What You Need To Know About Amazon Echo

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Amazon’s not-quite-new hybrid wireless device has been made available to the market at large. The Echo, a speaker/home assistant/voice-activated automation hub device, was initially only available to Amazon prime members for a “beta test” discount of $99. Starting July 14th, Amazon Echo is available to all for the much less pithy price of $179.99. But is this device worth the dive? Here are the features of Amazon Echo that you need to know about to determine whether it is a “must have” or a “can miss”.

Meet Alexa

Alexa is Amazon’s Siri equivalent.  A female voice (unable to be changed at this present time), she is your key to Echo’s voice-activated features.  Her voice is described as less robotic than Siri’s and unassumingly pleasant.  Alexa begins to listen when she hears her name (and a volume ring located on top of the 9.25″ canister speaker will light up to indicate this).  Alexa seems to be fairly good at listening and most users report no problems with her understanding their commands.  The only hitch is that the commands cannot always be worded in a grammatically correct way; for instance asking Alexa to look up information on Wikipedia means saying: “Alexa, Wikipedia: Computer” instead of saying “Alexa, what is a computer?”  Still, Alexa has proven to be getting better over the period of her beta test; and since Amazon has opened Echo to third-party developers she should be getting much smarter much faster.

Echo’s Current Features

While Alexa learns new tricks every day, her current roster is rather impressive.  She plays music, and can be asked to run the basic gamut of abilities that a music player will need.  Voice commands like “repeat,” “stop”and “play” are standard for her repertoire.  She integrates completely with Amazon Prime Music, Pandora, Audible, TuneIn, and iHeartRadio, and has some limited integration with Spotify and iTunes.

She can tell you your schedule via Google calendar plugin, but she can’t yet add appointments.  She can also add items to a proprietary to-do list, but does not yet know how to remove items from this list.

She can tell you the weather or the traffic expected for your commute once you acquaint her with the places you most frequently visit via Amazon’s Echo app.

When paired with Philips Hue or Belkin WeMo devices, she can control compatible devices within your home.  She isn’t yet compatible with all Hue or WeMo products, so ensure that you look into each separately before assuming she knows how to deal with them.

The Drawbacks

While the Echo is definitely sized for portability, it does not have its own portable battery and must be plugged in when powered on.  Because of this, the device generally remains stationary which could limit its functionality.

Limited interaction with Spotify and iTunes mean that users who prefer these music systems can only use their most basic functionality and will not have access to things like artist look-up when using them.

As a speaker, the Echo falls short of the mark.  Bass tones are nearly impossible to hear on the device without distortion.  While music without heavy bass tends to be perfectly fine, the device doesn’t compare to other speakers in its price range purely based on sound quality.

Summing it Up

Despite a few drawbacks, we’re excited to see where Alexa goes in the next year or so.  Look for some really astounding features; if not directly from Amazon, then from third-party resources who know how to make home automation work for them.

Danielle R

What’s New In iOS 8.4?

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For a person who prides themselves on always staying with the cutting edge of technology, there are few days more exciting than when a major operating system update is released for your device. Oftentimes it brings with it so many new features that it can feel like you’ve gotten an entirely new phone without spending even a dime of your hard-earned money. That is certainly the approach that tech giant Apple seems to be taking with the release of iOS 8.4, the first major operating system update for iPhone and iPad devices since iOS 8.0 in September of 2014. iOS 8.4 brings with it a surprisingly large amount of new functionality that has millions of people around the world rushing to download and install as quickly as possible.

Apple Music

Perhaps the most important new feature that iOS 8.4 brings to the table takes the form of Apple Music, the tech giant’s answer to popular subscription streaming music services like Spotify and Pandora. Anyone who has ever used a subscription service will find Apple Music delightfully familiar: in exchange for a small monthly fee, you get access to every last song in the iTunes Music Store at your beck and call.

When a user launches Apple Music for the first time, they are asked to identify certain genres, artists and even albums that they like. This information is then fed into an algorithm that is used to suggest customized playlists and full albums on a regular basis. The major benefit of Apple Music is that it becomes more intuitive as time goes on. When a user “loves” a certain artist or album, for example, that is taken into account when future suggestions are made.

Playlists and albums identified via Apple Music can also be saved to be played offline, which is a feature that many other streaming services lack. Those offline items will then be accessible on any iOS or OS X device that the user has for the duration of either their free three month trial or their Apple Music account.

Content Relocation

One of the changes that iOS 8.4 brings to the table that is causing a fair amount of controversy for both users and developers, however, has come in the form of content re-location. Perhaps the biggest shift is the fact that audio books and other types of audio-based content are no longer found within the “Music” app, as has been the case for much of iOS’s existence. Instead, these items are now found within the “iBooks” app, which has shifted from an optional download to a pre-installed item in the last few years. All print and audio books are now accessible in this location.

