Google hits pause on Chrome and Chrome OS releases

Google today announced that it is pausing upcoming Chrome and Chrome OS releases “due to adjusted work schedules.”

The company confirmed that we will still see security updates, though, which will get merged into version 80, the browser’s current stable release version. “We’ll continue to prioritize any updates related to security, which will be included in Chrome 80,” the team writes in today’s brief announcement.

Don’t expect any new feature updates anytime soon, though. Chrome version 81 is currently in beta testing and will likely remain in this channel for now. Like so much in this current situation, it’s unclear when Google plans to resume regular updates.

Earlier this week, Google also noted that Android app reviews will likely now take longer as the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced in-office staffing levels. The same holds true for YouTube. As YouTube is taking measures to protect its staff, it says it’ll rely more on its AI algorithms to moderate content (which in turn will likely lead to more false positives and YouTube taking down more videos that weren’t actually violating its terms).

With most of Google (and other tech companies) now working from home, we’ll likely see more of these announcements in the future as the impact of this crisis becomes clearer in the coming weeks.

Google launches the next Android 11 developer preview

Google today announced the second developer preview of Android 11. Like the first preview, this one, too, is only meant for developers and isn’t available as an over the air update. Instead, developers have to manually download and flash their supported devices, which are currently limited to the Pixel 2, 3, 3a or 4.

Unsurprisingly, this second release doesn’t feature any groundbreaking new features and mostly continues the work done with Preview 1. For the most part, these are new APIs and other developer features. You can expect to hear more about user-facing updates in some of the next releases.

“It’s still an early build, but you can start to see how the OS is enabling new experiences in this release, from seamless 5G connectivity to wrapping your UI around the latest screens, to a smarter keyboard and faster messaging experience,” writes Dave Burke, Google’s VP of Engineering, in today’s announcement.

New features in the second preview include a 5G state API to see if a user is currently on a 5G network, so that developers can then activate experiences that necessitate a 5G network, for example. There is also now better support for foldable devices with a new API that can read data from a hinge angle sensor so that apps can, as the name implies, adapt to the angle of the hinge.  There are also new APIs for screening robocalls and support for variable refresh rates and more. For developers who use neural networks in their apps, Android 11 will include a new “hard swish-op” function that will enable faster and more accurate training for on-device models.

While most of these updates focus on developers, one feature users will likely notice is ‘resume on boot.’ When an Android 11 device reboots after an overnight over-the-air update, it can now immediately access Credential Encrypted storage and start receiving messages right away. In current versions, the phone would mostly lie dormant until you logged in with your credentials.

 

Google’s Advanced Protection program for high-risk users now includes malware protection

Google is expanding the feature set for its Advanced Protection Program, a security offering that helps safeguard Google Accounts of those at risk for targeted attacks — like politicians, journalists, activists, business leaders and others. The program already provides an increased level of protection for these accounts by limiting access to data, blocking fraudulent account access, supporting the use of physical security keys and more. Today, Google is adding new malware protections to the program, as well.

For starters, those enrolled in the Advanced Protection Program will have Google Play Protect automatically enabled. This is Google’s built-in malware protection for Android that’s currently used to scan and verify 100 billion apps per day, Google notes. The system uses machine learning to automatically scan users’ devices and apps to check for harmful behavior and potential security issues. Now, this will be enabled for Advanced Protection Program members and will not be able to be shut off.

The program will also now limit users’ ability to install apps from outside the Play Store, where apps are now scanned for malware before approval. Those from outside the store can present a greater risk. Google will now prevent the download of non-Play Store apps on any devices enrolled in the Advanced Protection Program, with a few exceptions. Users will be able to install non-Play Store apps through other third-party app stores that may have shipped on your device from the device manufacturer. Others can be installed through the developer tool Android Debug Bridge. However, Google says non-Play Store apps that have already been installed won’t be removed and can continue to be updated.

