SiliconFilter

In a World of Check-Ins and Social Discovery Apps, EchoEcho Keeps it Simple (and Useful)

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Just like last year, this year's edition of SXSW is once again heavily focused on location-based application. While the genre is slowly moving away from check-ins and virtual badges and more towards "social discovery," though, it's still rather debatable how useful apps like Highlight or Glancee are outside of the conference and Silicon Valley bubble. One location app that has long been going against these trends is the Google Venture-funded EchoEcho. The app does one thing – and it does it well: letting you find out where your friends are and making it easy to meet up with them without compromising anybody's privacy.

Just in time for SXSW, the company just rolled out the fourth version of its app (iTunes link), which features a redesigned interface, a mobile web app and the ability to share your location live with a friend for a set period of time (up to 2 hours).

Using the app is as simple as it gets. You just pick a contact from your phone's address book and simply use the app to ask them where they are. Once your contact receives your request and accepts it, you can both see where both of you are (by requesting somebody's location, you also always share your own location). From there, you can use the app to chat and/or suggest a meeting place.

Two major new features in this version make all of this easier (besides the new design, which is much more streamlined that before): live updates that allow you to share your location in the background, so you know how far away your friends are from the meeting place and a new web app that allows your friends to share their location with you without having to install the app themselves (instead of a push notification from the app, your friends will simply get an SMS with a link to the web app).

Just like previous version of the app, the EchoEcho team continuous to ensure that it's available on all the major mobile platforms, including iOS, Android (these have been updated to 4.0 already), as well as Blackberry, Windows Phone and Symbian (I'm not sure the Symbian app will get an update, though).



3:52 pm


Mobile Security Takes a Front Row Seat at MWC

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Not too long ago, nobody really worried too much about mobile security. The worst thing that could really happen to your data on your phone, most people thought, was that you would lose the physical device and somebody could make calls or browse your address book. Today, however, with the proliferation of mobile malware that can do anything from downloading your contacts list to a remote server to sending you pricey premium SMS messages, as well as a general trend toward letting employees use a mobile phone of their own choosing, the issue of mobile security have become far more pressing. This trend was clearly on display at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week, where numerous well-known security firms and even more startups showed off their latest products.

Security and Android

Most of these security products today focus on Android. To some degree, Google's mobile operating system provides the perfect breeding ground for malware, as its open nature allows users to install apps from numerous sources and stores besides Google's official app store. It's far easier then for a malware developer to create an app that exploits flaws in Android's security and get it into circulation than it would be for somebody who wants to create iPhone or iPad malware. Apple, after all, only lets users download from one store and exercises complete control over it.

Kindsight security demo

Earlier this week, I had a chance to talk to Brendan Ziolo, the VP of marketing at Kindsight. The Alcatel-Lucent spin-off provides desktop and mobile security products, but here in Barcelona, the company focused on its newly released mobile security tools for Android.

While there are now numerous Android security tools available, Kindsight takes a somewhat different approach than most of its competitors, as it also works directly with mobile carriers to provide both software to end-users that can scan a phone for known malware as well as detection software that runs on the carrier's servers. The company is working with a number of mobile operators to bring its tools to their users and there is a good chance that you will find its software on your phone at some point in the future. Given the nature of these deals, though, you may never know that it's Kindsight that is running in the background (the carriers are more likely to give it their own name).

What Hackers Can do With Your Compromised Phone

Ziolo showed me a demo of a malware app the company developed for Android. Just by installing a malware-infested clone of Angry Birds, a hacker could – within seconds of starting the app – start spamming your friends with SMS messages, download your address book, locate you and even get access to your phone's camera and see a live stream from it without you ever noticing it.

With the company's software running, of course, users quickly get an alert about what is happening and can then uninstall the application. The scan on the phone itself is similar to a standard anti-virus or malware scan you would run on your desktop. At the same time, the company's software on your carrier's servers also keeps an eye out for suspicious traffic and can even detect some malware it has never seen before.

While there has been some discussion over how widespread the Android malware problem really is today, most reports indicate that it's growing quite rapidly. As Kindsight's Ziolo also rightly pointed out, unlike the early days of desktop malware, hackers can now rely on an established infrastructure for selling personal information and other data, making the whole business even more attractive and lucrative for these criminals.



