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Google and Apple release contact tracing app API


Google and Apple delivered their contact tracing app API to public health agencies across the globe. The apps would allow Bluetooth pings between smartphones within six and a half feet of each other. And in theory, these apps would notify you if you had been in close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19. In practice, public health authorities will have to encourage around 60% people in a given state or country to download the app in order to meaningfully conduct contact tracing/exposure notification. Computerworld executive editor Ken Mingis and PCWorld/Macworld’s Michael Simon join Juliet to discuss Apple and Google’s unprecedented collaboration, privacy concerns and how state and federal governments will utilize the API. 

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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7 handy hidden features in the Gmail Android app

Let’s face it: Email is inherently a bit of a pain. And while Google’s Gmail service is generally pretty pleasant to use, it certainly has some room for improvement — especially on the mobile front.

But as is so often the case with Google products, what you see isn’t entirely what you get. The Gmail Android app has some super-useful hidden touches you’ve probably never noticed lurking beneath its surface — easily overlooked features that can make your mobile email experience more powerful, efficient, and effective.

Here are seven such options worth uncovering — or maybe just remembering.

1. Advanced email formatting commands

The Gmail Android app’s email composing screen seems like a pretty bare-bones affair, but long-press on any open space whilst writing a new email — and by golly, goodness goshness, look what you’ll find:

Gmail Android App: Formatting JR

Tap that “Format” option, and how ’bout that? It’s a full slate of advanced text formatting commands for composing your message. You can style any part of your email with bold, italic, or underlined text; you can change your email’s font color or background color; and — an occasional life-saver — you can clear out all existing text formatting with a single tap.

Pretty handy, right?!

2. Custom swipe gestures

Ever wish you had an easy way to snooze messages from your inbox — or maybe even to mark them as unread without having to do a complicated finger-tap dance? Prepare to be pleased.

Go open up the Gmail Android app’s settings (by tapping the three-line menu icon in the upper-left corner and scrolling down until you see the “Settings” option). Tap “General settings,” then select “Swipe actions.”

Gmail Android App: Swipes JR

There, you can configure exactly what action is associated with swiping an email to the left and to the right from your inbox or from any other message list view. Set things up the way you want — using, if you’re so inclined, the old Inbox-like arrangement of a right swipe for archiving and a left swipe for snoozing — and then swipe away to your heart’s content (and with the optional occasional cackle).

3. An end to accidental actions

It’s all too easy to tap an icon by mistake when you’re managing email on the go, but Gmail actually has a spectacular way to keep yourself from doing something stupid on accident. It’s an extra step of confirmation for the worst kind of errant email presses — archiving or deleting a message you weren’t done with yet or hitting the Send button before your draft was finished. And it takes only a few quick taps to get it set up and activated.

Mosey your way back to the “General settings” area of the Gmail settings, scroll down to the very bottom of that section, and look for the “Action Confirmations” heading — and there, activate whichever bits of added confirmation will give you extra peace of mind:

Gmail Android App: Confirmations JR

The one thing worth noting is that the archive and delete confirmations don’t, vexingly, work with the swipe-based gestures we were just discussing for those commands. That’s especially unfortunate, since Gmail’s swipe gestures are all too easy to activate by accident when you’re trying to use Android 10’s awkwardly overlapping system-wide Back motion. But hey, some protection is still better than no protection, don’t ya think?

4. A less annoying Promotions tab

The Gmail Android app’s Promotions tab is both a blessing and a curse. It gives you a great way to keep less pressing messages out of your main inbox view, but it also throws in some ads and does some funky stuff with the order of your email.

There’s not much you can do about the ads, annoyingly, but you can stop the app from reordering messages and putting what it considers to be the “high value” promotions above everything else — as seen here, where my Gmail Android app for some reason decided I should see a week-old message about a subscription audio service over numerous more recent messages (including, slightly lower in the list, a more recent and relevant email from the same freakin’ service):

Gmail Android App: Promotions JR

(And yes, the ad in that top section is particularly lovely, too, isn’t it? Just a hair too personal of an assumption to make, if you ask me. Cut it out, Google.)

To get back to a fully chronological, normal-style view, jump back into the Gmail app’s settings — and this time, tap the address of your Google account, then tap “Inbox categories” on the following screen.

Scroll all the way down to the bottom of the screen that shows up next. See that option labeled “Enable Bundling of Top Email”? Uncheck it.

Gmail Android App: Promotions setting JR

Back your way out of there and then bask in the delight of having your emails once again presented in proper order, even if you can’t completely eliminate those pesky Promotions-tab ads.

5. A less nudgy inbox

While we’re on the subject of disabling annoying features, you know how Gmail does that thing now where it “nudges” you to respond or follow up to messages that have been sitting in your inbox for a while? If you find that to be more bothersome than beneficial, head back into the app’s settings and once again select your Google account.

