Google Play now considers user engagement, not just downloads, in ranking games

Google is making a significant change to how its app store, Google Play, will work in terms of making the best games more easily discoverable by end users. At the Game Developers Conference, the company announced that it recently tuned its app store algorithms to take into account user engagement, and not just downloads, in order to better reward quality titles, as opposed to those that are just being installed in large numbers.

For the gaming industry, this shift could have a serious impact on how games are marketed, as many publishers often focus on ad campaigns aimed solely at getting games onto users’ devices as a means of getting their titles ranked higher in Google Play’s charts.

In some cases, those app installs aren’t even legitimate — that is, they’re not organic downloads from end users, but are instead fraudulent downloads designed to boost the app’s ranking. With the update to the ranking algorithm, this could change, making it more difficult to game the charts.

screen-shot-2017-02-27-at-9-09-43-amExplains Google in a blog post out this week:

“…there are many instances when great games don’t get the visibility and attention they deserve…This is one of our ways to reward quality, which for games means promoting titles with stickiness (strong engagement and retention metrics) as well as a more traditional measure like a high star rating.”

The post itself didn’t detail where the algorithm would come into play, given that Google had also simultaneously announced the launch of new editorial pages on the Play store, launching later in the month. Here, editors will hand-select titles to be promoted to users, much like Apple does today.

However, Google confirmed with us that the algorithm change is indeed aimed at the Play Store’s Top Charts, as well as the individual lists by genre.

While neither Google — nor its rival Apple — detail how the ranking algorithms work, both stores have focused heavily on factors like downloads and velocity to determine an app’s placement. Apple is also said to take into account other metrics, like ratings and reviews, and usage statistics. Google is now making similar improvements, it seems.

The changes were announced alongside a host of other updates for Android app developers, including the launch of strike-through pricing for running promotions, as well as the new editorial pages.

Featured Image: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Children’s messages in CloudPets data breach

Cloudpets bears

An open database containing links to more than 2 million voice messages recorded on cuddly toys has been discovered, cybersecurity researcher Troy Hunt has revealed.

The messages were created by owners of CloudPets soft toys.

At one point, the data was even held to ransom, Mr Hunt says.

The animals are advertised as being toys that enable people to record and send greetings via a phone app and the toy itself.

The creatures are marketed as cuddly devices to connect children to working parents or grandparents.

They are currently on sale for a heavily discounted £6 in UK children’s store The Entertainer but are listed at $29.99 on the CloudPets US website.

In a statement, California-based Spiral Toys, which makes the animals, said it was notified about a potential breach in February and “took immediate and swift action”.

“When we were informed of the potential security breach we carried out an internal investigation and immediately invalidated all current customer passwords to ensure that no information could be accessed.

“To our best knowledge, we cannot detect any breach on our message and image data, as all data leaked was password encrypted.”

It added that it is now requiring users to choose “new, increased security passwords” and has sent out emails informing customers of the potential compromised login data.

The website NetworkWorld

Troy Hunt that the voice recordings were stored in the cloud and the database, which was left exposed on the net, reveals their exact location.

He also expressed concern that there were no password rules at all, meaning lots of people had selected passwords that were extremely easy to crack.

“Because there were no rules, lots of people created bad passwords,” he told the BBC.

“I did an exercise and found it was really easy to create them. Lots of people were using the password Cloudpets because that’s what people do.”

There appeared to be around 820,000 accounts visible.

Both Mr Hunt and British security researcher Ken Munro said the toy showed similar vulnerabilities to the Cayla doll, an internet-connected toy that was found to be easily breached and could even be hacked to spy on its owners.

Rory Cellan-Jones sees how Cayla, a talking child’s doll, can be hacked to say any number of offensive things.

German watchdog the Federal Network Agency (Bundesnetzagentur) has now advised parents who own a Cayla doll to destroy it.

Like Cayla, there is no Pin number required to sync CloudPets with other devices, Ken Munro explained.

“If you have a CloudPets bear, switch it off,” he said.

“It might be a good idea for people to try to delete their accounts – it’s possible that the recorded data might go.

“Try to remember what password you set for the account – and if you used it anywhere else, change it.”

MWC 2017: Google Home speaker to launch in UK by June

Google’s hardware chief explains the Home speaker’s advantages

Google has confirmed it will launch its smart speaker in the UK before the end of June.

Home was released in the US in October, but has yet to go on sale elsewhere.

The search giant disclosed its rollout plan to the BBC at the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona.

