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[ By Steph in Gadgets & Geekery & Technology. ]

Hell is Other People Smartphone App 1

Social media was invented to bring people closer, but the more antisocial among us can use it in a different way: to avoid the people we know. ‘Hell is Other People‘ is an interactive smartphone app that will show you exactly where your friends are based on Foursquare check-ins, and provide ‘safe zones’ where you can hang out without fear of being recognized.

Hell is Other People Smartphone App 2

Using the GPS function on your phone and your contacts’ public check-ins or location updates on Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and other social media, the app will show you yellow points on a map that indicate where your friends are. The green points represent ‘safe zones.’
Hell is Other People Smartphone App 3

Of course, the map only works if your friends are avid social media users, checking in to virtually every place they go, and you still run the risk of running into them when they’re in route. You also might be relegated to unexpected places in the city. But as creator Scott notes in the video, “It’s kind of nice that I’ve been pushed into parks.”

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Florence Ion

Losing your phone or having your tablet fall to its death can be hard on anyone, especially in this day and age where mobile devices have become an essential part of our lives. Just like with any computer, backing up your mobile apps and data can prove worthy when disaster strikes—or just after you’ve purchased a new phone and simply need to migrate data.

Thankfully, there are a plethora of applications in the Google Play store that provide backup services for devices of all types, but only a few we thought were worth considering. We tried to pick out the ones that stood out to us the most and offered what we’d want from a backup suite for our non-rooted devices. If you have any suggestions of applications you’ve used to back up your Android device that aren't listed here, feel free to tell us about it in the comments. We’ll do a follow-up in next week’s Android app roundup with your suggestions.

G Cloud Backup, Free

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Florence Ion

If you've ever needed a temporary phone number for whatever reason, there are several apps out there that you could turn to. Last summer, we wrote about Burner, an application on iOS that enables users to take on another phone number for a small fee. Unlike Google Voice or Skype, the app can assign your mobile phone a new number with just the touch of a button. Today, Burner has made its app available to Android users.

To make a burner phone number with the app, select the “Create Burner” button to choose an area code and then input the number the burner should forward to (it will automatically default to the number on your mobile phone). Unfortunately, you can’t use a land line as the callback number, because the number requires text message verification. You can then pick from a variety of burner options, with the most standard being the Mini Burner for $1.99, which offers a number valid for a week, 20 minutes, or 60 texts. After that, the number is effectively disposed of. There are also payment tiers: eight credits for $4.99, 15 for $7.99, or 25 for $11.99.

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Aurich Lawson

In the 1990s, client-server was king. The processing power of PCs and the increasing speed of networks led to more and more desktop applications, often plugging into backend middleware and corporate data sources. But those applications, and the PCs they ran on, were vulnerable to viruses and other attacks. When applications were poorly designed, they could leave sensitive data exposed.

Today, the mobile app is king. The processing power of smartphones and mobile devices based on Android, iOS, and other mobile operating systems combined with the speed of broadband cellular networks have led to more mobile applications with an old-school plan: plug into backend middleware and corporate data sources.

But these apps and the devices they run on are vulnerable… well, you get the picture. It's déjà vu with one major difference: while most client-server applications ran within the confines of a LAN or corporate WAN, mobile apps are running outside of the confines of corporate networks and are accessing services across the public Internet. That makes mobile applications potentially huge security vulnerabilities—especially if they aren't architected properly and configured with proper security and access controls.

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California Attorney General Kamala Harris.

The Aspen Institute

In recent months the state of California has stepped up its efforts to enforce the California Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). In December, Attorney General Kamala Harris made an example of Delta Airlines, which had ignored a letter warning the carrier that it was in violation of COPPA. The statute requires every app which collects data about California users (which, practically speaking, means every app) to conspicuously post a privacy policy disclosing what information is collected and how it will be used.

