All posts in “Software”

Firefox is now a better iPad browser

Mozilla today announced a new iOS version of Firefox that has been specifically optimized for Apple’s iPad. Given the launch of the new iPad mini this week, that’s impeccable timing. It’s also an admission that building a browser for tablets is different from building a browser for phones, which is what Mozilla mostly focused on in recent years.

“We know that iPads aren’t just bigger versions of iPhones,” Mozilla writes in today’s announcement. “You use them differently, you need them for different things. So rather than just make a bigger version of our browser for iOS, we made Firefox for iPad look and feel like it was custom made for a tablet.”

So with this new version, Firefox for iPad gets support for iOS features like split screen and the ability to set Firefox as the default browser in Outlook for iOS. The team also optimized tab management for these larger screens, including the option to see tabs as large tiles, “making it easy to see what they are, see if they spark joy and close with a tap if not.” And if you have a few tabs you want to share, then you can do so with the Send Tabs feature Mozilla introduced earlier this year.

Starting a private browsing session on iOS always took a few extra tabs. The iPad version makes this a one-tap affair as it prominently highlights this feature in the tab bar.

Because quite a few iPad users also use a keyboard, it’s no surprise that this version of Firefox also supports keyboard shortcuts.

If you are an iPad user in search of an alternative browser, Firefox may now be a viable option for you. Give it a try and let us know what you think in the comments (just don’t remind us how you work from home for only a few hours a day and make good money… believe me, we’re aware).

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Google will bring its Assistant to Android Messages

It’s only been a few weeks since Google brought the Assistant to Google Maps to help you reply to messages, play music and more. This feature first launched in English and will soon start rolling out to all Assistant phone languages. In addition, Google also today announced that the Assistant will come to Android Messages, the standard text messaging app on Google’s mobile operating system, in the coming months.

If you remember Allo, Google’s last failed messaging app, then a lot of this will sound familiar. For Allo, after all, Assistant support was one of the marquee features. The different, though, is that for the time being, Google is mostly using the Assistant as an additional layer of smarts in Messages while in Allo, you could have full conversations with a special Assistant bot.

In Messages, the Assistant will automatically pop up suggestion chips when you are having conversations with somebody about movies, restaurants and the weather. That’s a pretty limited feature set for now, though Google tells us that it plans to expand it over time.

What’s important here is that the suggestions are generated on your phone (and that may be why the machine learning model is limited, too, since it has to run locally). Google is clearly aware that people don’t want the company to get any information about their private text chats. Once you tap on one of the Assistant suggestions, though, Google obviously knows that you were talking about a specific topic, even though the content of the conversation itself is never sent to Google’s servers. The person you are chatting with will only see the additional information when you push it to them.

Facebook removes hundreds of accounts linked to fake news group in Indonesia

Facebook said today it has removed hundreds of Facebook and Instagram accounts with links to an organization that peddled fake news.

The world’s fourth largest country with a population of more than 260 million, Indonesia is in an election year alongside Southeast Asia neighbors Thailand and the Philippines. Facebook said this week it has set up an “election integrity” team in Singapore, its APAC HQ, as it tries to prevent its social network being misused in the lead-up to voting as happened in the U.S.

This Indonesia bust is the first move announced since that task force was put in place, and it sees 207 Facebook Pages, 800 Facebook accounts, 546 Facebook Groups and 208 Instagram accounts removed for “engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior.”

“About 170,000 people followed at least one of these Facebook Pages, and more than 65,000 followed at least one of these Instagram accounts,” Facebook said of the reach of the removed accounts.

The groups and accounts are linked to Saracen Group, a digital media group that saw three of its members arrested by police in 2016 for spreading “incendiary material,” as Reuters reports.

Facebook isn’t saying too much about the removals other than: “we don’t want our services to be used to manipulate people.”

In January, the social network banned a fake news group in the Philippines in similar circumstances.

Despite the recent action, the U.S. company has struggled to manage the flow of false information that flows across its services in Asia. The most extreme examples come from Myanmar, where the UN has concluded that Facebook played a key role in escalating religious hatred and fueling violence. Facebook has also been criticized for allowing manipulation in Sri Lanka and the Philippines, among other places.

Facebook, Google and Twitter told to do more to fight fake news ahead of European elections

A first batch of monthly progress reports from tech giants and advertising companies on what they’re doing to help fight online disinformation have been published by the European Commission.

Platforms including Facebook, Google and Twitter signed up to a voluntary EU code of practice on the issue last year.

The first reports cover measures taken by platforms up to December 31, 2018.

