Android 9 Pie (Go edition) will make Android Go better this fall

Android 9 Pie may have gotten the headlines, but Google has also announced that its latest pastry-named OS is coming to its Android Go line with Android 9 Pie (Go edition).

The biggest change in Android 9 Pie (Go edition) is increased storage. According to Google’s blog post, the operating system for Android 9 Pie (Go edition) takes up less space on a device, giving users up to 500MB of additional storage out of the box compared to previous versions of Android Go.

Additionally, Google is promising faster device boot times, better security features (including verified boot), and a new dashboard for tracking and monitoring data usage, similar to what’s already offered on the full version of Android.

The first phones with Pie (Go edition) should hit stores later this fall.

Motorola’s latest phone looks exactly like an iPhone X with a Huawei paint job

Motorola has made a new iPhone X clone called the P30 that comes in an iridescent twilight color reminiscent of Huawei’s P20, as spotted by PhoneArena. When we say clone, the rear of the phone looks nearly identical to the iPhone X, except that Apple’s logo has been replaced with Motorola’s and it doubles as a fingerprint sensor.

Huawei’s P20 comes in twilight, which is a deep purple that can turn into blue, depending on what lighting it’s under. Motorola is calling its similar shade “Aurora.” By taking some of the iPhone X’s looks and the Huawei P20’s most memorable color, the Motorola P30 combines the best of both worlds, even if some might call it derivative. It will come to China before it sees greater availability around the world.

The Motorola P30 could possibly be the same Motorola One Power we’ve already seen in leaks, which we’ll likely find out once it’s rebranded for a global launch outside of China. It has 6GB RAM, a Snapdragon 636 processor, and a 3,000mAh battery; a clear cut midrange device.

It runs Android 8.0 Oreo with Lenovo’s ZUI 4.0 interface over it. The 6.2-inch display has a 19:9 aspect ratio, 2246 x 1080 resolution, a 12-megapixel selfie cam, and a chin that displays the Motorola logo. On the rear, there are dual cameras, clocking in at 16 megapixels and 5 megapixels.

Even Google thought it was the iPhone.

The front has a notch like the iPhone X’s, although the iPhone’s is slightly wider, and is similarly bezel-less with an all-glass body and facial recognition. Motorola is even advertising its phone with a similar rainbow splash art lock screen, completing the clone look. The P30 will be available on September 15th and it will cost $303 to $360, depending on whether you go with 64GB or 128GB of storage. It comes in black, white, and aurora.

Japan regulator reportedly looking into whether Apple secretly crushed an App Store competitor

Japan’s Fair Trade Commission is looking into whether Apple improperly pressured Yahoo Japan to shut down a game streaming platform that competed with the iOS App Store, according to Nikkei. Yahoo Japan’s Game Plus service allowed people to stream full games made for other platforms and to play HTML5 games on mobile phones, which would have allowed iPhone owners to get games without going through the App Store.

Nikkei reports that Yahoo Japan slashed the program’s budget last fall, just months after it launched, and told partners that it was due to pressure from Apple. It’s said to have begun filing complaints with Japan’s FTC around the same time.

Developers essentially have no good alternative to the App Store on iOS. Their only other option is the web, which is a wonderful place for websites, but the web is rarely as fast or flashy as a native app. There are a great number of features that only native apps can take advantage of, which requires going through the App Store and giving Apple a 30 percent cut of most sales.

Yahoo Japan’s service was meant, in part, to be an alternative to that, offering better terms to developers, according to Nikkei, and fewer restrictions around how games were updated and sold. Final Fantasy creator Square Enix had even signed on and produced an exclusive game for the platform, which has since been pulled.

While it’s hard to imagine a web platform stealing much attention away from the App Store, any alternative that works well enough would be a threat. That’s particularly important as Apple focuses more and more on revenue from its services division. As an example of what can happen: Google is expected to lose $50 million in just the next five months because Epic Games was able to skirt the Play Store when launching Fortnite on Android.

Of course, game streaming is a difficult business that no one’s really managed to crack in a successful way just yet. So it’s unclear how competitive this service would have been. But Nikkei’s report would indicate that it was seen as a potential challenger. Nikkei didn’t receive comment from Apple or Yahoo Japan.

Yahoo Japan is no longer related to Yahoo (Yahoo had a stake in Yahoo Japan, but that stake remained behind in a holding company when Yahoo was purchased by Verizon). While it’s an independent entity, SoftBank owns very nearly half of Yahoo Japan, and this may have contributed to Game Plus’ demise. SoftBank handles payments to the App Store made by its mobile phone subscribers, taking a cut from those payments, and Nikkei reports that the company got involved with Yahoo to protect that revenue stream.

