Air pollution apps are no joke in smog-choked China

Air pollution in major Chinese cities (and others) is the real deal. You read about it, hear about it and see locals regularly don paper face masks in an attempt to shield their lungs from its toxins.

Many install apps on their phones to help monitor the buildup in cities like Shenzhen, Shanghai and especially Beijing. China’s capital only had 25 “good” air quality days between 2008 and 2014, according to my Lonely Planet tour book, which in turn quoted the definition of “good” from the US Environmental Protection Agency.

There’s no shortage of monitoring apps to choose from, so I downloaded one that my expat friend Eric recommended, one simply called Air Quality. Its icon depicts a man wearing a face mask, which seemed like a good start.

The app lists a whole heap of air quality information for five cities: the weather forecast, an advisory to wear a mask or skip it and of course, the pollution rating (today Shanghai is excellent and Beijing is moderately polluted). In addition, the app displays levels for the most major indicators of toxic air, and updates those values as the day goes on. Yesterday morning in Beijing was less polluted than the afternoon.

You can drill down deeper for a lot more detailed readings, and for clear recommendations on whether you should:

  • Work out
  • Wear a mask
  • Turn on the air purifier
  • Keep kids and elderly folks inside
  • Open windows

There’s a serious amount of data in these apps, and it’s all actionable information that directly links to respiratory health. I may be unused to covering up with a mask, but I’d buy up a bundle if it kept me from breathing in a steady stream of poison for days at a time.

Google Play Music finally makes it easier to get podcasts on Android

Google Play Music finally makes it easier to get podcasts on Android

One of the worst kept secrets of the last week is no longer such as Google announced today that podcasts are finally coming to Google Play Music.

Techradar staff reactions to the news ranged from “ooooh” to “yesssss”, and subscribers should be stoked at the ease to which it’s now possible to listen to podcasts on Android and the web.

Google is sectioning off its podcast streams into contextual categories like Learn Something New, Stuff You Should Know, and How To Do Everything. There’s also Getting Lost in a Story and Laughing Out Loud for the times you want to zone out or lol a little bit.

Like its music channels, podcasts are divvied up to fit your mood or what you want to accomplish at the moment, though you can still search for individual podcasts as well.

“Similar to our contextual playlists for music, we want to make it easy to find the right podcast – whether you’re a podcast aficionado or listening for the first time,” Google said in a blog post.

Subscribing to a podcast will trigger the last several episodes to download to users’ devices. Listeners can also choose to get notifications every time a new episode is uploaded.

Podcasts are only available on the web starting today with an Android roll out beginning in the US and Canada, but they do give Google Play Music a distinct advantage over rival Apple Music, which doesn’t offer ‘casts. Spotify recently brought its podcasts offering out of beta.

Of course, iTunes has had podcasts going on forever, but today’s update should be sweet spoken word to Google Play Music subscribers’ ears.

Airbnb’s app update helps you live like a local, even on vacation

Airbnb's app update helps you live like a local, even on vacation

Airbnb is my – and many’s – preferred way to stay when away from home, and today the service’s iOS and Android apps got a major kick in the cottage to help travelers find accommodations that are just right for them.

The main thrust of the update is to better surface results that meet guests’ personal preferences, such as houses that allow smoking or pets.

Rather than having to wade through dwellings that are in the area you want to but won’t allow Fido to board – a fact you learn only after messaging the host – those places are less likely to appear if they don’t meet what you’ve said you’re looking for.

Hosts also have improved controls to find the right guests. Their house rules will be displayed more prominently, and guests will have to agree to them explicitly before booking. Guests will have to confirm how many people are staying in a spot, too.

Like you live there

Airbnb is also focusing on helping travelers experience life as a local, as opposed to the “t” word, in a new campaign called Live There.

With the updated mobile apps, users can search for the kind of neighborhood they’d like to stay in using categories like “quiet” or “scenic.” Places that meet that criteria will pop up as a result.

