Category: Mobile Computing

Apple to support security keys as a means to protect your Apple ID

Articles

You can use security keys as a second factor for authenticating with Apple ID on your iPhone

iOS 16.3 Lets You Use a Physical Key for Added Security When Logging Into Your Apple Account (gizmodo.com.au)

Apple iOS 16.3 arrives with support for hardware security keys (bleepingcomputer.com)

Security Keys Are Now the Best Way to Protect Your Apple ID (lifehacker.com.au)

From the horse’s mouth

Apple

Apple advances user security with powerful new data protections (Press Release)

About Security Keys for Apple ID (Support article)

Use security keys to sign in to your Apple ID account on iPhone (Support article)

My Comments

Apple is making it feasible to use hardware security keys in iOS as an authentication factor for their Apple ID logon.

This is being desired as a “phish-proof” approach for secondary authentication or sole authentication due to a physical device not being easily coerced or fooled. As well, this “machine-to-machine” approach allows for stronger passkeys.

It is even seen as a preferred secondary authentication factor for online services used by journalists, human-rights defenders, the public service within democracies and others working with high-stakes information. This avoids such users being fooled in to releasing their online accounts to highly-targeted spear-phishing attacks.

Apple supports this on iPhones and iPads through the iOS/iPadOS 16.3 major feature update. This is also being written in to MacOS Ventura 13.2 for the Apple Mac regular computers whereupon you just use the security key as the secondary authentication factor. They primarily implement this as an alternative secondary authentication means to transcribing a six-digit number shown on your iPhone when it comes to two-factor authentication for your Apple ID.

In the context of the Apple Watch, Apple TV and HomePod devices, you use your iPhone that you set up with the security key authentication to provide the secondary authentication factor when you set these up for your Apple ID. Here, this is easier for limited-interface devices because another device is managing some of the authentication work with your Apple ID.

FIDO-compliant hardware security keys are supported with this update but they have to have an MFi Lightning plug or NFC “touch and go” interface to work with the current crop of iPhones in circulation. USB-C is also supported but you would need a USB-C to MFi Lightning adaptor for iOS devices except newer iPads that have this connector. You also may find that newer iPhones that are to come on the market soon will have the USB-C connector due to pressure from the European Union and some other jurisdictions.

There will be a requirement to set up two hardware keys with the same iOS device when you implement this feature. This is so you have a backup key in case the one you lose the one you regularly use or that one is damaged such as being laundered with your clothes.

Add to this that support does exist for app-level or Website-level verification with security keys within iOS. But it may allow Apple to build in and refine the necessary application-programming interfaces for third-party app developers who want to support this form of authentication.

What I see at least is the implementation of hardware security keys in the mobile platform context when it comes to multi-factor or password-free authentication for the user’s primary platform account. Who knows when Google will offer this feature for Android. Could this also be about leading towards the use of hardware security keys as a hardening factor for user account security?

Big Tech works with the Linux Foundation to compete with Google Maps for geospatial information

Articles

OpenStreetMap seen as a viable alternative to Google Maps

Big Tech Companies Join Linux in Effort to Kill Google Maps (gizmodo.com)

There could finally be a solid Google Maps alternative on Android – SamMobile

From the horse’s mouth

Linux Foundation Project

Overture Maps Foundation – Linux Foundation Project

My Comments

Major tech firms like Microsoft, Meta (Facebook, Instagram), TomTom, Amazon Web Services and the Linux Foundation to build an open-source mapping and geolocation project to compete with Google Maps. It is to complement OpenStreetMap as a major competing navigation and geospatial data pool.

As well, they are pulling in data from public sources like government urban-planning departments to create the “shape” of cities and towns. Here, this allows for factoring in new property developments that are given the green light along with government-planned urban-renewal and similar projects. It could also encompass government roads departments who are laying down new roads or upgrading existing roads for new needs.

The idea is to support true interoperability when it comes to information about places and areas. Here, it is about using data from a plurality of data sources which leads to better data quality and richer data.

An issue that I would see coming about is whether the Overture Maps Foundation project and OpenStreetMap will present this effort as a consumer-facing mobile platform app or desktop program pitched for general use like HEREWeGo Maps. Or whether it could be focused towards various third-party Websites and software that exploits this data such as e-government, vehicle-dispatch, hotel-booking or similar use cases.

But one area this could affect is your vehicle’s integrated GPS sat-nav feature, especially if a vehicle is intended to be positioned for the so-called “value-price” market. The combination of the Overture Project and OpenStreetMap could be about providing a line-fit sat-nav setup at a price that is affordable to the manufacturer. It could also be about automotive infotainment equipment sold as an aftermarket add-on that has sat-nav functionality where such equipment is to be sold at a price affordable for most people.

Similarly, there will be issues like assuring support for and access to real-time data such as weather, traffic and transit, or emergency-situation information. This could be facilitated through open-frame database APIs associated with weather services and the like who maintain this kind of data, something that could be pushed by the public service achieving the “open source” attitude.

Legal attempts to pry open app stores have come to fruition

Articles

Google Play Android app store

There is action taking place that is prying open the app-store marketplace for mobile platform devices

Spotify and Google Give You Choice in Paying Them (droid-life.com)

Apple will allow third-party app stores, because the EU mandates it | Mashable

Apple is reportedly preparing to allow third-party app stores on iOS | Engadget

Previous Coverage on HomeNetworking01.info

USA to pry open mobile-app-store market

My Comments

Thanks to the “Fortnite” saga where Google and Apple were accused of slugging Epic Games with commissions for selling in-app commodities via their mobile-platform app stores, there has been a shake-up regarding how these app stores are run.