8:31 am


For Qualcomm, Making Mobile Browsing Better Starts at the Chip Level

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When it comes to browser performance, we tend to talk a lot about what browser developers like Microsoft, Google and Mozilla can do to render web pages faster and make complex web apps like Gmail run smoother. Especially in the mobile world, though, there is a level of optimization that's happening at the level of the actual chips that are responsible for making your phone or tablet tick. That optimization is happening both in the design of the chips, as well as how the operating system talks to them. Yesterday, at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, I had a chance to sit down with Sy Choudhury, who leads Qualcomm’s Web Technologies initiative. For the most part, our chat focused on what chip makers can do to improve the mobile browsing experience, as well as the increasing importance of HTML5 in the mobile world (HTML5, at its core, is a set of technologies that allow developers to create highly-interactive web applications that look and feel just like regular desktop software).

Qualcomm, which is mostly known for producing the processors and chipsets that run a larger percentage of the world's mobile phone, is working together closely with both the Android and Chrome teams at Google to make your browsing experience on your mobile phone or tablet better. The company, of course, is also working together with other vendors, including Microsoft, but most of the optimization work is currently being done on the Android platform.

The difference between an optimized version of Android and the reference version from Google can often be quite dramatic. In Qualcomm's tests, for example, web pages render 20-30% faster in the optimized version and JavaScript programs are executed 70% faster. Qualcomm also optimized its processors to decode pictures faster, which leads to about a 25% improvement in rendering speed for JPEG images.

As Choudhury told me, this optimization happens at virtually all of the levels of the experience, most of which most users never think about. This ranges from how the browser talks to the network, to how it uses your phone's graphics hardware to make sure video plays without stuttering and all the way up to how your browser interprets JavaScript, the language most complex web pages today are written in.

Qualcomm browser web speed html5

Qualcomm is showing a number of impressive demos at the Mobile World Congress this week to demonstrate this work, including an Instagram-like photo-sharing application that lives in the browser. In another demo, the company is showing the difference between an HTML5-based game that has access to the graphics card and one that doesn't. Unsurprisingly, the one that doesn't use the tablet's graphics hardware directly features mediocre performance while the other runs just as smooth as a native app.

With Great Power Comes Worse Power Consumption

All this power, though, always comes with a trade-off – and more often than not, that trade-off is power consumption. For companies like Qualcomm and its partners, finding the right balance between those two poles isn't always easy. According to Choudhury, though, small tweaks can often make a big difference. Qualcomm, for example, changed how often the network chip shuts down when it is not in use and just a small change like this can lead to power savings of close to 7% under some circumstances.

Who Needs Apps When The Browser Can Do All Of This?

Qualcomm, of course, is also a member of the Core Mobile Web Platform Group Facebook announced at the Mobile World Congress earlier this week. In Choudhury's view, now that websites can access your phone's camera, display videos and render even games without the need for Flash and do so smoothly and without the user ever really having to think about what technology an app uses, there is almost no need for native apps anymore.

Qualcomm’s Web Technologies initiative
 


7:30 am


The Future According to Eric Schmidt

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Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt took the stage at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this afternoon to talk about the role of technology in the “world we live in today” and how it will shape the societies of the future. Schmidt, for example, noted that the number of people who use smartphones is still very small, but “think how amazing the web is today with just 2 billion people” and what will happen when another 5 billion get online.

The Future According to Eric Schmidt

In Schmidt’s vision, societies will be split into three strata in the future and will be divided by how they use technology and how much access to it they have.

The privileged few, the hyper-connected, are likely to face a future that will only be limited by what technology can do. They will have access to unlimited processing power and high-speed networks in most major cities.

In Schmidt’s vision, this group will soon be represented by robots at multiple events at the same time while sitting in your office. For them, technologies that once looked like science fiction, will soon be available. Driverless cars, for example, will soon reduce accidents. At the same time, though, technology will actually become much easier to use and ideally just disappear.

Besides these high-connected folks, though, another group, which will also be well-connected but less so than the first group, will form the new global middle class in Schmidt’s future. This group, though, will use cheaper technologies for its work – though its members will focus less on building new services and products – and maybe use simpler technologies for telepresence, but still use technology effectively to do their jobs. This group, in Schmidt’s view, will also be made up of more sophisticated consumers and those who will be smart about using the Internet to organize politically.