The service will also post updated city and neighborhood info for popular places, including in-depth local descriptions and photos culled from hosts.

City descriptions will pool recommendations from hosts into a collaborative guidebook for travelers. When guests open the Airbnb app, they’ll also see a link straight to their host’s personal guidebook.

These resources should give guests insights into an area that only locals know, like the best restaurant that’s not on Yelp or gems off the beaten path. Rather than get sucked up in a swarm of out-of-towners with selfie sticks, Airbnb’s Live There initiative hopes to connect travelers with the “real” side of the city they’re visiting.

The updated search experience is rolling out now on iOS and Android to a small number of hosts and guests. Others will see the updates as they’re heading out gradually.

EU ruling could improve your next Android phone

EU ruling could improve your next Android phone

The European Union’s competition commissioner has announced it will be charging Google over unfair business practices relating to the Android operating system.

The charges refer to the Google apps that are preloaded on most Android phones, such as Chrome, Gmail and the Search app, raising big question marks as to whether they can be pre-installed at all in the future.

European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager said: “It seems like you are abusing your dominant position by imposing restrictions on Andriod [sic] device makers.”

Google quickly responded – and not surprisingly it refutes claims its practices are anti-competitive. Kent Walker, Senior Vice President & General Counsel said: “Android has helped foster a remarkable – and, importantly, sustainable – ecosystem, based on open-source software and open innovation.

“We look forward to working with the European Commission to demonstrate that Android is good for competition and good for consumers.”

12 weeks to go

The accusations suggest Google is forcing Android OEMs (original equipment manufacturers – the people who built phones for it) to include services on the phone which it benefits from.

Google has 12 weeks to respond to the charges. It may mean that eventually Google will allow manufacturers to decide what Google services it includes on versions of its phones within Europe.

A blog post from Google further clarifies its position: “Our partner agreements are entirely voluntary – anyone can use Android without Google. Try it – you can download the entire operating system for free, modify it how you want, and build a phone. And major companies like Amazon do just that.”

Google claims it isn’t breaking any competition laws, as it allows manufacturers to use the Android platform as open source software, and you don’t need to include Google services at all.

The European Union doesn’t agree, as manufacturers that do decide to include Google services apps then have to include every service, rather than picking and choosing.

It means that Samsung, for example, will have to load on Google Chrome if it wants to use any Google services at all – but Chrome will then compete with Samsung’s own web browser.

This is likely to mean some big changes for how Google and Android act within Europe in the next few months – and it may mean your next Android phone won’t come with the full Google suite of applications pre-installed.

Facebook Messenger gets group calling, making your phone app more obsolete

Facebook Messenger gets group calling, making your phone app more obsolete

Facebook Messenger is welcoming group calling today, allowing you and up to 50 (!) of your friends to jump on a call together. The update is rolling out over the next 24 hours to both Android and iOS users.

You can start a group call by tapping on the Phone icon in a group chat and selecting which friends you want to ring.

Messenger will ping them all simultaneously. If a friend misses the initial call, he or she can hop in at any time.

Group calling is a big addition to Messenger, but just be aware you need to be running the newest version of the app in order to call 50 of your closest pals.

Chuck your phone app

Group calling shows Facebook is dead set on replacing your phone app. Two years ago, the company fully rolled out VoIP calling to all of its mobile app users, giving them a way to avoid running over their minutes. Messenger also attempted to replace texting by integrating SMS into the app, but the feature was a flop and was removed in 2013.

Beyond voice calling, Messenger also offers group text chat and one-on-one video calls. Facebook plans to add group video calling to Messenger in the future, but has to tackle video stabilization first since users will almost certainly be using it on their phones.

Using an app like Messenger offers some distinct advantages over traditional phone apps.

Rather than jotting down a phone number or plugging it into your phone, you can simply search for people you want to call within the app. It could also cut down on spam calls, and help prevent companies from selling your phone number. You can also block and mute chats easier than with a traditional dialer.