CarPlay Functionality Expands

Apple has placed significant emphasis on the CarPlay functionality of iOS for the last several iterations, which is a trend that continues to expand with iOS 8.4. The newest version of Apple’s mobile operating system has introduced an “Audiobooks for CarPlay” app, for example, giving drivers a new, dedicated interface to use when playing their audiobooks while driving in a car. CarPlay in general is designed to allow users to control more of iOS’s many functions using Siri voice commands as opposed to the touch of their fingers, attempting to keep their hands on the wheel of their car at all times.

In that regard, a “Audiobooks for CarPlay” dedicated app does make a fair amount of sense – especially considering that the “Music” app is no longer the home to this type of content, nor is this content likely to return there at any point in the future.

Stephen L

What You Need To Know About The Latest Adobe Flash Vulnerabilities

Mobile app security

To say that Adobe Flash has been mired in controversy for much of its existence is something of an understatement. For millions of computer users around the world, Adobe Flash represents a catch-22 of the highest order. While it is necessary to play many of the streaming videos that users have come to enjoy on a daily basis, it also brings with it a large number of disadvantages that are difficult to ignore. Not only is Flash a huge burden on the resources of older computers, but it also opens a machine up to a huge number of potentially devastating vulnerabilities, as the news of the last week has so expertly illustrated.

Adobe Flash and Security: What Happened Now?

Last week, a new series of catastrophic Adobe Flash vulnerabilities were uncovered during some routine testing by Alex Stamos. For those unaware, Stamos acts as the chief security officer for social media giant Facebook. Not only could these new vulnerabilities potentially be used to overload a system’s resources, but they could also likely be used as a “backdoor” into the system that would allow a hacker to compromise the sensitive information stored inside. As a result of his findings, Stamos publicly stated that he hoped Adobe would finally use this as an excuse to discontinue the antiquated software once and for all.

The backlash of this news was swift and immediate. Both Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome, the two most popular Web browsers on planet Earth, released new versions that specifically disabled Adobe Flash functionality by default as a result of these security issues. Developers for both Mozilla and Google indicated that Flash would continue to remain disabled indefinitely until the security issues were properly addressed by Adobe. Users could still opt into the use of Flash on their systems if they wanted to, but the process can be difficult for someone without at least an intermediate level of computer knowledge. All current and past versions of Flash were blocked by both of these browsers.

Many people took this as a sign that the winds of streaming content are truly changing and that Google and Mozilla were teaming up in an attempt to “kill” Flash once and for all. They are hardly the only two companies to attempt to do so in the last several years for these very reasons. Streaming video site YouTube has been steadily moving away from its dependence on Flash, allowing users to opt into the use of HTML5 for all streaming video needs for some time now.

What Is Adobe Doing?

To its credit, Adobe has quickly taken a number of steps in order to improve the security capabilities of Flash and address the issues of the past week as wholly as possible. Three new defenses were released in the latest version of Flash, for example, that were designed by developers at Adobe and Google working in conjunction with one anther.

One of these fixes included a new vector unit buffer heap partitioning system, which keeps arrays separated from other heap objects. An attempt by a hacker to overflow a vector’s length is therefore much more difficult than it had been in the past. Stronger randomization for Flash heaps was also released, closing off one channel that was previously used by hackers in the past. In order to properly exploit Flash, a hacker needs to know the way that Flash is laying out memory on a particular system. Thanks to this new, higher level of randomization, the aforementioned process has become exponentially more difficult.

Stephen L

Mobile App Downloads to Top 260B in Next Five Years

Mobile appsMobile apps are a big deal, but are set to become an even bigger deal over the next few years.

According to Mobile Marketing Watch, data from Gartner shows that mobile apps will be downloaded more than 268 billion times within the next three years:

“By 2017, mobile apps will be downloaded more than 268 billion times, generating revenue of more than $77 billion and making apps ‘one of the most popular computing tools for users across the globe.’

It’s no surprise that apps have become a huge opportunity for brands to interact with customers, however, in today’s apps economy the users hold all the cards:

‘Mobile apps have become the official channel to drive content and services to consumers. From entertainment content to productivity services, from quantified-self to home automation, there is an app for practically anything a connected consumer may want to achieve,’ said Brian Blau, research director at Gartner. ‘This connection to consumer services means users are constantly funneling data through mobile apps. As users continue to adopt and interact with apps, it is their data — what they say, what they do, where they go — that is transforming the app interaction paradigm.’”

Gartner adds that as the use of mobile devices and wearables expands into other areas of consumption, apps will become even more significant. However, in order for companies to get a piece of that $77 billion in revenue, their applications have to maintain a quality user experience and win over users.

