All posts in “Mozilla”

Pocket’s reading app won’t sound so robotic now

Last year, Mozilla made its first acquisition by snatching up Pocket, the Instapaper competitor that helps you save longer articles for later reading. Today, this popular reading app is getting a major update that gives its app a visual makeover, including a new dark mode, and most importantly, a better way to listen to the content you’ve saved.

Pocket had added a text-to-speech feature several years ago, so you could listen to an audio version of your saved articles, instead of reading them. Instapaper today offers a similar option.

But these text-to-speech engines often sound robotic and mangle words, leading to a poor listening experience. They’ll work in a pinch when you really need to catch up with some reading, and can’t sit down to do it. But they’re definitely not ideal.

Today, Pocket is addressing this problem with the launch of a new listening feature that will allow for a more human-sounding voice. On iOS and Android, the listen feature will be powered by Amazon Polly, Mozilla says.

First introduced at Amazon’s re:Invent developer event in November 2016, Polly uses machine learning technologies to deliver more life-like speech. Polly also understands words in context. For example, it knows that the word “live” would be pronounced differently based on its usage. (E.g. “I live in Seattle” vs. “Live from New York.”) The technology has evolved since to support speech marks, a timbre effect, and dynamic range compression, among other things.

To take advantage of the updated “Listen” feature, users just tap the new icon in the top-left corner of the Pocket mobile app to start playing their articles. It’s like your own personalized podcast, Mozilla notes.

In addition, the app has been given a redesign that gives it a clean, less cluttered look-and-feel, and introduces a new app-wide dark mode and sephia themes, for those who want a different sort of reading experience.

The redesign includes updated typography and fonts, focused on making long reads more comfortable, as well.

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“At Mozilla, we love the web. Sometimes we want to surf, and the Firefox team has been working on ways to surf like an absolute champ with features like Firefox Advance,” said Mark Mayo, Chief Product Officer at Firefox, in a statement about the launch. “Sometimes, though, we want to settle down and read or listen to a few great pages. That’s where Pocket shines, and the new Pocket makes it even easier to enjoy the best of the web when you’re on the go in your own focused and uncluttered space,” he said.

The updated version of Pocket is live on the web, iOS and Android, as of today.

Mozilla pushes PayPal to make Venmo transactions private by default

Earlier this year, the FTC settled with PayPal over the company’s handling of privacy disclosures in its peer-to-peer payments app Venmo, but Mozilla doesn’t think the changes Venmo made as a result went far enough. This week, Mozilla says it delivered a petition signed by 25,000 Americans asking Venmo to set transactions shared in its app to private by default, instead of public.

As Mozilla explains, “millions of Venmo users’ spending habits are available for anyone to see. That’s because Venmo transactions are currently public by default — unless users manually update their settings, anyone, anywhere can see whom they’re sending money to, and why.”

Many Venmo users likely feel that it’s not very dangerous to share through Venmo’s feed – a key feature of its popular payments app – that they paid back a friend for part of the dinner, drinks or some concert tickets, for example.

But a Berlin-based researcher, Hang Do Thi Duc, recently studied the risks associated with this sort of over-sharing.

Do Thi Duc analyzed more than 200 million public Venmo transactions made in 2017 by accessing the data through a public API. This allowed her to see the names, dates, and transactions of Venmo users. She found that a lot could actually be gleaned from this data, including users’ drug habits in some cases, as well as their relationships, junk food habits, location, daily routines, personal finances, rent payments, and more.

In other words, while the individual transaction itself may seem harmless, in aggregate these transactions can be very revealing about the person in question.

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Mozilla says it, along with Ipsos, also polled 1,009 Americans how they felt about Venmo’s “public by default” nature. 77% said they didn’t think that should be the case, and 92% said they don’t support Venmo’s justifications for making them public. (It thinks sharing is fun, basically.)

Venmo didn’t respond to Mozilla’s petition directly, but tells TechCrunch via a spokesperson that its takes its users’ trust seriously.

“Venmo was designed for sharing experiences with your friends in today’s social world, and the newsfeed has always been a big part of this,” the spokesperson said. “The safety and privacy of Venmo users and their information is always a top priority. Our users trust us with their money and personal information, and we take this responsibility and applicable privacy laws very seriously,” they added.

The company also pointed out it takes several steps to ensure some level of user protection, including not making sensitive transactions public, never publishing dollar amounts, and allowing users to control the publicity of the item, even after the fact.

As part of the FTC settlement, Venmo also had to make other changes, as well.

The company now has to explain to new and existing users how to limit the visibility of transactions through the use of privacy settings.

We recently saw this in the updated Venmo app, in fact.

Users are walked through a tutorial that spells out how you can change settings to make transactions private by default, or any time you choose.

Mozilla’s petition comes at a time when PayPal has been weighing whether or not it should change the default in Venmo from public to private, according to a report from Bloomberg last month.

Thanks to large-scale scandals like Cambridge Analytica and others involving user data being overexposed, timed alongside the rollout of new privacy regulations like Europe’s GDPR, many companies are reviewing their data protection policies.

Venmo’s casual over-sharing now feels like a holdover from an earlier, more naive time on the web, and it wouldn’t be surprising if it decided to later adjust the app’s settings to match where consumer sentiment is headed today.

Answering its critics, Google loosens reins on AMP project

Accelerated Mobile Pages, or AMP, has been a controversial project since its debut. The need for the framework has been clear: the payloads of mobile pages can be just insane, what with layers and layers of images, Javascript, ad networks, and more slowing down page rendering time and costing users serious bandwidth on metered plans.

Yet, the framework has been aggressively foisted on the community by Google, which has backed the project not just with technical talent, but also by making algorithmic changes to its search results that have essentially mandated that pages comply with the AMP project’s terms — or else lose their ranking on mobile searches.