If that’s the case, it complicates what’s going on. And Nikkei warned that, because the companies involved may not be interested in helping with the investigation, it’s very possible the FTC won’t be able to prove any improper actions were taken.

Apple just recently managed to get out of another investigation from Japan’s FTC. The commission said that Apple may have violated antitrust rules by forcing a specific payment scheme on service providers selling the iPhone, but the company wasn’t punished because it agreed to make changes.

A bunch of Tweetbot features no longer work in preparation for the Twitter API change

Twitter is planning to roll out changes to its API tomorrow, and it’s already having effects on Tweetbot. Tapbots updated Tweetbot for iOS today and with it came the removal of timeline streaming on Wi-Fi; push notifications for likes, retweets, follows, and quotes; the activity and stats tab; and the Apple Watch app. Meanwhile, push notifications for mentions or DMs will be delayed by a few minutes, and timelines will refresh automatically every one to two minutes instead of streaming on Wi-Fi.

None of these changes fundamentally ruin Tweetbot, but they certainly make the app less useful. When Tweetbot 3 launched on the Mac in May, the company said it had planned for these API changes and that they wouldn’t result in a substantial downgrade. The single biggest loss, really, is the Apple Watch app no longer being available, which is definitely a bummer if you use it. Tweetbot says it had to take it down because it relied heavily on Activity data. All third-party apps will be affected by similar changes starting tomorrow, so even if you don’t use Tweetbot, you aren’t spared.

Customer sues AT&T for negligence over SIM hijacking that led to millions in lost cryptocurrency

US entrepreneur and cryptocurrency investor Michael Terpin is suing AT&T for negligence and fraud that he claims resulted in millions of dollars worth of cryptocurrency tokens being stolen from his account. Terpin says AT&T was his mobile carrier when criminals accessed his cellphone account by carrying out SIM swap fraud. They then stole the tokens and allegedly transferred his account to an international criminal gang. Terpin is suing for the $23.8 million and an additional $200 million in punitive damages. AT&T told Reuters in a statement that it disputed these allegations.

SIM hijacking occurs when a phone number is transferred to a different SIM card than the account owner’s without authorization or approval. Having access to a phone number is a very valuable method of hijacking other digital accounts. Motherboard did a great rundown on the growing threat. The stolen phone number was used to hack Terpin’s account, and on January 7th, three million cryptocurrency tokens worth (at the time) $23.8 million were stolen. The complaint doesn’t specify which kinds of cryptocurrency Terpin had, but given that prices have fallen since January, the stolen tokens are likely worth far less now.

The complaint reads: “what AT&T did was like a hotel giving a thief with a fake ID a room key and a key to the room safe to steal jewelry in the safe from the rightful owner.” SIM card fraud that targets owners holding large amounts of cryptocurrency is a real phenomenon that US authorities have had to deal with in recent months.

Twitter users are protesting Alex Jones with a viral block list

Last week, we talked about why Facebook banned Alex Jones — and Twitter didn’t. Facebook saw that Jones, who had already violated any number of the platform’s rules, had no intention of reforming himself. Twitter said first that Jones had not broken any rules; and then — after a CNN’s Oliver Darcy showed the company a series of offending tweets — that he had, but not enough to get banned.

Late on Tuesday, Twitter took another half-step toward banning Jones — suspending him for a week, after posted a video on Twitter in which he encouraged his followers to get their “battle rifles” in anticipation of all-out war with his enemies.

In the mind of Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s co-founder and CEO, this suspension represented an opportunity for Jones to reflect on his bad behavior. “I feel any suspension, whether it be a permanent or a temporary one, makes someone think about their actions and their behaviors,” Dorsey told NBC News’ Lester Holt, in one of two interviews he did on Wednesday.

In the spirit of thinking about their actions and behaviors, Jones’ crew more or less immediately posted the battle-rifles video to the separate Infowars account. That earned the Infowars account a weeklong suspension of its own. Twitter being Twitter, the offending video remained viewable on Twitter-owned Periscope for nearly a day afterward. (Elsewhere in Twitter being Twitter, the Jones account continued to tweet for some time after his suspension, because it turns out that if you schedule tweets to post before you get suspended those tweets will continue to post just fine.)

After introducing this round of half measures, Dorsey sat down with the Washington Post’s Tony Romm and Elizabeth Dwoskin to announce that he was “rethinking the core of how Twitter works.”