It will compete with Amazon’s Echo range, which became available in the UK in September. powered by its virtual assistant Cortana.

Google’s device is powered by a version of its Assistant artificial intelligence software.

Unlike Amazon rival Alexa AI, it can support conversations in which the user asks follow-up questions to their initial request, and also taps into the firm’s market-leading Google Search service.

“The trick… in these products is trying to really understand what people are asking for,” the firm’s hardware chief Rick Osterloh told the BBC.

“We’ve got so much history with people using our search products and people using voice queries through Android phones… that we’re able to much better answer these types of questions. All this data really helps in us making sure we understand what the user is looking for.”

By contrast, Amazon’s Alexa relies on Microsoft’s Bing search tool and Wikipedia to answer questions.


But Alexa can currently be used to control a wider range of smart home devices, has more third-party apps – known as “skills” – and makes it possible to buy goods from Amazon’s shopping service.

Time magazine also a way for Alexa to distinguish between different voices, which could limit purchases to specific users and help prevent the device being accidentally activated by nearby TVs – a common problem.

The report said the underlying technology was ready for deployment, but it was unclear when Amazon would do so.

“In the short term, Amazon has the better chance because it has developed a large platform connected to many other smart products in the sector,” commented Annette Zimmermann from the Gartner tech consultancy.

“But in the long term, given that Google has a lot of capacity round its search capabilities and is investing deeply into artificial intelligence, it probably has the better prospects.”

Bad bug found in Microsoft browsing code


Google has released details of a bug in Microsoft’s browsing programs that would allow attackers to build websites that make the software crash.

Google researcher Ivan Fratric , in some cases, allow attackers to hijack a victim’s browser.

The bug was found in November, but details are only now being released after the expiry of the 90-day deadline Google gave Microsoft to find a fix.

Microsoft has yet to say when it will produce a patch that removes the bug.

In an of how the bug arose, Mr Fratric said he was reluctant to reveal more details until it was patched.

He said he had expected Microsoft to address the bug before the 90-day deadline had expired.

The problem is found in Internet Explorer 11 as well as the Edge browser and arises because of the way both programs handle instructions to format some parts of web pages.

In a statement, Microsoft did not comment directly on the bug and its significance but said it had a “customer commitment to investigate reported security issues and proactively update impacted devices as soon as possible”.

It added it was involved in “an ongoing conversation with Google about extending their deadline since the disclosure could potentially put customers at risk”.

So far, there is no evidence that malicious attackers are exploiting the problem unearthed by Mr Fratric.

The publication of information about the browser bug caps a difficult period for Microsoft and the security of its software.

Earlier this month, it cancelled a regularly monthly security update without explaining why.

The update was expected to include fixes for several significant vulnerabilities.

In the same month, other security researchers released information about a way to exploit a vulnerability in some Microsoft server code.

No fix has yet been released for this vulnerability.

Man jailed for hitting woman with drone

Drone

The owner of an aerial photography business has been sentenced to 30 days in jail after a drone he was operating knocked a woman unconscious.

Paul Skinner was found guilty of reckless endangerment, by a judge at the Seattle Municipal Court.

It is believed to be the first time a drone pilot has been given a jail sentence.

The incident happened during Seattle’s 2015 Pride Parade.

According to the police, the 18in (45cm) by 18in drone crashed into a building and fell into the crowd, injuring two people.

Judge Willie Gregory said he acknowledged that the incident was an accident but added that the pilot had “engaged in conduct that put people in danger of being injured”.

Prosecutor Pete Holmes said the faulty operation of drones was a “serious public-safety issue that will only get worse” and more prosecutions could follow.

Ravi Vaidyanathan, a drone expert from Imperial College London, said he was “not aware of anything previously resulting in jail time”.

He said it was inevitable more accidents would follow and called on the regulatory bodies that governed drone use to provide “a consistent set of guidelines on usage”.

“In the US, there are rules for commercial use but different ones for hobbyists. We are in uncharted territory, but the guidelines have to be consistent.”

He added the inconvenience to the public was also “non-trivial”.

“Having a drone buzzing around does not add to most people’s beach experience, for example, and we need to think about this too.”

During the past fiscal year, more than 1,200 possible collisions between an aircraft and a drone were reported to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The FAA was unable to confirm any strikes, but it has reported several close calls, including a Lufthansa jet approaching Los Angeles that passed within 200ft (60m) of a drone.

