• Commentary and Analysis

    by Published on 05-08-2019 01:30 PM
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    Let's nip this one in the bud... Sure, the Pixel 3a is an uncharacteristically affordable phone from Google—but any comparisons between it and 2013's Nexus 5 have to stop. Immediately. It's not fair to either device.

    Both share plastic bodies, FHD screens, big-a$$ bezels, average amounts of RAM and storage (for their time) and better than average cameras. The smaller, non-XL 3a lists at $399 USD, the exact same price as an upgraded Nexus 5 with 32 GB of storage back in the day. But... for this same amount (less if you adjust for inflation) the Nexus 5 gave you a top of the line Snapdragon 8xx processor and wireless charging—which as a feature six years ago, was definitely ahead of its time.

    Like the Nexus the new Pixels will almost certainly have unlockable bootloaders, but were designed for two very different types of users. The Nexus was built for developers first, with savvy consumers also able to enjoy a hackable phone that happened to run the purest expression of Android. In stark contrast, the Pixel is a consumer-first smartphone, the go-to choice for anyone seeking a Google-branded iPhone equivalent.

    If it seems like I'm dumping on the Pixel here I don't mean to; I just want to ensure that the reputation of the best-ever Nexus phone remains intact.

    Sources: Android Central, Wikipedia

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    by Published on 05-01-2019 02:00 PM
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    International Data Corporation has crunched the numbers for the first four months of this year, and reports that global smartphone sales have seen their sixth consecutive quarter of decline. At first glance the data would suggest that the industry's gamble on ultra-premium flagships has been a bust—but it wouldn't explain the meteoric rise of Huawei, a vendor that's apparently doing brisk business with ultra-premium hardware of its own.

    More from the source:

    "It is becoming increasingly clear that Huawei is laser focused on growing its stature in the world of mobile devices, with smartphones being its lead horse," says Ryan Reith, program vice president with IDC's Worldwide Mobile Device Trackers. "The overall smartphone market continues to be challenged in almost all areas, yet Huawei was able to grow shipments by 50%, not only signifying a clear number two in terms of market share but also closing the gap on the market leader Samsung. This new ranking of Samsung, Huawei, and Apple is very likely what we'll see when 2019 is all said and done."

    Here are the world's top five OEMs for Q1 2019 and their year-over-year sales versus Q1 2018:

    1. Samsung -8.1%
    2. Huawei +50.3%
    3. Apple -30.2%
    4. Xiaomi -10.2%
    5. OPPO (tie) -6.0%
    5. vivo (tie) +24%

    And here's what I see as good news: with Xiaomi and two BBK brands making the top five, there's still a healthy market for more affordable devices.

    Source: IDC

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    by Published on 04-01-2019 03:10 PM
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    Once upon a time, smart people like Steve Wozniak used the nascent power of technology for practical jokes and pranks. Over the years the association between tech and mischief has endured, but that mischief has become oddly gentrified into the absurd annual exercise otherwise known as the modern-day April Fool's tech prank.

    I've had a couple of this year's attempts come my way, and I've seen the meta-lists compiled by Android Police and The Verge. I'd love to share the best ones with you but honestly, this year I don't think there are any. I can't put my finger on exactly when it happened, but this year in particular I find it shockingly apparent that the pranks have been subverted by marketing departments at big companies. Thus, you have Google Assistant now able to talk to your plants and an electric car from OnePlus that charges as fast as their phones do. Both of these "jokes" are very much on brand, but not particularly funny or even clever. Ditto for the branded headset at the top of this post, the sole purpose of which can only be to remind you that Cup Noodles exist.

    That fake announcement about height verification coming to Tinder wasn't entirely terrible; it shows, at least, that the company is paying attention to shared screen grabs from the app on social media. If you found yourself impressed or caught off-guard by an April Fool's Day prank this year feel free to share it below. For myself 2019 has been a bit of a dud.

    Links: Android Police, The Verge

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    by Published on 03-29-2019 12:00 PM
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    Has anyone else noticed that the Internet is looking more and more like cable TV?