“The most important thing that we can do is we look at the incentives that we’re building into our product,” Dorsey said. “Because they do express a point of view of what we want people to do — and I don’t think they are correct anymore.”

A now common criticism of Twitter holds that the viral mechanics through which tweets spread encourage the polarization of the audience into warring tribes. (See this Ezra Klein piece from last week.) That’s one way to explain why malicious users like Jones are able to thrive on social networks: their bombastic speech attracts a wave of initial attention, and platform algorithms help them find a much larger audience than they ever would otherwise. It’s in this sense that “incentives built into the product,” as Dorsey calls them, bear reconsideration.

Dorsey has more ideas. Labeling automated bots to distinguish them from accounts run by real people, for example. Or this one, cribbed from YouTube:

One solution Twitter is exploring is to surround false tweets with factual context, Dorsey said. Earlier this week, a tweet from an account that parodied Peter Strzok, an FBI agent fired for his anti-Trump text messages, called the president a “madman” and has garnered more than 56,000 retweets. More context about a tweet, including “tweets that call it out as obviously fake,” could help people “make judgments for themselves,” Dorsey said.

This is all fine, so far as it goes. Along with other tech leaders, Dorsey is expected to testify next month at a Senate hearing about information campaigns in politics. It makes sense that the CEO of Twitter would seek to convey a sense of urgency around solving the problems that have bedeviled the platform for many years now.

And yet at the same time, Twitter has never lacked for ideas. Ask anyone who ever worked there: any feature suggestion you could offer had already been debated ad nauseam. The problem always came down to the details, to the implementation, to how you were going to ship the damned thing.

That’s why I can view Dorsey’s vague promises on Wednesday only through the prism of the Alex Jones saga. Twitter was the very last of its peers to take any action against the Infowars host, and even when it did decide to punish him, it did so in the most lenient possible terms.

It offered Jones a loophole that let him keep tweeting. It left the offending video up for many hours. And it promised Jones that he could return — and in just a week, too. Twitter knew it had to punish Jones for his behavior. The trouble, as always for this company, was in the details.

But as the company dithers, its users are organizing. This week, Grab Your Wallet founder Shannon Coulter had a viral Twitter threadsuggesting a concrete action Twitter users could take to protest Jones’ ongoing presence on the platform. Coulter organized a list containing the Twitter handles of the Fortune 500, then made them available as a collective block list. Protesters could install the block list with a couple of clicks, and once they have done so, any ads from those companies would not appear in their Twitter timelines.

As of yesterday, more than 50,000 people had installed her tool. Users have previously gifted Twitter the hashtag, the @ mention, and the retweet; Coulter may have just given us the viral block list. And while Twitter talks endlessly about what it might do someday, a growing faction in its user base is taking action right now.


In March, the United Nations said Facebook is used to incite violence against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group. Ever since, regular reports have explored how Facebook failed to hire native-language speakers who could have identified hate speech on the platform as it began to spread, and ignored warnings from local groups and regional experts that the situation was getting out of hand.

Reuters’ Steve Stecklow has delivered the most comprehensive account yet of Facebook’s misadventure in Myanmar. His piece reveals the existence of Operation Honey Badger, a content moderation shop focused on Asia that is run by Accenture on Facebook’s behalf. Despite the efforts of its 60 or so moderators, Reuters easily found 1,000 pieces of anti-Rohingya hate speech on Facebook.

In part, that’s because Facebook’s vaunted artificial intelligence systems are failing.

In Burmese, the post says: “Kill all the kalars that you see in Myanmar; none of them should be left alive.”

Facebook’s translation into English: “I shouldn’t have a rainbow in Myanmar.”

So what happens next? Vice’s David Gilbert reports that Facebook is conducting a human rights audit “to assess its role in enabling ethnic violence and hate speech against its Rohingya Muslim minority.”

The audit, which Facebook confirmed, will be conducted by the San Francisco firm Business for Social Responsibility. Gilbert says the report could be finished by the end of this month. The company is also hiring for a variety of policy roles specific to Myanmar, a first for Facebook.

These are important steps, and while it’s unclear what action they might result in, they convey the appropriate degree of seriousness. Facebook — and the wider world — have a lot riding on whether the company gets it right. Activists have described similarly violent outbreaks of hate speechincluding Vietnam, India, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka. The conflict in Myanmar is bloody, but it is by no means unique.