This has also been intensified with various jurisdictions instigating work on or passing legislation and regulation regarding a competitive market for online app stores. One of these is the European Union with the Digital Markets Act which targets large online services that have a gatekeeper role, along with the USA with its Open App Markets Act which targets app stores appearing on mobile and desktop computing platforms and other devices like games consoles or smart TVs.

The Europeans see their effort not just to pry open app stores but also search engines, social networks, video-sharing sites, digital ad platforms, public cloud platforms, even so-called intermediary services like AirBnB, Uber, Uber Eats and Booking.com. There are similar efforts also taking place within UK and Australia with this effort resulting in codes of practice being established for online services.

What has happened so far

Google has taken steps to enable user-choice billing for in-app purchases normally made through their Play Store.

Firstly, they allowed people who use Bumble online-dating apps to subscribe directly with Bumble or via the app store. Now they have enabled Spotify subscribers to pay for their subscription either through the Play Store or direct with Spotify. Of course, some online services like Netflix and Britbox allow for direct payment for their subscriptions by requiring you to manage your account through the service provider’s Website.

But Google will implement this feature at the checkout point in your purchase by allowing you to select payment via Google Play or directly with the software developer. When you pay directly, you will see the online service payment user-experience provided by the developer including the ability to redeem their service’s gift vouchers, pay using PayPal or pay using a payment card platform they have business relations with. Or you pay using Google Play Store’s payment user interface that you would be familiar with.

When your payment-card statement arrives, you will see a reference to Google if you paid for the online commodity through them or a reference to the software developer / online service if you paid directly.

Paying directly would mean that software developer or online service gets your money without having to pay a “cut” to Google for accepting payment via the Google Play Store. As well, the software developer or online service is at liberty to sign up with other payment means like PayPal, other credit cards like AMEX or Discover / Diners Club, or national account-linked payment platforms like EFTPOS, Carte Bleue or EC-Karte. There is also the ability for them to offer gift vouchers that go towards their offerings.

Another benefit that will come about if you pay for a subscription directly is that if you change to a different mobile platform, your subscription is kept alive rather than you having to reinstigate your subscription with the new platform’s app store and payment mechanism.

It also positions the Google Play Store’s online payment arrangement in competition with the software developer or online service thus improving the terms of business for accepting payment from customers. An example of this is both service providers providing a link with payment-anchored loyalty programs as a way to incentivise customers towards payment through their platforms.

Another direction being taken towards prying open the app stores is Apple baking  support for third-party app stores into iOS 17 which is the next major feature release of iOS. This is in addition to offering newer versions of the iPhone with USB-C ports rather than MFi Lightning ports for external connectivity. Here, this is due to intense European pressure to open themselves up to open markets by the European Union. But the support for third-party app stores would also come down to the Open App Markets Act that is being pushed through the US Congress.

Issues to be resolved

One issue that will have to be resolved is how the average smartphone or tablet user can install a competing app store to their device.

This is more about where a smartphone manufacturer or mobile operating system developer can get away with burying this option behind a “developer mode” or “advanced-user mode”. Or it could be about onerous requirements placed on software developers by mobile platforms when it comes to creating or publishing their software such as access to application-programming interfaces or software development kits.

The app stores will also have to be about selling good-quality compelling software and games. This is so they don’t end up as the equivalent of bulletin boards, download sites and optical discs attached to computer magazines where these resources were full of poor-quality software, known as “shovelware”.

Then there is the appeal of competing app stores to consumers and software developers. Personally I see these stores have initial appeal in the gaming sector with the likes of Steam or GOG existing on mobile platforms. Also I would see some software developers operate their own app stores as a way to maintain end-to-end control of their apps.

Conclusion

There are steps being taken by Google and Apple to liberate their mobile-platform software ecosystem even though it is under pressure from competition authorities in significant jurisdictions.

Samsung to roll out a “valet key” for your smartphone

Article

Samsung Galaxy A52s 5G Android smartphone

Samsung smartphones will end up with a “maintenance mode” for your data protection when you have them repaired

Samsung rolls out One UI 5 ‘Maintenance Mode’ to keep your data safe during repair (9to5google.com)

New Samsung Maintenance Mode protects your data during phone repairs (bleepingcomputer.com)

My Comments

For a long time, most of the good cars came with a “valet key” arrangement of some sort. This especially benefited sedans (saloons), coupes and similar cars that had a lockable trunk (boot), but also benefited any car that had a lockable glove box.

Here, the car would come with one key that can only open the doors and start the engine but can’t open the boot or glove box. You could still open the boot or glove box with a separate dedicated key or another key that can open everything. This was about allowing you to had over your car to a mechanic’s, a valet-operated car park or a similar facility knowing that the staff at the facility can’t steal valuables from the glove box or boot.

Samsung is introducing the “Maintenance Mode” as part of its One UI 5 / Android 13 update for their recent Android smartphones. Here, it is to achieve this same goal by locking your personal data in a separate account not available to technicians who repair or service your phone. These technicians then have access to an account specifically created for testing and repairing the phone.