A third group, though, will have no or only limited access to the Internet. This “aspiring majority,” as Schmidt calls them, will likely have some form of access to technology, but it will look different from what we expect today. Maybe, though, they will use mesh networks to create local networks that isn’t even connected to the wider Internet. For Schmidt, it seems, mesh networks represent the easiest and cheapest way to get these underprivileged users at least partly online.

What this will make possible, too, is for these users to share their experiences with the rest of the world, whether that’s a political uprising or a famine.

There will, however, in Schmidt’s view, still be elites and this digital divide will likely exist for quite a while. Technology, however will enable “the weak to get stronger and those with nothing will have something.”

Technologists will have to act now, though, to ensure that everybody will be able to participate in this future where everybody will be connected.

Ice Cream Sandwich and Chrome for Android

Very little about today’s keynote was focused on specific technologies, with the exception of Chrome for Android and the latest version of Android.

Talking about Ice Cream Sandwich, the most recent version of Android, Schmidt noted that he thought Google finally got the user interface right ‘for a global audience’ and stressed that most reviewers agreed with him. Implicit in this, of course, is an acknowledgement that earlier versions of Android weren’t quite as polished.

Schmidt was joined on stage by Hugo Barra of the Android development team at Google. Barra provided a demo of Chrome for Android, the mobile version of Chrome the company announced a few weeks ago. Schmidt used this opportunity to take a brief jab at other mobile operating system by calling Android “a real mobile operating system.” Barra demoed a number of the browser’s top features, including pre-loading, link preview, syncing between mobile and desktop, as well as the fact that Chrome doesn’t limit how many tabs you can have open at the same time.

 



10:14 am


Hands-On With Ubuntu for Android

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A few days ago, Ubuntu announced its plans to marry its full desktop operating system with the Android mobile operating system. Ubuntu, of course, is mostly known for its Linux distribution, but the company has recently also branched out into consumer electronics with its Ubuntu for TV initiative. Today, we got a chance to spend some hands-on time with the first prototypes of Ubuntu for Android. While it's still obvious that this is a prototype, it's hard not to be positively surprised by the current state of the project.

Here is how it works in practice – and this is a bit similar to the experience with a Motorola Atrix: when you use your phone on the road, it's a regular Android phone. For the most part, you wouldn't even know that it is running Ubuntu as well. When you plug it into its base station however, it becomes a full-blown desktop system that you control with a mouse and keyboard. It even runs Ubuntu TV as well.

A Need for More Speed

The prototypes Ubuntu is using to demonstrate the operating system aren't among the fastest. It takes a little bit before applications like Chrome start up, for example. Ubuntu is quite aware of this, of course, and expects that the first phones with the operating systems will use faster, multi-core processors with more RAM than its current prototypes.

Once your applications are running, though, the desktop feels sufficiently speedy. Maybe the coolest feature of the desktop, though, as that you still have access to the full Android OS, too. You can still make calls, use Google Maps or any other app that runs on the phone. This isn't some emulator either. All the apps still run natively.

Ubuntu hasn't announced any partners yet that will manufacture the phone, but an Ubuntu representative told me that a number of top-tier manufacturers have already approach the company since it first announced this project a few days ago.

More Than a Gimmick

Going into the demo, I couldn't help but think that this was mostly going to be a gimmick, but after seeing the product in action, it does feel like the Ubunut team is on the right track. Chances are, your phone will never be as fast as that multi-core (but also power-hungry) desktop under your desk, but most users never really tap into this power anyway.

Ubuntu is aiming this feature at high-end users for now, but one could also imagine this as a smart solution for developing countries where phones are often peoples' only way of getting online.



7:55 am


PocketCloud: Wyse Wants to Become the Hub of Your Personal Cloud

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Wyse, a company that is better known for offering remote desktop solutions to enterprise companies than for its consumer offerings, is now bringing PocketCloud Explore, its app for easily managing files across multiple desktops, operating systems and mobile devices, to the iPhone (it was already available on Android). I got a demo of the app at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week and it's quite an impressive service that indeed works as seamlessly as the company promises.