MWC 2017: Wikipedia goes data-free in Iraq

cyclist on phone in Iraq

Access to Wikipedia will not incur mobile data charges to customers of the Asiacell mobile phone provider in Iraq, the organisation has announced.

It is part of the Wikipedia Zero scheme that has operated in 59 countries around the world since 2012.

The Wikimedia Foundation says it wants to “bring the sum of human knowledge” to as many people as possible.

However some argue that projects such as this go against the principles of net neutrality.

“Net neutrality is the principle that all data are treated equally in the network,” said Joe McNamee, executive director of the European Digital Rights group.

“Treating data the same in the network but then making some data more economically advantageous outside the network would be considered by many to be a breach of this principle.”

The free programme begins on 28 February and was revealed at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

The Wikimedia Foundation states on its website that who sign up to the programme and they do not get any editorial control over the platform.

Sarmad Saeed Yassen and his wife Ravan Jaafar Altaie are volunteer Wikipedia editors based in Iraq, editing in Arabic and Kurdish.

Mr Yassen is a telecoms engineer in Erbil, Iraq.

“Mobile internet is available everywhere but the price can be expensive,” he told the BBC.

“Having Wikipedia free is going to be very important to people and also to companies.”

SpaceX to fly two tourists around Moon in 2018

The Moon sets behind trees. File photo

US private rocket company SpaceX has announced that two private citizens have paid to be sent around the Moon.

The mission is planned for late 2018, adding that the tourists “have already paid a significant deposit”.

“This presents an opportunity for humans to return to deep space for the first time in 45 years,” he said.

The two unnamed people will fly aboard a spaceship which is set for its first unmanned test flight later this year.

Mr Musk said the co-operation of America’s Nasa space agency had made the plan possible.

He said the two passengers “will travel faster and further into the solar system than any before them”.

Mr Musk declined to reveal their identities, only saying that they knew each other and that “it’s nobody from Hollywood”.

“Like the Apollo astronauts before them, these individuals will travel into space carrying the hopes and dreams of all humankind, driven by the universal human spirit of exploration.

“We expect to conduct health and fitness tests, as well as begin initial training later this year.”


The first mission would be unmanned, and the next one – with crew – was expected in the second quarter of 2018, the billionaire entrepreneur and inventor said.

He also said the first passengers “are entering this with their eyes open, knowing that there is some risk here”.

“They’re certainly not naive, and we’ll do everything we can to minimise that risk, but it’s not zero.”

The space tourists would make a loop around the Moon, skimming the lunar surface and then going well beyond, Mr Musk said.

The mission will not involve a lunar landing.

If Nasa decided it wanted to be first to take part in a lunar flyby mission, then the agency would have priority, Mr Musk said.

The US has not sent astronauts to the Moon since the early 1970s.

Microsoft has set itself up for success–now it’s time to make something happen

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Over the past few years, I have argued that Microsoft, under the leadership of CEO Satya Nadella, has made significant changes to its business culture. These changes are leading the company down a different and potentially more lucrative path that focuses on productivity, emphasizes cloud computing, and embraces an agnostic attitude toward operating systems.

While that change of culture is all well and good, Microsoft has reached a turning point in its evolution as a mobile-first, cloud-first software development company. From this point forward, Microsoft’s new culture must execute the strategy it has adopted—or suffer the consequences that come from failing to do so.

SEE: Microsoft tries again to tackle healthcare with new services, tools

Culture shock

In a February 2017 article in USA Today, Satya Nadella discussed how he has changed the culture at Microsoft and how the new culture is markedly different from the era of Steve Ballmer and even Bill Gates.

The article points out that in 1992, Microsoft’s stated mission was to put a PC in every household. If you consider smartphones and tablets as well as PCs, you could argue that, for the developed world at least, that mission has been all but completely accomplished. But so what. What comes next?

SEE: Microsoft purges Ballmer strategy for one that works

This is why Microsoft’s current mission statement is bit more abstract and less goal specific:

“At Microsoft, our mission is to enable people and businesses throughout the world to realize their full potential. We consider our mission statement a commitment to our customers.”

Operating under a “customer first” philosophy frees Microsoft from the self-imposed and unnecessary burden of always trying to be better than a particular competitor. Making decisions solely on the basis of beating a competitor like Apple or Oracle, instead of making decisions based on what is best for your customers, stifles innovation and often leads companies down the slow spiral of decay and eventually death.

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The “beat the competition at all costs” business strategy is not a good business strategy and never has been. Unfortunately, it is employed by too many companies—far too many slowly fading companies. The fact that Microsoft has rejected it bodes well for its future.

