“Text me when you get home” is a frequent farewell among friends and family.
But what if you could actually track their journey home, check in if they’re feeling unsafe on their commute, and ensure that they can easily contact the police in an emergency?
That’s all possible with a free app called Companion. Created over a year ago by a group of five students at the University of Michigan, the app has been gaining a ton of momentum after launching to the public two weeks ago.
The app, available on Android or iOS, lets users send requests to phone contacts to virtually track their trips using GPS.
The app has seen 500,0000 new users in the past week alone — including me.
Why is everyone so excited about a safety app? I tried it out for myself. A friend of mine in Israel graciously agreed to let me track him as he walked to a coffee shop about 18 minutes away. (I also took my turn being the walker, but it was more interesting to be on the other end.)
I received an SMS text requesting that I be his companion. A link in the text sent me to the app — though you don’t need it to track someone. If not, it would have directed me to a map in a browser. Once I accepted, I could see exactly where my friend was.
The app uses the phone’s built-in sensors to detect changes in movement — like if the user starts running or the headphones come out. If that happens, the app asks users to confirm that they’re OK. If they don’t do so within 15 seconds, the app notifies your companion who has the option to call the police. At the same time, the app will also go into alert mode for the walker, emitting siren-like noises and displaying a button to also call the police.
If I had been concerned about something with my friend — like why he wasn’t walking faster! — I could use the app to call him. Alternately, he could select, “I feel nervous,” which would have prompted me to check in on him. Once he reached his destination, I got an alert that he was safe.
“We’ve seen so many amazing use cases,” said 21-year-old Lexie Ernst, a cofounder who’s a senior at the University of Michigan. She said everyone from senior citizens to kids studying abroad are using the app.
That wasn’t exactly anticipated: The app was initially built to help tackle crime on college campuses, which the founders say is “way too prevalent.”
The first version of Companion rolled out in November 2014 for students at the University of Michigan. The founders, three of whom are still in college, incorporated early feedback into the app’s current version.
“We asked, ‘What do people actually want to use,'” said cofounder Nathan Pilcowitz, 22.
The founders plan to add more features in the future — like touch-ID technology so that only the phone’s owner can hit the “I’m OK” button. That way, someone can’t steal your phone and falsely tell your friends that you’re fine.
Because Companion is collecting anonymous data on users’ paths — and where they “feel nervous” — it’s a potential goldmine of information that universities and cities could analyze to make streets safer.
For now, they’re just working with University of Michigan, although Pilcowitz said others have reached out about potential partnerships.
“We didn’t realize going into it how much people love safety,” he said.
In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET’s Marguerite Reardon looks into Apple’s new program that lets customers upgrade their iPhone every year. How does it compare with similar plans from the big wireless carriers?
Who wouldn’t want a new iPhone every year?
Apple’s newly announced iPhone Upgrade Program offers customers the opportunity to upgrade their smartphone each year by paying a monthly installment. In this column, I’ll look at whether the plan is worth it.
Apple’s plan mimics similar deals offered by the four major wireless operators, which are ditching two-year service contracts with heavily subsidized devices. Instead they’re offering plans that require customers to pay full price for a phone in exchange for lower service fees. T-Mobile started the no-contract trend two years ago and Verizon is the latest to follow suit.
Installment plans help blunt the sticker shock of a new smartphone. And the upgrade plans help drive more iPhone sales.
Apple’s new plan could be a boon for the company, which will not only move more inventory, but will also get a steady stream of older devices it can resell.
The new financing program will be available only at Apple retail locations. Customers won’t be able to sign up for it online. Devices bought through the program will be unlocked, but they must be activated on AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile or Verizon, the company said during the announcement.
I’m sure you’re getting lots of questions about the new iPhone Upgrade program. Could explain how it works? Also, how does it compare to the installment plans the carriers have? I’m a T-Mobile customer, so I don’t have the option of a contract plan. Should I be considering this plan?
You’re right, I’ve gotten tons of emails asking how Apple’s program works and stacks up against carrier plans. To help answer all these questions, I put together an FAQ.
The pricing is on top of the monthly fee you’ll pay for wireless service from your carrier.
Do customers have to return their old iPhone when upgrading to the next model?