Scroll down til you see the option for “Reply and follow up.” Tap it, then uncheck both options on the screen that follows — for “Suggest emails to reply to” and “Suggest emails to follow up on.”

Gmail Android App: Nudges JR

Nudges no more. Serenity now.

6. A speedy way to set an out-of-office responder

For years, the Gmail mobile app had no way to manage the service’s out-of-office vacation auto-responder. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who sometimes signs out ahead of a planned break and then realizes half an hour later I forgot to set my away message.

Well, fret no more, for at some point in the not-too-distant past, the Gmail Android app gained the ability to control the out-of-office responder. Yes, indeedly: You can just open up the app’s settings, tap the name of the account you want to modify, and then look for the “Vacation responder” option midway down the list of choices.

From there, it’ll take you a mere matter of moments to enable, configure, and edit your out-of-office auto-response to suit any situation imaginable.

Gmail Android App: Out of office JR

7. More selective notifications

Email notifications can occasionally be helpful, but let’s be honest: They can more often be hellish. Give yourself a break from the noise by trying out the Gmail Android app’s high-priority notification option, which uses artificial intelligence and other impressive-sounding buzzwords to figure out which incoming messages are actually important to you — and then to notify you only about those emails.

To give it a whirl, venture once more into the Gmail app’s settings, select your Google account, tap the line labeled “Notifications,” and select “High priority only.” Give it a day and see what you think.

If you know exactly what types of emails you need to be notified about — say, those from a particular person or domain name, those with a specific word in their subjects or bodies, or those that are sent to a particular address of yours — you can skip the A.I. and just set up your own custom Gmail notifications. That’s what I do, and as long as you can figure out a consistent formula for what sorts of emails are notification-worthy to you, it works incredibly well.

Either way, you’ll have a lot less noise — and a lot more energy to deal with what really matters. Even if, y’know, “what really matters” is simply finding a few free minutes to eat a midmorning hoagie.

Sign up for JR’s weekly newsletter to get more practical tips, personal recommendations, and plain-English perspective on the news that matters.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Pandemic leads to surge in video conferencing app downloads

Business communication apps saw record levels of growth in March, according to statistics from mobile market data provider App Annie.

With a growing portion of the global population now living under some kind of government lockdown, many organizations have had to shift business processes – and their employees are having to embrace a work-from-home culture on a scale never before attempted.

Not surprisingly, the demand for video conferencing apps has surged in recent weeks, with enterprise-focused mobile app downloads reaching 62 million during the week March 14-21 – the highest number ever seen.

According to a report by App Annie, that figure was up 45% from the week before and up 90% from the pre-Covid-19 weekly download average. Business application downloads represent the highest growth in any category in both the iOS and Google Play stores.

Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts Meet both jumped in the rankings, with Zoom Cloud Meetings the undisputed winner; it saw large numbers of downloads in the US, UK and across Europe. According to App Annie, during the record-breaking week Zoom was downloaded 14 times more than its 2019 Q4 weekly average in the U.S.; 20 times more in the UK; 22 times more in France; and a staggering 55 times more in Italy. (The higher numbers ae in areas that began lockdowns earlier.)

During the same period, Hangouts Meet saw 30 times the weekly level of downloads compared to the last quarter of 2019 in the U.S., while Teams saw an 11-fold increase..

 “As people face uncertain timelines for the length of social isolation, video conferencing apps have the potential to vastly influence our daily habits — breaking down geological barriers and fostering the ability to work and socialize relatively seamlessly,” said App Annie’s Lexi Sydow in the blog post detailing the app download numbers.

Long-term impact

With President Trump this week announcing that federal coronavirus guidelines will remain in place until at least April 30, the dramatic uptake in video conferencing software use is set to continue.

Tom Eagle, senior research director at Gartner, believes that the COVID-19 crisis will be a “catalyst for transformative work cultures and practices that will be significantly characterized by remote work,” noting that video conferencing will become an indispensable tool for workforce collaboration and communication.

For the last several years, Gartner has forecast that, within the unified communications market, the cloud video conferencing market – which includes platforms such as Cisco Webex, Zoom and Microsoft Teams – will only be outpaced in terms of growth by cloud-based telephony.

“This is a direct result of today’s digital workplace and the changing nature of work – as well as the current COVID-19 crisis — continuing to drive demand for video conferencing at an accelerated pace,” Eagle said.  

Even before the pandemic arrived, research showed the demand for collaboration software and video conferencing tools was already on the rise. According to Gartner’s workforce consumer survey, the average amount of time employees spend in meetings each week has reached 11.7 hours, with 9% of respondents spending more than 20 hours of their working week in meetings.

