Thursday, September 19, 2013

Google's New “App Launcher” Style Navigational Menu Arrives

Google is reportedly making a change to its homepage and other online services that will see it dropping its horizontal, black navigational bar containing links to social, search, Gmail, images, news, and more, in favor of a new menu that more closely resembles the app launcher icon found on Android smartphones. The new square-shaped button, which instead launches an app grid containing colorful icons pointing to Google’s various properties, will appear at the top of Google websites, next to the notifications button and links to users’ profiles. This design has been in testing for the better part of 2013, with some seeing the then-experimental interface as early as February, according to the unofficial Google-watching blog, Google Operating System, which was also among the first to spot what appears to be official confirmation of the new design’s ETA by a Google employee. On a Google+ post where a user was sharing a screenshot of the updated look-and-feel, Google+ Community Manager Justine Rivero commented, “Glad you noticed! We’ll be rolling out this new feature in the next few weeks…stay tuned!” Before today, Google has only been showing the updated navigation menu to portions of its user base as an experiment. It had not yet announced that the menu would be more broadly rolled out.[Update: Google announced the news publicly after we posted.] Searches on Google+ this morning indicate that a number of users are beginning to receive the changes, and are posting screenshots with comments like “gone is the black bar,” “no black bar,” and so on. Twitter users are seeing the same thing. Other sites are also reporting that the new navigation menu will appear across Google properties beyond Google+, including Search, Gmail, Blogger, YouTube and more. The same “app launcher” interface has been seen on Chrome’s new tab page, where it can currently be enabled as an experiment, too. The launcher currently shows icons for top Google services like Google+, Search, YouTube, Maps, Play, News, Gmail, Drive and Calendar, but allows you to access others by clicking “More.” This reveals Translate, Books, Offers, Wallet, Shopping, Blogger, Finance and Google+ photos. Three services found on the black nav bar, but not in the new menu, are Images, Videos and Google Mobile. The updated menu makes sense for Google, as it’s trying to streamline its properties across platforms, including Chrome OS, Android, desktop web, mobile web, mobile apps and other online services. The new navigation menu looks like the Chrome OS app launcher, while also recalling Android’s app launcher and app grid. And the lighter design fits in better with Google’s preference for card-style user interfaces and the move away from the darker tones in its designs. Though the confirmation about the nav menu was posted by a Google employee, we have not yet heard back from Google’s communications team to re-confirm the news, or the ETA. There’s always a chance that the menu will still only be rolling out to select users or Google+ members, or that it will co-exist with the black navigation bar, before a final switch. Stay tuned.

iOS 7 Adoption Already As High As 35% In One Day, Apple And Developers Reap The Rewards