Apple’s program is essentially an installment plan combined with an early upgrade program. It spreads payments for the new phone over 24 months. Customers can upgrade free after 12 payments. To upgrade, they must trade in their existing iPhone; then the clock resets on the monthly payments for the new device.
If customers choose not to upgrade, they can continue paying off the device. After 24 months, they’ll own the phone and can keep it, sell it, give it to a family member or use it as a backup device.
If customers want a new phone after making 24 payments, they can keep their paid-off phone and sign up for a new device, assuming Apple continues the program.
The plan offers ‘unlocked’ iPhones. What are they and why would I want one?
An unlocked smartphone doesn’t have software installed from a specific wireless operator to prevent it from being used on a rival’s network. iPhones sold for and by major carriers include a software lock. (Verizon is the big exception. All its 4G LTE devices come unlocked.) AT&T and Sprint will generally unlock devices once they’re paid for.
Unlocked phones let customers avoid contracts and switch carriers if they’re unhappy with service. They also let customers swap SIM cards so the device can be used with a local service provider when traveling abroad. This can save big bucks on service charges while out of the country.
In the past, unlocked iPhones didn’t work on all US carriers. Will the unlocked version sold through this program work?
In years gone by, Apple built multiple versions of the iPhone that included technology compatible with particular wireless operators. Unlocked versions of the phone were often tailored more for the European market, which uses a network technology called GSM to deliver voice service. AT&T and T-Mobile in the U.S. use GSM, while Verizon and Sprint use a technology called CDMA to deliver voice service. Because of this difference, unlocked iPhones sold by Apple often didn’t support the CDMA technology needed to operate on Verizon and Sprint.
Apple says the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus sold through this program will come unlocked and will work on any of the four major US carriers’ networks.
How does pricing for Apple’s new plan compare to similar plans from the carriers?
Look at the chart below and you’ll see that Apple’s program is likely to be pricier than most of the other offers.
One thing to note is that included in the monthly fee is a subscription to Apple Care+, Apple’s insurance and extended warranty program. The retail cost of this service is $129. If you look at the total price of a new 16GB iPhone 6S under the Apple program, it’s roughly $129 more than the full retail price of the device, which is $650.
Each of the four major carriers in the US offers installment and/or early upgrade programs for new iPhones. And each of those is likely to be at least slightly less expensive than Apple’s plan. But remember that these plans don’t include insurance or an extended warranty. Customers wanting those features must pay extra, and the per month and total cost could be pricier than Apple’s offer.
Based on current pricing, Sprint offers the best value for customers who’d like to upgrade to a new iPhone every year, through a leasing program called iPhone Forever. Right now Sprint is offering a promotion that lets customers lease a new iPhone for $15 a month with the option to upgrade anytime they want. In order to get this price, customers have to turn in a functioning smartphone. Without a device to trade-in, the price is $22 a month to lease a new iPhone 6S.
For iPhone fans who plan to keep their devices longer, T-Mobile’s Jump On Demand offers a great value. The plan, available only in retail stores, charges a monthly fee and lets customers upgrade up to three times a year.
Following Apple’s announcement, T-Mobile sweetened its deal by dropping the monthly lease price for a new 16GB iPhone 6S to $20 a month. But the real value of the T-Mobile offer over all the other plans is that it lets customers pay $164 at the end of the lease period to own the phone. This, coupled with the newly reduced monthly fee, brings the total cost of a new iPhone under T-Mobile’s Jump plan to $524, a savings of $126 over the full retail price of the phone.
I know Apple Care+ is included in the monthly fee under Apple’s program. What benefit does it provide over the standard warranty?
Apple iPhones come with a limited one-year warranty, which covers manufacturer defects, as well as 90 days of support. AppleCare+, which now costs $129, extends the basic warranty to two years. It also adds up to two incidents of accidental damage coverage, each subject to a service fee of $99 for the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus.
The bottom line: What should I do?
Apple’s upgrade program is attractive only for people looking to upgrade to the latest iPhone every year.
Even then, Sprint and T-Mobile each offer less expensive options, especially with the promotions they’re currently running.
If you’d rather use AT&T or Verizon as your service provider, and you’d like to upgrade your iPhone each year, the Apple upgrade program is appealing. It’s priced slightly lower than AT&T’s Next program, which also allows the option to upgrade once a year, and it includes the Apple Care+ warranty and insurance. For Verizon subscribers, it’s the only option if you want to upgrade without paying the full price for a new device every year.