How social media took us from Tahrir Square to Donald Trump

Zeynep Tufecki offers a concise history of how optimism around social media as a tool for peaceful protest faded into existential worries. Worth reading in full:

First, the weakening of old-style information gatekeepers (such as media, NGOs, and government and academic institutions), while empowering the underdogs, has also, in another way, deeply disempowered underdogs. Dissidents can more easily circumvent censorship, but the public sphere they can now reach is often too noisy and confusing for them to have an impact. Those hoping to make positive social change have to convince people both that something in the world needs changing and there is a constructive, reasonable way to change it. Authoritarians and extremists, on the other hand, often merely have to muddy the waters and weaken trust in general so that everyone is too fractured and paralyzed to act. The old gatekeepers blocked some truth and dissent, but they blocked many forms of misinformation too.

How a Fake Group on Facebook Created Real Protests

Sheera Frankel reports on a now-deleted Facebook page called Black Elevation, which organized rallies, posted videos, and spoke out about racism. In fact, it was part of the influence operation that Facebook revealed last month:

The Black Elevation organizers may have been trying to slide into the real world by hiring event coordinators or trying to persuade real activists to identify themselves as members of Black Elevation.

Mr. Nimmo said all of the pages Facebook recently removed were aimed at left-wing activists in the United States. It is possible, he added, that a similar influence campaign has been focusing on right-wing activists.

Americans don’t think the platforms are doing enough to fight fake news

Daniel Funke reports on a new survey published by Gallup and the Knight Foundation.

The report, based on web surveys from a random sample of 1,203 U.S. adults, found that 85 percent of Americans don’t think the platforms are doing enough to stop the spread of fake news. Additionally, 88 percent want tech companies to be transparent about how they surface content, while 79 percent think those companies should be regulated like other media organizations — a common trope among journalists.

That’s despite the fact that the majority of people surveyed (54 percent) said social media platforms help keep them informed and that they’re concerned about those companies making editorial judgments.

Transgender Girl, 12, Is Violently Threatened After Facebook Post by Classmate’s Parent

An Oklahoma school shut down after a Facebook group led to violent threats against a transgender student, Christina Caron reports:

A 12-year-old transgender student in a small Oklahoma town near the Texas border was targeted in an inflammatory social media post by the parents of a classmate, leading to violent threats and driving officials to close the school for two days.

It all started on Facebook. Jamie Crenshaw, whose children attend public schools in the town, Achille, complained in a private Facebook group for students’ parents that the transgender girl, Maddie, was using a bathroom for girls.


WhatsApp Co-Founder’s ‘Rest and Vest’ Reward From Facebook: $450 Million

Jan Koum has the best job in the world and it’s not even close. Bless Deepa Seetharaman and Kirsten Grind for this:

After WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum announced he was leaving Facebook Inc. FB -0.87%in late April, he has continued showing up at least monthly at the social-media giant’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. His incentive for making the appearances: about $450 million in stock awards, according to people familiar with the matter.

Mr. Koum’s unusual arrangement with Facebook is one of the more lucrative examples of a Silicon Valley practice sometimes called “rest and vest,” in which the holders of stock grants are allowed to stick around until they qualify to collect a sizable portion of their shares.

Meet The People Who Spend Their Free Time Removing Fake Accounts From Facebook

Craig Silverman introduces us to some heroes of the social realm. (Incidentally, they do not seem particularly impressed with Facebook’s efforts on this front. “It seems like every time we tell them something, they had no idea or didn’t know that was possible,” Denny said. “You can’t tell me that you don’t know some of this. I mean, this is your business, right? This is stuff me and Kathy are doing in our spare time because we are committed to it at this point. But every time Kathy tells them something, it’s like a revelation.”)

Kathy Kostrub-Waters and Bryan Denny estimate they’ve spent more than 5,000 hours over the past two years monitoring Facebook to track down and report scammers who steal photos from members of the US military, create fake accounts using their identities, and swindle unsuspecting people out of money.

During that time they reported roughly 2,000 fake military accounts, submitted three quarterly reports summarizing their findings to Facebook, and even met with Federal Trade Commission, Pentagon, and Facebook employees to talk about their work.

Google-Facebook Dominance Hurts Ad Tech Firms, Speeding Consolidation

The Google-Facebook advertising duopoly has led to consolidation in the ad tech industry, Claire Ballentine reports.

Instagram users are reporting the same bizarre hack

There’s some sort of ongoing Russian attack on individual Instagram accounts, Karissa Bell reports:

Megan and Krista’s experiences are not isolated cases. They are two of hundreds of Instagram users who have reported similar attacks since the beginning of the month. On Twitter, there have been more than 100 of these types of anecdotal reports in the last 24 hours alone. According to data from analytics platform Talkwalker, there have been more than 5,000 tweets from 899 accounts mentioning Instagram hacks just in the last seven days. Many of these users have been desperately tweeting at Instagram’s Twitter account for help.