Blau hits on a key point in that listening to what users say is transforming the app interaction paradigm.  Tracking and understanding this data will become increasingly important for brands who want to engage their customers through mobile.

This post originally appeard on the Applause App Analytics Blog.

What to Expect (and not) from the iPhone 5S and iOS7

iphone5_ios7Rumors are that the new iPhone and OS are set to be announced on September 10 and ship two weeks after. And as with any new Apple release, there is much speculation about what the new device and operating system will entail – and what it will not.

Dan Rowinski, of ReadWrite Mobile, says the new iPhone is expected to have many new changes including a possible fingerprint sensor, a flat interface and more:

A Serious Print Job: Last year, Apple acquired a company called AuthenTec that makes chips for fingerprint sensors. These types of sensors can be used for biometric authentication—a way of using unique physical characteristics (such as fingerprints or retina patterns) for identification and other security purposes.

Apple is reportedly bringing a fingerprint sensor to the iPhone 5S. It would be situated on the familiar round “home” button of the phone, which may be convex, so a portion of it would be above the bezel/display of the phone. The home button would have a sapphire covering to help it stand the test of time…

The Interface is Flat: In June, Apple announced iOS 7, the newest version of the operating system that runs both the iPhone and iPad. Mobile developers have been playing with it for the last couple months and Apple has released five different beta versions ahead of launch of the new iPhone.

The design of iOS 7 employs a concept called “flat design” that makes a distinct departure from what consumers are used to seeing on today’s iPhones and iPads. Flat designs eschew the real-life characteristics of apps in favor of a simpler, more futuristic design concept.”

But improvements aside, Gale Gruman of InfoWorld believes there are 5 flaws that likely won’t be fixed in iOS 7:

Groups. iOS can’t create groups of contacts, and it can’t send email messages to a group synced from your Mac or PC. Both are nutty omissions, given how fundamental groups are to email and other communications. Worse, if you select a group as an addressee in Mail, you get a list of the members, of whom you can pick one and only one to add to the To or Cc field of your message. There’s no way to select multiple group members, so you have to reopen the group to select another person — essentially, making groups unworkable for email if you have more than a handful of people in them.

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Tablet Sales (and Fragmentation) Expected to Skyrocket

Tablets-on-the-marketIf you don’t have a tablet now, a Forrester study indicates you likely will have one – if not several – between now and 2017.

Tablets usage statistics are often combined with smartphones, but the sale and adoption rates of tablets alone has seen tremendous growth over the past few years. According to Natasha Lomas, of TechCrunch, Forrester has put out a new forecast for the global tablet market, which predicts tablet sales will continue to grow with a projected annual growth rate of 25.6% between 2012 and 2017:

“Forrester predicts tablets will exceed a worldwide installed base of 905 million in five years’ time, with annual projected sales of 381.23 million in 2017.

…Tablets represent “the most successful branch” of today’s fragmented computer market, according to Forrester, both by penetration rates and diversity of competition within the category. In the future, it’s expecting tablets to power new types of “collaborative computing” behaviour — involving the use of multiple slates or “tablet-like devices” that support multi-user interaction.”

And as tablet sales continue to grow so too will tablet fragmentation, says Lomas:

“...The report also notes that the tablet market is fragmenting across a variety of form factors, OSes, connectivity and accessories — something Forrester expects to continue, as it says ‘buyers don’t hold uniform preferences on tablet sizes’. In other words, it’s  horses for courses where slates are concerned.

So, while many potential tablet buyers (61% of surveyed consumers) gravitate towards “traditional” tablets (i.e. those with screens between 8.9 to 10.1 inches), Forrester notes that smaller slates (7 to 7.9 inches) have a preference share of around 16%. And very large tablets (10.1 inches+) were of interest to a still relatively sizeable 11%. And a full 12% of surveyed consumers didn’t know which size slate to buy yet.”

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3 Ways to Determine If Your Gaming App Is Ahead of the Game

mobile gamingIs your mobile game app ahead of the ‘game’ when it comes to competition and app quality?

With hundreds of thousands of mobile game apps already in the app stores – many of which have already claimed a spot as a user favorite –  the competition has never been stiffer.

However, the industry offers a potentially huge opportunity for game-makers. According to a study from Juniper Research, the shifting mobile game market is expected to hit $9 billion in 2016:

“Market intelligence firm Juniper Research says in a recent report that smartphones and tablets are going to be primary device for gamers to make in-app purchases in the future. Juniper projects 64.1 billion downloads of game apps to mobile devices in 2017, compared to the 21 billion downloaded in 2012.”