Apple’s big iOS 7 update rolled out to devices yesterday, around 1 p.m. ET, and while many users encountered a lot of frustrating server errors trying to get it, the numbers show that a lot of people were successful in updating. Like, a whole lot. We’ve gathered results from a number of mobile publishing firms to find out what the numbers look like after 24 hours, and the trends indicate a very rapid rate of adoption. Chitika says that iOS 7 generated just over 18 percent of traffic from North American users on their platform over the past 24 hours, which beats out the iOS 6 first day update stats. Their study covers around 300 million page views from devices in the U.S. and Canada, and revealed that a day in, there were more users on iOS 7 than there were one day into the iOS 6 launch by about three percentage points. Mobile web and app analytics provider Mixpanel has been watching the iOS 7 uptake in real time, and has found that within the first 24 hours, devices running iOS 7 hitting its network reached 35 percent. The firm also found that many people updated during the workday (with 22 percent on iOS in the 10 hours following its launch), and that many more were updating late into the night Pacific time, with another 10 percent coming on between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. PT. Predicting adoption based on the current rate, Mixpanel says iOS 7 could exceed iOS 6 activity on its network by this time tomorrow. Android, by comparison, still sees Jelly Bean (all versions) accounting for only 57 percent of traffic on the Mixpanel network, a full 450 days after the first version’s launch. Mixpanel’s data is coming from nearly 2 billion impression records, distributed equally among all of its clients so as not to skew the data by relying too heavily on, say, an iPhone or Apple-focused blog’s mobile website or app. Mobile and tablet website optimization company Onswipe has also been watching the numbers on its platform, and their sample size of around 1 million unique iOS devices reveals that around 31.27 percent of users are already on iOS 7. iPhone adoption is slightly ahead with 34.04 percent of total traffic coming from iOS 7, while on iPads visitors with the latest OS represent 26.12 percent of the pie. Both are up from last year and iOS 6, when 14.18 percent of iPads and 27.04 percent of iPhones had updated to iOS 6 24 hours in, making for a total of 24.77 percent of users across all devices. “iOS 7 is getting such rapid adoption because it’s like getting a brand new phone instantly and for free,” Onswipe CEO Jason Baptiste told me via email. “Its adoption is also being accelerated by developers pushing a brand new iOS 7 redesign to their large user bases.” This adoption is definitely unmatched by any other platform and its updates, mobile or otherwise. Apple has a key advantage here not only because it issues updates over-the-air, meaning users can get them wherever they’re connected to a Wi-Fi network instead of having to tether to their computers, but also because of Apple’s unprecedented and unmatched relationship with its carrier partners. There’s a side benefit for developers who jump on early, too: Users new to iOS 7 are hungry for software that complements it, and those app makers who’ve made the switch to iOS 7-specific designs are seeing big download boosts thanks to both consumer interest and promotional efforts from Apple. The iPhone-maker has been highlighting iOS 7-ready apps and updates in its iPad and iPhone App Store ever since the update went live, and some of those apps, like OminiFocus2 and NBC, have seen their chart positions rise as a result. In short, Apple’s adoption rates aren’t suffering because of the big changes in iOS 7, as some had suspected, and in fact the shift seems to be drawing in a more eager crowd with a very healthy appetite for apps. We’re just a day into this, however, which means that so far the numbers could reflect an outsized portion of early adopters anyway. We’ll be watching these numbers to see if they continue to mirror or exceed previous adoption trajectories for new iOS updates, or if there’s any indication the wider public is more update-shy.

Nokia CEO Stephen Elop Will Get $25.5M If The Microsoft Deal Closes

Today a Nokia filing detailed the compensation package that outgoing CEO Stephen Elop will receive as he transitions back to his former home, Microsoft, along with large chunks of the company that he led. He’ll take with him around $18.8 million euros, or $25.5 million dollars. Microsoft will pay 70 percent (13.17 million euros) of that fee, and Nokia will pay the rest (5.65 million euros). The total sum includes Elop’s base salary, “management incentive” and an equity chunk that is currently valued using a Nokia per-share price of 4.12 euros. That’s the level that Nokia traded at before the deal was announced, so Elop is not being paid a premium on that bit of his compensation for having arranged the deal; this removes any potential financial chicanery from occurring. The sum is small compared to the 5.44 billion euro deal in which Microsoft will acquire key Nokia brands and the company’s handset business, totaling just 0.35 percent of the larger deal. Still, it’s a handy chunk of change for Elop, and a more-than-polite welcome-home gift. Elop is an oft-discussed potential next CEO for Microsoft. Elop’s return to Microsoft with pieces of Nokia stuffed into his pockets will fuel the persistent speculation that he has long been a plant inside the mobile giant. I’ve never felt that the idea had any truth to it. Elop’s return is as innocuous as his initial departure, as was the Nokia choice of Windows Phone over Android as its next platform of choice. Is Microsoft unhappy with how things shook out? No, but not every pleasant occurrence is call for conspiracy. The Nokia-Microsoft deal is expected to close in early 2014. That said, most are treating the agreement as done: Microsoft pays a large stack of its foreign cash to pick up the handset assets of Nokia, thus bringing under its own roof the phones that constitute almost 90 percent of its Windows Phone unit volume. It therefore regains control of its own mobile platform, and Nokia can do something else with hopefully stronger margins. For now, Elop gets a fine check if his deal pulls through, and it should.