Amazon Has YouTube Envy

Amazon-owned Twitch is ramping up competition with YouTube, Lucas Shaw reports:

Amazon in recent months has been pursuing exclusive livestreaming deals with dozens of popular media companies and personalities, many with large followings on YouTube. Twitch is offering minimum guarantees of as much as a few million dollars a year, as well as a share of future advertising sales and subscription revenue, according to several people who’ve been contacted by Twitch.


People Raise $300M Through Birthday Fundraisers in First Year

Birthday fundraisers in the News Feed are more than just an engagement hack — they’ve also raised $300 million for charity in a year, Facebook said today. The company also announced some user interface upgrades along with the announcement that show you more information about the nonprofits you’re donating to.


Twitter’s Misguided Quest to Become a Forum for Everything

John Herrman says Twitter’s notion of a universal public square is hopeless:

On Twitter, it may seem that you are talking to friends or peers, and that the space is controlled or even safe. But it’s not: It’s shared with and extremely vulnerable to those with a desire to disrupt or terrorize it. In order to function, Twitter must make its users feel at home in the most public space devised by humankind. The platform can’t easily say what smaller intentional forums can: “We don’t want this here; you’re violating the spirit of our community; go away.” It is too big, with too many people present for too many different reasons, to be a site for any one sort of conversation. It exercises absolute authority over its service, of course, but must pretend to do so carefully, sparingly and only when forced to.

And here’s a former (I think?) Twitter employee Jared Gaut has a thread worth reading on why he’s taking a break from the service in the wake of Alex Jones-related inaction:

And finally …

Jerry Seinfeld Says Jokes Are Not Real Life

Dan Amira asks Jerry Seinfeld why he doesn’t tell jokes on Twitter:

I don’t hear the laugh. Why waste my time? It’s a horrible performing interface. I can’t think of a worse one. I always think about people that write books. What a horrible feeling it must be to have poured your soul into a book over a number of years and somebody comes up to you and goes, “I loved your book,” and they walk away, and you have no idea what worked and what didn’t. That to me is hell. That’s my definition of hell.

Welcome to hell, Jerry!

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Microsoft’s new Xbox avatars now available for Windows 10 testers

Microsoft first started testing its new and diverse Xbox Live avatars with Xbox owners back in June. The software maker is now making these available to Windows 10 testers today ahead of their official release in October. A new Xbox Avatar Editor is downloadable from the Microsoft Store, granting Windows 10 gamers access to the new avatars. You may need to be part of Microsoft’s Xbox Insider program to fully access the editor, though.

While the new avatars are rather basic right now, can you fully customize your online character with body type options, clothing, and props. Microsoft is planning to add accessories, props, moods, clothing, and appearance categories in the future, alongside more content after the avatars are broadly available in October. Microsoft’s Xbox Avatar Editor for Windows 10 lets you customize body, face, hair, and other options. All the customizations include color pickers to personalize things further.

Microsoft is displaying the new avatars on gamertag profiles and occasionally using them on the main Xbox One dashboard to show friend activity. It’s not clear how avatars will be displayed for Windows 10 users in the Xbox app, but PC gamers will be able to use them for their profile images.

Windows 10’s Xbox avatar editor

Facebook birthday fundraisers have raised over $300 million for nonprofits

A small, useful Facebook feature is doing a lot of good. CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a post yesterday that birthday fundraisers, in which users can request that their friends donate to a cause for their birthday, have raised over $300 million for more than 750,000 nonprofits. The service only launched last year. He said those organizations range from food banks to animal shelters to Alzheimer’s research. In June, Facebook said it would donate $5 for every birthday fundraiser started, so long as it supports one of those 750,000 vetted US nonprofits.

This isn’t the only fundraising option users have. They can also start Pages to raise money for charity, for example, but the clear success of birthday fundraisers makes sense. People love Facebook’s birthday reminders; it’s the most crucial platform offering for lots of people, other than event invites. Letting people parlay all that attention into donations was a wise move.

Asus’ new Zephyrus S gaming laptop is its thinnest yet, but the trackpad is still in the wrong place

Today Asus is announcing the new Zephyrus S gaming laptop, and it comes as competitors like Razer and MSI are regularly putting out thinner laptops with even thinner bezels. That’s what the Zephyrus S is designed to take on; it’s the company’s thinnest gaming laptop to date and an alternative to other, beefier Asus gaming laptops.

