Happy 10th anniversary, Android

Happy 10th anniversary, Android

It’s been 10 years since Google took the wraps off the G1, the first Android phone. Since that time the OS has grown from buggy, nerdy iPhone alternative to arguably the most popular (or at least populous) computing platform in the world. But it sure as heck didn’t get there without hitting a few bumps along the road.

Join us for a brief retrospective on the last decade of Android devices: the good, the bad, and the Nexus Q.

HTC G1 (2008)

This is the one that started it all, and I have a soft spot in my heart for the old thing. Also known as the HTC Dream — this was back when we had an HTC, you see — the G1 was about as inauspicious a debut as you can imagine. Its full keyboard, trackball, slightly janky slide-up screen (crooked even in official photos), and considerable girth marked it from the outset as a phone only a real geek could love. Compared to the iPhone, it was like a poorly dressed whale.

But in time its half-baked software matured and its idiosyncrasies became apparent for the smart touches they were. To this day I occasionally long for a trackball or full keyboard, and while the G1 wasn’t pretty, it was tough as hell.

Moto Droid (2009)

Of course, most people didn’t give Android a second look until Moto came out with the Droid, a slicker, thinner device from the maker of the famed RAZR. In retrospect, the Droid wasn’t that much better or different than the G1, but it was thinner, had a better screen, and had the benefit of an enormous marketing push from Motorola and Verizon. (Disclosure: Verizon owns Oath, which owns TechCrunch, but this doesn’t affect our coverage in any way.)

For many, the Droid and its immediate descendants were the first Android phones they had — something new and interesting that blew the likes of Palm out of the water, but also happened to be a lot cheaper than an iPhone.

HTC/Google Nexus One (2010)

This was the fruit of the continued collaboration between Google and HTC, and the first phone Google branded and sold itself. The Nexus One was meant to be the slick, high-quality device that would finally compete toe-to-toe with the iPhone. It ditched the keyboard, got a cool new OLED screen, and had a lovely smooth design. Unfortunately it ran into two problems.

First, the Android ecosystem was beginning to get crowded. People had lots of choices and could pick up phones for cheap that would do the basics. Why lay the cash out for a fancy new one? And second, Apple would shortly release the iPhone 4, which — and I was an Android fanboy at the time — objectively blew the Nexus One and everything else out of the water. Apple had brought a gun to a knife fight.

HTC Evo 4G (2010)

Another HTC? Well, this was prime time for the now-defunct company. They were taking risks no one else would, and the Evo 4G was no exception. It was, for the time, huge: the iPhone had a 3.5-inch screen, and most Android devices weren’t much bigger, if they weren’t smaller.

The Evo 4G somehow survived our criticism (our alarm now seems extremely quaint, given the size of the average phone now) and was a reasonably popular phone, but ultimately is notable not for breaking sales records but breaking the seal on the idea that a phone could be big and still make sense. (Honorable mention goes to the Droid X.)

Samsung Galaxy S (2010)

Samsung’s big debut made a hell of a splash, with custom versions of the phone appearing in the stores of practically every carrier, each with their own name and design: the AT&T Captivate, T-Mobile Vibrant, Verizon Fascinate, and Sprint Epic 4G. As if the Android lineup wasn’t confusing enough already at the time!

Though the S was a solid phone, it wasn’t without its flaws, and the iPhone 4 made for very tough competition. But strong sales reinforced Samsung’s commitment to the platform, and the Galaxy series is still going strong today.

Motorola Xoom (2011)

This was an era in which Android devices were responding to Apple, and not vice versa as we find today. So it’s no surprise that hot on the heels of the original iPad we found Google pushing a tablet-focused version of Android with its partner Motorola, which volunteered to be the guinea pig with its short-lived Xoom tablet.

Although there are still Android tablets on sale today, the Xoom represented a dead end in development — an attempt to carve a piece out of a market Apple had essentially invented and soon dominated. Android tablets from Motorola, HTC, Samsung and others were rarely anything more than adequate, though they sold well enough for a while. This illustrated the impossibility of “leading from behind” and prompted device makers to specialize rather than participate in a commodity hardware melee.

Amazon Kindle Fire (2011)

And who better to illustrate than Amazon? Its contribution to the Android world was the Fire series of tablets, which differentiated themselves from the rest by being extremely cheap and directly focused on consuming digital media. Just $200 at launch and far less later, the Fire devices catered to the regular Amazon customer whose kids were pestering them about getting a tablet on which to play Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds, but who didn’t want to shell out for an iPad.