White Jaguar XJ6 Series 2

.. just like cars such as this Jaguar XJ6 did to limit access to the boot (trunk) and glove box when the vehicles were repaired or at valet parking

As well, they can install utility software on your phone as part of the maintenance work but once you log in to your phone again with your normal account, this software is removed. A question that can come up here is what happens if the repair requires the installation of software updates or patches, perhaps to provide driver support for replacement hardware and this has to operate with your own normal account.

Samsung are initially offering this to selected Galaxy phones sold within the USA as part of a beta-test for One UI 5 but are wanting to roll this out across the world through 2023.

Most of us would find this of benefit as we use our smartphones as the digital equivalent of our wallets, photo albums and keyrings. The well-founded fear we have with this is technicians taking advantage of our personal data especially if they see value in it for them.

I would see the “Maintenance Mode” feature being of interest to computing-device vendors and operating-system developers as something to add as a significant feature for an operating system. Here it may be offered during a major feature update cycle for the operating system or as part of a security package.

Such a feature could give all of us peace of mind when we relinquish a smartphone, tablet or laptop computer to technicians that we don’t know for repair.

Digital key management and sharing to be part of mobile operating systems

Article

August Smart Lock press picture courtesy of August

Apple to lead the way with having smart lock and digital key management as part of a smartphone’s operating system.

Apple to add digital key sharing to iOS • NFCW

My Comments

Apple is the first mobile-operating-system developer to integrate the management of digital keys for buildings or cars within its iOS operating system. This includes the ability to share keys to others or revoke shared keys within your iPhone’s user experience.

It is because of an increasing number of security solutions for buildings, vehicles and the like that use your smartphone as a virtual keyring for digital keys.

Previously, what happened with digital keys was that they were dependent on apps specific to a vendor, hotel or similar smart-lock platform and you had to work these keys from that app’s user interface.

This could lead to confusion about apps that you need to use and can get very messy when you have multiple places to think of and you aren’t sure which platform they are associated with. It can also lead to screen clutter associated with the apps and you may find that they take up too much internal storage space especially if you are responsible for many places.

The approach now is to implement the digital wallet functionality offered by Apple Wallet and is part of iOS. As well, you use what the operating system offers to share out keys or revoke shared keys. That means you can use first-party messaging software like Apple iMessage or Apple Mail to share the keys; or you could use third-party messaging software like Signal, WhatsApp or Outlook Mail to share these keys.

Most likely this will be facilitated with the “share / take-further” function offered as part of the operating system, represented in iOS with a square and triangle symbol.

The problem with this functionality is whether there is the ability to limit the shared key’s functionality when you share it out. That is to limit the number of times one can use the key or the time period they can use it for, or even to limit the doors or cars that the particular digital key can open. In some cases, it may also be about implementing multi-factor authentication for these keys.

hen there is the question about what kind of interface that this Apple Wallet key-management ability will support. That is whether to use NFC “touch-and-go” operation, Bluetooth LE wireless-link or similar techniques to link with the door lock or car.

The other issue that will come about is whether Google will integrated this kind of digital key management within Android, whether as part of the digital wallets available as apps for that platform or simply within the operating system. Also it can be about whether regular computers that run desktop operating systems could have this kind of digital key management built in to their operating systems, which can be of benefit for people who manage buildings or vehicle fleets.

It can also include allowing apps and Websites to add or remove digital keys to the smartphone wallet. This will be seen as important for corporate, hotel and delivery use cases where interaction with smart locks is part of a transaction, such as registering the delivery / collection of goods or as part of a time and attendance requirement for home care and allied workers.

What this will be essentially about is to provide a one-stop shop for managing digital keys for locations or vehicles you are responsible for using your smartphone.

USA to pry open mobile-app-store market

Article

Google Play Android app store

Legislation or regulation to come about to open up the app-store market on mobile devices to competing providers

How the Open App Markets Act wants to remake app stores – The Verge

What the Open App Markets Act means for future of Big Tech (fastcompany.com)

From the horse’s mouth

US Congress

Open App Markets Act (Follow this law through Congress)

My Comments

At the moment, if you want to add functionality to your smartphone or tablet, you have to use the Apple App Store or the Google Play Store to download the necessary apps. Some Android phone manufacturers like Samsung and Amazon run their own app stores with the former operating theirs alongside Google’s app store and the latter in lieu of that app store.

This process also affects post-download transactions like purchasing the software after a trial, subscribing to the services associated with the software or buying microcurrency for a game using real money. With services like Netflix or Spotify or mobile ports of some desktop software, you use the service’s desktop user interface to sign up and pay for subscriptions then you log in to the user account you created for that service using the mobile app to benefit from what you paid for.

The same approach is being used for the ChromeOS platform and Microsoft and Apple want to push this on to their Windows and MacOS desktop computing platforms. This is more so with Microsoft and the ARM-powered Windows laptops or offering lightweight “S” variants of Windows for cheaper computers. It is also implemented with games consoles, connected-TV/set-top-box platforms, printers, network-attached storage devices, routers, connected vehicles and the smart home as a way to add functionality to these platforms.

This may even apply to app stores on regular computers like the Windows Store

Here, some of the companies in Big Tech want to provide that same kind of walled garden that is expected with games consoles for other computing devices as a way of providing some perceived “simplicity” and security for these devices.