As businesses grow a more-global footprint, teams are becoming more geographically dispersed, making face-to-face collaboration increasingly difficult. As a result, a more-mobile workforce now requires greater, and more convenient, access to workplace collaboration tools than ever before.

“With the combination of non-routine workforce growth and this workplace meeting profile, corporate real estate and IT planner decisions are often animated toward providing more convenient access to collaboration technologies such as video conferencing,” Eagle said. “They do this not just at the desktop, but in shared spaces such as huddle rooms; access must also be provided for mobile and at-home workers.

“An agile workforce needs all of these options for enhanced productivity.”

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Video chat app Around could be a harbinger of ‘always-on’ video

As remote working booms around the world in response to the coronavirus crisis, demand for video calls has surged dramatically. But despite the fact that video meeting software is now more reliable and user-friendly than ever, setting up and joining a video call can still feel intrusive and somewhat of a chore.

Typically it requires workers to divert their full attention to a discussion with one or more colleagues, with the video chat client taking over their entire computer screen. While this makes sense for important meetings, it also sets a higher bar for more casual interactions and makes it more difficult to take notes or otherwise share focus between the video chat and other apps.

This week, a startup called Around unveiled its video chat software, which features a less invasive interface and could offer way to enable “always-on” video for remote workers.

As noted by TechCrunch, Around — currently in private beta — is a lightweight group video call platform that has raised $5.2 million in seed funding to date. Rather than taking up the entire screen, it automatically crops video streams of workers into “floating head” circles that are grouped together as an overlay that leaves most of the screen visible.

around video chat Around

Chat participants appear in as “floating heads” in Around, letting workers access other apps without switching windows.

Around uses AI-based camera framing to detect a participant’s head, following them as they move while simultaneously cutting out their background. It also automatically mutes background noises to avoid further unwanted distractions. The app will eventually be sold under a freemium licensing model when it launches; you can apply for early access here

In a blog post on Medium on Wednesday, Around CEO Dominik Zane said that the app lets users focus on getting work done by allowing them to collaborate around tasks as the focal point of discussions.

“[W]e took video and made it less,” he wrote. “Less traditional, less formal, less bulky, even less realistic. Less about blowing up people’s faces on a 70-inch HDTV, more about focusing and doing. Around is there for a quick session to supercharge all future-of-work applications. It’s just enough to be present but makes space for what’s important: the task at hand.”

While Around is not specifically billed as an “always-on” video platform, it has potential for pervasive low-level interactions, with continuous video feeds connecting colleagues throughout the day. 

The concept of always-on video has been around for a while, with businesses seeking to connect workers in different locations and enable them to engage in impromptu conversations. Sneek is another example; it lets users easily start a video call with a co-worker by clicking on a regularly updated “still” photo, thereby avoiding constant recording and broadcasting.

Always-on video could help alleviate some of the challenges remote workers face, such as disengagement from co-workers and company-wide initiatives, said Raúl Castañón-Martínez, an analyst at 451 Research. “Implementing ‘always-on’ video meetings could help organizations address this problem, bridging the communication gap for remote teams or teams that include a mix of remote and in-office workers,” said Castañón-Martínez,  

There are drawbacks with always-on video, to be sure. Aside from potential resistance from users to a constant video uplink, there are technical and security considerations. As the number of remote workers surges, for example, greater strain is put on internet bandwidth.

“It will require addressing technical issues to ensure that bandwidth is not a constraint for delivering the service; it will also require security features such as an automatic screen saver that kicks in when users are not active, for privacy and security,” said Castañón-Martínez.

For more details on the network bandwidth issues that could accompany always-on video, see Network World’s “Coronavirus challenges remote networking.”

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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7 things Microsoft didn’t tell us about the new Office app

Microsoft last week launched Office, a new mobile app for iOS and Android that the company slid into an already packed line-up of individual apps.

Simply dubbed “Office,” the new smartphone app – it runs on tablets, but Microsoft promised something skewed more towards them at a later date – steps back into time by combining multiple apps. (For those who rile at “OK, boomer,” the concept smacks of early low-end suites, like AppleWorks or Microsoft Works.)

Yet Microsoft touted Office not as a return to Work-esque days but as how it sees a future of mobile productivity, with tiny tasks squeezed into any available free moment. If Microsoft’s right, Office may be a harbinger of feasible work on a smartphone or even small tablet. Edit a complex Word document on such a device? No thanks. Pick at it here, add to it there? Maybe.

For all that Microsoft hinted at a revolution in the concept of mobile productivity, it gave a bare-bones walk-through of Office. It left a lot of details on the cutting room floor.

Here are some of the things Microsoft didn’t tell us about Office or, if it did, under-hyped them. We’ve fixed that for them.

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