Bottom line

What Satya Nadella and his executive team at Microsoft have done to change the culture at the company has been remarkable. In just about every regard, the way Microsoft has approached the changing landscape of information technology has set the table for its future success.

However, now that the table is set, it is time for results. Microsoft must show that it can execute its business strategy, grow its business, and increase its market share. Customers, investors, employees, and other stakeholders are not going to be satisfied with anything less. The honeymoon period where changing the culture was enough is over. The time to make something happen is upon us.

SEE: Microsoft looks to dominate the market for digital tools for artists

Updated features in Windows 10, Azure, and Office 365 are a good start, and innovative products like the Surface Pro, Surface Studio, and Surface Dial show that Microsoft still has some creativity up its collective sleeves. But the company must keep moving forward. That’s the challenge of adopting an open-ended mission statement—it can never be completely fulfilled. The question as always, is what’s next?

Trump lays out hike in military spending

Donald Trump has pledged to increase military spending by making cuts elsewhere.

US President Donald Trump is seeking to boost defence spending by 10% in his proposed budget plan for 2018.

The blueprint will increase defence spending by $54bn (£43bn) but seeks to recoup that sum through deep cuts elsewhere, including to foreign aid.

Mr Trump’s plan leaves large welfare programmes untouched, despite Republican calls for reform.

The president has consulted government agencies about his plans and will present his budget to Congress in May.

Between now and then, he needs to identify where the agencies can make savings and work out what he does with tax reform.

President Trump said he wanted the government to be “lean and accountable to the people”

Republican John McCain said the $603bn defence budget – which was outlined by White House officials – would be insufficient.

Speaking at the White House during a meeting with state governors on Monday morning, Mr Trump said: “We’re going to do more with less and make the government lean and accountable.”

The president, who vowed to increase military spending and preserve welfare programmes during his campaign, said the budget will focus on “military, safety, economic development”.

“It will include an historic increase in defence spending to rebuild the depleted military of the United States of America at a time we most need it,” he said.

Click to see content: us_military_spending

Military spending has declined in recent years due to budgetary battles in Congress that led to a spending freeze on defence.

However, it is still not uncommon for Congress to approve procurement of tanks, aircraft and ships that the Pentagon says it doesn’t even need.

Mr Trump’s proposal would return the US closer to wartime spending.

He also said he would spend “big” on infrastructure like roads and rails, but he has not yet revealed his tax plans.

Mr Trump pledged to cut taxes during his presidential campaign, which would probably add to the national debt, a figure that could hit $20 trillion on his watch.


Keeping both of his campaign promises – boosting the military and protecting welfare – will put the president in a tough bind.

If he wants to boost the defence budget by $54bn without adding to the deficit, that money will have to come from somewhere – and mandatory spending on welfare and debt interest takes nearly 70% of the budget off the table.

Early reports are that the Environmental Protection Agency is facing sharp cuts, but its total annual budget is just over $8bn – a drop in the bucket.

The State Department has also been singled out as a source for the needed funds, and its $50bn annually (including $22bn in direct aid) makes it a fatter target.

The lion’s share of humanitarian assistance goes to rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan and Aids treatment in Sub-Saharan Africa, however, which will be difficult to touch. Also unlikely to get the axe is military support, dominated by $3.1bn annually to Israel.

There’s a reason the Trump administration announced the military budget number before revealing where the money will come from. Spending is easy; cutting is hard.


The White House sent Mr Trump’s 2018 budget blueprint, which begins on 1 October, to federal agencies on Monday.

The agencies will then review the plan and propose changes to the cuts as the White House prepares for negotiations with Congress.


The Republican-controlled Congress must approve any federal spending.

Mr Trump’s plan is expected to face backlash from Democrats and some Republicans over the planned cuts to domestic programmes.

Click to see content: world_military_spending

Congresswoman Nita Lowey, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said Mr Trump’s plan is harmful to working families.

“We will fight tooth and nail to protect services and investments that are critical to hardworking American families and communities across the country,” she said.

Takata pleads guilty to U.S. fraud charge linked to faulty airbags

DETROIT — Takata Corp. on Monday removed a major obstacle to its potential sale or restructuring, pleading guilty in a U.S. federal court to a felony charge as part of a $1 billion settlement that included compensation funds for automakers and victims of its faulty airbag inflators.

U.S. District Court Judge George Steeh approved the previously agreed settlement, despite objections from lawyers for victims of Takata inflator explosions that the criminal settlement identified automakers as victims of fraudulent activity.