Turns out this was a wise strategy, and of course one Amazon was uniquely positioned to do with its huge presence in online retail and the ability to subsidize the price out of the reach of competition. Fire tablets were never particularly good, but they were good enough, and for the price you paid, that was kind of a miracle.

Xperia Play (2011)

Sony has always had a hard time with Android. Its Xperia line of phones for years were considered competent — I owned a few myself — and arguably industry-leading in the camera department. But no one bought them. And the one they bought the least of, or at least proportional to the hype it got, has to be the Xperia Play. This thing was supposed to be a mobile gaming platform, and the idea of a slide-out keyboard is great — but the whole thing basically cratered.

What Sony had illustrated was that you couldn’t just piggyback on the popularity and diversity of Android and launch whatever the hell you wanted. Phones didn’t sell themselves, and although the idea of playing Playstation games on your phone might have sounded cool to a few nerds, it was never going to be enough to make it a million-seller. And increasingly that’s what phones needed to be.

Samsung Galaxy Note (2012)

As a sort of natural climax to the swelling phone trend, Samsung went all out with the first true “phablet,” and despite groans of protest the phone not only sold well but became a staple of the Galaxy series. In fact, it wouldn’t be long before Apple would follow on and produce a Plus-sized phone of its own.

The Note also represented a step towards using a phone for serious productivity, not just everyday smartphone stuff. It wasn’t entirely successful — Android just wasn’t ready to be highly productive — but in retrospect it was forward thinking of Samsung to make a go at it and begin to establish productivity as a core competence of the Galaxy series.

Google Nexus Q (2012)

This abortive effort by Google to spread Android out into a platform was part of a number of ill-considered choices at the time. No one really knew, apparently at Google or anywhere elsewhere in the world, what this thing was supposed to do. I still don’t. As we wrote at the time:

Here’s the problem with the Nexus Q:  it’s a stunningly beautiful piece of hardware that’s being let down by the software that’s supposed to control it.

It was made, or rather nearly made in the USA, though, so it had that going for it.

HTC First — “The Facebook Phone” (2013)

The First got dealt a bad hand. The phone itself was a lovely piece of hardware with an understated design and bold colors that stuck out. But its default launcher, the doomed Facebook Home, was hopelessly bad.

How bad? Announced in April, discontinued in May. I remember visiting an AT&T store during that brief period and even then the staff had been instructed in how to disable Facebook’s launcher and reveal the perfectly good phone beneath. The good news was that there were so few of these phones sold new that the entire stock started selling for peanuts on Ebay and the like. I bought two and used them for my early experiments in ROMs. No regrets.

HTC One/M8 (2014)

This was the beginning of the end for HTC, but their last few years saw them update their design language to something that actually rivaled Apple. The One and its successors were good phones, though HTC oversold the “Ultrapixel” camera, which turned out to not be that good, let alone iPhone-beating.

As Samsung increasingly dominated, Sony plugged away, and LG and Chinese companies increasingly entered the fray, HTC was under assault and even a solid phone series like the One couldn’t compete. 2014 was a transition period with old manufacturers dying out and the dominant ones taking over, eventually leading to the market we have today.

Google/LG Nexus 5X and Huawei 6P (2015)

This was the line that brought Google into the hardware race in earnest. After the bungled Nexus Q launch, Google needed to come out swinging, and they did that by marrying their more pedestrian hardware with some software that truly zinged. Android 5 was a dream to use, Marshmallow had features that we loved … and the phones became objects that we adored.

We called the 6P “the crown jewel of Android devices”. This was when Google took its phones to the next level and never looked back.

Google Pixel (2016)

If the Nexus was, in earnest, the starting gun for Google’s entry into the hardware race, the Pixel line could be its victory lap. It’s an honest-to-god competitor to the Apple phone.

Gone are the days when Google is playing catch-up on features to Apple, instead, Google’s a contender in its own right. The phone’s camera is amazing. The software works relatively seamlessly (bring back guest mode!), and phone’s size and power are everything anyone could ask for. The sticker price, like Apple’s newest iPhones, is still a bit of a shock, but this phone is the teleological endpoint in the Android quest to rival its famous, fruitful, contender.

The rise and fall of the Essential phone

In 2017 Andy Rubin, the creator of Android, debuted the first fruits of his new hardware startup studio, Digital Playground, with the launch of Essential (and its first phone). The company had raised $300 million to bring the phone to market, and — as the first hardware device to come to market from Android’s creator — it was being heralded as the next new thing in hardware.

