Monthly Archives: October 2013

Circle Raises $9M Series A From Accel And General Catalyst To Make Bitcoins Mainstream



Circle Internet Financial has launched with $9M of Series A funding to increase mainstream adoption of digital currencies like Bitcoin by providing a payment platform for consumers and merchants. Investors include Jim Breyer, Accel Partners and General Catalyst Partners.

All three invested in Circle founder Jeremy Allaire’s previous startup Brightcove, an online video platform that went public in 2012.

Circle is a payment platform that wants to make it easy for businesses and consumers to use Bitcoin and other digital currencies. Despite its association with Deep Web black market Silk Road, as well as concerns over its stability, more consumers and companies are beginning to show interest in Bitcoins because they can facilitate online payments at lower costs and with greater security and privacy than existing electronic payment methods.

For consumers, Circle says it is building a secure platform that will protect consumer privacy. For businesses and charities, it will provide tools and services that enable them to accept digital currency payments with no transaction fees. One potential draw for enterprise users is avoiding the fees and risks of fraud and chargebacks associated with credit cards.

Circle’s Series A is one of the largest–if not the largest–amounts of funding secured so far by a digital currency startup. Other Bitcoin-based companies that have recently landed significant investment include Coinbase, which raised a $5 million Series A led by Union Square Ventures, and BitPay, which has received about $2.5 million to date from Founders Fund and various angel investors.

Other startups that have recently launched to take advantage of the increasing interest in Bitcoin include London-based Bitcoin exchange Coinfloor; music jukebox hack Beatcoin; micropayment platform BitWall; and whitelabel exchange Buttercoin.

In order for companies like Circle to be successful, however, they will have to allay concerns about regulatory issues. As Shakil Khan, founder of Bitcoin news Web site CoinDesk, pointed out last week during a Disrupt Berlin panel, average customers want to see some kind of regulation before they adopt Bitcoin. On the other hand, there are potential opportunities for digital currency companies around the world. For example, China’s government is beginning to show interest in Bitcoins (and a division of Chinese Internet giant Baidu recently started accepting Bitcoin payments).

Circle is based in Boston, with international operations headquartered in Dublin, Ireland. The company is regulated by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), a bureau of the U.S. Department of Treasury, as a money transmitter and is seeking state licenses. John Beccia, the former chief regulatory counsel for the Financial Services Roundtable in Washington, D.C., will also serve as Circle’s general counsel and chief compliance officer.

Allaire also co-founded of Allaire Corporation, creators of Web development language ColdFusion. Allaire Corp. was acquired by Macromedia in 2001, where Allaire became CTO and helped oversee the creation of a Flash-based application platform.

“Bitcoin and digital currency represent a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shape the future of the Internet and global commerce,” said Alliare in a statement. “There’s a tremendous opportunity to make payments easier, more secure and less costly for consumers and businesses. Digital currency can dramatically reduce the friction and costs currently experienced in the world by merchants and consumers.”

Jim Breyer, Partner at Accel Partners, will join Circle’s board of directors, as well as David Orfao of General Catalyst Partners.

“The dramatic global growth in mobile, social and online commerce is creating the need and potential for a real global digital currency. With Jeremy’s vision for Circle and track record as an Internet pioneer, the opportunity here is to potentially build a significant global company,” said Breyer.

Calls To Limit Speech In The Snowden Era Underscore The Importance Of A Free Press



The Snowden revelations have reignited a discussion about privacy – especially privacy in the digital age. That discussion will eventually, we can hope, not only reform how the government views the privacy of its citizens, but also how those citizens interact with private entities that might store massive amounts of their personal information.

It’s stunning to consider how much better informed we are as a global citizenry thanks to Snowden’s efforts and the journalists that have worked closely with him. They have carefully brought to light documents and information regarding the spying efforts of the United States government, and to a lesser degree, the British government on a scale that was previously unimaginable.