In a new report, Harris's office offers an official set of recommendations for mobile app developers. California urges app developers to "minimize surprises to users from unexpected privacy practices." In addition to posting a standard privacy policy, the state also recommends the use of "special notices" to alert users when an app might be using data in a way the user might not expect. For example, when an app needs the user's location, the user is typically alerted and given the opportunity to allow or block the application from getting the current location. The state recommends using similar notices when an app collects other sensitive information.

The 23-page report offers a wide variety of other recommendations. Most of them are directed at app developers, but there are also recommendations for the companies that operate app stores, advertising networks, and wireless networks. The state recommends that app developers limit data collection, limit data retention, and avoid using global device identifiers that could be correlated across apps.

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Candy Cunningham is the heroine of Bottom of the Ninth, a baseball-themed animated graphic novel set in the future. Images: Ryan Woodward

Say you’ve created something utterly original and you’re inviting skepticism. Say it in the world of comics, with its legions of passionate and knowledgeable fans, and you’re inviting trouble.

Ryan Woodward knows this, which is why he didn’t take lightly his decision to call Bottom of the Ninth, a baseball-themed story set in the future, the “first animated graphic novel.” Although companies like Marvel have long produced online comics with artwork that slides into place, Woodward says the classical definition of animation as “the illusion of life” sets his work apart.

“There is a big difference between the terms ‘motion graphics’ and ‘animation’ that many people don’t know about. If that artwork that you’re creating communicates that there’s a life, a conscience, a living breathing entity that is acting on its own free will, then that is the illusion of life,” says Woodward, “and by definition it’s considered animated. Once I’ve provided the definition and my reason for using that term, I haven’t had one person that has come back and tried to disagree.”

Critics and cynics might argue his point, but they can’t argue his credentials. Woodward has been a Hollywood artist and animator since working on the 1996 film Space Jam, and he’s supplied storyboard art and animation for blockbusters like The Avengers.

Bottom of the Ninth will appear on the iPad and iPhone later this summer, with other platforms coming later in the year. It is set in 2172 in the metropolis of Tao City, where people are obsessed with the sport of New Baseball. The basics of the game remain in place, but players also face artificial gravity and infields that stretch vertically into the sky. The heroine is Candy Cunningham, the 18-year-old daughter of Gordy Cunningham, a major league player on the downside of his career. Candy has inherited some of her father’s athleticism and can throw a fastball approaching 100 mph.

Woodward has written the script for the story, which could encompass several installments. The initial app introduces us to Tao City, the characters and the conflict Candy Cunningham feels about her sporting fame and her father’s lessons about true happiness.

Woodward first thought of the story in 2005 but set it aside to pursue other projects. He began thinking about it again in November as he grasped the potential of iPad apps to combine the experiences of watching a film and playing a game. He threw himself into the animation in January, working with a design and technical team of five people to plan the visual elements. Artistically, Woodward found inspiration from half a dozen styles, from European comics to the classic newspaper strips of yore, to create a realistic, yet nostalgic, look.

The trickiest steps weren’t creative, but administrative. Creating an animated graphic novel required figuring out basic things like getting files from one artist to another and getting designers and coders to work efficiently.

Along the way, two moments of serendipity convinced Woodward he was on the right track. The first came during a Facebook chat with Tyson Murphy, one of his Brigham Young University animation students. Murphy mentioned that his father, former Atlanta Braves standout Dale Murphy, might be interested in helping out. The two-time National League MVP ended up providing the voice of Murph, a former player turned announcer, and giving script feedback from someone who’s stood in the batter’s box. In a nod to Murphy’s career, the trailer promoting the app shows a Dale Murphy baseball card fall from a drawer onto a copy of Bottom of the Ninth.

“[Ryan] is so good at what he does and it looked like a lot of fun,” Murphy says. “It’s just such a unique project. It’s something that for an old-timer like me to be involved in, it’s just a thrill.”