Here at TechCrunch, the phone received mixed reviews. Some on staff hailed the phone as the achievement of Essential’s stated vision — to create a “lovemark” for Android smartphones, while others on staff found the device… inessential.

Ultimately, the market seemed to agree. Four months ago plans for a second Essential phone were put on hold, while the company explored a sale and pursued other projects. There’s been little update since.

A Cambrian explosion in hardware

In the ten years since its launch, Android has become the most widely used operating system for hardware. Some version of its software can be found in roughly 2.3 billion devices around the world and its powering a technology revolution in countries like India and China — where mobile operating systems and access are the default. As it enters its second decade, there’s no sign that anything is going to slow its growth (or dominance) as the operating system for much of the world.

Let’s see what the next ten years bring.

Source: Mobile – Techcruch

How backups, backups, backups protect NYC’s cellular infrastructure

How backups, backups, backups protect NYC’s cellular infrastructure

The infrastructure that underpins our lives is not something we ever want to think about. Nothing good has come from suddenly needing to wonder “where does my water come from?” or “how does electricity connect into my home?” That pondering gets even more intense when we talk about cellular infrastructure, where a single dropped call or a choppy YouTube video can cause an expletive-laden tirade.

Recently, I visited Verizon’s cellular switch for the New York City metro area (disclosure: TechCrunch is owned by Oath, and Oath is part of Verizon). It’s a completely nondescript building in a nondescript suburb north of the city, so nondescript that it took Verizon’s representative about 15 minutes of circling around just to find it (frankly, the best security through obscurity I have seen in some time).

This switch, along with its sister, powers all cellular service in New York City, including three million voice or voice over LTE (VoLTE) calls and 708 million data connections a day. High-reliability and redundancy is a must for the facility, where dropping even one in 100,000 connections would create more than 7,000 angry customers a day. As Christine Williams, the senior operations manager who oversees the facility, explained, “It doesn’t matter what percentage of dropped calls you have if you are that person.”

As we walked through the server rows that processed those hundreds of millions of connections, I was surprised by just how little digital equipment was actually in the switch itself. “Software-defined networking” has taken full hold here, according to Michele White, who is Verizon’s Executive Director for Network Assurance in the U.S. northeast. As the team has replaced older equipment, the actual physical footprint has continued to downsize, even today. All of New York City’s traffic is run from a handful of feet of server racks.

The key to network assurance is two-fold. First is multiple levels of redundancy at every level of the infrastructure. Inside the switch, independent server racks can take over from other servers that fail, providing redundancy at the machine level. If the air conditioning — which is critical for machine performance — were to fail, mobile AC units can be deployed to pick up the burden.

All equipment in the building is serviced by DC power, and in the event of an external power loss, two diesel generators connected to a large fuel storage tank will take over. The facility is also equipped with battery backups that can sustain the facility for eight hours if the generators themselves don’t function appropriately.

Diesel generators can sustain power to the switch in the event of an external power outage

At a higher level, the switch and its sister share all New York City cellular traffic, but either one could handle the full load if necessary. In short, the goal of the switch’s design is to ensure that that no matter how small or large a problem it might experience, there is an instant backup ready to go to keep those cellular connections alive.

The other half of network assurance is centralization, something that I was surprised to hear in this supposed era of decentralization. Cellular sites in an urban area like New York are often placed on buildings, as anyone looking at roof lines can see from the street. Given those locations, it can be hard to provide backup generators and other failover infrastructure, and servicing them can also be challenging. With centralization, increasingly only the antenna is located at the site, with almost all other operations handled in central control offices and switches where Verizon has greater control of the environment.

Even with intense focus on redundancy, natural disasters can overwhelm even the best laid plans. The telecom company has an additional layer of redundancy with its mobile units, which are placed in a “barnyard” owing to the names of the equipment stored there. There are GOATs (generator on a truck), and COWs (cell on wheels), and BATs (bi-directional amplifier on a truck). These units get deployed to areas of the network that either are experiencing unusually strong demand (think the U.S. Open or a presidential inauguration) or where a natural disaster has stuck (like Hurricane Harvey).

A barnyard filled with animal-named mobile cell infrastructure, including COWs, COLTs, HORSEs, and others

That said, both White and Williams noted that mobile cell deployment is much rarer than people would guess. One reason is that cell sites are increasingly being installed with Remote Electrical Tilt, which allows nearby cell sites to adjust their antennas so as to provide some signal to an area formerly covered by an out-of-commission cell. That process I was told is increasingly automated, allowing the network to essentially self-heal itself in emergencies.