But the Snowden leaks have done more than uncover a secret world of surveillance. They are starting to drive change at the congressional level. Following revelations that the NSA taps the fiber-optic cables of the Internet, tracks the metadata of all phone calls placed in the United States, and forces technology companies to hand over user data, we’ve entered into a new era of transparency.

There are forces arrayed against this trend, however. The parts of the government that wish to remain hidden are not enjoying their time in the spotlight.

United States

In short, [NSA General Keith Alexander] is not much of a fan of free speech, an adversarial press, a transparent government, public accountability, or a great many other things that a constitutional, democratic republic requires to function.

Change is already under way. Bills in Congress are being proposed, with bipartisan and bicameral support, that would greatly curtail the legal authority, and therefore ability, of the NSA to collect as much data as it currently does.

The shifting tone in Congress – most recently and most notably the about-face of Senator Dianne Feinstein on the subject of the NSA – has been matched by a stiffly unshifting tone from the spy agencies themselves.

With its track record of being truthful already underwater, the NSA has managed to explain little in recent weeks – and complain much. It has become known that their talking points are as manufactured as their denials – there will come a time when leaning heavily on 9/11 will show weakness of argument, but we can have that talk some other time – now public, the public protestations of the NSA are becoming increasingly cardboardish.

But when the NSA and its ilk are clear, we can learn the most. And when it comes to something so intensely serious, clarity is useful. The NSA’s General Keith Alexander recently made the following set of remarks (transcription by Politico):

“I think it’s wrong that that newspaper reporters have all these documents, the 50,000-whatever they have and are selling them and giving them out as if these-you know it just doesn’t make sense.

We ought to come up with a way of stopping it. I don’t know how to do that. That’s more of the courts and the policymakers but, from my perspective, it’s wrong to allow this to go on.”

It’s somewhat difficult to tally just how much the general managed to get wrong in two short statements, but let’s try. He’s wrong that the documents are being sold; they are not. Stopping “it” would mean stopping the free press, in essence overriding the First Amendment. That’s not a good idea. He’s correct that it would be up to “courts and the policymakers” to gut free speech in the country, but he’s wrong in that it is not “wrong to allow this to go on.”

In short, the general is not much of a fan of free speech, an adversarial press, a transparent government, public accountability, or a great many other things that a constitutional, democratic republic requires to function.

Let’s look at just how bad an idea it would be to follow his advice.

If we did not allow newspapers, blogs, Twitter users, writers and readers of all shapes and sizes and sorts to publish what they might, and learn what they will, then we would not know that the NSA was tapping the data connections between Yahoo and Google data centers in foreign countries. Why foreign countries? Because the rules that guide the NSA are looser in foreign countries, and so it can do what it can’t in the United States. What we have learned is plain: If there is data, the NSA wants to tap, collect, store, and then analyze it at will.

Given the history of privacy, and the historical backing of the Fourth Amendment, this isn’t much in line with the American Experiment. To then prevent the American citizenry from finding out that their legal protections were being hollowed out not good, and the general is wrong.

Britain

Across the pond, this is a bit more explicit. Here’s The Guardian, in August [emphasis mine]:

I received a phone call from the centre of government telling me: “You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back.” There followed further meetings with shadowy Whitehall figures. The demand was the same: hand the Snowden material back or destroy it. I explained that we could not research and report on this subject if we complied with this request. The man from Whitehall looked mystified. “You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more.”

During one of these meetings I asked directly whether the government would move to close down the Guardian’s reporting through a legal route – by going to court to force the surrender of the material on which we were working. The official confirmed that, in the absence of handover or destruction, this was indeed the government’s intention. Prior restraint, near impossible in the US, was now explicitly and imminently on the table in the UK.