The second stroke of serendipity came when the project entered its final stages and Woodward discovered there was a real-life Candy Cunningham. In 1931, a 17-year-old girl named Jackie Mitchell signed a contract to pitch for the minor-league Chattanooga Lookouts. In an exhibition game that spring, Mitchell struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in succession. The next day, baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis voided her contract, declaring women unfit to play baseball because it was “too strenuous.” Enthralled by the story, Woodward stayed up all night reading about Mitchell and decided he had to dedicate part of his story to telling hers.

“I couldn’t have been more surprised if Luke Skywalker showed up on my doorstep,” Woodward says. “It was just a fictional character completely coming to life.”


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iPhone App Store Icon Wall

A new breed of mobile applications is coming. These new apps will not only “sense” the world around you, using the smartphone’s sensors like the compass, GPS, and accelerometer – they’ll also be able to combine that data with a history of your actions to intelligently determine your likes, interests and favorites. This understanding of the world, or “ambient discovery” if you will, could then be piped into any app to make it smarter, whether it’s a social app for finding friends, a Siri-like personal assistant, a fitness app, a mobile game, or anything else.

This, at least, is the promise from the Palo Alto-based startup, Alohar Mobile, which recently introduced new SDKs for mobile app developers interested in experimenting with the possibilities of smarter apps.

Alohar Mobile (newly emerged from stealth mode), was founded by a former Platform Architect of Google’s Location Server Platform, Sam Liang. You may know him as the guy who put the “blue dot” location service in tens of thousands of mobile apps, including the default Map app on iPhone and Android, as well as in the Facebook check-in, Foursquare and Yelp. He also architected Google Latitude.

Liang started the company with Stanford alumni, Larry Wang and Alvin Lau, and they’ve now raised $2 million in funding from notable angel investors, including David Cheriton, the first investor in Google, Fortinet founder and CEO Ken Xie, and Tim Draper of Draper Fisher Jurvetson.

As for what, exactly, Alohar is providing – that’s a bit more complicated. It’s not just developing a smarter Siri, although that description is sure to catch more readers’ attention than something like “mobile development platform,” for example. While a smarter Siri-like app could be the product of Alohar’s work, it is not the work itself.

Lau describes the technology as an “ambient sensing platform.”

Um, say what?

“We’ve developed technology that sits on a smartphone that analyzes data coming from all the different sensors on your phone – for example, GPS and Wi-Fi – but a lot of companies do that, that’s nothing special. But we also gather data from the accelerometer, the compass, the gyroscope,” explains Lau. “It helps us to determine a person’s exact location.”

What that means is that apps using Alohar’s technology can precisely determine where someone is because of the way data is combined. For example, an app relying on GPS alone may know that you’re somewhere near a Starbucks, but can’t really tell if you’re there or in an adjacent store. Alohar-enabled apps, however, could detect things like the rate at which you’re moving (60 MPH? You’re probably driving down the road past a Starbucks), the direction you’re headed (moving towards the building slowly? You’re probably walking into the Starbucks), the network you’re connected to (ATTWIFI? You’re probably inside the Starbucks), and even time of day (8:30 AM? You’re probably at the Starbucks on the ground level of that skyscraper, not the nightclub on the top floor).

None of the data is used in isolation, but is instead parsed by advanced algorithms to make sense of your actions and movements. The algorithms give the app higher or lower probabilities to different types of places.

These algorithms can also take into account what you’ve done in the past and use that to help weight the data appropriately. For example, if you’ve visited that Starbucks several times over the past couple of weeks, but have never visited the bagel shop next door, the algorithm knows that you’re probably at the Starbucks.

Alohar’s technology has been packaged into a SDK for mobile developers, which allows them to create new apps or enhance existing ones. They’ve also released a sample app into the App Store called PlaceMe, which is an interesting product on its own. The app tracks and records your movements, producing a virtual trail you could later pull up online. A bit creepy, perhaps, but the company says it would be handy for Alzheimer’s patients to have installed.

