Microsoft Launcher review: A beautiful Android experience

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After Microsoft gives up on Windows 10 Mobile, Microsoft Launcher is the upgraded version of the Microsoft Garage project Arrow Launcher, and we covered the key changes that came with that upgrade last week. It's free and can be picked up from the Google Play Store.

After some heavy usage over the last few days, we're breaking down what works, what doesn't, and where Microsoft should take their launcher from here.

As Microsoft Launcher gains more publicity, there have been some rumblings about how it doesn't look like Windows 10 Mobile. It's important to point out that it doesn't seem to be the goal of Microsoft to make Android look exactly like Windows 10 Mobile. For example, you won't find Live Tiles anywhere in the launcher. If you're looking for as close to a facsimile of Windows 10 Mobile on Android as possible, there are other options, such as Squarehome 2.

But this isn't a bad thing. Microsoft isn't trying to turn Android into Windows 10 Mobile, they are trying to integrate Microsoft services into the Android experience while also adding some design elements that will be familiar to Windows users. And in that respect, Microsoft Launcher is phenomenal.

For example, there's also an option for a transparent theme. With all the transparent design elements coming in the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update, having a glass effect throughout all of your devices helps them feel more like siblings. Microsoft Launcher's transparency is found on every page in the launcher, including your newsfeed, calendar, people section, and more.

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Arrow Launcher already had features such as Wunderlist and Outlook calendar integration. Microsoft Launcher takes that idea further by bringing "Continue on PC" to Android. This lets you start doing things on your phone and easily jump to another device. This will be familiar to anyone who has taken advantage of Project Rome. It's a nice addition to Android and will hopefully get better over time. You can take a document you're working on and push it over to your PC. It also works with links, even if you're browsing on Chrome on your phone and have Edge as the default browser on PC. It works fairly well, though it can take a couple seconds to open on your PC.

Microsoft warns iOS isn't as secure as you think

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Microsoft has warned customers that iOS is no more secure than Android, contradicting commonly held beliefs about the relative security of the two platforms. The company said that recent attacks targeting iOS prove it's as vulnerable as Android.

Brad Anderson, Microsoft's corporate vice president for enterprise and client mobility, set out his views in a company blog post last week. He used the Pegasus iOS spyware, revealed last month, as an example of severe vulnerabilities present in iOS. Pegasus is capable of monitoring everything a user does on their device, leaving them vulnerable to further attack.

The malware was analysed by Lookout Security, a Microsoft partner. In its report, Lookout described Pegasus as "the most sophisticated attack we've seen on any endpoint." Since it originates from a leading iOS security firm, Anderson said the statement reveals a lot about the state of security on Apple's platform.

Anderson is attempting to challenge the trust that consumers typically place in Apple. Android threats are far more numerous and gain more widespread attention than attacks on iOS. iOS is not immune to potentially devastating malware though, in contradiction of the views of some customers. Anderson said Pegasus should be a "pretty startling wake-up call" that everyone is "under constant persistent attack" on every platform.

Microsoft executives have reportedly indicated "unwavering implicit trust" in Apple's iOS "countless times," revealing how strong the association between Apple and security has become. The belief that Apple's platform is stronger than Android appears to derive from iOS' closed nature. Because it's a more controlled ecosystem, the attack surface is lower than for Android malware.

This view is dangerous, according to Anderson. Every mobile device is at constant risk of attack, regardless of the platform it runs. "I know for a fact that all the providers of mobile operating systems go to superhuman lengths to harden their platforms and do everything they can to deliver the most secure operating system possible," said Anderson.

However, iOS, Android and Windows all have vulnerabilities that expose them to potentially devastating attacks. Some platforms are targeted more frequently than others but this shouldn't influence people to make assumptions about a platform's security. Pegasus demonstrates that even a closed ecosystem can be infiltrated by some of the most complex mobile malware ever observed.

Coming from Microsoft, Anderson's argument represents a powerful message to businesses and consumers that iOS may not be all it seems. Pegasus has proven iOS presents a viable attack vector to cybercriminals. It has also demonstrated that malware has been commercialised to the point that it's an off-the-shelf product, available for purchase from the secretive NSO Group. According to Microsoft, the idea of a single platform being more secure than others is an urban myth. In real-world terms, any device can be hacked and every user is a target.

Google opens Chromebooks to Android store

Google's Chromebook update will allow the inexpensive laptops to run apps from the Android store opening them up to apps from Microsoft Word to Quicken.

275 million Android phones imperiled by new code-execution exploit

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Almost 300 million phones running Google's Android operating system are vulnerable to a newly developed drive-by attack that can install malware and take control of key operations, a security firm has warned.

