login needed here), you’ll see what your front-facing camera sees. Below that are a handful of circles representing your most recent calls in the lower third of the screen. You can drag that icon list up and scroll through through your full list of contacts; if people in your phonebook don’t have the app, you can tap their number to send an SMS and invite them to Duo.

For those who do have Duo, tapping their number initiates a video call. Once you’re on the call, you just see the person you’re talking to, with your video feed in a small circle, not unlike Apple’s FaceTime. Tapping the screen reveals the only UI elements: a hang-up button, mute button and a way to flip between the front and back cameras.

Duo is even simpler than FaceTime, and far simpler than Google’s own Hangouts app, which the company says will now be more focused on business and enterprise users. In that focus on simplicity, Fox and his team left out a number of features you might find in other video-calling apps. Chief among them is that Duo can’t do group calls; it’s meant only for one-to-one calling. Google also decided against making desktop apps for Duo or Allo.

“We forced ourselves to think exclusively about the phone and design for the phone,” Fox says. “The desktop experience is something we may build over time. But if you look around the world at the billions of people that are connected to the internet, the vast majority have one device, and that device is a phone. So it was critical for us to really nail that use case.”

That’s part of the reason Google is tying Duo to a phone number rather than your Google account: Your phone already has your contacts built in, while many people might not curate or manage their Google contacts list. This way, you can see exactly who in your usual phone book is using Duo (and if they’re not, you can send them an SMS invite).

Perhaps the most clever feature Google included is Knock Knock. If you’re using an Android phone and someone calls, you’ll see a preview of their video feed on the lock screen. The person calling can wave or gesture or make a silly face to try and draw you into the conversation, and Fox says that makes the person on the receiving end a lot more likely to answer with a smile rather than a look of confusion as they wonder if they video is working properly. For the sake of privacy, you’ll only see a video feed from people in your contacts list, and you can turn the feature off entirely if you prefer.

It’s all part of Google’s goal to make the app not just simple but “human” as well. “It’s something that you don’t generally hear from Google when we talk about our apps,” Fox admits, “but video calling is a very human experience, so it’s very important that you feel that in the app as well.”

All of this adds up to a product that is refreshingly uncluttered and has a clear sense of purpose. It doesn’t fundamentally change the video-calling experience, but it is frictionless and very easy to use on a moment’s notice. Under the hood, the app does live up to its promise of updating the call based on changing network conditions — you can even flip between WiFi and cellular networks without dropping a call. There’s not a whole lot to say about the experience, and that’s probably for the best. You can make calls to people in your contacts list easily, not worry too much about dropping them, and then get on with your life.

That ease of use is what Google hopes will pull users into the app. It does indeed feel simpler than most other options out there. But given the huge variety of communication apps available and Google’s strange historical difficulty with the space, it’s not hard to imagine Duo being a niche app. That won’t be for lack of effort — Duo actually does make video chat easier than making a phone call.

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