One big downside, however, is that none of this matters if you don’t have a solid internet or data connection.

Android N arrives on its first, non-Nexus phone: the Sony Xperia Z3

Android N arrives on its first, non-Nexus phone: the Sony Xperia Z3

Last week, we received a hint that non-Nexus Android phones might soon have access to the Android N developer. Now, Google has announced that the Sony Xperia Z3 has been added to the elite grouping of products compatible with the upcoming OS, Android N.

Although it seems like a rather strange choice, especially when you consider that there are other, much more popular Android smartphones out there, like the HTC 10 and Samsung Galaxy S7, it makes perfect sense for Sony.

The Xperia Z3 is likely the model that has attracted the biggest number of users. Sony’s newer smartphones, the Xperia Z4 and Xperia Z5 in particular, haven’t had the chance to reach people all over the globe, either due to a staggered global release, or in the case of the Z4, not being released at all in the US, and being sold in the UK under a totally different name: the Sony Xperia Z3+ (confusing, right?)

A Google representative confirmed that Xperia Z3 owners can flash their devices now by following this link. However, keep in mind that the compatibility is apparently limited to two specific Z3 models: the D6603 and D6653.

Once you update, you’ll have all of Android N’s new features at your disposal, like native multi-window view, bundled notifications and messages that are much easier to reply to. There are also a lot of interesting, under-the-hood tweaks, like the battery-saving Doze and memory-relinquishing Project Svelte that make Android N worth trying out if you have the chance.

And if you own a Sony Xperia Z3, you now have that chance.

Android N

Google extending its hug around a third-party manufacturer for its Android N software preview program is a big deal. It could very well signify that Android N will see larger numbers than Android 6.0 Marshmallow’s abysmal adoption numbers, or at least that its widespread release might not take so long.

For owners of the Xperia Z3, this is obviously big news. But Google doesn’t seem to be stopping there. Google stated that it is “working toward giving you more options for early testing and development.” Fingers are crossed that we’ll hear much more at Google IO 2016.

Weird face swaps on Snapchat just got a lot easier

Weird face swaps on Snapchat just got a lot easier

As you’ll no doubt have noticed if you use the app, face swapping is the latest hot trend on the latest hot social app, and Snapchat is making the most of it – its engineers have added a new features to make the trick much easier and more versatile.

First and foremost you can swap faces using photos from your phone rather than enlisting the help of whoever is stood with you. Swapping faces with Barack Obama, Justin Bieber or anyone else you’re never going to meet is now very simple indeed.

The replay feature has also been tweaked in the latest update to the pay-for-multiple-replays option has been scrapped, so everyone gets one replay for each snap no matter how much cash you’ve got to burn.

Snap happy

The Snapchat engineers are certainly keeping themselves busy – just last month they dropped a bunch of new chat features to make the whole experience smoother and richer. Maybe turning down Facebook’s billions wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

As before, press and hold on a face to add special effects or a swap. You can swap faces with your favourite movie star, pop idol or cartoon character, all with a couple of taps.

Another recent update to Snapchat saw the addition of motion-tracking stickers to take your video clips to the next level. If you’re still wondering what all the fuss is about, then you’re probably too old for Snapchat – try updating your LinkedIn profile instead.

iOS 9.3.2 beta upgrades your sleep and battery life at the same time

iOS 9.3.2 beta upgrades your sleep and battery life at the same time

Apple’s latest iOS update is designed to help you read easily and drift off to sleep peacefully at night, while also giving you peace of mind when it comes to your iPhone and iPad battery life.

The 9.3.2 beta update does this by combining Apple’s two best new software features from the last six months: iOS 9.3’s Night Shift from last month, and iOS 9’s low-power mode from September.

Before today, using one of these features disabled the other. That made no sense to a lot of users, because at the end of the day, when you’re reading in bed, your iPhone and iPad are likely to be running low on juice.