The last sentence is key, as it describes a process by which what is fit and not fit to be published is determined before publication. In August The Guardian stated that such a thing was “near impossible” in the United States. And yet, General Alexander recently called for “a way of stopping it,” again with “it” being the reporting about the Snowden documents. Alexaner continued: “It’s wrong to allow this to go on.” So, the general is calling for prior restraint, which has long been a firewall between censorship and the public learning what it might.

There are fresh threats from the British government, however, that also bear telling. Here’s current Prime Minister David Cameron on the continued leaks (via The Guardian):

We have a free press, it’s very important the press feels it is not pre-censored from what it writes and all the rest of it. The approach we have taken is to try to talk to the press and explain how damaging some of these things can be and that is why the Guardian did actually destroy some of the information and disks that they have. But they’ve now gone on and printed further material which is damaging.

I don’t want to have to use injunctions or D notices or the other tougher measures. I think it’s much better to appeal to newspapers’ sense of social responsibility. But if they don’t demonstrate some social responsibility it would be very difficult for government to stand back and not to act.

Sadly, his government has already taken to smashing laptops of journalists and threatening prior restraint. He has now introduced new legal methods as potential tools to increase pressure. Also, there is a certain sliminess to the comment that the press “feels it is not pre-censored from what it writes.” There is a large gap between that and the press in fact being free to write whatever it wishes.

Hell No

It’s plain that the governments of the United States and Britain would prefer it if we knew nothing of their surveillance activities. With that in mind, we now do, and they want to stop the continued leaks.

But as we are seeing from congressional activity in the United States, the leaks are producing change. Which is precisely what the NSA and GCHQ do not want. Tough. If to get their way they think for a moment we are willing to give up the right to free expression, thought and writing, then they can go to hell.

Top Image Credit: Shutterstock

Hands On With The Nexus 5 And Android 4.4 KitKat



The Nexus 5 is here! The Nexus 5 is here!

After months of hype and more questionably “accidental” leaks than any device in recent memory, Google announced their new flagship Android handset this morning.

I’ve only had the device in my hands for a few hours, so it’ll be a few days before I’m ready to give my final yay or nay on this thing. With that said, I recognize that I’m amongst a very lucky few to have access to this thing before they start leaving the warehouse en masse later this week, so I figured I’d share some early impressions.

Thoughts so far:

  • It’s quite nice looking, though not in a particularly unique way. Look at it from more than a few feet away, and most folks probably wouldn’t have any idea what phone they were looking at. It’s a big glass screen with a matte black back; I’m… not sure how you could get any more standard.
  • The soft touch backside gets fingerprint-tastic, and fast. I had to wipe it almost constantly for our hands on photos. For reference, I’m using the black device and don’t have particularly oily hands.
  • As you’d expect of a device with a nearly 5-inch (4.95 inches, to be specific) screen, it’s big. Real big. Any bigger, in fact, and I’d say it’s too big. And yet, Google and LG managed to keep it just within the realm of sanity. It’s not a strictly two-hand device, but unless you’ve got hulk hands, expect to need a second hand more often than not.
  • With Android 4.4, Google Search is now integrated into every single page of your homescreen launcher, and can be triggered by voice through an “Okay, Google” hot keyword. Having search on every page is so nice that I wonder why Google didn’t do it before (instead letting the user pick which one, if any, of their homescreens had a Google Search widget on it). Search is always just there.
  • Google Now is now always the left-most screen on your homescreen, which is a smart move on Google’s part. Google Now is incredibly neat (if slightly terrifying) – but, previously stuffed behind a swipe from the very bottom of the screen, it was far too easy to forget it was there. You can still reach it with a swipe up from the bottom, need be.
  • It’s smooth. Really smooth. Every transition, every fade in – it’s like butter. If it stays this smooth after a few weeks of use, it’s by far the smoothest Android experience I’ve had; alas, that rarely seems to be the case with Android.
  • The camera seems above average, but not mind blowing. I’ll save the example shots until I’ve had a chance to pit it head-to-head with a few comparable devices. The camera is also a bit crashy, though that might be my specific unit; three times now, the camera has just stayed at a black screen when I tried to open it
  • Android 4.4 overhauls the dialer, with the main feature being a knowledge of nearby businesses. Just type a business name into the same field where you’d normally type the first few letters of your friends name, and it pulls up the details for nearby locations. In my early tests, this feature works very well. Typing “Starbucks” pulled up 8+ locations near me (hey, it’s San Francisco), broken down by their location, each offering their phone number at a click. It works in reverse, too; I had one of those Starbucks locations call me, and the phone identified the caller as such. Google says all this data is piped in from Google Maps
  • In Google’s HDR+ mode (which takes photos in rapid succession and combines the best parts of each into one photo), the camera can be slow. Twice I moved the camera before it was done (but after the shutter sound went off), ending up with a photo of the ground.
  • While Android 4.4 is largely focused on optimizations that allows it to run on lower-end devices, there are a number of lil’ subtle changes that really spruce up the place. The top bar and bottom nav bar are both translucent now, allowing the homescreen background to go fullbleed across the screen . The widgets drawer has been moved out from the pop-up app drawer (which always seemed like a weird location), and back to being behind a long press on the home screen (like it was in Android of yesteryear).