    Here's what I'm talking about: Rogers, my local cable provider, sells a standard package offering 100+ channels for $54.99 CAD per month—which of course I would never pay for; I cut the cord more than a decade ago with zero regrets since. However, the streaming services that I currently subscribe to:

    YouTube Premium - $17.99 CAD per month
    Netflix Premium - $16.99
    Spotify Premium - $14.99 (family plan)

    ... together add up to $49.97 CAD, perilously close to the ongoing cost of that olde tyme Rogers cable TV package. In other words, that guy from Apple is flat-out lying to us; to legally get all the content we want (and not have the experience ruined by ads) it's going to cost considerably more than just $9.99 a month.

    This is what is now being called subscription fatigue, a term coined by Deloitte in their new survey of Digital Media Trends. Taken at face value it's not necessarily a big deal; I don't think anyone would argue that on-demand movies, music and shows together make for an objectively better experience than old-school cable TV. But when I think about the copyright legislation that passed in the EU this week and its potential harm to user-generated content, plus Apple's abrupt transformation into a media company, I can't help but wonder if the very Internet itself is changing, and for the worse.

    There are actually several precedents for freewheeling technologies being locked down by big money. Tim Wu's The Master Switch details how the telephone, radio and even cable television were originally disruptive but eventually consolidated. He warns that the Internet will inevitably suffer the same fate, and the events of this week seem to prove him right.

    Sources: Deloitte via Variety, Wikipedia

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    by Published on 03-28-2019 01:00 PM
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    As an amateur travel hacker and points hoarder I can definitely say that Apple's forthcoming credit card is not for me. Never mind that (1) I live in Canada and (2) my phone runs Android, even if I were a candidate for an Apple Card I can get a lot more value from the cards that I currently use.

    Here's what the Apple Card offers in terms of rewards:



    Even the most ardent Apple fan is going to have limited purchases from Apple, so that 3% is, at best, an occasional perk. 2% is fairly standard for a no-fee cashback card, and not unlike the Tangerine MasterCard here in Canada or the Citi Double Cash Rewards Card in the United States. Pinky swear, no affiliate links here—feel free to click away if you're interested in either of these cards. As for Apple's 1%, well... it's better than nothing, but not really competitive with other credit cards on the market.

    So who, then, might the Apple Card be suited for?

    One type of user would be the person who doesn't want their card purchases to be tracked. The price I pay for an up to 6% return on my monthly spend is, in addition to a large annual fee, the high probability that my purchase history is being collected and shared with third parties. For me, it's an acceptable deal (I'm an Android user, remember); for others, it may not be. Apple promises that it doesn’t know what you bought, or where, or how much you paid. The same goes for Goldman Sachs and MasterCard, hopefully...

    I'm of the opinion that the card is even better suited for the user who carries a monthly balance. Credit card debt is the worst kind of debt, and to combat it Apple gives you this clever visual aid to help you deal with ongoing interest charges:



    If you can get your credit card debt under control you'll be on your way to a higher credit score, and a better crack at higher-tier cards with better rewards plus additional perks. Apple definitely deserves kudos for that!

    Images courtesy of The Points Guy

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    by Published on 03-27-2019 01:50 PM
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    Article 13, the so-called anti-meme law, was approved in European Parliament this week. As with the GDPR, this new legislation will similarly affect Internet users far beyond the confines of the EU. Here's a quick bullet list of its more contentious points, via DW.com:

    • Companies will need licensing agreements with rights holders such as musicians, performers and authors to use their content;
    • Social media platforms would have to ensure uploaded content is not in breach of copyright rules;
    • The likes of Google News would have to pay publishers for press snippets shown in search results.
    Does this mean, then, that the copy/paste above—and, for that matter, the image above that—would require licenses from the respective rights-holders, even with attribution? This is the general worry among bloggers and other creators, and one that seems curiously at odds with the very mandate of Article 13.

    As WIRED UK reports, this legislation is meant to reign in the power of big American tech companies:

    The whole point of the directive, according to the EU, is to spread money more evenly between the people that create content – like musicians and journalists – and the online platforms that host that content.