The implementation reports are intended to detail progress towards the goal of putting the squeeze on disinformation — such as by proactively identifying and removing fake accounts — but the European Commission has today called for tech firms to intensify their efforts, warning that more needs to be done in the run up to the 2019 European Parliament elections, which take place in May.

The Commission announced a multi-pronged action plan on disinformation two months ago, urging greater co-ordination on the issue between EU Member States and pushing for efforts to raise awareness and encourage critical thinking among the region’s people.

But it also heaped pressure on tech companies, especially, warning it wanted to see rapid action and progress.

A month on and it sounds less than impressed with tech giants’ ‘progress’ on the issue.

Mozilla also signed up to the voluntary Code of Practice, and all the signatories committed to take broad-brush action to try to combat disinformation.

Although, as we reported at the time, the code suffered from a failure to nail down terms and requirements — suggesting not only that measuring progress would be tricky but that progress itself might prove an elusive and slippery animal.

The first response certainly looks to be a mixed bag. Which is perhaps expected given the overarching difficulty of attacking a complex and multi-faceted problem like disinformation quickly.

Though there’s also little doubt that opaque platforms used to getting their own way with data and content are going to be dragged kicking and screaming towards greater transparency. Hence it suits their purpose to be able to produce multi-page chronicles of ‘steps taken’, which allows them to project an aura of action — while continuing to indulge in their preferred foot-drag.

The Guardian reports especially critical comments made by the Commission vis-a-vis Facebook’s response, for example — with Julian King saying at today’s press conference that the company still hasn’t given independent researchers access to its data.

“We need to do something about that,” he added.

Here’s the Commission’s brief rundown of what’s been done by tech firms but with emphasis firmly placed on what’s yet to be done:

  • Facebook has taken or is taking measures towards the implementation of all of the commitments but now needs to provide greater clarity on how the social network will deploy its consumer empowerment tools and boost cooperation with fact-checkers and the research community across the whole EU.
  • Google has taken steps to implement all its commitments, in particular those designed to improve the scrutiny of ad placements, transparency of political advertisement and providing users with information, tools and support to empower them in their online experience. However some tools are only available in a small number of Member States. The Commission also calls on the online search engine to support research actions on a wider scale.
  • Twitter has prioritised actions against malicious actors, closing fake or suspicious accounts and automated systems/bots. Still, more information is needed on how this will restrict persistent purveyors of disinformation from promoting their tweets.
  • Mozilla is about to launch an upgraded version of its browser to block cross-site tracking by default but the online browser should be more concrete on how this will limit the information revealed about users’ browsing activities, which could potentially be used for disinformation campaigns.

Commenting in a statement, Mariya Gabriel, commissioner for digital economy and society, said: “Today’s reports rightly focus on urgent actions, such as taking down fake accounts. It is a good start. Now I expect the signatories to intensify their monitoring and reporting and increase their cooperation with fact-checkers and research community. We need to ensure our citizens’ access to quality and objective information allowing them to make informed choices.”

Strip out the diplomatic fillip and the message boils down to: Must do better, fast.

All of which explains why Facebook got out ahead of the Commission’s publication of the reports by putting its fresh-in-post European politician turned head of global comms, Nick Clegg, on a podium in Brussels yesterday — in an attempt to control the PR message about what it’s doing (or rather not doing, as the EC sees it) to boot fake activity into touch.

Clegg (re)announced more controls around the placement of political ads, and said Facebook would set up new human-staffed operations centers — in Dublin and Singapore — to monitor how localised political news is distributed on its network.

Although the centers won’t launch until March. So, again, not something Facebook has done.

The staged press event with Clegg making his maiden public speech for his new employer may have backfired a bit because he managed to be incredibly boring. Although making a hot button political issue as tedious as possible is probably a key Facebook strategy.

Anything to drain public outrage to make the real policymakers go away.

(The Commission’s brandished stick remains that if it doesn’t see enough voluntary progress from platforms, via the Code, is to say it could move towards regulating to tackle disinformation.)

Advertising groups are also signed up to the voluntary code. And the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA), European Association of Communication Agencies and Interactive Advertising Bureau Europe have also submitted reports today.

In its report, the WFA writes that the issue of disinformation has been incorporated into its Global Media Charter, which it says identifies “key issues within the digital advertising ecosystem”, as its members see it. It adds that the charter makes the following two obligation statements:

We [advertisers] understand that advertising can fuel and sustain sites which misuse and infringe upon Intellectual Property (IP) laws. Equally advertising revenue may be used to sustain sites responsible for ‘fake news’ content or ‘disinformation’. Advertisers commit to avoiding (and support their partners in the avoidance of) the funding of actors seeking to influence division or seeking to inflict reputational harm on business or society and politics at large through content that appears false and/or misleading.