So how do you launch the next Angry Birds or Candy Crush of the gaming world? Here are 3 factors you should focus on:

#1 Make It Addicting

The ideation process is a critical component in developing a game application that users love. Coming up with a unique concept, as well as building out different features and levels, developers can potentially keep users coming back to their app. However, user acquisition and engagement are perhaps the most difficult part of launching a game app. A new game has to compete with hundreds of thousands of other applications, and as a result the cost of switching has never been lower. This puts a greater emphasis on both creativity and quality.

#2 Master the User Experience

Does your game app work on the iPhone just as well as it works on an Android device? The fragmentation of mobile devices complicates the development process. Game developers need to determine if their game works on different devices and operating systems with a variety of screen sizes and navigation features.

#3 Know Your Audience

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Develop For Your Users, Not a Requirements Document

Focus on the User not the Requirements DocumentIn software development, many teams are under the assumption that “more is more”.

More requirements, more specs, more design plans, layouts…you name it. 50 pages later you’ve got a requirements doc as thick as a book.

Throw it away.

What was once the right way to build software applications is no longer relevant in the world of mobile apps. When it comes to mobile development, less is more. Mike Jennett, of Information Week, believes that major shift in the way people build apps is needed:

“This concept of brevity is something that belongs in mobile app development, but instead of five words, five screens. We have asked our enterprise teams to use five screens to tell our developers what their mobile app is, what it should do and how users should interact with it. And it’s working to create more clarity up front.

The move to mobile layouts is changing the way people must think when planning for a design. Many teams have developed large-scale enterprise applications, often in-house, that have been around for years and they aren’t about to start over from scratch just to move to mobile. The general initial response I receive is, ‘Great, Mike, now go away and leave me alone.’ And for those of you in enterprise IT, you know that quantum changes in thinking are never welcomed with open arms.

In truth, application owners shouldn’t have to start from scratch. But they do need to rethink the planning process with the concept of focusing on the task, not the app. This task orientation allows teams to take a nugget from a huge application and create an app, or section of an app, that handles just that task. Alex Bard, a senior VP at SalesForce.com, put it this way in a recent panel discussion: ‘We actually think about each device, then the context, the use case, and how you create a micro-moment experience to leverage that device.’

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The Opportunity and Challenges of the Mobile Travel Market

travel-mobile-apps1Remember when you used to use paper maps?

Yeah, me neither.  Long gone are the days of making appointments with travel agents or stretching out that giant folded up piece of paper across your car dash. Many industries have been disrupted by rapidly evolving technology, but few have had the full transformation that the travel industry has.

Thanks to smartphones, today you have a living breathing travel agent in your pocket mapping your route, checking the traffic, offering travel advice, booking your reservations, you name it. It’s no secret that the mobile travel experience brings a massive opportunity to companies and app developers..

Josh Luger, of Business Insider, shares some stats on the mobile travel market:

  • “Tourism is, of course, huge business: Tourism is one of the world’s largest industries, responsible for some $6 trillion in direct and indirect economic impacts. Many travel-related apps have audiences in the millions.PhoCusWright estimates that the U.S. mobile travel market could exceed $8 billion in value this year, suggesting a worldwide value larger than $10 billion.
  • Mobile travelers are a particularly attractive audience for brands and advertisers: Recent research on mobile travelers has discovered particularities about their demographics and habits that make them quite desirable. For example, business travelers are more likely to actually book their travel on mobile (32% have so far) and consumers who use their mobile devices for travel-related services tend to have higher-than-average incomes.
  • Online travel is increasingly going mobile: Not surprisingly, given the increased adoption of smartphones as travel tools, some of the largest online travel companies already report a significant percentage of their bookings via mobile. But opportunities for travel applications go beyond bookings. Advertising revenue will flow to travel apps in part because they are able to ask for and collect location data from users.
  • Mobile is also particularly strong for last-minute hotel bookings: Hotel Tonight leverages the last-minute and spontaneous nature of many mobile-mediated travel bookings, Orbitz noted that “over 70% of reservations coming through smartphones are being done within a day of check-in,” and Expedia reported that 68% of its mobile hotel reservations are done within 24 hours of the planned stay. Mobile has clearly created a new business opportunity in hotel booking, creating a channel through which to sell rooms that otherwise would remain unoccupied and unsold.”

Mobile travel is a big business. But while there are major opportunities in the mobile travel market, there are also so many developmental challenges specific to the travel industry in particular.

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Infographic: Mobile App Usage Just Keeps on Growing

Mobile app usage is sky-rocketing… still!

App adoption has yet to slow down. In fact, according to a Flurry infographic on VentureBeat, users are making trillions (if not more) of in-app events on their smartphones.

Looking at the industries worldwide and their in-application events – retail, travel and social networking apps pick up the most usage. In terms of engagement however, sports, health and fitness as well as lifestyle and shopping pick up the most time spent (US data).

Here’s a look at the stats:

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