What makes Wyse's solution so interesting and different from what, at first glance seem like similar offerings from Box.net or Dropbox, is that the company is combining remote desktop access and easy mobile and web access to files that are running on your computer at home (and that are only accessible while that computer is on and connected to the Internet) with its own cloud-based file-storage service. Wyse also offers a cloud-storage service with 2GB of free storage, the PocketCloud Web Cloubin, which allows users to easily upload documents into the cloud and then share them with their friends and colleagues.

PocketCloud Explore app store

The mobile Explore app for iOS doesn't feature any built-in editing capabilities, but it does integrate with the editing apps that are already on your devices (think QuickOffice or DocumentsToGo, for example).

To get started with the service, users have to register and install a small piece of software on the desktops they want to use.

Pricing

The service uses a fermium model. The paid version, which will only code $1 per month for now, will allow you to access data from more computers (up to 10) and share files up to 500MB in size (up from 25MB in the free version). The free version also restricts the length of audio and video clips you can stream from your computer to your phone to 30 seconds in length. The paid version doesn't have this limitation.



3:45 am


Opera Launches Opera Mobile 12 Browser for Android and Symbian, Opera Mini 7 For iOS

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Opera just announced the next version of its mobile browser for Android and Symbian, as well as a developer version of its more stripped-down Opera Mini browser. While the update doesn't feature any major changes in the user interface, the Opera team has made numerous changes underneath the surface. Most importantly, Opera added support for its advanced HTML5 parser Ragnarok, which should make running web apps on your mobile phone quite a bit faster. This will also allow developers to create more sophisticated web applications that can run in your phone's browser.

Another feature that should speed up the browsing experience is Opera's newly announced support for using your phone's or tablet's graphics hardware to accelerate 3D content in your browser.

In addition, Opera added support for using an Android device's camera in the browser, as well as support for web standards like CSS3 and CORS.

Even if you don't own an Android or Symbian phone, you will soon be able to use Opera's web-based and desktop emulators to try it out yourself. If you have Opera 12 installed on your phone or tablet, also have a look at the company's demo site.

Opera Mini: Version 7 for iOS and a New Developer Version

As for Opera Mini, Opera today launched the final version of Opera Mini 7 for iOS, as well as a developer version – Opera calls these 'Opera Next.' The Next version is Opera's way of beta testing new features before they are officially released. So if you want to get an early look at some of the browser's features (this version brings smoother scrolling and a new bookmarking interface, for example, give Opera Mini Next a try. It's available for feature phones using Java, as well as Android, Blackberry and S60 phones.

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3:44 am


Google’s Flight Search Goes Mobile

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Google today launched its flight search feature for mobile browsers. Since it acquired travel software provider ITA Software in 2011, Google has been very deliberate about rolling travel search into its main search engine. It first launched relatively limited version of its ITA-based stand-alone flight search feature in September 2011 and then integrated this tool deeper into its regular search results in December. Now, whenever you feel like taking a trip, you can also use Google to search for flights on your Android and iOS phones as well.

Mobile, But Still Limited

This means, you can now use the regular search feature in the browser on your phone to look for something like [flights from New York to Washington] and bring up the mobile flight search feature.

This new feature brings most of the desktop version's tools to the mobile version as well, including the ability to discover places on a map and the ability to find the cheapest dates to travel.

Even on mobile, Google's travel search tools is still the fastest in the business, but at the same time, though, it also suffers from the same limitations as the desktop version. You can't use a search query to specify specific dates, for example. If you do so, flight search won't even kick in. Flight search also still doesn't work for international destinations.

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3:20 pm


Good News/Bad News: Spam is Down, Malware is Up

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Thanks to better spam filtering techniques, most of us probably don’t see too many ads for “herbal Viagra” and similar concoctions in our inboxes these days, but that doesn’t mean spam isn’t still a big business. According to the latest Threats Report by Intel’s online security firm McAfee (PDF), the overall amount of spam went down in the last quarter of 2011. One of the reasons for this, though, is that spammers have gotten a bit smarter and now use a more targeted – and sometimes even personalized – approach.

Spam Down (In Most Countries)

It’s worth noting, though, that while spam was down overall, there were a few countries, including the U.S. and Germany, where spam volume was up slightly compared to last year.

spam_volume_mcaffee_q4_11

Malware Up

While spam is down, though, malware, though, is still growing.