So that’s just when you want both an orange-tinted screen that reduces eye strain and is designed to make it easier to get to sleep, and a backend that limits battery consumption. I now have both installed and running on my iPhone 6S Plus and iPad Air 9.7.

The iOS 9.3.2 beta update is available in public form, meaning anyone can download it, not just Apple-paying developers.

Download OS X 10.11.5 public beta 2 too

Booting up the Mac App Store, beta testers will also be able to download the latest version of Apple’s computer software: OS X 10.11.5 beta 2.

So far, the release notes indicate that this update is meant for under-the-hood fixes. OS X 10.11.4 was the one with front-facing features like password-protected Notes and Live Photos.

Fresh from launching the new MacBook 2016, there’s no better time for Apple to make OS X El Capitan stability improvements for everyone who has enviously upgraded to the 12-inch laptop.

There’s more to come in the next two months. We expect iOS 10 and OS X 10.12 to make their first appearances at Apple’s WWDC 2016 event on June 13.

Why bots are taking over your phone

Why bots are taking over your phone

If the last several weeks have felt like a bots bonanza, it’s really just the beginning.

Tech firms have been working on ways to integrate bots into our lives for some time, and now, many have seemingly – suddenly – figured it out.

In their current iteration, bots live inside chat apps. Facebook Messenger, Kik, Skype – you name it, bots are on it, or coming soon.

But why the big focus on bots? Artificial intelligence has been the darling of the tech world for a while, but why does it need to live inside Facebook Messenger? What do bots offer that average apps don’t?

Many consider chatbots – bots, for shot – as merely a fancy replacement for 1-800 numbers, and while they might eventually replace having to call customer service, that’s not their whole purpose.

“We don’t see bots as a like-for-like replacement for apps, but rather a complementary offering that gives people a new way to interact with the brands and media outlets they love,” Benjie Levy, president and COO of theScore, tells techradar.

theScore just launched a bot for Messenger, aimed at delivering game results and other news whenever users want.

“For organizations like theScore, which already has millions of users on its mobile sports apps, this opens a new way for us to deliver live scores and news to sports fans in a way that’s totally native to messaging platforms, tapping into a new audience,” Levy says.

Bot-any

I’ve seen plenty of people ask, so here’s an explanation: bots are essentially automated programs designed to perform the same task over and over. They carry out their jobs extremely quickly, much faster than a human is capable of.

Despite the sudden popularity, bots really aren’t anything new. Companies have been using crude ones on their websites for years now – have you ever gone to an online help section only to chat with what’s clearly not a real person? Yes, sometimes it’s a robotic person you’re speaking to, but with increasing frequency it’s a machine you’re communicating back and forth with.

Bots

As of late, though, we’re starting to see the rise of a different kind of bot. These bots are refined, and don’t just answer questions – they help you interact with the world, all at a simple prompt, and sometimes without one at all.

They can give you a weather report when you wake up in the morning, book your next hotel room, buy you a pair of shoes or… deliver sports scores.

In their current incarnation, which is, to be frank, an early one, bots typically use information that you’ve previously provided to complete tasks. For example, once you input your credit card information for one payment, a bot can use it again, eliminating the need for you to enter it every time you want to pay for a good or service.

Some bots will get faster over time, anticipating your needs or learning what you mean when you use more conversational, non-keyword laden language.

Great! Throw away all your old apps, get a bunch of bots and life will be a piece of pre-programmed cake, right?

Not so fast.

Companies like Microsoft and Facebook are invested in making bots helpful and intelligent, but as they exist now, bots won’t replace apps. They live inside them, after all.

900 million Facebook users

Go where the people are

If bots were created a few years ago, they might take the form of new apps. Today, things are a little different.

Data collected by comScore in its 2015 US Mobile App Report shows that even though the average smartphone user visits 25 apps a month, half of the time they spend on an app is in their most used one. The time spent on apps after Number 1 drops dramatically.