But while PlaceMe is a fun experiment, the focus for the company is more so on the tech behind it. Some mobile app makers are already working on integrations, but Alohar can’t reveal who just yet, only give general descriptions. “Developers who are using [the SDK] are in the categories of dating, fitness and health apps that want to track your exercise and make recommendations, and shopping apps that make suggestions based on your location and your likes and favorites,” says Lau.

He also mentioned some check-in apps were experimenting with auto-checkins and the reduced battery consumption the tech enables. Plus, two of these twelve “ambient location” startups that were hot during this year’s SXSW have begun to implement the technology, too.

But it’s still early days for Alohar. The Android SDK came out in March and the iOS version arrived just this month. Both are in beta. So far, around 65 developers are evaluating or integrating the technology, Lau says.

And yet, almost any app that uses location services could benefit from the more precise targeting the tech offers, assuming everything works as advertised. More than that, the tech could enable a whole new kind of experience for developers to build on top of – one where users don’t have to do so much manual labor to explain to apps where they are and what they’re doing and what they want to do.

It’s yet another step towards engineering the serendipitous discovery of the world around us, via our mobile devices. It’s the underpinnings that could breathe intelligence into our apps, which could then make them, at best, more useful, more engaging, and ultimately, more loved…or, at worst, more creepy, more intrusive, more stalker-ish.

How developers choose to implement the technology, and the level of control they give to users surrounding that data’s use and storage, could raise a whole new series of questions about data privacy even though Apple, Google, developers and the government, are still figuring out what to do about the concerns we already have now – those that come more basic actions like accessing the address book or storing GPS data.

But with the fast pace of technology, sometimes you have to weigh the good with the bad and choose to move forward or get left behind. Using this scale, the possibilities to develop more intelligent apps – not to mention ones that can reduce battery drains – is a more exciting and promising step than the potential for abuse, real as it may be, from unscrupulous developers or the government (at least in less authoritarian regimes like the U.S.). You may not agree. That’s fine. But sometimes the laws have to catch up with the world, and in the mobile ecosystem, this is clearly going to be the case for years to come.

Below, a demo of how Alohar, doing things like automatically ordering an ambulance for you. “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up?” Yes, your phone will know.

Image credit: Ryan Orr

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Screen Shot 2012-04-10 at 10.40.03 AM

Crashlytics, a Cambridge-based startup that helps developers understand how and why their mobile apps crashed, is taking another slug of funding with a $5 million round led by Flybridge and Baseline Ventures. The company’s co-founder Wayne Chang said the company decided to take funding after its $1 million seed round was oversubscribed. (This round was also oversubscribed.)

“We liked the investors that we were working with,” Chang said. “Obviously, we liked the valuation and the terms of this round, too.”

Crashlytics provides developers with an online dashboard that helps explain where mobile app crashes might come from. It details the device’s state at the time of crash (software version, orientation, model, etc.) and even shows developers the exact line of code that the app crashed on.

Chang says that’s a big step up from what Apple provides. Usually if an iOS app crashes, the user deletes the app or leaves a bad review. Chang says that Apple’s own crash reporting system might take a few weeks to reveal what’s going wrong.

The company has some early momentum to show. Chang says that more than 500 organizations are using Crashlytics and that the company’s SDK is on tens of millions of devices.

He touts an enviable list of clients like Path, Hipstamatic, Highlight, Yammer, Box and SoundCloud among dozens of others. A point of pride for Chang is that Crashlytics SDK is very small — think 40 kilobytes. So that should help prevent developers from running up against app size limits in the iOS or Android app stores.

But the big picture isn’t just crash reporting, as you might guess. Crash reporting is a start.

“Our end goal with Crashlytics isn’t do to crash reporting,” Chang said. “We want to be best service for that and then quickly move beyond that to address other developer needs.”

P.S. You may know Crashlytics from controversies such as the debate over how to replace UDIDs on iOS devices. The company came in with its own solution called SecureUDID, that gives developers an identification scheme that won’t violate Apple’s new policies. Apple is deprecating an older identification scheme called UDIDs amid privacy concerns.