With regard to PCs, the overall growth rate of malware samples McAfee encountered in the last quarter slowed down quite a bit from previous years. At the same time, though, the number of unique malware samples the company found increased.

The company’s researchers also noted that they discovered about 9,300 malicious websites per day in Q4 compared to just about 6,500 in Q3. Most of these sites were hosted in the U.S., followed by the Netherlands, Canada, South Korea and Germany.

Android Malware Still on the Rise

Unsurprisingly, the largest growth area for mobile malware is Android. The last year and quarter were, in McAfee's words, “by far the busiest periods for mobile malware we have yet seen.” The largest growth area here is for-profit SMS-sending Trojans and to bypass the Android Market’s increased security measures, the malware authors apparently use forums and other outlets to distribute their wares.

malware_sample



11:15 am


OpenXC: Ford Launches an Open-Source Platform for In-Car Connectivity and Apps

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Cars and the Internet are slowly getting closer, but it's still hard for developers to get their apps into cars without being invited by the automobile industry. Given the security and especially safety concerns involved here, things will likely remain this way for a while, but a new project from Ford aims to accelerate in-car app development. The company today announced that it is now shipping a beta version of its OpenXC hardware and software platform to a group of handpicked universities, including the University of Michigan, MIT and Stanford, as well as app developers like the Weather Underground in the U.S. and HCL Technologies in India.

OpenXC was developed in corporation with Bug Labs.

The Modular and Upgradable Car

Here is the general philosophy behind OpenXC:

What if the user-facing hardware and software was independent from any one vehicle, and could be purchased and installed by consumers as an aftermarket add-on? What if the infotainment hardware was more modular and user-upgradable, and perhaps most importantly, transferable from one vehicle to another?

If it becomes widely adopted, every car would feature an OpenXC connection that is linked to the dashboard interface and audio system. Then, you could just buy extra hardware modules or software for your cars and plug it into the OpenXC connections just like you plug a USB device into your computer. Your wireless provider, for example, could offer a 3G module and if you want to switch to LTE, you just swap the modules out.

The average car now has a lifespan of 13 years, says Ford. That means the technology your car uses today will be outdated quickly if you can't upgrade it. OpenXC would make it possible to keep up to date for far longer.

For Developers: OpenXC Brings Android and Arduino to Your Car

This new platform is currently based on Android and gives developers real-time access to a large number of a car's sensors, the GPS receiver and other data from the car's systems. Ford notes, however, that there is no reason why somebody couldn't port the libraries it uses to other operating systems as well. The reference hardware, which uses the popular Arduino platform, should cost under $150 (plus the cost of an Android tablet).

It's worth noting that this is currently only a limited release and that the actual source code is not yet available. Ford, however, promises that it will happily add more developers every day (you can sign up here) and that the source code will be available soon.

To ensure these new apps don't interfere with the basic functions of the car itself, the apps remain isolated from the vehicle control systems (think steering, brakes, ABS etc.).

When Ford and Bug Labs first announced their plans for OpenXC, the companies noted that they hope that this platform will allow developers to "quickly prototype ideas and test out affordable new connectivity concepts that could enhance Ford’s future products."

One of the apps Ford is demoing today was built by HCL and interfaces with the car's GPS to provide regular location updates selected personal contacts.

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11:16 am


Android at Home: Did Google Already Demo Its Rumored Home Entertainment Device at I/O Last Year?

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The Wall Street Journal today reports that Google is working on designing and marketing a home-entertainment device that would "stream music wirelessly through the home." The interesting part here is that Google might actually market this device. Chances are, after all, that the hardware will look pretty similar to what Google showed off at its I/O developer conference last year.

In the context of explaining its [email protected] initiative (which, until now, hasn't really shown much promise), Google also showed a few Android-based music devices that featured wireless streaming and access to Google Music. Last year, Google called them [email protected] hubs and the code name at the time was Project Tungsten. In the demo, Google used a tablet with prototype software that allowed its users to select different output devices – including the Android hub.

At the time, Google stressed that these were just "conceptual examples" and not actual products. It's quite possible that this is changing now and that Google is turning these prototypes into actual products.