The other reason their deployment is rare is that network assurance already has to handle a remarkable amount of surging traffic throughout the normal ebb and flow of a dense urban city. “Rush hour in Times Square is pretty heavy,” noted Williams. Even something as heavy as a parade through Midtown Manhattan won’t typically exceed the network’s surge capacity.

One other redundancy that Verizon has been exploring is using drones to provide more adaptive coverage. The company has been testing “femto-cell” drone aircraft designed by American Aerospace Technologies that can provide one square mile of coverage for about sixteen hours. A drone capability could be particularly useful in cases like hurricanes, where roads are often littered with debris, making it hard for network engineers to deploy ground-based mobile cells.

I asked about 5G, which I have been covering more heavily this year as telecom deployments pick up. Given the current design of 5G, White and Williams didn’t expect too much change to happen at the switch level, where most of the core technology was likely to remain unchanged.

The trend that is changing things though is edge computing, which is in vogue due to the need for computing to be located closer to users to power applications like virtual reality and autonomous cars. That’s critical, because 50 milliseconds of extra latency could be the difference between an autonomous car hitting another vehicle or a new support pylon and swerving out of the way just in time.

Edge computing in many ways is decentralizing, and therefore there is a tension with the increasingly centralized nature of mobile communications infrastructure. Switches like this one are getting outfitted with edge technology, and more installations are expected in the coming years. 5G and edge are also deeply connected at the antenna level, and that will likely affect cell deployments far more than the switch infrastructure itself.

Edge, internet of things, 5G — all will increase the quantity and scale of the connections flowing through these networks. In the future, a cellular outage may not just inconvenience that YouTube user, but could also prevent an automobile from successfully navigating to a hospital during a natural disaster. It takes backups, backups, and backups to prevent us from ever having to ask, “where does that signal come from?”

Source: Mobile – Techcruch

Verizon and others call a conditional halt on sharing location with data brokers

Verizon and others call a conditional halt on sharing location with data brokers

Verizon is cutting off access to its mobile customers’ real-time locations to two third-party data brokers “to prevent misuse of that information going forward.” The company announced the decision in a letter sent to Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), who along with others helped reveal improper usage and poor security at these location brokers. It is not, however, getting out of the location-sharing business altogether.

(Update: AT&T and Sprint have also begun the process of ending their location aggregation services — with a caveat, of which below.)

Verizon sold bulk access to its customers’ locations to the brokers in question, LocationSmart and Zumigo, which then turned around and resold that data to dozens of other companies. This isn’t necessarily bad — there are tons of times when location is necessary to provide a service the customer asks for, and supposedly that customer would have to okay the sharing of that data. (Disclosure: Verizon owns Oath, which owns TechCrunch. This does not affect our coverage.)

That doesn’t seem to have been the case at LocationSmart customer Securus, which was selling its data directly to law enforcement so they could find mobile customers quickly and without all that fuss about paperwork and warrants. And then it was found that LocationSmart had exposed an API that allowed anyone to request mobile locations freely and anonymously, and without collecting consent.

When these facts were revealed by security researchers and Sen. Wyden, Verizon immediately looked into it, they reported in a letter sent to the Senator.

“We conducted a comprehensive review of our location aggregator program,” wrote Verizon CTO Karen Zacharia. “As a result of this review, we are initiating a process to terminate our existing agreements for the location aggregator program.”

“We will not enter into new location aggregation arrangements unless and until we are comfortable that we can adequately protect our customers’ location data through technological advancements and/or other practices,” she wrote later in the letter. In other words, the program is on ice until it can be secured.

Although Verizon claims to have “girded” the system with “mechanisms designed to protect against misuse of our customers’ location data,” the abuses in question clearly slipped through the cracks. Perhaps most notable is the simple fact that Verizon itself does not seem to need to be informed whether a customer has consented to having their location polled. That collection is the responsibility of “the aggregator or corporate customer.”

In other words, Verizon doesn’t need to ask the customer, and the company it sells the data to wholesale doesn’t need to ask the customer — the requirement devolves to the company buying access from the wholesaler. In Securus’s case, it had abstracted things one step further, allowing law enforcement full access when it said it had authority to do so, but apparently without checking, AT&T wrote in its own letter to Sen. Wyden.

And there were 75 other corporate customers. Don’t worry, someone is keeping track of them. Right?

These processes are audited, Verizon wrote, but apparently not an audit that finds things like the abuse by Securus or a poorly secured API. Perhaps how this happened is among the “number of internal questions” raised by the review.