Under-used apps tend to be relegated to the back folders of our devices. I personally don’t like to download an app only to have it live on the 15th page of my phone. I want to have a few apps that do everything I need. I want to consolidate.

Turns out, big apps like Facebook Messenger want me to consolidate, too.

Messenger is one of the most popular apps ever, according to comScore, and for good reason: Facebook has essentially made it a one-stop shop, allowing users to chat with friends, exchange money and even hail an Uber. (Oh, and there was the minor matter of forcing people to download it that helped boost its numbers.)

Bots

Audience seekers like theScore see this app centralization happening, and they’re keen to go where people are spending most of their time.

“Messaging apps are huge,” Levy says. “This is the way the next generation of mobile users is communicating and interacting with each other, and it was a total no-brainer for us to be there.

“While we don’t know for sure how well bots will be adopted, we do know there’s a gigantic potential audience out there for those that create the best experience.”

The bot bet

Bots could replace countless apps that currently do nothing but gather digital dust and eat up space on your phone.

All you need is a prominent messaging app, and voilà!, a bot is at your beck and call.

“Bots allow you to do a simple task like reserve a hotel room, get your boarding pass, or print a photo without having to be encumbered with downloading an app,” David Parry, senior innovation manager at HP, tells me. HP also announced a bot for Messenger last week.

“Many customers either do not want to download another app or have space for one,” Parry continues.

Simplifying the mobile experience has a nice ring for customers, but businesses stand to benefit from bots as well.

As Levy of theScore notes, bots give companies a whole new way to reach readers or customers through an app that most of them probably already have and use frequently.

Instead of having to pour money into making an app, businesses can spend a lot less dinero to pay a developer to build a text-based bot that will work across multiple operating systems on apps used by hundreds of millions of people, as articulated by chat app Kik Founder Ted Livingston.

Of course, bots are a win for the likes of Facebook and Microsoft because they keep users on their platforms. These firms – of which Google may soon join – are basically handing bot-building tools to developers and saying, “Go, make these.”

Now that we’re on the frontier of this brave new bot world, the possibilities are endless. OK, maybe not endless, but the potential of bots to impact our lives is real.

“[Bots] will be able to handle administrative tasks both personally and for work without you having to worry about those chores,” says HP’s Parry. “The best bots will be those that take care of you and your daily needs.”

The future may seem a little lazier, but bots could eliminate many mundane tasks as well as help us more deeply and readily engage with the world around us. I’m excited to see where bots take us, and how many apps I can start deleting from my phone.

‘Exciting’ new Motorola device coming June 9

'Exciting' new Motorola device coming June 9

We’ve been awash with rumours of a Moto G4 and Moto G4 Plus and it looks like they could soon be made official, as Motorola is apparently launching a new device on June 9.

At least that’s what Lenovo’s CEO, Yang Yuanqing, said during the launch of the Lenovo Zuk Z2 Pro according to GizmoChina. He didn’t reveal any specifics about the device, though he did claim it would be “exciting.”

We’re big fans of excitement here, so hopefully it lives up to the billing, whatever it is. The most likely candidate is the aforementioned Moto G4 and/or Moto G4 Plus, since they’ve been leaking left, right and centre.

Rumours suggest they’ll both have 5.5-inch screens, 16GB of storage and come in a choice of black or white, but that the Moto G4 Plus will have a higher spec 16MP camera, where the standard Moto G4 will just have a 13MP one.

The Moto G4 Plus is also said to benefit from a fingerprint scanner, which would be nice to see on what will presumably be a very affordable handset.

X beats G

That would be somewhat exciting, but what would be even more exciting is a higher-end phone that we know almost nothing about, like a new Moto X Style.

Given that last year’s model was announced in July the timing could just about work, especially as a leak appeared in December purportedly showing it off with a new metal and glass construction, but as we’ve heard little else about it we’re not holding our breath.

It would be exciting though and excitement is what we’ve been promised, so don’t disappoint us Motorola.