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Back in 2009, Chad Mureta was an 18-hour a day real estate salesman living from one paycheck to the next. Driving home after a basketball game one evening, he hit a deer, flipped his truck over four times, mangled his arm and almost killed himself. Then, recovering in his hospital bed, Mureta – who knew nothing about technology or the Internet – was introduced to the app economy by a friend who gave him a newspaper article about how apps can generate significant revenue. When he got out of the hospital, Mureta borrowed $1,800 from his stepfather, built an app called Fingerprint Security Pro which eventually generated $800,000 in revenue. Mureta is now an app entrepreneur and, in good Tim Ferris style, travels around the world as a member of what he calls “the new rich”.

And you can be like Mureta, too! In his new book App Empire: Make Money, Have a Life and Let Technology Work For You, Mureta explains how the app business can transform all our lives. Earlier this month, Mureta came into San Francisco’s TechCrunch TV studio to explain not only how we can all become members of the new rich, but also to give his tips about the hot new areas of the app economy.

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I don’t know if Highlight, Glancee, Banjo, or any one of those other startups you’re now officially sick to death of hearing about are going to make it, but I know that for the first time in a long time, we’re starting to move in the right direction in terms of mobile innovation. And no, I don’t mean we need more people-stalking apps, I mean we need more passive use of our mobile phones.

Less life lived looking down means more life actually lived.

The trend that strikes me here as being important is not necessarily “ambient location” or even “people finders” – that’s just all we’re capable of today. The real end game is engineering serendipity.

Each of the new contenders, oddly, has decided to go after the same vertical: people tracking. Perhaps this is the more easy and obvious market to first attack, given the apps’ abilities to run on top of existing social structures like Facebook or Foursquare. But arranging serendipitous encounters isn’t always a function of who you know, it should also be a function of who you want to know. Or who you should want to know, even if you don’t realize you should want to know them. That’s a bigger challenge than any of the new socializing apps can address.

Consider this, instead, a giant alpha test in preparation of taking that next step.

To move forward, the metrics these startups should be obsessed with should not just be how many users signed up, how many downloads they have, or how many pings they sent out, but how many real connections between people are actually being made. This is the Holy Grail for engineering serendipitous people discovery: alerting users immediately that somebody is nearby, but also making sure that’s a connection the person actually wanted to make. (It’s too bad all smartphones don’t have a nifty proximity sensor in them that can detect when you’re rapidly closing the distance between you and a fellow app user, for example. That would indicate a real connection! There are ways around this, but they’re far more complex than tapping into a provided sensor like the GPS).

Case in point of what a poor serendipitous experience feels like: one of the top apps alerts me that Steve Wozniak is at the airport, and he’s even in my terminal! He’s having a bite at a nearby restaurant. I rush to the other side of the terminal (which was a hell of a lot bigger than I thought), and scope out the restaurant, but no Woz. I scope out the nearby gates, still no Woz. What happened? A little manual people-stalking of my own and I find his flight took off over an hour ago. Fail, fail, fail, fail. (True story, sadly.)

A good app wouldn’t have even mentioned he was there. A good app would wait until it could say, Steve Wozniak is at the airport…and HE’S RIGHT BEHIND YOU!

So yes, all these apps still have a way to go before they even work correctly at their primary function.

While I know that it’s one step at a time, I worry that the market will see these apps as tools that do only one thing – merely alerting us to nearby people of interest – and will later give up on them when the trendiness wears off. That concerns me because we’ll then lose sight of other, bigger challenges companies operating in this space could one day solve. Challenges that take time. Not months, but years: engineering serendipity is not just about the who, but also the what, where, how and why.

A little history: a couple of years ago, Google’s then CEO, now Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt spoke of a world where our phones alerted us to nearby shops and deals and discounts as we walked down the street, all personalized to our own interests. Serendipitous discovery of the world around us.

Now forgive me for saying so, but a world where Google knows what I want to do before I do it, gives me a chill. Can’t someone else build this first, please? And build it on top of data that comes from everywhere, not just one big Google-owned database?