The Nexus 5 comes in two colors: one black, and one white. $349 gets you a 16GB model, while $399 gets you 32GB. Both of those devices are unlocked and off-contract, mind you – for the price, the hardware stuffed into this phone is rather amazing.

Alas, it might be tough to get one for a while. The Nexus 5 just went on sale this morning, and almost immediately sold out. If you’re one of the people who got their order in: don’t worry, so far I’d say you’ve made a solid choice.

While my notes above may seem neutral (or even neutral-negative), I’m actually pretty darn pleased with the device so far. It feels like they took the Nexus 4, the Moto X, and the HTC One – all three devices of which were devices I really liked – and mashed them together, pulling in many of the best parts of each. If you’re already an Android fan or a Nexus 4 owner, you’ll like what you see here. If you’re an iPhone user, this one really could be the one to convince you to make the switch. I know I’m tempted.

Check back in just a few days for our full review.

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Ask A VC: AngelPad's Thomas Korte On NYC Expansion, The Incubator's New $7M Funding Round And More



In this week’s special episode of Ask A VC from Disrupt Europe in Berlin, Germany, AngelPad founder and former Googler Thomas Korte talked to TechCrunch about his incubator’s strategy, expansion and more.

Korte, who launched AngelPad in 2010 with six other ex-Google employees, explained why he’s kept the incubator small, with only around 10-12 startups per session (with two sessions per year). Korte also told us that AngelPad is heading east for its next session, debuting a new session in New York City (interested founders can apply here, and the deadline is Sunday).

While AngelPad was bootstrapped for the past three years with the backing of its founders, Korte also revealed that AngelPad just raised $7 million in outside investment from undisclosed LPs.

As of January of this year, AngelPad had seen 62 companies participate in five sessions. In 2012 alone, AngelPad’s 62 total companies raised $56 million, which is on top of the $25 million they had raised in 2011. The incubator has also seen some impressive exits from portfolio startups, including Twitter’s recent $350 million acquisition of MoPub.

Tune in above for more!

SoundTracking Launches Updated App With New ‘Discover' Section For Trending Music



Music-focused social network SoundTracking released a new version of its smartphone app today, one that co-founder and CEO Steve Jang said will make the app useful beyond “hardcore music lovers.”

We’re also hearing that SoundTracking has reached an agreement with Sprint, with SoundTracking being preloaded or featured on certain Sprint Android phones starting next spring. However, Jang declined to comment on any potential partnership, so hopefully we’ll know more about that soon.

Anyway, back to the updated app. There’s a new design with features like larger photos and brighter colors, but the most interesting addition is probably a Discover section, which is basically a new take on finding music through Soundtracking.