If you plan to keep your device for at least two years and you don’t really need or want to spend extra money on the Apple Care+ service, then almost any offer from one of the wireless carriers will likely cost you less over a 24-month period than Apple’s plan.
I hope this advice was helpful, and good luck!
Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers’ wireless and broadband questions. If you have a question, I’d love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put “Ask Maggie” in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.
And last month, the Wall Street Journal reported it had laid off “dozens” of Fire Phone engineers at its Silicon Valley research-and-development lab.
Stuart Miles, editor and founder of technology news website Pocket-lint, said he was not surprised by the decision to pull the phone.
“The phone industry is incredibly competitive, and it’s very foolhardy for any company to believe you can come in on your first product and make a difference.
“Amazon obviously believed it could launch something, which unfortunately didn’t gain any excitement.
“The dynamic perspective camera was pretty much seen as a gimmick which didn’t really add anything to the overall experience.”
Amazon is still selling its tablets, such as the Kindle and Fire. On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported Amazon planned to launch a cut-price $50 (£33) tablet this Christmas, along with new tablets with 8in (20cm) and 10in screens.
“Developers no longer have to buy all the mobile devices and model variations to do their own testing. That gets expensive,” noted Lubos Parobek, vice president of products at Sauce Labs. “Instead, they can rent our devices through their cloud-based installations.” Real device testing already exists with other testing firms, but Sauce Labs is the first to utilize both approaches.
Sauce Labs on Tuesday announced the release of its automated mobile testing solution for real devices. The new option lets developers test mobile applications directly on the devices that will run them.
About 80 percent of software and application testing is performed manually. Automated testing on real mobile devices brings enhanced speed, fidelity and cost-efficiency to the software development process.
The total software testing revenue worldwide was US$1.5 billion last year, according to Gartner.
Sauce Lab’s Real Device Cloud expands the automated testing platforms for developers. It augments existing testing methods, which are based on emulators and simulators of the most popular mobile devices.
Sauce Labs has added a second tier to the testing process by introducing refined testing on actual mobile devices, according to Lubos Parobek, vice president of products at Sauce Labs.
Developers can run their initial trials using the less costly emulator and simulator methods, and then refine those results by running tests on actual mobile devices.
“Real devices bring greater accuracy. Emulators and simulators tend to be less costly and faster, but they do not catch all of the bugs that can crop up,” Parobek told TechNewsWorld.
How It Works
Traditional testing runs applications on emulators and simulators in a virtual environment. Using its new approach Sauce Labs can use its cloud to run tests on real devices and then send the developer or testing organization a report including multiple screenshots of app displays and error messages.
“Developers no longer have to buy all the mobile devices and model variations to do their own testing. That gets expensive,” noted Parobek. “Instead, they can rent our devices through their cloud-based installations.”
Real device testing already exists with other testing firms, but Sauce Labs is the first to utilize both approaches.
“Having all of this available for a comprehensive testing process is unique,” Parobek said.
The Testing Challenge
Using real mobile devices offers developers and enterprise users benefits beyond speed and cost reductions, noted Ken Drachnik, director of product marketing at Sauce Labs. It helps them make the move to automated testing.
“It enables developers to test their websites on standard operating systems and test their mobile apps on a variety of devices in real time. Automating the testing process will allow them to get better feedback more quickly,” he told TechNewsWorld.
It also facilitates their continuous integration workload, which gets their apps to market faster, Drachnik added.
Many developers currently provide customer access only via their websites. They do not have published phone numbers or visible offices that customers can walk into, he pointed out. “Your experience with that company is through their app, so making the user experience with the app a better experience will get more consumer business for them.”
Devs want to release apps and updates as quickly as possible, and it’s testing that usually consumes most of their time.
Traditional testing, which involves developers doing in-house testing first, is expensive and slows application release schedules. It requires keeping Web browsers, operating systems and all software up to date, and all security patches installed, explained Drachnik.
“That is time-consuming and keeps developers away from developing new releases faster. This is also very costly for them. Using a third-party solution solves the developers’ problem,” he said.
Depth of Testing
Sauce Labs’ testing approach differs from other mobile functional testing services by providing a large volume of devices but fewer device types. The company’s mobile strategy is focused on the depth of testing using real devices.