There will be two Zephyrus S models available, with the first being sold exclusively at Amazon. The first SKU will retail for $2,199, is equipped with GTX 1070 Max Q graphics, an 8th-gen Core i7 chip, 16GB of RAM, a 15.6-inch 144Hz full HD screen with 3ms response time, and finally, a 512GB NVMe solid state drive.

Asus is advertising this configuration of the Zephyrus S because it has the better GPU, but a similar version that has all the same specs will be sold for $100 less ($2,000), with two exceptions being the full size GTX 1060 chip and a 1TB hard drive.

There aren’t too many aesthetic changes when compared to the original Zephyrus and the follow-up Zephyrus M. What has changed are the thinner bezels and chassis, a smaller frame and, of course, the touchpad, which is on the right again. It’s a design choice. Aluminum, magnesium, and plastic materials can be found throughout the Zephyrus S’ chassis; it generally feels smooth and cool to touch.

Cooling modern gaming laptop specs in a smaller, more compact body requires, well, better cooling, so Asus addressed that. The improved Active Aerodynamic System props the underside of the laptop upward and opens the bottom plate with better airflow, thanks to more fan blades. It comes with programmable lighting, and since less of the chassis is exposed now via the plate (which is made from magnesium this time), there’s less flex and give to the machine.

Asus is also including a new central command app called Armoury Crate for lighting, performance, and fan settings. Previously you had to rely on different apps to control the hardware settings on Zephyrus laptops, which quite frankly got cumbersome. The Armoury Crate app will ship with the Zepyhrus S and future products.

The Asus Zepyhrus S with a 1070 MaxQ chip will start shipping on August 31st, exclusively at Amazon for $2,199. Meanwhile, the lower-end GTX 1060 variant will be available in mid-October as a “channel-wide” release, for $2,099.

Asus also has a second announcement for the Republic of Gamers brand today, in the form of a 17-inch laptop. It echoes the same gaudy camo pattern from the 15-inch Strix Scar II that I reviewed in July, except it uses a lower-end GTX 1060 graphics chip.

The 17-inch screen is an upgrade in display real estate, but not resolution. It retains the same 144Hz refresh rate, 3ms response time, and 100 percent sRGB coverage that Asus is known for using recently on its gaming laptops. The rest of Scar II’s specs remain the same, including the Core i7-8750H processor, 16GB of RAM, 1TB hard drive, and a 256GB SSD. As for availability, the Scar II GL704 will retail for $1,699 in the “last half of September.”

Android 9 Pie review: the predictive OS

Here’s the story with every new version of Android, in a nutshell: it’s great, but you can really only get it on a phone that Google makes. Sometime next year, new phones by other companies will launch with it. The Android phone in your pocket might get it, maybe, but it’ll take longer than you want, and honestly, the new version isn’t that different, so you shouldn’t sweat it too much. Yes, fragmentation is an issue, but it’s better now than it used to be, thanks to Google’s ability to push some key updates out through the Google Play store instead of having to rely on full system updates.

The story with Android 9 Pie isn’t radically different, but it changes some of those tried and true (and increasingly tired) lines a bit. For the first time, I’ve had a chance to test the official release of a new version of Android on a phone not made by Google, the Essential Phone. That’s a good sign.

Although a few of the promised features aren’t shipping or are still in beta, I think this version of Android is good enough that users should demand the update for their phones. I’m not trying to organize a campaign to shake off our complacent acceptance of a terrible update status quo, but I am saying we should bring back a little bit of the old outrage at carriers, manufacturers, and Google itself.

The many features in Android 9 Pie cohere into something that feels more polished than the last few versions of Android. There is a lot to like and fewer excuses than ever for updates not to come out for existing phones in a timely manner.


Verge Score

Good Stuff

  • Notification management still great
  • AI-based shortcuts
  • Better screenshots, text selection, and auto-rotation

Bad Stuff

  • Gesture navigation not as smooth as it could be
  • Some of the best features are Pixel-only
  • Android OEMs still need to get better at releasing updates

We’ve been living with the same three-button core navigation system in Android for several years now, but with Pie, Google is finally giving a gesture-based interface a shot. It may not be the most important new feature in the OS, but it’s certainly the most prominent and the most divisive. Bear with me here because I’m going to overthink this, but I think it’s worth it because it illuminates a key point about Google’s design direction.

The new system replaces the back, home, and multitasking buttons with a singular home button, gestures, and other buttons that appear on an as-needed basis. In theory, it will make future Android phones more accessible to users who are used to the iPhone X’s gesture system, and it also offers some benefits (swiping requires less accuracy than tapping). Overall, the new gesture system works, but it’s conceptually complicated.