Previously, people discover music based on what was shared by the users they followed. With the new section, you can find music in a way that’s not subject to the randomness of who you follow and when you checked your newsfeed. There’s a song of the day chosen by the SoundTracking team (something the company was already experimenting with via email, and which got a positive response), hashtag-based search, and charts of general trending music and music nearby.

Jang said he plans to go further in this direction with more charts focusing on different types of music.

The obvious comparison seems to be Twitter #Music, an app that recommends music based on what people are tweeting. Jang suggested that social networks in general have moved toward personalized recommendations that less reliant on timelines and on who you follow. On the other hand, a recent report suggested that usage of the #Music app has declined and that Twitter may shut it down. The problem in that case, Jang suggested, is that people wanted that experience in Twitter itself, not in a separate app.

Jang added that 14 million tweets, Facebook status updates, Instagram pictures, Foursquare check ins, emails, and SMS messages are sent each day from SoundTracking. Users have created a total of 40 million music moments, which have been shared more than 6 billion times and viewed 530 million times within the company’s mobile and web apps.

“The stats reflect that we continue to create a product that’s’ really great for expression, sharing, and outbound messaging,” he said. “I think our work on the Discover section and charts and personalized is really going to address the other side. … Now we need to help people who love music that are little bit more passive, more of viewing and listening type.”

” So we can expect more “lean back” type experiences to come in the future.

Keen On… Social Media: The First 2,000 Years



How old is social media? Maybe we can date it from the birth of Facebook in February 2004. Or perhaps we can go back to 2002, to when Friendster was founded. Or even way, way, way back to digital antiquity – back to 1997, when Reid Hoffman founded the first social media website, SocialNet.

No, social media is actually older, 2,000 years older, than Facebook, Friendster or SocialNet. That’s the view at least of Tom Standage, the digital editor of the Economist, whose new book Writing In The Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years makes the intriguing argument that social media has actually been around since the Romans. It’s the industrial top-down media of the last 150 years, Standage told me, that is the historical anomaly. Social media, he explains, “scratches a prehistorical itch” for personalized news, opinion and gossip. So rather than a waste of time or a distraction, he insists, Facebook and Twitter are actually something that satisfies us as human-beings.

Standage is too good a historian to argue that nothing about social media is new. He acknowledges, for example, that the globalized, instantaneous and searchable nature of social networks are truly new. Yet Standage’s comparisons of contemporary social media with Roman papyrus letters or hand-printed tracts of the Reformation really do suggest that social media goes a lot further back than 1997. “The only surprising things about social media,” Standage dryly concludes, “is that we are surprised by it.”

Oracle, Red Hat, And Google Employees Pitch In To Fix Beleaguered Healthcare.gov, Reports Indicate



Workers from tech giants Google, Red Hat, and Oracle and other companies have reportedly joined with the government to help fix the notoriously broken Healthcare.gov website that is a key portion of the Affordable Care Act.

According to a tweet from CNBC, “experts” from the firms have been dispatched. It is not clear yet in what quantity or what their role will be. The government needs the help, and it is good to see the technology community step up. After all, this is our domain.

In a piece by Alex Wayne on BusinessWeek, Google is parting with Michael Dickerson, a “site reliability engineer.” Also according to Wayne, Greg Gershman of mobile company Mobomo is said to be taking part as well.

When the Affordable Care Act went live recently, its website, which was supposed to provide a central exchange, failed: It lagged, dropped users, and fed wrong information to insurance companies. It was a tectonically embarrassing moment for the government and the president. Later, a “tech surge” was called for. It appears that this is part of that effort.

The government has promised that the website will be functional by the end of November. That gives the Silicon Valley cavalry just a single month to get the beast back in the pen. Also unclear at the moment is why these three firms have stepped up and not others. Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, and Twitter are other firms that could spare an engineer or two.

Private tech employees helping the public government untangle a website built in part by Canadian contractors? The leaks from this saga are going to be amazing.