    The EU argues that up until now, online platforms such as YouTube and Google News have been making huge sums of money by hosting or directing people to creative content – but haven’t been funnelling much of that cash back to the people who make the content in the first place.
    There is some irony here in that Google, in particular, may end up profiting from Article 13. Its parent company Alphabet has invested over $100 million USD building an automated copyright detection system for YouTube; now that the law has passed it suddenly finds itself in the enviable position of being able to license this technology to other Internet platforms.

    Sources: DW, WIRED UK

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    by Published on 03-03-2019 07:07 PM
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    I checked out the Blackberry Key 2 LE recently. While I thought it was a solid phone, I also got the feeling that it was built to not step on the toes of a more expensive model. The screen was nice but could be better, that sort of thing.

    Now it’s time to check out the fancier model, the Key 2 (no LE). ...
    by Published on 03-01-2019 03:12 PM
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    A new story about Huawei and Chinese spying made its way to my news feed this morning, from The Associated Press:

    Since last year, the U.S. has waged a vigorous diplomatic offensive against the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, claiming that any nation deploying its gear in next-generation wireless networks is giving Beijing a conduit for espionage or worse.

    But security experts say the U.S. government is likely exaggerating that threat. Not only is the U.S. case short on specifics, they say, it glosses over the fact that the Chinese don’t need secret access to Huawei routers to infiltrate global networks that already have notoriously poor security.

    State-sponsored hackers have shown no preference for one manufacturer’s technology over another, these experts say. Kremlin-backed hackers, for instance, adroitly exploit internet routers and other networking equipment made by companies that are not Russian.
    TL; DR banning Huawei won't stop spying, Chinese or otherwise. It's a refreshingly frank and sensible take on this whole Huawei mess, and especially great to be coming from an American news source.

    Meanwhile, over in Barcelona, ZDNet was there when current Huawei chairman Guo Ping reminded Mobile World Congress attendees what was revealed to the world back in the summer of 2013:

    "Prism, Prism on the wall, who is the most trustworthy of them all?" he said, referencing the previously secret National Security Agency surveillance project, telling the audience to ask Edward Snowden — the whistleblower who revealed the activity — if they didn't understand what he meant.
    Yeah, funny how security threats from China don't seem quite so dire when our own governments have been spying on us all along...

    Sources: Associated Press, ZDNet

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    by Published on 02-11-2019 02:50 PM
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    Statista is back with yet another infographic about smartphones around the world—or in this particular case, the lack thereof. Here's what you need to know about what they're calling The Mobile Disconnect:

    Pew Research conducted an analysis of smartphone ownership rates in several countries in 2018, finding that they vary considerably, even across advanced economies.

    Thirteen percent of their U.S. respondents owned a basic mobile phone while only six percent did not own any handset at all. Surprisingly, it's a very different story north of the border with a quarter of Canadians saying they did not have any mobile phone.
    The infographic shows that a full thirty-four percent of Canadians didn't own a smartphone in 2018. You might not think that's so bad—Japan has the same percentage, and they're a fairly tech-savvy nation, right?

    Right, and that's why you need to look specifically at the numbers for "mobile but not smartphone" (green) versus "no mobile at all" (blue-green). Remember that Japan was already enjoying the world's first successful mobile Internet at the dawn of this century, and with fast data speeds, mobile payments and the like, even their dumb phones are pretty damn smart.

    As for Canada, well... in terms of mobile penetration we're doing slightly better than Indonesia. So, yay for us?

    Source: Statista via Alan Cross

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    by Published on 02-04-2019 04:17 PM
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    So apparently we're just now discovering that Canadian Internet traffic was diverted from Ottawa to a server in China over a six-month period during 2016. The Toronto Star explains:

    The incident involved the surreptitious rerouting of the internet data of Rogers customers in and around Canada’s capital by China Telecom, a state-owned Internet service provider that has two legally operating “points of presence” on Canadian soil, said Yuval Shavitt, an expert at Tel Aviv University.

    Shavitt told The Canadian Press that the China Telecom example should serve as a caution to the Canadian government not to do business with another Chinese telecommunications giant: Huawei Technologies, which is vying to build Canada’s next-generation 5G wireless communications networks.