To see what I mean, here’s a brief description of how gestures work: You swipe up once to get to an overview pane. The Overview pane (aka your recently-used apps) lets you swipe between apps or enable split screen with a hidden menu on the app’s icon. On Pixel phones, you’ll also get an AI-driven list of suggested apps and a search bar. Swipe up again, and you’ll get to the app drawer with icons for all of your apps. You tap the home button to go home, or you can drag the home button to the right to quickly switch between apps in a screen that’s similar to, but not identical with, the Overview screen. Along with all of this, the traditional Android back button will still show up from time to time next to the home button because Google hasn’t yet developed a gesture for “back.”

It’s… a lot. I’m not against complication in principle when it comes to UX — I have faith in humanity’s ability to learn — but there’s no denying it takes some time to feel like you know your way around.

The funny thing is, I think the negative reaction isn’t about how complicated gesture are. Instead, it’s about how they feel. As I’ve written before, switching to a primarily gesture-based navigation system is a risky move for Google, because those systems only feel good if they… feel good. Any “jank” in the animation or weirdness in the physics of moving elements on the screen will make a user feel unmoored and unhappy.

The good news is that — at least on the Pixel 2 XL — Google finally got to a place where the animations work as they should, and the jank is gone. But the physics and ergonomics still feel a little off, especially if you’re used to the system on the iPhone X. (After a rockier beta, animations were also fine on the Essential Phone with the final version.) Where the iPhone’s gestures let you flow from one thing to the next with a single gesture, Android’s feel a little more staccato.

As just one example, you theoretically have the option to do a long swipe up to get to the app drawer instead of a double swipe (once to the overview, once again to the drawer). But in practice you have to do a loooong, loooong swipe to get it to work, which you’ll invariably get wrong, and the dock will give you a fussy little bounce in a futile attempt to indicate you should just double-swipe up.

I’m overthinking all this in part because I don’t think Google thought it over enough. I would have jettisoned the long swipe and just encouraged people to double swipe. That would have the side effect of pushing people into the Overview screen more often, which would be a net good for Google. The app suggestions are very often exactly what I want and the swipe-tap motion to start a search is faster than any mobile search UX we’ve had, going on seven years (since, you guessed it, just typing on the physical keyboard of a webOS or BlackBerry phone).

But, of course, that enhanced Overview screen is a Google-exclusive feature. Other phones, like the Essential phone, don’t have those Googley-bits at the bottom, they just have your app dock and no search bar.

With Pie, Google is leaving the buttons as the default navigation for current phones, and users will be able to switch back and forth from buttons to the gestures. Choices are nice but offering them instead of just going with what you think is best often reveals a lack of confidence. As you can tell, I share what I sense is Google’s lack of confidence in the current system.

Despite all this belaboring, I do prefer the gestures to the buttons! It’s a lot easier to just swipe up anywhere from the bottom of the phone, and I’ve used the copy-and-paste trick directly from the Overview screen a few times now. I just think they need a few more tweaks, and I suspect those will come in due time.

The new horizontal Overview / multitasking screen is the biggest visual change, but there are plenty of other nips and tucks around the interface. Nothing here will really feel alien to longtime Android users, it generally is just a bit more elegant.

Android still maintains its lead in usable, manageable notifications. They have a slightly cleaner layout, and the entire notification panel has rounded corners. There are still multiple priority levels, grouping, an overflow area, and no distinction between what’s shown on the lock screen and notification panel. If you dismiss a notification from an app a lot, Android will eventually prompt you to just turn it off completely.

The quick settings panel up top has been simplified (some would say oversimplified), requiring you to long-press to access more settings instead of giving you an in-menu dropdown button. As it does with literally every revision, Google has also adjusted the main settings screen. There are colorful icons for settings, and it’s more prominently adding suggested settings at the top more often than before. A system-wide dark theme is now an option for everybody whether you have a dark wallpaper or not.

Back to polarizing changes, though: the status bar has been rearranged to better accommodate phones with notches (which apparently is going to be damn near all of them not made by Samsung). The time has been shifted over to the left of the screen and the little notification icons that appear over there are capped at four, whether you have a notch or not. It was a necessary step given the hardware trend, but I’m hoping that eventually manufacturers will be able to report how much space their notch is taking so Android can display more icons if there’s space for them.