When asked for comment, a Verizon representative offered the following statement:

When these issues were brought to our attention, we took immediate steps to stop it. Customer privacy and security remain a top priority for our customers and our company. We stand-by that commitment to our customers.

And indeed while the program itself appears to have been run with a laxity that should be alarming to all those customers for whom Verizon claims to be so concerned, some of the company’s competitors have yet to take similar action. AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint were also named by LocationSmart as partners. Their own letters to Sen. Wyden stressed that their systems were similar to the others, with similar safeguards (that were similarly eluded).

In a press release announcing that his pressure on Verizon had borne fruit, Sen. Wyden called on the others to step up:

Verizon deserves credit for taking quick action to protect its customers’ privacy and security. After my investigation and follow-up reports revealed that middlemen are selling Americans’ location to the highest bidder without their consent, or making it available on insecure web portals, Verizon did the responsible thing and promptly announced it was cutting these companies off. In contrast, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint seem content to continuing to sell their customers’ private information to these shady middle men, Americans’ privacy be damned.

AT&T actually announced that it is ending its agreements as well, after Sen. Wyden’s call to action was published, and Sprint followed shortly afterwards. AT&T said it “will be ending [its] work with these aggregators for these services as soon as is practical in a way that preserves important, potential lifesaving services like emergency roadside assistance.” Sprint stopped working with LocationSmart last month and is now “beginning the process of terminating its current contracts with data aggregators to whom we provide location data.”

What’s missing from these statements? Among other things: what and how many companies they’re working with, whether they’ll pursue future contracts, and what real changes will be made to prevent future problems like this. Since they’ve been at this for a long time and have had a month to ponder their next course of actions, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect more than a carefully worded statement about “these aggregators for these services.”

T-Mobile CEO John Legere tweeted that the company “will not sell customer location data to shady middlemen.” Of course, that doesn’t really mean anything. I await substantive promises from the company pertaining to this “pledge.”

The FCC, meanwhile, has announced that it is looking into the issue — with the considerable handicap that Chairman Ajit Pai represented Securus back in 2012 when he was working as a lawyer. Sen. Wyden has called on him to recuse himself, but that has yet to happen.

I’ve asked Verizon for further clarification on its arrangements and plans, specifically whether it has any other location-sharing agreements in place with other companies. These aren’t, after all, the only players in the game.

Source: Mobile – Techcruch

T-Mobile and Sprint have finally announced a merger agreement

T-Mobile and Sprint have finally announced a merger agreement

Sprint and T-Mobile, after years of going back and forth as to whether they are going to tie up two of the largest telecom providers in the U.S., have announced that the two companies have entered a merger agreement this morning.

The merger will be an all-stock transaction, and will now be subject to regulatory approval. That latter part is going to be its biggest challenge, because it will not only tie up the No. 3 and No. 4 carriers into the U.S. into a single unit, but also that international organizations hold significant stakes in both companies. SoftBank controls a majority of Sprint while Deutsche Telekom controls a significant chunk of T-Mobile. Following the administration’s intervention in the Broadcom-Qualcomm takeover attempt, it isn’t clear what will actually go through in terms of major mergers these days.

Bloomberg is reporting that Deutsche Telekom will have 42% ownership of the combined company, while SoftBank will own around 27% of the company.

As expected, the argument here is for the expansion of 5G networks as plans for that start to ramp up. T-Mobile argues in its announcement that it will help it be competitive with AT&T and Verizon as telecom companies start to roll out a next-generation 5G network, though it does in the end remove a carrier choice for end consumers in the U.S..

“The New T-Mobile will have the network capacity to rapidly create a nationwide 5G network with the breadth and depth needed to enable U.S. firms and entrepreneurs to continue to lead the world in the coming 5G era, as U.S. companies did in 4G,” T-Mobile said in a statement as part of the announcement. “The new company will be able to light up a broad and deep 5G network faster than either company could separately. T-Mobile deployed nationwide LTE twice as fast as Verizon and three times faster than AT&T, and the combined company is positioned to do the same in 5G with deep spectrum assets and network capacity.”

Both companies appeared to be finalizing the deal on Friday, when they set valuation terms and were preparing to announce the merger today. The deal values Sprint at an enterprise value of around $59 billion, with the combined company having an enterprise value of $146 billion. AT&T has a market cap of around $214 billion, while Verizon has a market cap of around $213 billion, as of Sunday.

The transaction, the companies said, is of course subject to regulatory approval. But, pending approval, it is expected to close “no later than the first half of 2019.”

Disclosure: Verizon is the parent company of Oath, which owns TechCrunch.

Source: Mobile – Techcruch