Even more controversially, as part of making pages faster, the AMP project uses caches of pages on CDNs — which are hosted by Google (and also Cloudflare now). That meant that Google’s search results would direct a user to an AMP page hosted by Google, effectively cutting out the owner of the content in the process.

The project has been led by Malte Ubl, a senior staff engineer working on Google’s Javascript infrastructure projects, who has until now held effective unilateral control over the project.

In the wake of all of this criticism, the AMP project announced today that it would reform its governance, replacing Ubl as the exclusive tech lead with a technical steering committee comprised of companies invested in the success in the project. Notably, the project’s intention has an “…end goal of not having any company sit on more than a third of the seats.” In addition, the project will create an advisory board and working groups to shepherd the project’s work.

The project is also expected to move to a foundation in the future. These days, there are a number of places such a project could potentially reside, including the Apache Software Foundation and the Mozilla Foundation.

While the project has clearly had its detractors, the performance improvements that AMP has been fighting for are certainly meritorious. With this more open governance model, the project may get deeper support from other browser makers like Apple, Mozilla, and Microsoft, as well as the broader open source community.

And while Google has certainly been the major force behind the project, it has also been popular among open source software developers. Since the project’s launch, there have been 710 contributors to the project according to its statistics, and the project (attempting to empathize its non-Google monopoly) notes that more than three quarters of those contributors don’t work at Google.

Nonetheless, more transparency and community involvement should help to accelerate Accelerated Mobile Pages. The project will host its contributor summit next week at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, where these governance changes as well as the technical and design roadmaps for the project will be top of mind for attendees.

Sayonara, fast fox. Mozilla is redesigning its logo.

Mozilla, the non-profit company best known for the Firefox browser and its progressive outlook on online privacy, is giving its fox logo a makeover.

The company announced in a blog that it would seek user input on creating a new design system. Post authors Madhava Enros, Sr. Director, Firefox User Experience and Tim Murray, Creative Director, Mozilla explained that it was revamping the “fast fox” logo to better represent the suite of products that it now produces. 

“Firefox is creating new types of browsers and a range of new apps and services with the internet as the platform,” Enros and Murray write. “With your input, we’ll have a final system that will make a Firefox product recognizable out in the world even if a fox is nowhere in sight.”

So, to the potential logos (which, Mozilla emphasizes, are very much works-in-progress). They’re both pretty cute. One stays foxy, just more geometrical. And the other leans in to the circle that the fox’s tail makes. It’s really a question if you like your fox head on, or from behind.

Geo-fox.

Geo-fox.

Image: Mozilla

Fox tail of fire!

Fox tail of fire!

Image: Mozilla

Mozilla asks its users to provide feedback in the comments of its blog post. But it stresses that this project is not crowdsourced, it is not taking anyone’s work for free, it is not a public vote, and that these iterations aren’t the final product. But, still, they want to know what you think!

The logo redesign shows how Mozilla has evolved from just a browser company. It has been one of the most outspoken, and, in terms of products, forward-looking companies, in terms of browser privacy. And it has VR, file sharing, and other to-be-disclosed projects in the works.

We just have one wish for Mozilla: stay foxy.

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Mozilla’s next browser might be controlled by your voice

Will our next browser just read us websites?
Will our next browser just read us websites?

Image: Shutterstock / tommaso79

Firefox maker Mozilla is working on an entirely new type of internet browser: One that’s controlled with your voice. 

Because why not? We’re all getting used to talking to Alexa, Siri, and the Google Assistant and asking these digital assistants to tell us information that we’d normally have to type out on a computer or a phone. 

Looking into the future, a voice-controlled browser capable of reading you an online article sounds like a no-brainer. 

Though Mozilla has yet to formally announce any such futuristic browser, CNET was the first to report about the “Scout app” project after discovering a company talk about its development online. 

The talk took place on June 13 and was led by Mozilla software engineer Tamara Hills.

Per the speaking session’s abstract:

“Hey Scout, read me the article about polar bears. With the Scout app, we start to explore browsing and consuming content with voice. This talk will discuss the architecture and key components needed for a voice platform, the required capabilities of those components and the challenges of working with the limitations and confines of existing platforms.”

Beyond immediate convenience — anyone who’s ever asked Alexa or the Google Assistant for things like the weather or news briefings knows what we’re talking about — a voice-controlled browser could open up the web to more people, especially those with conditions that might prevent them from having access.

For example, someone with impaired vision could benefit from using their voice to search the web without needing to be able to look directly at a display.

It would also be useful for those who aren’t as savvy with technology — like the elderly who may not know how to use a computer or type. Voice could be very handy for them.

The Scout app is said to be an “early-stage project,” which suggests development could still be a long way’s away.

Last year, Mozilla launched Common Voice, project for crowdsourcing audio recordings from the public. The goal was to collect 10,000 hours of audio in order to improve speech recognition from for voice-powered apps. It’s possible the Scout app could a project born out of this voice database.

Long before Google Chrome arrived, Mozilla commanded a reasonable chunk of the web browser market with Firefox, leapfrogging Internet Explorer with features like faster speed and extensions. But Firefox is a shadow of its former self with only about 5 percent of the web browser marketshare compared to Chrome’s 58 percent, according to StatCounter.

Mozilla revamped Firefox last year with Firefox Quantum, focusing on speed and being less of a memory hog. In our tests, Quantum loaded many websites faster than Chrome. 

That’s great, but expecting users Chrome users to ditch it for Firefox Quantum — even if it is very speedy — is a losing strategy. It’s dwelling on a past that’s gone. With a voice-controlled browser, Mozilla is looking towards the future — skating to where the puck will be, not where it has has been.

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