Google has changed the volume button behavior a bit — they only adjust media volume now with a little on-screen pop-up that lets you toggle your ringer between vibrate, silent, and on. It’s more predictable, and I think most people will prefer this behavior, but I’m an old person who actually adjusts ringer volume a lot, so it’s less convenient for me.

The other little pop-up on the right side is the power menu, with options for restarting and taking a screenshot. I recommend hunting down the “lockdown option” in settings, which adds another button to that menu. Tap it, and your phone will require a passcode instead of letting biometrics unlock the phone. Honestly, that button should have been set to “on” by default.

I’m not sure what took so long, but Android finally has a magnifier when you’re trying to move the cursor when selecting text. Another “finally” is screenshot markup. When you take a screenshot now, you’ll have an option to crop it and draw on it before saving or sharing.

Last but not least, if you’re the sort of person who leaves rotation lock on, Google will pop up a little button when you turn the phone to temporarily let you put it in landscape mode. Something about big phones has always caused them to be too aggressive at rotating the screen for me, so it’s a nice feature. It can be annoying, though: most of the time you want to go 90 (ahem) to watch video, and video by default hides the main navigation buttons. It’s a few extra taps to get back to portrait.

In my initial look at Android 9 Pie, I called it Google’s “most ambitious update in years.” I still think that’s true, but unfortunately, right now, Android doesn’t quite reach those ambitions. There are two key features that aren’t shipping until later this fall: the so-called “Digital Wellbeing” dashboard and a feature called Slices.

Digital Wellbeing is available as a beta, and I’ll wait until it’s official to review it. But even in beta, it’s useful. You can see how much time you’re spending in apps, set limits, and turn on a great feature called “Wind down,” which toggles on Do Not Disturb and sets the screen to monochrome. Honestly I wish there was a way to turn on Monochrome more easily anytime.

Do Not Disturb, by the way, has changed a little. It’s much more aggressive at hiding notifications by default, down to not letting you see them at all unless you mess with the settings or turn DND off. The default is a little overbearing for my tastes, and I wish there was a better middle ground.

Slices are part of Google’s initiative to bring more AI and machine learning to Android’s interface. The idea is that the functions of an app can be “deconstructed” and spread out to other parts of the OS. So when you search for a thing you want to do, an app can show it’s own interface or button directly in the search results. The commonly-cited example is hailing a car. We’ll test it in the fall when it becomes available.

But there are other AI elements to Android that are available right now. Both battery life and screen brightness are automatically handled by machine learning that adjusts settings based on your usage. I can’t really say how effective either are with any level of confidence, but anecdotally I do think I’ve been messing with screen brightness less often. AI also determines which icons appear at the bottom of the Overview screen, and it’s crazy good — the app I want to open next is there at least half the time.

Finally there’s “Actions,” a feature that complements Slices and is available now. Where Slices will show buttons for app actions when you actively search for something, Actions puts those buttons directly in your app drawer. As with those icons in the Overview screen, Android tries to guess what you might want to do, only here it’s a button that deep links into a part of the app. It might be sending a text or opening the podcasts app before you start your commute. They seem fine, but I’m not in the main app drawer often enough to make heavy use of them.

Android 9 Pie is a great update, and I wouldn’t want to go back. I love that it’s chock-full of ideas about how an operating system can be smarter, even though some of them (pardon the inevitable pun) don’t feel quite fully baked.

I see a few trends beginning to come to fruition here. Through battery management and notification changes, Google is continuing its efforts to corral an ecosystem of bad-acting apps through a better-managed OS. The other big trend is one I’ve been talking about for a couple years now: moving towards making AI the new UI.

Two years ago at the Code conference, CEO Sundar Pichai told Walt Mossberg that Google intended to be more “opinionated” about its own phones, and the Googlification of Android on Pixel phones is stronger than ever now. The heavy emphasis on the Overview screen, Actions, and (eventually) Slices are all examples of Google trying to use its own AI chops to surface what you need instead of making you hunt through home screen folders and apps. It’s been fascinating to compare Google’s strategy to Apple’s with iOS 12 — and will continue to be.

Of course, if we’re bringing up iOS, we have to circle back to where we started: updates. Apple still trounces Android when it comes to getting phones updated to the latest OS. Last year, Google built the Treble infrastructure to make it easier for companies to push out these big OS updates faster. This year, I’d like to see more companies take advantage of it. Android users have more reason to hope than we have in a long time; the Essential Phone was the first non-Google phone I can remember that got an update the same day as Pixel phones. But that’s just one phone out of hundreds (or more).

As happy as I am with all the individual features in Android 9 Pie, I’ll be even happier if the Android ecosystem gets its act together and releases it.