Concern has been raised about this approach due to frustrating competition for apps on these platforms. It includes a monopsony approach where software developers are disadvantaged due to the app store charging commissions on software-related transactions or exacting onerous terms and conditions on software developers who want to have their apps available on the popular mobile platforms.

This is an issue that has been brought about by the Fortnite saga where Apple frustrated Epic’s wishes to sell microtransactions, subscriptions or similar services for Fortnite independently of Apple even for iOS ports of that game. There is similar activity going on in the European Union with the Digital Markets Act to push for competition in the mobile-computing-device realm while the authorities in charge of market competition in the UK and Australia are examining this issue.

What is the Open App Markets Act about?

What the Open App Markets Act means is that competing app markets can exist on mobile and similar-use platforms like iOS and Android. It also requires that these platforms have a requirement to allow users to sideload apps to their devices and the platform can’t default to its own app stores.

Sideloading is primarily transferring software from a regular computer or external / network file storage to the mobile or other device in order for it to run on that device. This is similar to the way we have installed software on our Windows, Macintosh or Linux computers for a long time. Here, we have inserted a floppy disk or CD-ROM in to a computer and ran an installation from that storage medium to have the software on the computer. Or we downloaded the software from the developer’s Website or a download site to our computer’s hard disk and ran the installation program associated with that software to install it.

It could also extend to software developers making the software available to download or purchase from their own Web presences, including processing any post-download payment transactions there. This means that the software developer gains effective control over their software through its lifecycle.

If software developers wish to implement post-download transactions for their software such as converting a trial version to a full-service program, offering subscriptions or selling microcurrency for a game, they can use a competing storefront or facilitate their transactions on their own Websites.

Who would it primarily benefit?

A user group that would benefit from the competitive app market would be gaming enthusiasts. Here, they would benefit from games-focused app stores like Steam, Epic and GOG who run their own leaderboards, online game saving, and online forums. Similarly, games developers would be running their own app stores for their games titles, continuing to offer the same kind of integrated functionality.

I also see Microsoft behind this idea because of software development being their founding stone with an example being the XBox One designed from scratch to support home-developed games. This is because they want to run app stores as a way to make it easier for up-and-coming software developers to put their wares on their market.

What are the issues here?

One key issue that would come up in my mind is a replication of the “bulletin board” or “download site” era that existed before and during the early days of the Internet. This is akin to the “shovelware” magazine-cover CD-ROM era that existed in the early days of optical data storage. That is where you had online or offline collections of poor-quality software available for download or installation on your regular computer. It is something that has affected some app stores in their early days where they were replete with poor-quality apps.

Here, there was very little effort regarding quality control when it came to making software available on a bulletin board or download site or adding software to an optical disc that was attached to a computer magazine. This is compared to most app stores where the people who run the stores vet the software before it is published as well as running “editor’s choice” or “spotlight” programs to feature good-quality software,

Apple and Google challenge the competitive app store approach because they see exclusive app stores as a way to maintain standards regarding software for their platforms.

Here, they see this primarily with data security and user privacy. But they also see this with maintaining legal and social expectations regarding the kind of software available on personal devices. This ranges from issues like suitability for children and suitability to use in the workplace or around your family; along with being able to facilitate access to undesireable content like hate speech or disinformation.

How could these issues be answered?

Computing-platform, operating-system and device vendors, amongst other strong voices in the personal/business IT and cybersecurity world could implement one or more “seal-of-approval” systems on apps or app stores. There would even be various legal protections and requirements placed on the software and app stores like intellectual-property or media-classification requirements, Here, the software or app stores have to maintain certain quality and similar standards before acquiring that “seal of approval”.

Endpoint-security logic that is part of the operating system or a third-party endpoint-security program offered by a brand of respect would add extra friction to installing or running software that doesn’t have one or more of these “seals of approval”. As well, such software would be required to identify and easily remove such software.

Similarly, these companies could vet software developers’ access to software-development kits and application-programming interfaces so that the developer has to be in “good standing” to use the features that matter in an operating system. As well, software-authentication regimes will be implemented in a strong manner for any software that is distributed or installed on these devices.

Is there a risk of a limited rollout of open app-market features

There can be a risk of Big Tech creating versions of their app-store-driven computing platforms for particular geopolitical areas when each area enacts open-app-market legislation.

In this situation, when a user registers a new device or the device’s operating system is updated, there would be logic to test whether the device is within a country or region under an open-app-market mandate then deliver a compliant version of the software to those areas. That is while a noncompliant version of the software is delivered to new or updated devices in areas that don’t have the open-app-market mandate.

This is similar to an issue faced in Australia with the motor industry where vehicle builders are “dumping” vehicles that are less fuel-efficient in to that market. That is because there aren’t the fleet-wide vehicle-efficiency mandates there that are similar to those mandates affecting USA, Europe or South East Asia.

Here, the issue that would be raised is having markets that aren’t regulated with open-app-market mandates being areas to continue the status quo regarding anticompetitive behaviour. Add to this intense lobbying of government or political parties by Big Tech to continue the same kind of behaviour with impunity.

Conclusion

What may be coming about for smartphones, mobile-platform tablets and similar devices is that governments will be forcing open the app-store markets for these devices so that users can seek software from competing suppliers.