Steeh said automakers could be victims of Takata’s decisions to hide evidence over 15 years that its inflators were defective and still be subject to civil litigation for harm done to individuals.

With the criminal settlement and penalties set, Takata is expected to intensify its search for a buyer or financial backer.

Steeh said he considered imposing a stiffer sentence, noting federal guidelines allowed for up to $1.5 billion in fines. But the judge said he approved the settlement because Takata could otherwise be pushed into bankruptcy, delaying efforts to replace millions of potentially deadly inflators still on the road.

“Destruction of the corporation would probably have been a fair outcome in this case,” Steeh said, adding he had been involved in a separate case in which Takata had admitted to price fixing.

Lawyers for U.S. vehicle owners have sued Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co., BMW AG, Ford Motor Co., Mazda Motor Corp. and other automakers, alleging they knew about the defective Takata inflators for years but kept using them.

Lawyers for vehicle owners said in a court filing on Monday in Florida that automakers acted “recklessly” because “they were focused on the low price of Takata’s inflators and concerned that if they stopped using Takata’s inflators, they might not have a sufficient supply.”

At least 16 deaths have been linked to exploding Takata inflators. The defects have led 10 automakers to recall more than 31 million cars worldwide since 2008. All but one of the deaths have occurred in Honda vehicles.

The automakers could face costs to replace all the defective airbags “that would be 5, 6 or 9 times the $850 million” set aside in the fund, Steeh said, indicating the total replacement cost could be more than $7.6 billion. The Takata airbag recall is the largest ever for the auto industry.

Yoichiro Nomura, Takata’s chief financial officer, appeared in court to formally accept the plea agreement.

“I would like to sincerely apologize on behalf of Takata,” he said.

In January, Takata agreed to establish two independently administered restitution funds: one for $850 million to compensate automakers for recalls, and a $125 million fund for individuals physically injured by Takata’s airbags who have not already reached a settlement with the company. Automakers in the United States are set to continue recalling defective inflators through 2020. U.S. safety regulators have said automakers are responsible for replacing defective airbags no matter what happens to Takata.

The investigation of Takata was the latest criminal probe by U.S. prosecutors of automakers or suppliers accused of trying to duck costly steps required to comply with safety or environmental regulations. Toyota and GM paid hefty fines to settle charges they unlawfully hid safety defects from regulators, and Volkswagen AG in January paid $4.3 billion to settle criminal charges related to its cheating on diesel emissions tests.

Turnaround effect

Takata is seeking financial backers as it faces potentially billions of dollars in recall-associated costs. It has not identified what company has been selected by a steering committee leading that process.

Key Safety Systems, a Chinese-owned auto supplier, is the leading candidate, people familiar with the process said in early February. A person briefed on the matter told Reuters on Monday a decision may be reached by the end of March.

Takata has denied investor speculation that it would have to seek some form of bankruptcy protection in the United States or Japan. However, during the court hearing, Judge Steeh and lawyers for the Justice Department alluded to the potential for Takata to collapse if it could not find a buyer.

As part of the agreement with U.S. authorities, Takata has agreed to pay a $25 million fine and has 30 days to pay the $125 million for victim compensation.

Takata has up to a year to deliver the remaining $850 million for automaker compensation. If a financial backer takes control of Takata, however, the money for the automakers must be delivered within five days. Reuters had reported in November that Takata may file for bankruptcy as part of a restructuring.

Steeh said he will decide who should manage the compensation funds after considering proposals from potential candidates.

Takata will be on probation and under the oversight of an independent monitor for three years, and has agreed to make significant reforms in the way it handles safety issues. The Justice Department has demanded similar oversight to resolve the investigations into mishandling of auto safety problems at GM and Toyota.

More litigation

The settlement of the federal criminal case does not end Takata’s legal troubles. The company faces multiple civil suits brought on behalf of people injured by exploding inflators. Kevin Dean, a South Carolina lawyer for some Takata victims suing automakers, said in a court filing on Monday in Detroit that the criminal plea agreement is “wrought with inaccurate, incomplete and misleading assertions of fact” that could help automakers avoid liability. In court, Dean told Judge Steeh that automakers will argue in the civil cases that they are not responsible for airbag-related injuries or deaths because Takata has now admitted hiding evidence that the inflators could rupture.

U.S. prosecutors also have charged three former senior Takata executives in Japan with falsifying test results to conceal the defect.