This is a developing story, and this post will be updated as new information becomes available.

Top Image Credit: Flickr

Google's Nexus 5 Is Now Real And Ships Today At $349 For 16GB, $399 For 32GB



At long last, Google has officially announced what has been perhaps their worst kept secret in a while: the Nexus 5.

The Nexus 5 had seen more than its fair share of early outs, with everything from fleeting, “accidental” appearances in the hands of Google employees in quickly-deleted promo videos to full-blown product pages going up on the Google Play store ahead of time.

The Nexus 5 will be the first device to ship with Android 4.4 (codenamed “KitKat” through a suprising collaboration with Nestlé and Hershey), which they first announced back in early September. Other devices, like the Nexus 4, 7, and 10, will be getting 4.4 in “the coming weeks”.

The new Nexus comes with two color variants: one black, one white. The 16GB LTE model will cost you $349, while the 32GB LTE model will set you back $399. Both devices are unlocked, and will go up for sale later today.

While Google’s Nexus line mainly exists to provide people a direct route to an unlocked, higher-end device, the Nexus 5 will have a few features that’ll be exclusive at first. It’ll be the first device with Google’s “HDR+” mode, their company’s new in-house approach to HDR, which takes multiple shots in rapid succession and combines the best parts of each into one photo. It’ll also be the first with Google’s new homescreen launcher, which brings Google Search to every page of your homescreen and allows you to trigger a search at any time by saying “Ok, Google”.

Here’s what we know so far about the innards:

  • Display: 4.95″ 1920×1080 HD Display (445 ppi)
  • CPU: 2.26 Ghz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800
  • Front Camera: 1.3MP
  • Rear Camera: 8.0MP with Optical Image Stabilization (read: a gyroscope built into the lens that tries to counteract any shaking)
  • Storage: 16 GB or 32 GB internal storage
  • GPU: Adreno 330 running at 450 Mhz
  • RAM: 2GB
  • WiFi:/strong> 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
  • Battery: 2300mAh (w/ an estimated talk time of around 17 hours, or 8.5 hours of WiFi usage)

We’re just about to run off and spend some time with the device, so check back in just a bit for our hands-on pics and early impressions!

Android 4.4 KitKat Targets Google's Next Billion Users, Adds Pervasive Search & Improves Google Now



Today Google announced details of its long-awaited Android 4.4 KitKat operating system for the first time, going beyond just the candy bar branding. KitKat is designed around three major tentpoles, Google told TechCrunch, including reaching the next billion (it previously announced 1 billion activations) Android users, putting so-called Google “smarts” across the entire mobile experience, and building for what comes next in mobile devices.

Google said that Android is growing at three times the speed of developed markets in developing countries; but the phones that are catching on in those markets are mostly running Gingerbread, a version of Android that’s now many versions out of date. These phones, however, have lower specs with only around 512MB of memory available, and Gingerbread is what’s required to fit within those tech requirements.

That presented a technical challenge Google was keen to tackle: How to build KitKat in such a way that it can bring even those older and lower-specced devices up-to-date, to help provide a consistent experience across the entire Android user base. That mean reducing OS resources, and then also modifying Google apps to stay within those boundaries, as well as rethinking how the OS manages available memory to make the most of what is present.

None of this was enough, however, so Google went further to help third-party developers also offer their content to everyone on Android, rather than just those with the top-tier devices. A new API in KitKat allows devs to determine what amount of memory a phone is working with, and serve a different version of the app to each, making it possible for the same application to run on even the earliest Android devices.

“People generally launch new versions of operating systems and they need more memory,” Android chief Sundar Pichai said at a Google event today. “Not with KitKat. We’ve taken it and made it run all the way back on entry level phones. We have one version of the OS that’ll run across all Android smartphones in 2014.”