Troubleshooting in-app QR-code scanning on your phone

Service Victoria contact-tracing QR code sign at Fairfield Primary School

The Service Victoria QR-code contact-tracing system was one of those app-based QR code setups that may not work properly if your phone’s QR code recognition subsystem isn’t working

A situation that happened with my Android phone recently was that the Services Victoria QR code app failed to recognise a check-in QR code even though it has normally been doing that before. I had to then resort to entering the venue-specific manual-entry code printed below the QR code on the signage to begin the check-in process for that area.

This problem can also happen with something like WhatsApp, Signal or something similar when you are attempting to bind a desktop or other secondary client device to your service’s account. This also extends to Wi-Fi Easy Connect setups that allow you to enrol your phone or another device in to a desired Wi-Fi network.

It can also happen with book+app setups used with interactive books, second-screen apps that are part of interactive-TV setups, or some app-driven coupon systems that are dependent on recognising QR codes for their functionality. Even setting up app-based multi-factor or password-free authentication is dependent on QR codes when you are provisioning that mobile-based authentication app with an online service.

In use cases like WhatsApp, there may not be any alternative like a human-readable code or an NFC tag to use as an alternative to scanning a QR code. This would then make the app or function useless for its intended purposes.

The situation described here is that a QR-code-dependent app that was previously recognising QR codes for that associated system fails to recognise them.

But how did I troubleshoot this problem further?

A lot of these apps that have QR-code scanning functionality are dependent on functionality within iOS or Android that works with the camera to recognise these codes and make them useful for software on your phone. This is to avoid the need for the software developer to reinvent the wheel when it comes to adding this functionality to their apps.

WhatsApp and Signal's relationship with their desktop clients

.. as can setting up Signal or Whatsapp to work with your regular computer or iPad

But if this fails, the apps that depend on this functionality don’t perform as expected when you attempt to scan a QR code with them. This is even though they have enabled the camera and are passing through the vision to the app’s “viewfinder” window. Of course you might think that the rear camera’s lens is dirty or scratched or you are attempting to scan a poor-quality reproduction of the code.

One way to troubleshoot this kind of situation is to scan this kind of code with a dedicated QR-code scan app that is part of your phone’s operating system. Most Android users would have this as part of the Quick Settings menu. Here, this app has the camera behave in a manner optimised for scanning barcodes and QR codes as if it is called upon by one of these QR-dependent apps.

On some platforms, the Camera app’s QR-code recognition function may behave differently due to it using different in-app software from what is part of your phone’s operating system. This is due to the camera software working on a “photography first” approach rather than a “barcode scanning first” approach.

If this app fails to recognise any QR code, you are dealing with a situation where the software processes associated with QR-code recognition crashing or hanging. This situation may happen with other software on your phone underperforming or behaving in an abnormal manner. Here, you may find that it is a good idea to fully restart your phone, which will effectively get everything to a known point.

In this case, you would have to shut down then restart your phone so as to cause it to fully restart. You should see your phone’s manufacturer or operating system logo appear on the screen as part of the restart process.

After the phone is restarted completely, attempt to scan any QR code with the above-mentioned dedicated QR-code scan app that is part of your phone’s operating system. Usually that will succeed after you have restarted your phone due to the necessary software processes being restarted.

You may have also had to deal with a software update for the QR-code recognition software as part of a software-quality or security update for your phone’s operating system. It is typically to rectify any bugs or security exploits in the affected software or simply to “tune up” the software for better performance.

If that succeeds, attempt to scan the QR code using the app you had problems with so you can identify whether that app is at fault or not. It is also a good idea to check for new versions of this app by visiting your mobile platform’s app store and checking for software updates.

The need for a software update for that app may be due to the app’s developers re-engineering it to take advantage of newer QR-code-recognition software libraries, and may also have to apply for any QR-code-dependent apps on your phone. It is although the revised software libraries are most likely written to support “legacy” application software but offer a “new way in” for newer apps.

In the case of your jurisdiction’s contact-tracing check-in app, you may have to do a Google image search for QR codes relating to that platform. Here, some of these images will represent a sharp-enough representation of a “production” QR code at a known place. Or a club or similar organisation may have set up and posted a “test” or “set-up” code to help members with the onboarding process for the contact-tracing check-in platform.

Conclusion

Your phone not working properly with QR codes may not be just a camera or lens problem but software associated with this functionality that simply had stalled or crashed. Here, you may find that you simply restart your phone to gain full functionality.

Bluetooth LE Audio–how I see this coming about

Bluetooth LE Audio

Sony WH-1000XM4 Bluetooth noise-cancelling headset press image courtesy of Sony

Bluetooth LE Audio and its multicast audio abilities will still have to factor in headphones like the Sony WH-1000XM4 to be considered worthwhile

As covered previously, Bluetooth LE Audio is considered as the next evolution of Bluetooth wireless audio for smartphones, tablets and computers.

It encompasses the LC3 audio codec that is more efficient than the traditional Bluetooth Classic SBC audio codec. This provides for increased power efficiency and battery runtime for portable setups thus leading to the design of very small hearable devices like earbuds or hearing aids, thanks to the ability to use a very small battery. There is also the ability to realise increased sound fidelity for Bluetooth audio links, something as good as at least CD-quality stereo audio.