Apple Adjusts ‘App Resurrection' Policy, Will Allow Developers To Restrict Versions Offered

Earlier this week, we noted that Apple’s new policy of automatically serving up old versions of apps to users was good for the downloader, but not so great for the developer. Today, Apple has adjusted its policy and will allow developers to choose not to offer old versions. Apple made the announcement on its news site for developers (emphasis ours): Previous versions of your apps are now available for re‑download by users who have already purchased them, allowing customers to use your apps with older devices which may no longer be supported by the current version of your app. If you do not wish to make these versions available, you can manage the availability of your apps’ previous versions in the Rights and Pricing section of the Manage Your Apps module in iTunes Connect The “app resurrection” feature is a seamless option that Apple enabled on its App Store this week that allowed users to automatically download editions of apps that work on older iOS versions. This way, if a developer began only supporting iOS 7, a user on iOS 6 could grab the “last known good” version of the app that ran on their device. This was a nice addition that should serve users of old iPhones and iPods well. However, in our report, we described the issues that could pop up because the feature was opaque to developers: To give you a brief example, any old version of Your Favorite Twitter Client that hasn’t been updated to work with the new v1.1 API will be very buggy or broken completely if you try to download it on an old version of iOS. Sources in the developer community have confirmed to us that there is no option available in Apple’s iTunes Connect dashboard that allows a developer to see which version of their apps are being served to which iOS versions. That opacity alone has the potential to confuse customer support issues, as old versions of the app may very well contain bugs or issues that have gone un-addressed as developers move on to the latest versions of iOS. But there is also no way for developers to re-upload old versions of the apps with those issues fixed. Simply put, a user on an old version of iOS could download an app with issues that are impossible for a developer to ever fix. You can see the nightmare scenario that is cropping up in many developer’s minds here. Now, it seems that Apple has either listened to the developers that have been worried about the feature, or revealed more support options around it. At the time of our original report, we had heard that there were no provisions in place or planned to allow developers any control. So this is welcome news. There could also have been some legal ramifications here if developers had made changes to old versions due to litigation. If those old versions went back out, they or Apple could be held liable. The ability to restrict the versions of the apps that are available to download automatically via this feature is definitely a great addition. The one other possibility we had mentioned would be to allow developers to “fix” the bugs and issues that could make those old versions work well again and re-upload them. That does not appear to be a part of this adjustment from Apple. This should go a long way toward alleviating fears from developers that old, broken versions of their apps would get downloaded, opening the door for unhappy users to leave bad reviews based on those old apps.

California Regulator Passes First Ridesharing Rules, A Big Win For Lyft, SideCar, And Uber

The California Public Utilities Commission has unanimously approved new regulations around ridesharing services such as Lyft, SideCar, and UberX (as initially noted in a number of reports on Twitter). The CPUC proposed the rules back in July, offering a legal framework forridesharing services to operate throughout the state. As we reported then, most of the regulations revolved around public safety, as well as ensuring that drivers have had background checks and are covered by insurance in the case of an accident. According to a press release from the CPUC, the new regulations establish a new category of business called a Transportation Network Company, and it requires those companies to obtain a license from CPUC, conduct criminal background checks, establish a driver training program, and hold commercial insurance policy with a minimum of $1 million per-incident coverage. Lyft co-founder and President John Zimmer told me that California is the first state to establish such rules. While the company already operates in San Francisco (where it’s headquartered), Los Angeles, and San Diego, Zimmer said the decision “provides clarity to our communities here in markets that already exist” while also setting the stage for launching in more cities. He also said that when he talks to regulators in other cities and states, they’re usually looking to see how things shake out in California, and now the state has shown there’s “a way to do this that doesn’t compromise on safety, innovation, or choice for consumers.” As for how the regulations that were passed today compared to what was initially proposed, Zimmer said some of the language has changed, but the substance is similar. A CPUC spokesperson said the main revision since July is strengthening some of the provisions around insurance. “Our decision emphasizes safety as a primary objective, while fostering the development of this nascent industry,” said Commissioner Mark J. Ferron in the press release. “We have specified our expectations for the attributes of insurance. Now the insurance market will determine the best approach to ensure that there is coverage for passengers, drivers, and third-parties at all times while these vehicles are operating on a commercial basis.”