That’s the single biggest feature being announced here: Google wants to get everyone on the same platform, and is doing more than it ever has to end the fragmentation problem. One version over the next year is a hugely ambitious goal, but if the company is serious about not only serving a growing developing market, but offering it something like software version parity, it seems like it’s finally figured out how to go about doing that. It’ll still be up to manufacturers to decide whether or not devices get the KitKat upgrade, Google notes, so we’ll probably still see a fair amount of older devices get left out via official update channels.

Here’s what’s coming with KitKat, which launched on the new Nexus 5 today.

Lock & Home Screen

Aside from making KitKat the One OS To Rule Them All, Google has also introduced a number of new features with this update. Album art is displayed full screen behind the lockscreen when music is playing, for instance, and you can scrub the track without unlocking. There’s a new launcher, with translucency effects on the navigation bar and on the top notification bar. Long-pressing a blank space on any homescreen zooms out to allow you to re-arrange them all, and when you’re running an app that is written for full-screen, the navigation bar and the notification bar both now disappear entirely from view.

Launcher-specific stuff is Nexus-only initially, of course, and whether some of these elements make their way to manufacturer-specific home screens will depend on those OEMs.

Dialer

Android now offers up a new dialer, which incorporates search for easy reference. This means you can enter the name of a business even if you don’t know it’s number or have it stored in your address book, and then the dialer will retrieve it from the same database that powers Google Maps. It’s incorporating local data, as well as looking for the name used in your search. This also allows the phone to provide caller ID information for incoming calls, too, and there’s a new auto-populating favorites menu that builds a list of your most frequent dialled numbers.

Hangouts

Google has indeed consolidated the entire text/video/MMS experience with Hangouts, as predicted. It replaces the default messaging app, and allows you to send an SMS just as you would’ve before, to a number or to someone in your contact book. There’s also a new Places button for sharing map locations, and emoji support is finally built-in to your software keyboard.

This is the iMessage equivalent that Android has been lacking thus far. It’s going to be a tremendously useful feature, especially for those who are transitioning to Android from BlackBerry in that next 5 billion Google is adamantly pursuing.

You can now attach photos to communications not only from your local library, but also from Google Drive, and from Box, as well. Any third-party provider can provide a hook to be included, according to Google, which is impressive considering that Google isn’t limiting things to its own ecosystem.

Camera

New HDR+ software is built-in to Android KitKat, which has no apparent changes to the surface user experience – a device owner just snaps the shutter button. Behind the scenes, however, Google’s mobile OS is taking many photos at once, and fusing the best parts of each together seamlessly to come up with a better end product. Lights appear more natural, faces are visible even when backlighting threatens to overwhelm, and moving objects are more in focus.

HDR+ is Nexus 5-only to start, but Google says they’re looking to bring it to other devices later on, too.

Wireless Printing

Developers can now add printing to individual apps, and Google will work with building it out for additional manufacturers, too, something it says is “easy” to accomplish. Right now, any HP wireless printer works with the system, and any printer that already supports Google Cloud Print will also be able to take advantage of the new feature.

Google Search

Search is at the core of Google’s overall product experience, the company explained, so it’s doing more to make that accessible on mobile. Search is now on every homescreen by default in Android, and it supports hotwording, so that you can just say “Okay, Google” to get search up and running at any time, much like you would on Glass.

Speech is crucial to Google with this update, and it said it was proud of its improvements so far; the error rate of speech recognition dropped 20 percent last year, and there’s been a 25 percent increase in overall speech recognition accuracy over the past few years, according to Pichai. Using voice recognition also now allows you to tap a word and bring up a list of alternatives to select from. The system also now asks more clarifying questions, using natural language, to ensure better service overall.

Google Now

Google Now has been updated to be accessed via a swipe form the left side of the screen, which is a tweak from when it was accessed via swiping up in previous versions of Android. Google also focused on answering questions like “How can we help users in more ways, and bring up the most relevant content?” with this update, which means new types of cards.