Add to this reduced latency for Bluetooth-based audio links, which means that this mode of transmission can be seen as relevant for video-game sound or audio sent to multiple endpoint devices.

This codec is not bound to a particular device or chipset manufacturer which means that more devices can be legitimately built with Bluetooth LE Audio support without the need for a particular chipset for example. As well, Android 13 is expected to have this functionality built in to it if your Android phone can be updated to this newer version. I would also expect iOS and other operating systems to have support for Bluetooth LE Audio through an upcoming feature-level update.

Here I am talking about two features being introduced with Bluetooth LE Audio that will increase its market acceptance.

Audio sharing and broadcast audio

A potential killer feature for Bluetooth LE Audio is the ability to broadcast audio content to other devices. This could be in the form of you and a friend listening to the same audio playlist through your own headphones with the ability to have the sound level how you like it as well as hearing it in stereo. Or it could be multiple people hearing a common program source on their devices at their preferred sound levels.

Some of the use cases include providing assisted hearing arrangements in public areas without the need to use an induction-based loop that only works with telecoil-equipped hearing aids or proprietary stereo headsets. Or it could be about the “silent disco” where you can bring your own headsets to participate in the dancing. As well, it is also being seen as a way to, for example, provide audio from a particular TV set installed in a bar or cafe without needing to have a set of speakers associated with the venue’s audio system switched between the background music or the TV audio.

Even at home, it could be about enhanced audio setups for TV viewing where particular viewers could benefit from increased audio volume or access to audio description or dubbed foreign-language soundtracks. This is without impacting on what everyone else wants to benefit from and also facilitates access to stereo or “virtual surround’ sound for the same content.

The preferred Bluetooth LE Audio approach for establishing these setups is to use a control app or physical controller to “point” compatible audio devices to the shared audio content or audio stream. Typically such apps will be required to discover Bluetooth LE Audio broadcast streams and allow users to select their desired audio stream.

Use with legacy Bluetooth devices

This can’t be achieved with the large number of Bluetooth Classic Audio devices that are currently in use. It would be more of concern where there isn’t the possibility of manufacturers providing firmware updates to enable these legacy devices for Bluetooth LE Audio.

An example of this is the “headset wars” taking place between Bose, Sony, B&O and Apple where these manufacturers are outpacing each other with the best-value over-ear noise-cancelling Bluetooth headsets. You may find that the you bought that Bose QuietComfort 35 II or Sony WH-1000XM4 headset but they won’t be compatible with Bluetooth LE Audio unless Bose or Sony offer a firmware update to fully support Bluetooth LE Audio.

Here, you don’t necessarily want to get rid of a set of perfectly good headphones just to benefit from Bluetooth LE Audio and its broadcast features. After I was reading material on the Bluetooth SIG site about this standard, I came across a suggested path for integrating this technology with wired headphones.

This was in the form of a Bluetooth LE Audio controller app or operating-system function which worked as a “sink” device for the audio-sharing / broadcast-audio features and stream what was received to the wired headphones. But this approach would also be about repackaging the incoming selected broadcast audio stream as a Bluetooth Classic (A2DP) audio stream for something like a Bose QuietComfort 35 II or Sony WH-1000XM4 noise-cancelling headset. That is although they reckoned that this approach may not be efficient due to “repackaging” the Bluetooth audio stream but would need to be achieved to allow the use of Bluetooth Classic Audio devices in this context.

This same app may also be required to provide software support for audio sharing especially where the device doesn’t have inherent support for Bluetooth LE Audio. It would be in the form of being a Bluetooth LE Audio source or target for audio-sharing setups.

Bluetooth speakers and car audio

Braven BRV-X outdoor Bluetooth speaker

Bluetooth LE Audio apps may also be required to bring Bluetooth LE Audio broadcasts to Bluetooth speakers like this Braven BRV-X outdoor Bluetooth speaker

The COVID-19 coronavirus plague gave drive-in movies a renaissance in some areas. This was because households could go out and watch the movies from the safety of their cars and reduce the spread of the virus. This had been extended to “drive-in” live entertainment like concerts except a stage for the live entertainment was used rather than a screen for showing films.

Even before, there has been some interest in drive-in movies as a form of “cinema al fresco” in countries that had balmy summers. This was about enjoying watching films in a cinematic experience while in an outdoor setting rather than going in to an air-conditioned cinema to watch films as a community.

But these setups would distribute the sound via FM radio so each household can hear the entertainment’s soundtrack through their car’s car radio or a portable radio tuned to a particular FM frequency. This was able to use the many-decades-old FM technology to deliver the sound in stereo to each vehicle. Bluetooth LE Audio could easily be seen as a logical successor to FM radio for this kind of use case.

As for Bluetooth speakers and Bluetooth audio-receive adaptors, these could be part of the Bluetooth LE Audio broadcast-audio concept. For example, Bluetooth SIG often suggested the TV, whether at home, in a hotel room or in a public place as a key use case for the broadcast-audio feature that Bluetooth LE Audio offers. This is in the form of assisted hearing or access to an alternate soundtrack at home, reduced volume for hotel-room TVs or the ability to hear the soundtrack for a show playing on a bar’s TV via headphones.

Here, a Bluetooth speaker could be about a group of people at a particular table in a bar hearing the call of a sports event shown on one of the TVs in that bar through one of these speakers. Or it could be about someone hearing the audio-described soundtrack for a show that everyone is watching through a small Bluetooth speaker while everyone else hears the standard soundtrack through the main sound system.