    “It’s too dangerous to let them in,” Shavitt said. “You can just imagine how Chinese companies are co-operating with the Chinese government.”
    Okay, so I guess we have to imagine because we have no actual facts...? It's especially odd, because this somewhat contradictory sound bite from the same researcher is buried at the bottom of the piece:

    “It’s not that the Chinese are bad, or doing bad things in the U.S.,” Shavitt noted. “I’m sure that the U.S. and Canada are trying to do the same also to China. It’s a spying game that everybody’s trying to play.”
    With Canada set to inevitably follow its Five Eyes partners in banning Huawei from our wireless networks, I couldn't tell you how much of this Canadian Press story is spin; I can only verify that Professor Shavitt does at least seem to be a real person.

    Source: Toronto Star

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    by Published on 02-01-2019 03:25 PM
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    David Ruddock has just posted an interesting editorial to Android Police, wherein he argues that North America's inevitable migration to 5G networks means big trouble for three already-struggling OEMs. Why?

    Frankly, it’s the money.

    5G is expected to far outstrip 4G in terms of cost to carriers in deploying the necessary technology and equipment to get networks online. That cost will fall on consumers and partners as operators attempt to recoup their large capital expenditures over the coming years. That means carriers will want higher prices on 5G phones and lean inventory, in order to offset the risk inherent with any first-generation technology. Because carriers will be demanding 5G handsets - oftentimes in the form of operator exclusives - LG, HTC, and Sony will almost assuredly bet the farm on 5G to reverse their failing fortunes. And equally assuredly, I believe, they will be unable to do so.
    He goes on to point out that 5G modems will only be available from Qualcomm who, as the de facto market leader in such things, can set the price for their 5G radios at whatever unreasonable amount they see fit.

    Now I myself feel obliged to point out that all this can be considered a fairly myopic America-centric point-of-view; each of these OEMs could still thrive in markets closer to home and without Qualcomm tech. Of course, then you'd have to consider the new crop of upstart manufacturers—Oppo, Vivo, Xiaomi and the like—that are already stealing sales from the legacy handset makers across all Asian markets.

    Anyway, have a read below and see what you think!

    Source: Android Police
    by Published on 01-23-2019 03:20 PM
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    Here's a VICE video report on China's social credit system, which I first posted about here in early 2017. It really is, as I wrote back then, a Black Mirror episode come to life.

    Surely such a technological dystopia could never take root here in the west, right? Well, after reading a brand-new feature on WIRED, I'm not so sure.

    Some key data points:

    Apps that snoop on our daily habits—like tracking our location—are a booming business, and accordingly becoming ever-more accurate and invasive.

    For spy agencies like the NSA, data fusion is the new buzzword. It's their process of ingesting vast pools of information from around the world and dumping it into a massive data lake—all to more quickly connect the dots on a given target. This data lake, by the way, is powered by Amazon Web Services.

    Though Google has promised to abandon its controversial Project Maven, there's no shortage of other tech companies hungry for defence contracts.

    Google's parent company Alphabet spent over $16 million buying influence in Washington, DC last year. Amazon, AT&T and Facebook were also among the top twenty spenders in government lobbying.

    To see where this all leads have a read through the source, directly below.

    Source: WIRED

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    by Published on 01-21-2019 12:31 PM
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    It wasn’t that long ago that Google would partner with an Android OEM to release a high end phone priced hundreds cheaper than similarly spec’d phones. However, since then Google has shifted strategies and began designing their own Android phones.

    They’ve followed a similar strategy that Apple and Samsung have been using by releasing a regular sized version; the Pixel and a larger Phablet; the Pixel XL.

    The line is now in their 3rd generation. Let’s check out the Pixel 3. ...
    by Published on 12-21-2018 02:55 PM
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    The CRTC released its 2018 Communications Monitoring Report yesterday (direct link to the 34 page PDF right here), and we already have an expert reaction to it, from Dr. Michael Geist:

    The data points to a market dominated by three big carriers, with retail pricing that creates all the wrong incentives for a country focused on innovation. Rather than encouraging data use, the current marketplace forces consumers to ration their data and to subscribe to cheaper data plans with the hope of not running into overage charges.
    He's not wrong; I had a quick look through the report myself, and found this graphic to be especially telling:



    I'm thinking that 5G is going to be a really tough sell in this country if over half of its mobile subscribers have a monthly data bucket of 2GB or less.