Now can now figure out that The Walking Dead is a favorite show of the user, for instance, and offer up articles related to it and its progress. So not only is Google Now aware of your surroundings and schedule, but also what type of content you’re interested in. It can also note which blogs you check regularly, and provide you info about when new posts appear; in other words, Google is adding some of the features that were core parts of Google Reader to Now, and making them more contextually-aware.

It can also incorporate crowd-sourced data to make better recommendations. For instance, it could know that people often search for geyser times at Yellowstone National Park, and provide a card with those if it sees you’re in the area. If you’re near a cinema, it’ll present movie times and a link to the Fandango application for purchasing tickets.

Another example Google provided is that Stanford students, who often search for the academic calendar in fall, will now receive that data automatically when the correct season arrives, provided they’ve informed Google of their student status previously in some way. These types of Cards will roll out in mid-November, Google says.

Deep App Linking For Google Search

Now when you Google things, results can link into apps directly – and not just to the app generally, but to specific content within the app. Some results will have “Open in App X” next to them, and those will take you directly to a relevant section within, like a recipe for example. Partners at launch include Expedia, Moviefone, OpenTable and more. This is a Nexus-only feature at launch, but Google says it will be available for all KitKat devices in time.

Availability

Android 4.4 KitKat is available today via the Android Open Source Project, and it’s available on Nexus 5 hardware immediately, which also goes on sale today in 10 countries. It will also be available on Nexus 4, Nexus 7, Nexus 10, and the Google Play edition of both the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One in the coming weeks.

It’s an OS update that Google says is focused on furthering their vision for software that will run across all levels of all kinds of devices, not just on phones, which has interesting connotations give everything we’ve been hearing lately about Google wearables.

Google's Search Results Can Deep-Link To Your Android Apps (If You Have A Nexus 5)



It should be clear by now that there’s much more at play in Android 4.4 KitKat that some early reports alluded to, and one of the most interesting (to me, anyway) tidbits managed to escape the early leak treatment.

Tucked away toward the tail-end of Google’s Nexus 5/KitKat presentation was a mention of a feature called App Indexing that should get companies (and the Android app developers that work for them) a little worked up. That’s because Google has worked up a way to deep-link to the contents of an app from within a user’s Google search results with a feature it calls App Indexing.

Here’s how it works. Let’s say for instance that you’re using KitKat’s Google Search app to dig up some dirt on that Ender’s Game movie that doesn’t look very good. If you happen to have the IMDb app installed on your device while you search, you’ll be treated to an info card in that results stream that includes an “Open in app” button. Give it a quick tap and the IMDb app will spring to life and immediately direct you to its Ender’s Game listing.

Naturally, the feature isn’t just limited to showing off movie details – so far the full list of supporters includes Allthecooks, AllTrails, Beautylish, Etsy, Expedia, Flixster, Healthtap, IMDB, Moviefone, Newegg (yes!), OpenTable, and Trulia.

The way Google sees it, the move is all about providing these companies with a choice. If they think their mobile interfaces are enough to keep users engaged, they can simple go about their business. But if they already have an Android app (or are in the process of building one) that can do a better job of engaging with its users, a little extra work to implement those deep links may be well worth it.

It’s not hard to look at this a move to bolster Android app development either. Google’s Sundar Pichai said very pointedly today that KitKat is meant to be a version of Android that reaches “the next billion people” because of its improved memory management and decreased OS overhead. That means that with any luck, huge swaths of the global Android community will be searching for stuff within KitKat and seeing those deep-linked “Open in app” buttons when they’ve got the right apps installed. Tell me that’s not a compelling reason for a company to develop an Android app if they haven’t already.

Despite the buy-in from all those app partners, I’d wager it’ll be some time before the feature starts seeing more widespread support. Pichai noted that the ability to deep link within apps is one that has been built into the Nexus 5′s launcher itself, though another Googler was quick to exclaim that the feature would ultimately find its way into all KitKat-powered devices at some point.

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