A proof-of-concept exploit dubbed Metaphor works against Android versions 2.2 through 4.0 and 5.0 and 5.1, which together are estimated to run 275 million phones, researchers from Israeli security firm NorthBit said. It attacks the same Stagefright media library that made an estimated 950 million Android phones susceptible to similar code-execution attacks last year. The following video demonstrates how a malicious attacker might use a Metaphor-style attack to take control of a phone after luring an unsuspecting end user to a booby-trapped website.

The NorthBit-developed attack exploits a Stagefright vulnerability discovered and disclosed last year by Zimperium, the security firm that first demonstrated the severe weaknesses in the code library. For reasons that aren't yet clear, Google didn't fix the vulnerability in some versions, even though the company eventually issued a patch for a different bug that had made the Zimperium exploits possible. While the newer attack is in many ways a rehash of the Zimperium work, it's able to exploit an information leak vulnerability in a novel way that makes code execution much more reliable in newer Android releases. Starting with version 4.1, Android was fortified with an anti-exploitation defense known as address space layout randomization, which loads downloaded code into unpredictable memory regions to make it harder for attackers to execute malicious payloads. The breakthrough of Metaphor is its improved ability to bypass it.

"They've proven that it's possible to use an information leak to bypass ASLR," Joshua Drake, Zimperium's vice president for platform research and exploitation, told Ars. "Whereas all my exploits were exploiting it with a brute force, theirs isn't making a blind guess. Theirs actually leaks address info from the media server that will allow them to craft an exploit for whoever is using the device."

The other big advance offered by Metaphor is that it works on a wider base of phones. Previous patches published by Google make anyone with version 5.1 or higher immune, and in some cases those may also protect users of 4.4 or higher, Drake said. Metaphor, by contrast, exposes users of 5.1, which is estimated to run on 19 percent of Android phones. Currently, Metaphor works best on Nexus 5 models with a stock ROM, but it also works on the HTC One, LG G3, and Samsung S5, the company said. Depending on the vendor, a drive-by attack requires anywhere from 20 seconds to two minutes to work.

Microsoft Builds Android App Store For Its Own Android Apps Inside Of The Android App Store

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Microsoft has a new app out called ‘Microsoft Apps‘ on Android that contains a list of its Android apps that you can download on the Android app store.

There are two parts to this development. The first is that Microsoft’s cross-platform work continues, and that the company has yet to let up an inch on its work to bring its software and services to users on every rival operating system. And, the second point is that Microsoft has created an effective Android app store — catalog? — inside of the actual Android app store.

An early comment noted that fact. From the app’s page on Google Play:

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That comment is almost correct. At the same time, it can be difficult to sort through tens, and hundreds of thousands of apps to find the precise one that you are perhaps looking for. Microsoft wants to make sure that if you want to use its stack on Android, you can do so without unnecessary sleuthing.

The app has racked up four review so far, giving it an average score of 4 stars.

The new app might not make sense until you realize just how many apps Microsoft has on Android — you can take a spin through the full list here. It’s extensive. It’s almost odd to recall how big a splash bringing Office to Android and iOS once was.

Microsoft fans have a new toy, and the company has a potential conduit for its apps on the Android platform. Not too bad a turn of events for the Redmond-based software company.

Microsoft's new service makes app developers out of everyday employees

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Work is growing increasingly mobile thanks to smartphones, but companies can have a hard time coping with demand for apps that let their workers take corporate data on the go. Mobile developers are expensive, and getting new applications tested and then pushed out to users can be a time-consuming process.

Microsoft just unveiled a new beta service on Monday that's supposed to help ease that tension by allowing anyone to build an app - no software development experience required. PowerApps combines a cloud application backend with easy-to-use tools that make creating a mobile app a drag-and-drop affair.

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PowerApps applications can pull in information from a variety of data sources including Office 365, Dynamics, Google Drive, Workday and other services. Developers can also build connections for PowerApps in their own services if there isn’t a connector already available.

Once the data connection is set up, users can then start building an application interface from one of Microsoft’s pre-built templates, or plug key data into PowerApps and let the service suggest the right designs for their purposes. Those people who have a strong idea for what they want their app to look like can create it from scratch.

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Once users have built the apps they want, they can then use Microsoft's service to share their newly created tools with coworkers who have the PowerApps application installed on their smartphones.

The system is currently limited to building software that runs inside the PowerApps app on mobile devices, however, so employees won’t be able to push their creations to the iOS App Store or Google Play Store. Microsoft Corporate Vice President Bill Staples said during a press briefing that Microsoft will consider feedback from its customers when determining if the company should make it possible to create standalone applications using PowerApps.