    It could be that we're just a nation of cheapskates, who simply don't see much value in mobile data. But the long lines at carrier stores for that 10GB holiday miracle this time last year would seem to suggest otherwise.

    Source: Michael Geist

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    by Published on 12-19-2018 03:08 PM
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    As a third Canadian citizen has now been detained in China, in what is almost certainly a tit-for-tat response to the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver, I feel compelled to write something about this escalating and nasty situation we seem to have gotten ourselves into. It's a complicated issue, to be sure, so I'm going to try my best to stick to the facts.

    FACT: Canada is not America's stooge.

    The demands to free Huawei's CFO fail to recognize this country's rule of law. Canada has a long-standing extradition treaty with the United States, and we had a legal obligation to make the arrest on their behalf.

    FACT: Other parties have violated sanctions without facing arrest.

    Meng and Huawei aren't the only parties guilty of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran. As discussed in a recent episode of the CANADALAND Short Cuts podcast, up to five financial institutions in North America have violated of these same sanctions:

    Bank of America
    HSBC
    ING
    JP Morgan Chase
    Toronto Dominion Bank

    At present I can only confirm HSBC and Iran. But if even they're the only other guilty party here, where are the arrests at HSBC? Just something to keep in mind when we get to the end of this.

    FACT: The feared "backdoor" in Huawei equipment has yet to be proven.

    The usually media-shy Chinese company has issued a public challenge to prove that there's a security risk present in their equipment. While it is true that Nortel was at least partly undone by corporate espionage at the hands of Chinese hackers, to my knowledge there has been no direct link to Huawei.

    OBSERVATION: We seem to have conveniently forgotten Snowden.

    Mising in almost every discussion of Huawei are the 2013 revelations of Edward Snowden. Whether you think he's a hero or a traitor, no one has denied the warrantless surveillance that he revealed to the world only a few years ago.

    I'm not saying that China's spying is better or worse, only that we've got some backdoor issues of our own.

    OPINION: This is as much about preserving the tech hegemony as anything else.

    If you're seeking for a wider perspective on this story I would recommend looking beyond Canada and the United States. Here, for example, is an instructive video from DW News:



    The gist of the interview presented here is that there is unquestionably a trade component in play. China continues to rise as a formidable tech power in the wider world, and the United States has a lot of its own interests to protect. Exactly how much this factored into the Huawei extradition request, that's the billion dollar question.

    Links cited in this post: Al Jazeera, CANADALAND, CBC News, National Post, The Guardian, Toronto Star, Wikipedia

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    by Published on 12-02-2018 12:50 PM
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    It doesn’t seem that long ago that you’d need a crowbar to pry a Blackberry out of an addicts hands. However, since then, most of us have grown accustomed to on-screen keyboards. Still, for some, there’s no replacement for a physical keyboard. Fortunately, for them Blackberries have managed to stick around and even better, the keyboards are still being refined with each new generation.

    These days BlackBerry OS is long gone so if you want a BlackBerry, it’s going to be running Android. While it says BlackBerry on the phone, it’s actually made by TCL who also makes phones under the Alcatel and Palm brand names.

    If you want the latest, there’s the upper midrange Key 2 and the midrange Key 2 LE which I’m reviewing today.
    ...
    by Published on 11-21-2018 11:34 AM
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    LG has always had an interesting place in the Android marketplace. I get this feeling like they’re always trying to offer a slightly different take on the Android flagship. The G3 had rear mounted volume and power buttons and higher resolution display while the G4 retained a removable battery. The G5 also had this feature but also allowed you to expand it with attachable accessories like a larger speaker. It also included a second, super-wide angle camera. The G6 was more about bringing it in line with other flagship phones with a more premium feel.