Firstly this could mean that there could be an incentive to support Bluetooth LE Audio functionality within newer speaker-equipped Bluetooth audio equipment or Bluetooth audio-receive adaptor devices. As for as legacy equipment is concerned, it may be about the previously-mentioned Bluetooth LE Audio controller app that repackages broadcast audio content delivered via this new standard as the legacy Bluetooth Classic Audio standards.

Announcement priority

A feature that will be wanted for Bluetooth LE Audio’s broadcast-audio feature is some form of “announcement priority” feature. Such a feature would be called for in relationship to emergency messaging but would also be desired for the transport sector.

Here, that would be akin to the traffic-announcement priority feature instigated with ARI and implemented primarily with RDS, where, with a suitably-equipped car radio tuned to a broadcaster supporting this feature, you can turn it down or have something else playing but you don’t miss out on the latest road reports. This is due to out-of-band subcarrier-based signalling that causes the radio to increase the volume to a particular level or pause the other program you were listening to while a traffic report is being broadcast.

If this was implemented in Bluetooth LE Audio, it could be set up to allow a transport-service announcement or building emergency announcement to override whatever you are listening to on your phone, but not override a phone call. Such a facility would have to have some form of “relevance filter” with metadata relating to the platform that you are waiting at or the vehicle you are riding on in a public transport system, or the language the announcement comes in. Like with the car-radio application, there would be a requirement to cancel the currently-playing announcement but be ready to hear the next one for further updates.

Multichannel audio

Another killer use case for Bluetooth LE Audio is to allow a single source device to deliver two or more audio streams relating to the same content as a multichannel audio stream to multiple output devices. This is with the sound in phase and in sync across all of the audio channels.

Here, it would be operated in a manner that doesn’t require vendors to reinvent the wheel when it comes to designing multichannel-audio equipment that exploits Bluetooth LE Audio technology.

The obvious use case is to have standards-based true wireless earbuds and hearing aids without manufacturers reinventing the wheel every time they design these setups. As well, the requirement would be to have the source device effectively stream each channel to each output device so that there is no retransmission involved thus assuring power efficiency for earbuds and hearing aids.

Bluetooth speakers

I would see the multichannel audio feature also benefit Bluetooth speakers. Here, a manufacturer could design their Bluetooth speakers so that if you buy two or more of these speakers, you could set up a pair for proper stereo-sound reproduction with increased separation.

There may even be a requirement to support multiple multichannel speaker clusters. This could be multiple pairs of speakers used to reproduce a stereo soundmix in different areas.

Use of subwoofers to pump up the bass

Some device manufacturers would be taking this further by having speaker setups involving speakers that have different frequency-response characteristics. The classic example is a pair of highly-compact speakers reproducing the stereo sound but not having much bass response while another larger speaker with a larger driver and housing like a subwoofer yields the bass notes. Such setups are desired as a way to have compact speakers yet be able to have that bit of bass “kick”.

This would require support within the standard for passing audio frequencies above or below a certain threshold to particular speakers that can handle particular audio frequency ranges. Most likely it may be facilitated through each speaker taking an audio stream that represents the full frequency range and passing it through low-pass or high-pass filter circuitry or its acoustic design doing the filtering.

Surround sound

Then there is the idea of using Bluetooth LE for multi-channel surround sound applications, typically associated with video content. This may be about a soundbar that represents the front and centre channels of a surround soundmix, a subwoofer representing low-frequency effects and two speakers representing the “surround” channels.

Most likely the source device will decode the Dolby or DTS surround-sound formats and allocate particular channels to particular speakers.

Speakers with own audio inputs or sources

There will be problems with this kind of setup where Bluetooth speakers typically have another audio input beyond the Bluetooth audio stream delivered by a smartphone or other device. This represents at least a stereo line-level analogue input with better setups offering one or more wired digital inputs of some form.

It may also extend to where a Bluetooth LE Audio speaker in a multichannel setup has its own programme source. Such sources can range from a traditional radio or TV broadcast source or packaged content medium like vinyl, CD or Blu-Ray. Or it could be file-based media on something like a USB device or simply receiving online audio or video content via the Internet. I would even encompass devices that are part of a network-based multiroom audio setup or smart speakers that have their own microphone and work with a voice-driven home assistant.

The common use case involving speakers and multichannel sound from a connected source would be a soundbar that is connected to a TV set via HDMI-ARC. This soundbar, expected to reproduce the sound from the connected TV, would typically work alongside a subwoofer that reproduces the bass frequencies, while it reproduces the midrange frequencies for the left, right and centre channels in an audio mix. Some setups may support additional front speakers for increased stereo separation or a set of rear speakers for full-on surround sound. Or it could be about extra speakers required to properly reproduce a Dolby Atmos soundmix.

Here, it will be about wanting to have one speaker that has the input or content source work as a Bluetooth LE Audio source device for these setups. This speaker will then be required to yield a multichannel Bluetooth LE audio stream to the other speakers as if it is a Bluetooth audio-transmitter adaptor. The other speakers would then pick up and reproduce the audio channel that they are assigned to.

This use case involving a Bluetooth speaker of some sort having its own audio input or source and working with a multichannel audio setup would be seen as the exception when it comes to having a Bluetooth source device stream each channel of a multichannel soundmix to different output devices.