Apps could start by telling you who’s nearby, then slowly grow, until they could alert you about all sorts of things, and do so just as spontaneously.

One company already doing this, to some extent, is Foursquare. With its Radar feature, Foursquare is branching out from check-ins to become a tool for exploring by suggesting nearby places and alerting you to nearby friends. In terms of engineering discovery of the world, not just people, it’s already ahead of the trendy background location apps. As CEO Dennis Crowley explained, “what we have been doing with Radar is finding a way for people to use the app really without having to actually use it.” BINGO. But this is all such a new game; anyone can still win.

Engineering discovery is a complicated one to solve. For example, it’s a combination of knowing not just where you say you like to shop, but where you’ve actually shopped; not just where you say you like to dine, but where you actually dine. It also needs to know what sort of activities you would want to attend (Concerts? Games? Family friendly outdoor festivals? Dog shows? Plays?), then ping you accordingly. It needs to tell you of a concert only when there are still tickets left. It needs to know personal details like your shoe size, shirt size, dress size, and then check the in-store inventory levels before it ever bothers you about a nearby sale. And so on. It needs intelligence. Otherwise, the damn thing will be way too annoying.

And yes, some of this may not even be possible yet. But it will be, so plan ahead.

Oh, and here’s another tricky part: for any app to be able to truly be capable of serendipitous discovery, it would also have to surprise you from time to time with something that’s just outside your typical interests, but where historical, aggregate data from a wide user base indicates that hey, you just might like this, too.

So how would any app be able to know all these things? Well, APIs, for starters. Many web companies provide them, but apps tend to build on top of only the social three (Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare).

How interesting would it be for apps to build on top of your preferred food-sharing and wine-tasting apps, your travel logs, your Amazon purchases, your credit card statements, your daily deal buys, your past check-ins, your Eventbrite ticket purchases, your Meetup groups, your Kindle e-book collection, your favorite shops at Fab and Etsy, etc., etc.? Oh, and all those your friends like too, of course?

Scenario: That guy browsing cookbooks at the bookstore knows your friend Julie and is currently reading the Steve Jobs bio (he’s got it on his Kindle, actually). PING!

Scenario: When you were in N.Y., you went to a restaurant your friend Joe recommended and loved it. This local restaurant is owned by the same folks and your friend Jim ate the ribs here two weeks ago and thought they were crazy good. PING!

Scenario: That little black dress that’s been sitting in your Amazon cart for 2 days looks a lot like the one this store is selling. And it’s half off. And they have your size in stock. PING!

Does any of that sound crazy? Then you’re not dreaming hard enough yet.

Or maybe it just sounds terrifying. Well, sorry (old fart?), but the machines are coming and they want to get to know you better.

Unfortunately, not all the data to build a (creepy) understanding of you and your behavior is available via API just yet, but by the time anyone could get around to expanding into all these verticals, that may change.

To be clear, the end result is not a scenario where every store you walk by blasts you with a geo-targeted deal, just one store does, and the result is incredibly, almost disturbingly, relevant. The apps don’t tell you about every possible dinner recommendation, only if the restaurant you’re considering now is any good. They don’t tell you about every person you’re somehow connected to nearby, only the ones you really want to know.

Or in other words: serendipity means you don’t have to manually launch apps all the time to know what’s going on. The apps launch you.

They don’t constantly ping you, and bother you with every little thing. Every time the phone buzzes, it would feel random, but would be meaningful and important to address.

Looking at what we have now, well, let’s just say we’re far, far away from that vision. But in the people trackers, we see the first baby steps.

That’s why they’re interesting.

And, who knows, at the end of the day, maybe such a thing won’t even be an app, but an extension of the handset itself. Maybe that’s what Siri and its VPA brethren will become. A smarter Siri who doesn’t just wake when you need something, but who, like a real-life assistant, would tap you on your shoulder and whisper, Pssst….Did you know?

Image credit: Flickr user ktoine

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