    So what is LG’s take on the 2018 flagship? Let’s check out the G7 ThinQ. ...
    by Published on 10-18-2018 03:40 PM
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    As this Canadian patiently awaits his Pixel 3 he cannot help but reflect on the other Google phones ordered in years gone by—and, to the point, what he paid for them.

    Here's what my loyalty to Google hardware has cost me over the past five years:

    January, 2013 - Nexus 4 (16 GB) - $359 CAD (+ tax)
    November, 2013 - Nexus 5 (32 GB) - $399
    August, 2015 - Nexus 6 (64 GB) - $649
    January, 2016 - Nexus 6P (64 GB) - $749
    October, 2018 - Pixel 3 (64 GB) - $999

    The one silver lining this year is that my almost-thousand-dollar phone comes with a free charging stand from Google Canada. Woo?

    Even before I started using Android I could already foresee what I thought was the inevitable commoditization of smartphone hardware. Just like the PC market, Moore's Law would see cheaper yet more powerful components with every passing year. And when I first flashed a custom Android ROM I immediately recognized what I saw as the mobile equivalent of a desktop Linux distro. So, yeah, the future of smartphones would be easy... Just pick a phone with an unlockable bootloader and official support for Cyanogen (now Lineage) and you'd be good to go. And if ever Google started being evil you'd still have F-Droid.

    There was just one impediment to this bright, open future: camera APIs.

    Ask a OnePlus enthusiast why they won't go near any custom ROM not based on that brand's native OxygenOS and they'll likely tell you that it's because of those proprietary camera blobs. It's not that OnePlus phones take the best photos; it's just that without those native camera APIs the photo captures would be even worse. Ditto for Samsung—plus whatever hell breaks loose when you trip Knox (which is apparently important). And even on Sony's stock ROM some Xperia devices will go ahead and bork your camera software when an unlocked bootloader is detected.

    On the flip side, Google's Pixel phones rely so much on computational photography that developers at XDA have ported Google's camera app for other devices (with varying degrees of success).

    If you don't care about photos or video on your smartphone—or, conversely, if you care enough about it to carry a standalone camera—then commoditization is pretty much here; just grab any Lineage-supported Motorola or Xiaomi and you should be good to go. Unfortunately for everyone else, whose best available camera is the one with the SIM card in it, it looks like we'll have to ride the wave of ever-increasing prices to get the best possible results.

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    by Published on 10-18-2018 12:38 PM
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    Sonos has been around for some time for a while it felt like they owned the whole home audio market. However, there are now alternatives and many of them are not exclusive to a single manufacturer. Google’s Home, Amazon’s Echo and Apple’s Homepod devices are marketed first as speakers that have microphones/voice assistants which can also provide whole home audio.

    With that in mind, Sonos has released the One, a Sonos with built-in microphones. Out of the box it has support Amazon Alexa’s voice recognition. Presumably it also has the capability to recognize Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri commands if Sonos can work out necessary licensing deals. ...
    by Published on 10-17-2018 03:00 PM
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    Remember that ruling from the European Union last summer, the one where Google was to be fined the Euro equivalent of about $5 billion USD if they didn't unbundle Android's Google Play Store from its Chrome and Search apps within 90 days? Well, some 89 days later Google has revealed their rather cheeky solution:

    Android OEMs in the EU will soon be able to put Chrome and Search on their hardware for free, but for any other Google Mobile Services—the Play Store, Gmail, Maps, YouTube—they'll have to pay.

    UK's The Register has what I think is the best analysis of Google's counter-proposal:

    Google knows weakness when it sees it, and is effectively challenging the commission to double or quit. The weakness in Brussels' approach is that it's the very opposite of "speak softly but carry a big stick".

    The commission barks loudly, but rarely follows through with anything effective. In July, it imposed a "record fine" of €4.34bn on Google, which grabbed the headlines for a day, but then invited Google to come up with its own solution. As we wrote at the time, the fine doesn't carry much threat, can be delayed for many years, and "a huge well-resourced company can use the European bureaucracy against itself". That's just what Google has done.
    While I get what the EU is trying to accomplish here, the way in which they've gone about it seems to have backfired. Hopefully this will all get sorted out before it adversely affects the Android experience for European users.

    Sources: Android Police, The Register

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