In this case, it would be about streaming a stereo or multichannel Bluetooth LE audio stream from the connected or integrated audio source around multiple Bluetooth LE speakers. You would then have to set each speaker to receive the appropriate audio channel, most likely through the manufacturer’s app.

Conclusion

The broadcast audio and audio-sharing abilities of Bluetooth LE Audio will most likely appear in the form of mobile-platform “controller” apps that discover Bluetooth LE Audio broadcast / multicast streams and share them with audio devices associated with the mobile device. Here, there will be a reliance on these apps to “bridge” Bluetooth LE Audio multicast streams to the Bluetooth Classic Audio devices currently in circulation.

Most likely I would see the Bluetooth LE Audio multichannel support manifest in manufacturers who encourage us to buy two or more of a particular speaker product and set them up for stereo sound. As well, it could encourage in the short  term the supply of subwoofers and three-piece speaker kits that implement this technology to give that bit of extra bass kick.

Intel and NVIDIA release new silicon for high-performance portable computing

Article

Intel Tiger Lake H Series CPU press image courtesy of Intel Corporation

This to be part of affordable increasingly-powerful laptops

Intel aims high and Nvidia aims low with laptop chip updates | bit-tech.net

From the horse’s mouth

Intel

Intel Launches New 11th Gen Core for Mobile

NVIDIA

New GeForce RTX Gaming and Studio Laptop Models Now Available – Over 140 In All, Including New RTX 3050 and 3050 Ti Models | GeForce News | NVIDIA

My Comments

Intel and NVIDIA had just released new processing silicon for laptops and similar use cases that is about high-performance computing. This is although there is a processor-chip shortage that is affecting the computing, automotive and allied industries.

Intel is offering the newer performance-focused 11th-generation Tiger Lake H-Series Core CPUs. This is in addition to business-focused H-Series Core CPUs that come with vPro security / management facilities. All of these will at least support Thunderbolt 4 connectivity for increased expansion.

But NVIDIA have released the RTX 30 series of discrete graphics processors optimised for mobile and low-profile use cases. These GPUs, especially the RTX-3050 and RTX-3050Ti variants are pitched as affordable capable mobile units to court the gaming and creator market segments.

They are optimised to offer screen refresh rates of more than 60fps for a Full HD 1080p display. That understands the preference for laptops being equipped with Full HD 1080p screens for their built-in displays due to that offering battery efficiency for this use case.

Lets not forget that these GPUs will offer ray-tracing abilities at affordable prices and in the mobile context. This will benefit computer games and similar graphics applications where realism is important.

Intel and NVIDIA are pitching this silicon combination to budget gamers, creators especially the “prosumer” type and high-performance thin-and-light laptops. I would see this more as laptop manufacturers offer performance variants of their mainstream product lines that can appeal to university students. budget gamers and similar users where cost and performance matter.

But I would see NVIDIDA’s new graphics silicon also appealing to external graphics modules especially in the form of highly-compact types that use soldered-in GPUs. As well, this mobile-focused silicon could also appeal to ultra-compact NUC-type desktop computers where a performance variant  is important.

Here, most of the computer manufacturers refreshed their lineup of performance-focused Windows laptops with this new silicon. This included creator/prosumer 15” and 17” thin-and-light laptops intended to compete with Apple’s MacBook Pro.

All this new silicon is about bringing desktop-class graphics performance to mobile use cases especially where you don’t have to pay a lot for this kind of performance. NVIDIA was even putting forward the idea of increased graphics power at a price students can afford, but I see this as an all-round GPU that doesn’t depend on their continued interest in engineering, architecture or statistics for example. It is also about being suited to rest-and-recreation gaming as well.

It is another example of the increased investment in regular computers that run desktop operating systems that has taken place over the last six months. This is underscored by the increased use of these computers during the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns to work, learn, play and communicate at home. As well, an increased and continued interest in working away from the office on a part-time or full-time basis is driving more interest in this class of computer.

Here, the laptop form factor is being preferred due to its combination of portability and power and the investment in more power mobile silicon is showing this reality for most computer users.

Some apps on your Android device crashing lately? WebView may be the culprit

Article

Android main interactive lock screen

Apps crashing frequently on your Android smartphone or tablet? Check out Webview – it may be the culprit.

Android apps like Gmail are crashing and ‘WebView’ is to blame | Engadget

My Comments

You may have found that with your Android phone some apps like news apps, email apps or online banking apps are crashing lately. It will also affect apps or games that use advertising and the app or game crashes when an ad appears.

This is to do with the Webview system app that allows a native Android app to utilise Google Chrome’s logic to show Web-based HTML content within the app’s user interface. But a recent version of this app has been found to be buggy and is responsible for causing these software crashes.

A temporary fix that has been put forward is to uninstall the latest Chrome updates on your Android device. Or you go to the Google Play Store or the Settings – Apps menu to uninstall Android System Webview.

But Google have lately worked on a bugfix for this problem and are now rushing this out as a software update for Chrome and Webview. These are expected to be delivered as part of the latest Google Play software updates and should be delivered by 24 March 2021. On some devices, you may find that these updates are delivered as separate packages.

Once these are updated, you shouldn’t find your apps that use Web-based content crashing frequently.