Google Launches Android Studio 2.0 With Improved Android Emulator And New Instant Run Feature

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Google today launched version 2.0 of its Android Studio integrated development environment (IDE) for writing apps for its mobile operating system.

Android Studio, which is based on IntelliJ, launched back in 2013 and came out of beta a year ago. It includes everything a developer needs to build an app, including a code editor, code analysis tools, emulators for all of Google’s Android platforms, and more.

The new version is now available as a preview in the Canary release channel of Android Studio.

With version 2.0, as Google’s group product manager for Android Studio Stephanie Cuthbertson told me, the team wanted to build on the foundation it laid over the last two years and focus on speed. “For the IDE to be delightful, it doesn’t just have to be stable — but amazingly stabled,” she told me. The team felt that it achieved this with the last couple of releases.

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With this update, Google massively accelerated deployment speeds, for example. Cuthbertson tells me that a full build is now 2x to 2.5x faster than in previous releases. That’s a huge step forward, but what developers will likely appreciate even more in this new version is the addition of a new feature called “Instant Run.” This almost mimics the experience of writing HTML, where you write your code, reload your browser and see what changed. On mobile, that process typically takes quite a bit longer, even with the improved build speeds.

Instant Run lets developers build and deploy their apps once (both to the emulator or to a physical device) and then as they change their code and deploy it, it’ll only take a second or two before they can see those changes in the running app. This feature will work for all apps that target Ice Cream Sandwich and later. Cuthbertson politely refused to tell us how exactly Instant Run works, but promised that Google will detail the technology behind this feature in the future.

Given the size of the Android ecosystem, it’s almost impossible for most developers to test their apps on even the most popular devices early on in the development phase. With services like Xamarin Test Cloud, the AWS Device Farm and Google’s own Test Lab, developers have plenty of options to test their apps later on, but during the development process, most of the testing happens with the help of emulators. Google’s own emulator wasn’t always the fastest and easiest to use (to the point where Microsoft ended up releasing its own).

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With this update, Google is introducing new emulators that, given modern hardware, should run faster than any physical device. The team also rebuilt the interface, so that it’s now easy to trigger typical actions like firing up the camera. Developers will also be able to emulate different network conditions and emulate the GPS (even with pre-configured paths). The emulator also includes access to all the standard Google Play services. Maybe more importantly, though, you can now simply resize the emulator window to test different screen sizes.

For developers who build graphics-intensive apps and games, the Studio now also includes a new GPU profiler. This will allow developers to see exactly what’s happening every time the screen draws a new image to trace performance issues, for example. This tool is still officially in preview.

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Apple creates 'Move to iOS' app to pull Android users away from Google

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The iPhone 6 has been more successful than previous versions of the smartphone at drawing Android users away from Google’s mobile platform, and Apple wants to capitalize on that with a new app that makes it easier for them to make the switch.

The switching process will also suggest that they install free apps from their Android device that are also available on Apple’s App Store, so switchers can quickly get back on their feet with their favorite apps like Facebook and Twitter. Paid apps that they have on Android with iOS versions available will be added to a user’s wish list in the iOS App Store.

According to Apple, the whole process will be handled “securely” so that a user’s personal information doesn’t get exposed. It’s not clear exactly how the process works yet, and how aggressive Apple will be when it comes to migrating users away from Google’s services. For example, it’s possible that the process will move all of the contacts a user has stored with Google over to iCloud—Apple hasn’t said one way or another.

Once the process is done, the Android app will helpfully prompt users to recycle their Android phone, just to keep them from going back to Google’s mobile platform unless they buy a new phone.

The app wasn’t announced on stage Monday morning during Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference keynote, but it appeared on the promotional page the company created to show off its new mobile operating system ahead of its launch later this year.

Apple CEO Tim Cook told analysts during the company’s January financial results conference call that the current iPhone lineup “experienced the highest Android switcher rate in any of the last three launches in any of the three previous years.” This app should help accelerate that trend by making it even easier for people to switch over.

Office apps for Android phones are now available

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There is no denying that Android is the world's most popular mobile phone operating system with Google saying last year that on any given thirty-day rolling period there are more than a billion users of the OS. So when you are working to get your productivity software into the hands of a billion users, you can't ignore the OS.

Microsoft has already released and today they are taking it one step further with Office apps for the phone as well. If you want to try these apps out, you will need to join the Microsoft Office for Android preview program which you can do here.

After you join the program, hit the download links below, but be aware that it may take up to four hours for the permissions to be applied to your account to enable the apps.

The new apps will replace the current Office Mobile app for Android and offer the same touch-optimized Office experience currently available for Android tablets but for a smaller screen.