While the Code of Practice doesn’t contain a great deal of quantifiable substance, some have read its tea-leaves as a sign that signatories are committing to bot detection and identification — by promising to “establish clear marking systems and rules for bots to ensure their activities cannot be confused with human interactions”.

But while Twitter has previously suggested it’s working on a system for badging bots on its platform (i.e. to help distinguish them from human users) nothing of the kind has yet seen the light of day as an actual Twitter feature. (The company is busy experimenting with other kinds of stuff.) So it looks like it also needs to provide more info on that front.

We reached out to the tech companies for comment on the Commission’s response to their implementation reports.

Google emailed us the following statement, attributed to Lie Junius, its director of public policy: 

Supporting elections in Europe and around the world is hugely important to us. We’ll continue to work in partnership with the EU through its Code of Practice on Disinformation, including by publishing regular reports about our work to prevent abuse, as well as with governments, law enforcement, others in our industry and the NGO community to strengthen protections around elections, protect users, and help combat disinformation.

A Twitter spokesperson also told us:

Disinformation is a societal problem and therefore requires a societal response. We continue to work closely with the European Commission to play our part in tackling it. We’ve formed a global partnership with UNESCO on media literacy, updated our fake accounts policy, and invested in better tools to proactively detect malicious activity. We’ve also provided users with more granular choices when reporting platform manipulation, including flagging a potentially fake account.

At the time of writing Facebook had not responded to a request for comment.

Consolidation is coming to gaming, and Jam City raises $145 million to capitalize on it

A slew of banks are coming together to back a new roll-up strategy for the Los Angeles-based mobile gaming studio Jam City and giving the company $145 million in new funding to carry that out.

There’s no word on whether the new money is in equity or debt, but what is certain is that JPMorgan Chase Bank, Bank of America Merrill Lynch and syndicate partners, including Silicon Valley Bank, SunTrust Bank and CIT Bank, are all involved in the deal.

“In a global mobile games market that is consolidating, Jam City could not be more proud to be working with JPMorgan, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Silicon Valley Bank, SunTrust Bank and CIT Group to strategically support the financing of our acquisition and growth plans,” said Chris DeWolfe, co-founder and CEO of Jam City. “This $145 million in new financing empowers Jam City to further our position as a global industry consolidator. As we grow our global business, we are honored to be working alongside such prestigious advisers who share Jam City’s mission of delivering joy to people everywhere through unique and deeply engaging mobile games.”

The new money comes after a few years of speculation on whether Jam City would be the next big Los Angeles-based startup company to file for an initial public offering. It also follows a new agreement with Disney to develop mobile games based on intellectual property coming from all corners of the mouse house — a sweet cache of intellectual property ranging from Pixar, to Marvel, to traditional Disney characters.

Jam City is coming off a strong year of company growth. The Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery game, which launched last year, became the company’s fastest title to hit $100 million in revenue.

Add that to the company’s expansion into new markets with strategic acquisitions to fuel development and growth in Toronto and Bogota and it’s clear that the company is looking to make more moves in 2019.

Jam City already holds intellectual property for a new game built on Disney’s “Frozen 2,” the company’s newly acquired Fox Studio assets like “Family Guy” and the Harry Potter property. Add that to its own Cookie Jam and Panda Pop properties and it seems like the company is ready to make moves.

Meanwhile, games are quickly becoming the go-to revenue driver for the entertainment industry. According to data collected by Newzoo, mobile games revenue reached a record $63.2 billion worldwide in 2018, representing roughly 47 percent of the total revenue for the gaming industry in the year. That number could reach $81.3 billion by 2020, the Newzoo data suggests.

Roughly half of the U.S. plays mobile games, and they’re spending significant dollars on those games in app stores. App Annie suggests that roughly 75 percent of the money spent in app stores over the past decade has been spent on mobile games. And consumers are expected to spend roughly $129 billion in app stores over the next year. The data and analytics firm suggests that mobile gaming will capture some 60 percent of the overall gaming market in 2019, as well.

All of that bodes well for the industry as a whole, and points to why Jam City is looking to consolidate. And the company isn’t the only mobile games studio making moves.

The publicly traded games studio Zynga, which rose to fame initially on the back of Facebook’s gaming platform, recently expanded its European footprint with the late-December acquisition of the Helsinki-based gaming studio Small Giant Games.