Google launched its Advanced Protection Program in fall 2017, as an opt-in option for those who believe they’re at increased risk of online attacks. The program focuses on defending against phishing, locking down malicious apps, and fending off hackers. The trade-off is reduced convenience as there are additional steps to take during authentication and more limitations on what can be done. But the result is a safer, and free, way to increase the security of your account and device.

The new added protections will roll out gradually to accounts enrolled in the Advanced Protection Program on Android devices, to be later this year followed by new malware protections for Chrome, Google says. However, G Suite users won’t get these new protections now — instead, they’re offered through endpoint management, which helps secure devices belonging to mobile workforces.

Android app reviews may slow to over a week due to COVID-19 impacts, Google warns developers

Google this week warned Android developers that Play Store app review times will be much longer than normal due to the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis. Developers should expect app reviews to take up to a week or even longer, the company informed its community by way of an alert on the Google Play Console.

This slowdown in moderation efforts isn’t something that’s just impacting Google Play.

Yesterday, YouTube announced it would more heavily rely on its automated systems during this time, which meant more videos will likely be taken down by machine learning-powered systems before they received a review from a human moderator.

In both cases, the slowdowns are related to the reduced in-office staffing levels — a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is impacting employee scheduling at Google and elsewhere.

Up until now, Google Play had a fairly quick app review process.

For years, the company differentiated its Play Store from Apple’s App Store by allowing developers to publish without a lengthy review. This, of course, led to issues as the store was over-filled with low-quality and sometimes even malicious apps. In 2015, Google revealed it had begun to utilize an internal team of reviewers to analyze apps for policy violations prior to publication.

Despite the change in process, apps were being approved within hours instead of days, Google said at the time.

That changed last year, however, as the company implemented a more stringent review. It then began to advise developers to plan for review times of at least three days between submission and the app going live. But the length was reduced for established, trusted developers who continued to see faster reviews, Google had noted.

Review times of a week or even longer are unprecedented, much like the COVID-19 crisis itself.

News of the increased app reviews was first reported by Android Police.

A Google spokesperson confirmed the delay to TechCrunch, saying: “Due to adjusted work schedules at this time, we are currently experiencing longer than usual review times. While the situation is currently evolving, app review times may fluctuate, and may take 7 days or longer.”

The delay is also confirmed in the Play Console’s Help documentation.

Oura raises $28 million for its health and sleep tracking ring

Smart rings are still a relatively young category in the wearable hardware world, but the Oura Ring seems to be a standout in terms of early success. The Oura Ring hardware is sleek and packed with sensors, allowing it to measure a user’s sleep patterns, take your body temperature and track activity, and now Oura has raised $28 million in Series B funding to bring on new key hires and product updates.

In a Medium post announcing the raise, Oura CEO Harpreet Singh Rai revealed that to date, the company has sold over 150,000 of its rings since launch (which was in early 2018) and that its team has grown to over 100 people globally. The Series B funding comes from Forerunner Ventures, which has a strong track record when it comes to direct-to-consumer product company investments, as well as from Gradient Ventures and Square.

Along with the investment, Oura gains two new board members, and one new board observer all with expertise in different aspects of the startup’s business: Forerunner’s Eurie Kim and Square’s hardware lead Jesse Dorogusker are the new board members, and Gradient partner (and former VP of engineering at Google) Anna Patterson joins as the observer.

Oura will be revamping its website and adding a new web-based portal for Oura Ring users that offers “actionable insights,” the company says, and it’s going to be doing more in terms of collaborating with academic researchers on ensuring its products measurements and guidance remain as accurate and useful as possible.

Oura prioritizes the role of sleep in terms of its contribution to health, and has also recently ventured into the realm of meditation, but it acts as a general fitness tracking device as well. It has attracted a number of fans among the plugged-in tech elite, too, including Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey. The company deserves kudos for delivering a solid, attractive and feature-rich gadget in a category that seemed like a tough sell in the early offing, and this new funding is a good vote of confidence.