Google project tungesten

Google I O 2011 Keynote Day One  YouTube

Here is also a video to the presentation (the discussion of the music devices starts about 46:45 minutes into the video):

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2:49 pm


Coming Soon to Chrome: Faster 3D Graphics for Slower Computers

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Chrome 17 just launched yesterday, but today, the development team announced the next beta of Chrome. This new beta includes improved support for hardware-accelerated 2D graphics using Canvas, as well as the promise of better 3D performance for users on older operating systems like Windows XP.

Better 3D for Slower Machines

To enable better 3D performance on older machines and graphics card that can't make user of modern technologies like WebGL, Google has licensed TransGaming's SwiftShader software rasterizer. This is basically a piece of software that emulates a graphics card to render 3D images. TransGaming advertises SwiftShader as being "100 times faster than traditional software renderers such as Microsoft's Direct3D® Reference Rasterizer." Google will automatically enable SwiftShader for beta users whose computers can't run content on their graphics cards.

Tweaking Chrome's 2D GPU Hardware Acceleration

By using hardware acceleration for 2D Canvas elements on a page, Google can bring some significant speed improvements to users with more capable machines as well. Chrome has long featured some forms of hardware acceleration, but mostly in experimental form. Whether they know it or not, most Chrome users at this point already use their graphics card to draw 2D Canvas elements, but in this latest beta, the Chrome team has tweaked the code to the point where it apparently felt it needed to announce this change as it could actually break things.

Here is a nice little demo that uses 2D Canvas if you want to see it in action.

If you are currently using the stable release channel and feel like you could use a bit more adventure in your life, you can join the Chrome beta channel here. As always, keep in mind that this is beta software and could crash at any time (though Chrome's beta releases are generally very stable).



12:33 pm


The Android Market Gets a Bouncer to Keep Malware Out

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Google just announced that it has added a new layer of security to the Android market to keep malicious software out of the store. Android's generally open structure and the fact that the Android Market doesn't employ the same kind of restrictive policies that Apple put in place for its store mean that it's relatively easy for malicious Android software to be distributed through Google's app store. With this service, which Google calls Bouncer, the company actually runs and analyzes the software on its own infrastructure before the app appears in the store. Interestingly, Google notes that Bouncer has actually been active for quite a while now, but this is the first time the company has publicly acknowledged its existence.

Google notes that so far, Bouncer has reduced the number of malware downloads between the first and second half of 2011 by 40%.

Bouncer looks for known malware, spyware and trojans, but also look for, what Google calls, "behaviors that indicate an application might be misbehaving, and compares it against previously analyzed apps to detect possible red flags." In addition, Google also looks at new developer accounts to ensure that those we were banned once can't just come back under a different name and upload another piece of potentially dangerous software.



12:57 pm


Open Sesame: A Safer Way to Log In To Your Google Accounts

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Google has introduced an interesting new way for logging into your Google accounts by just scanning a QR code on the screen and without having to actually type your password into a computer. To use this new feature, just head over to https://accounts.google.com/sesame and a QR code will appear on your screen. Scan the barcode on your phone (you can use any app that can read QR codes for this, including the popular RedLaser app on the iPhone or Google's own apps).

This new log-in mechanism will be especially useful when you are using a public computer where you can't be sure that somebody hasn't installed a keylogger or a similar device.

Gmail login phone

The feature was first described by Walter Chang on Google+, though it's possible that this tool has been available for longer.

How it Works

Here is how it works: Google presents you with a one-time use barcode on the screen. You scan the code and your mobile scanner app will recognize that it's a link and take you to your mobile browser. Google will then ask you to type in your password on your phone and to confirm that you really want to log in on the computer, too. Once confirmed, your desktop browser will receive notice from Google that you are good to go and open a Gmail session for you.

Caveats

Now, obviously, as the good folks on HackerNews point out, if you are on a computer you don't fully trust, you can never be 100% sure that whoever installed a keylogger on the machine isn't also doing other nefarious things while you are logged in.

Still, this is definitely safer than just typing your password on a computer that isn't yours and may even add some extra security for those who sometimes have to work on unsecured WiFi networks as well.

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10:26 am


Five Apps and Web Services that Deserved More Attention in 2011

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For every hyped app or web service (think Foursquare, Quora etc.), there are at least a dozen of competitors out there that are often better, but never quite get the attention they deserve. At the end of every year, I round up some of my favorite apps and services that mostly flew under the radar of the tech press during the last twelve months, but that deserved a lot more attention. Last year, I featured my6sense (still alive and kicking), Pearltrees (growing steadily, just launched an iPad app), Producteev (also doing well this year) and EchoEcho (which got a nice investment led by Google Ventures earlier this year).