Bringing Microsoft's latest iteration of Office to the Android platform is a strategic move for the company. While they would love if every user bought a phone running Windows, as the market has shown, that is not happening at a fast enough rate for the Redmond-based company.

So, the next best thing is to make sure Office, one of the company's largest revenue drivers, is available wherever the consumer is, which means Office on Android devices is a must.

Download: Word | Excel | PowerPoint

Windows 10 can run reworked Android and iOS apps

Microsoft is revealing its plans to get mobile apps on Windows 10 today. While the company has been investigating emulating Android apps, it has settled on a different solution, or set of solutions, that will allow developers to bring their existing code to Windows 10.

iOS and Android developers will be able to port their apps and games directly to Windows universal apps, and Microsoft is enabling this with two new software development kits. On the Android side, Microsoft is enabling developers to use Java and C++ code on Windows 10, and for iOS developers they’ll be able to take advantage of their existing Objective C code. "We want to enable developers to leverage their current code and current skills to start building those Windows applications in the Store, and to be able to extend those applications," explained Microsoft’s Terry Myerson during an interview with The Verge this morning.

 

The idea is simple, get apps on Windows 10 without the need for developers to rebuild them fully for Windows. While it sounds simple, the actual process will be a little more complicated than just pushing a few buttons to recompile apps. "Initially it will be analogous to what Amazon offers," notes Myerson, referring to the Android work Microsoft is doing. "If they’re using some Google API… we have created Microsoft replacements for those APIs." Microsoft’s pitch to developers is to bring their code across without many changes, and then eventually leverage the capabilities of Windows like Cortana, Xbox Live, Holograms, Live Tiles, and more. Microsoft has been testing its new tools with some key developers like King, the maker of Candy Crush Saga, to get games ported across to Windows. Candy Crush Saga as it exists today on Windows Phone has been converted from iOS code using Microsoft’s tools without many modifications.

During Microsoft’s planning for bringing iOS and Android apps to Windows, Myerson admits it wasn’t always an obvious choice to have both. "At times we’ve thought, let's just do iOS," Myerson explains. "But when we think of Windows we really think of everyone on the planet. There’s countries where iOS devices aren’t available." Supporting both Android and iOS developers allows Microsoft to capture everyone who is developing for mobile platforms right now, even if most companies still continue to target iOS first and port their apps to Android at the same time or shortly afterward. By supporting iOS developers, Microsoft wants to be third in line for these ported apps, and that’s a better situation than it faces today.

Alongside the iOS and Android SDKs, Microsoft is also revealing ways for websites and Windows desktop apps to make their way over to Windows universal apps. Microsoft has created a way for websites to run inside a Windows universal app, and use system services like notifications and in-app purchases. This should allow website owners to easily create web apps without much effort, and list those apps in the Windows Store. It’s not the best alternative to a native app for a lot of scenarios, but for simple websites it offers up a new way to create an app without its developers having to learn new code languages. Microsoft is also looking toward existing Windows desktop app developers with Windows 10. Developers will be able to leverage their .NET and Win32 work and bring this to Windows universal apps. "Sixteen million .NET and Win32 apps are still being used every month on Windows 7 and Windows 8," explains Myerson, so it’s clear Microsoft needs to get these into Windows 10.

Microsoft is using some of its HyperV work to virtualize these existing desktop apps on Windows 10. Adobe is one particular test case where Microsoft has been working closely with the firm to package its apps ready for Windows 10. Adobe Photoshop Elements is coming to the Windows Store as a universal app, using this virtualization technology. Performance is key for many desktop apps, so it will be interesting to see if Microsoft has managed to maintain a fluid app experience with this virtualization.

Collectively, Microsoft is referring to these four new SDKs as bridges or ramps to get developers interested in Windows 10. It’s a key moment for the company to really win back developers and prove that Windows is still relevant in a world that continues to be dominated by Android and iOS. The aim, as Myerson puts it, is to get Windows 10 on 1 billion devices within the next two to three years. That’s a big goal, and the company will need the support of developers and apps to help it get there.

These SDKs will generate questions among Microsoft’s core development community, especially those who invested heavily in the company’s Metro-style design and the unique features of Windows apps in the past. The end result for consumers is, hopefully, more apps, but for developers it’s a question of whether to simply port their existing iOS and Android work across and leave it at that, or extend those apps to use Windows features or even some design elements. "We want to structure the platform so it’s not an all or nothing," says Myerson. "If you use everything together it’s beautiful, but that’s not required to get started."

Microsoft still has the tricky mix of ported apps to contend with, and that could result in an app store similar to Amazon's, or even one where developers still aren't interested in porting. This is just the beginning, and Windows universal apps, while promising, still face a rocky and uncertain future.

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