Fly Or Die: LEGO Mindstorms EV3

LEGO Mindstorms EV3. Even the name is formidable, but just wait until you connect the dots and fire up these dragon-esque robots. The EV3 set of robotic, programmable LEGOs is the very best version of this 14-year-old product line we’ve ever seen. The most notable edition is that users can program directly from the smart brick, the computational component included in each robot that gives the simple “If/Then” commands. In the past, users had to program from their computers and then sync with the brick. The Mindstorms EV3, the aptly named third generation model, also offers awesome build-guide apps for iOS and Android that give 3D models for each of the LEGO configuration, helping you get the robot built so you can get down to programming. For the first time, the EV3 kit also includes an infrared sensor, which lets your robots see and detect various objects and colors. And as per usual, the system runs on Linux-based firmware and is equipped with USB and SD ports. The price point is slightly high for kids, at $349.99. However, unlike video games that rot the mind, the EV3 is teaching basic skills that could turn your little guy into the next Steve Wozniak. On the other hand, hobbyists and adults looking to learn a little bit about programming might find the EV3 kit to be a solid investment. If you want to see the Mindstorms EV3 in action, check out this video below from CES.

Why Zuckerberg Thinks Government Should Not “Move Fast And Break Things”

Silicon Valley has dramatically altered many aspects of our lives, but Congress still operates in the same way its horse-riding forefathers did. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is not only optimistic about Congress, but thinks its general operating principles are A-OK. “The cynical view is that everything is broken and sucks,” he told The Atlantic’s James Bennet at the magazine’s Newseum event yesterday in Washington, D.C. “My view is that the system is set up to avoid making catastrophic mistakes, and right now the country is really divided, and therefore few things should get done, except for the things that people really agree on.” Like many in Silicon Valley, Zuckerberg is famous for running his multi-billion-dollar company at the edge of chaos with the philosophy “move fast and break things.” Employees are encouraged to ask forgiveness, not permission. Prototypes are quickly launched, piloted, improved, and then launched again. The lumbering giant of the U.S. bureaucracy is the exact opposite in almost every imaginable way: exceptions require painstaking approvals, contract bids are legally required to be inclusive of all parties, and Congress members get one shot every few years to fix a problem. Seen from Zuckerberg’s glass-half-full perspective, if the United States hasn’t deteriorated into a Mad Max hellscape, the government is doing its job. Despite his cautious optimism, Silicon Valley folks have been trying to bring the principles of Silicon Valley innovation to D.C., but the realities of representative democracy have blunted their success. Last year, Facebook held a “hackathon” with engineers and members of Congress to think about novel ways of keeping citizens informed. Unlike most hackathons, however, it was illegal for Congress to adopt any of the ideas, since the law views free products to government as indentured servitude. President Obama attempted to apply a prize model to education reform with “Race to the Top,” which doles out federal money to states that find the most innovative ways to improve academic outcomes. Unlike a competition for launching an inexpensive rocket into space, there is fierce political opposition to the education goals, like teacher evaluations or funding for union-less charter experiments. Frustrated by internal opposition to change, the president’s former Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel told me that his strategy was to hire people from Silicon Valley to replace the old guard. VanRoekel and his enthusiastic compatriot Chief Technology Officer Todd Park have been successful in opening up some government data on health, education and safety. However, some of their aspirations, such as developing a secure foreign-aid transfer system, are yet to be completed. The principles of representative democracy and Silicon Valley are not always a happy couple. Facebook can risk more, because even if the entire company fails, its users won’t end up resorting to cannibalism in a post-nuclear apocalyptic dystopia. Neither does Facebook have to be overly inclusive in every product contract, for fear of perpetuating the cabal of established powers. At TechCrunch, we’re experimenting with crowdsourced federal legislation and helping the city of San Francisco think through online direct democracy. It is our hope that we can bring a little bit of innovation to the democratic process.