This list is obviously quite subjective, so feel free to chime in with your personal favorites in the comments.

Trover

I’ve never been a fan of check-in services like Foursquare, but I’m a big believer in location-based apps nevertheless. The reason I like Trover  (available for Android and iOS) is that it strips out all the unnecessary gamification crud and just plain focuses on letting you share and discover cool stuff around you. Instead of virtual badges, you simply send a friendly “thank you” to the person who first shared that cool place you found thanks to the app. While it focuses on sharing photos, there are no filters and nothing to distract you from what you really wanted to use the app for in the first place.

In my review earlier this year, I called it “the best location-based app you’re not using (yet).” Thankfully, more people have discovered the app since, but overall, it mostly flew under the radar this year.

Spool

With Apple adding reading lists to iOS and a lot of attention on Instapaper and Read It Later (though that service also doesn’t get the attention it deserves), time-shifted reading hit it big this year. Spool is the latest entry into this market and it’s quietly building a very competitive product which doesn’t just offer support for text, but also videos.

Another feature I really like about the app is automatic detection of multi-page articles. It doesn’t always work 100%, but often saves you a few clicks on sites like the New York Times, for example. There are also Chrome and Firefox extensions for Spool, which provide augmented links on sites like Twitter, Facebook and Techmeme. Given that the service is still new, though, it isn't integrated into any third-party apps yet, which is a bit of a problem if you want to switch from a well-supported service like Instapaper.

You can find my full review here.

Wunderlist

wunderlist_logo_150Everybody who owns a smartphone has probably downloaded a few task management apps at one point or another. My personal favorite is Wunderlist from Berlin-based development shop 6Wunderkinder. The company got an investment from Skype-founder Niklas Zennstrom in November, so it definitely popped up on some peoples’ radar this year, but while it got lots of traction, it never quite got the hype it deserved. The services’ apps and web services are beautifully designed and focus on simplicity over features.

This isn’t a tool for the hardcore Getting Things Done crowd (this isn’t OmniFocus, after all), but it’s among the best task management tools out there for those of us who just want to keep lists of things. The fact that it’s available virtually anywhere (Windows, Mac, Linux, Blackberry, iOS, Android and on the web), also gives it an edge over some of its competitors.

With Wunderkit, the company also plans to expand beyond its basic service next year, so keep an eye on the company’s blog.

(If you are looking for a more fully-featured service that includes support for small teams, by the way, take a look at Producteev, which was on this list last year and which added some nice new features over the last few months.)

Rhapsody

rhapsody_logo_200With all the talk about Spotify, MOG and Rdio, it’s easy to forget the granddaddy of all online music services: Rhapsody. When the service launched a full 10 years ago, it was among the first online music services to offer on-demand music streaming for a flat fee. Today, it can boast of being the largest on-demand music subscription service on the Internet, but it gets very little attention from the tech press (maybe because its legacy as a part of Real Networks is still a major turnoff for those of us who have been around the net for long enough). With 11 million songs and apps for every major mobile operating system (including support for offline caching), it’s worth taking note of and worth a try if you are looking for a subscription alternative to iTunes.

Microsoft’s Office Web Apps and Windows Live Web Services

skydrive_logo_official_200It’s obviously not cool to like a Microsoft product (except for the Xbox and Kinect, I guess), but even though the tech press loves Google Apps, Gmail and (almost) anything else Google does, Microsoft’s web apps don’t get the attention they deserve outside of the Microsoft blogs.

All of Microsoft’s online products took a major step forward in 2011, though. The latest SkyDrive update, for example, makes Microsoft’s online storage service for more competitive with startups like DropBox. The Office Web Apps suite (and, by extension, the paid Office 365 solution for small businesses) offers a far better online editing experience and document fidelity than Google Docs (and include support for OneNote, the underrated star of the MS Office suite). Hotmail has massively improved thanks to adding features like Active Views

All of these services are worth another look, especially now that Microsoft is rumored to launch an iOS version of its productivity apps, too.



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