The availability of a large number of real devices for cloud testing prevents long wait times that customers experience when using other offerings. Sauce Labs’ supply of mobile devices couples with more than 75 device/platform combinations of iOS and Android simulators and emulators.
That combination allows users to cover the majority of their testing with emulators and augment it with higher-fidelity testing on the most popular real devices for maximum coverage at a fraction of what it would cost to use real devices only, according to the company.
Open Source Tools
Sauce Labs uses two open source projects to provide Web, native and hybrid app testing. With support from Appium and Selenium, developers can test all their mobile apps — including native, mobile Web and hybrid apps — across both emulators and real devices.
Appium is an open source test automation framework for use with native, hybrid and mobile Web apps for iOS and Android. Selenium is an open source project that automates browsers for Web application testing purposes.
Beta access to the Real Device Cloud is available immediately, with prices starting at US$449 per device per month.
Nextbit earlier this week launched a Kickstarter campaign for Robin, a cloud-connected Android smartphone. Robin boasts a streamlined interface that does away with bloatware and automatically offloads data to the cloud.
The company expects to ship Robin running Marshmallow, the next version of Android — unless the OS’ launch is delayed. In that case, Nextbit will issue an over-the-air update when Marshmallow rolls out.
The phone will learn which apps owners use and the space they need, and automatically offload unused stuff to the cloud. Its default setting will back up apps and photos to the cloud whenever it’s connected to WiFi and a power outlet.
Users can restore offloaded apps and photos to the phone’s memory by tapping on their icons.
Robin will run a Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 processor — the same chip that’s reportedly slated for use in LG’s upcoming 5.2-inch Nexus phone, as well as Xiaomi’s Mi 4c.
Robin manages power based on the user’s habits, and it supports quick charging.
“The cloud computing approach is a clever way to make sure your phone is humming along nicely, but do you think the average user understands the cloud enough to make the purchase?” wondered Ramon Llamas, a research manager at IDC.
“If everything’s up on the cloud, think about what it means to be connected on this phone,” Llamas told TechNewsWorld. “You’re always going to need a WiFi or cellular carrier connection, and carriers will be concerned the phone will burn through a lot of data.”
Rockin’ With Robin
Robin has a 5.2-inch IPS LCD 1080p display, 3 GB of RAM, 32 GB of onboard memory and 100 GB of online storage. It has dual front-facing stereo speakers and a fingerprint sensor.
Robin supports NFC. It has a 13-MP rear camera with phase detection autofocus and dual-tone flash, and a 5-MP front camera.
It supports Bluetooth 4.0 LE, WiFi, GSM and WCDMA.
There are no third-party apps preinstalled.
Robin comes with an unlocked bootloader and open source drivers. Users can load CyanogenMod or any other ROM and the warranty will still hold good, even if the phone is bricked.
Pricing and Availability
Nextbit is selling Robin directly to consumers through its Kickstarter campaign, and it will provide buyers with an unlocked SIM.
How the device will work with carriers’ networks is not clear.
“I’ve heard they’re looking to team up with AT&T and T-Mobile initially, and later with Verizon and Sprint,” said Susan Schreiner, an analyst at C4 Trends.
“The SIM card says they’re also hedging their bets,” she told TechNewsWorld.
Kickstarter backers quickly snapped up 1,000 phones at the special early adopter rate of US$299 — that deal is closed. Backers can buy Robin for $349 until Oct. 1.
The phone will then retail for $399.
“This is where it’s going to get people,” Llamas remarked. “$400 unlocked is a bit steep for some people, and Android smartphone prices are heading the other way — and you’re looking at a phone from a new company.”
Distribution also might be a problem –the direct-to-consumer route did not work for Google’s Nexus smartphone.
The public seems to love the concept of a smartphone that’s smarter about using the cloud. With 26 days remaining in the Kickstarter campaign, more than 2,160 backers already have contributed upwards of $817,400 — far surpassing its $500,000 goal.
Besides the 1,000 early adopters who pledged $299 or more, 835 backers have pledged $349 or more, 200 have kicked in $399 or more, and 34 have pledged $698 or more. Five enthusiastic backers pledged $6,950 or more for the distributor pack special.
Robin ships to the U.S., UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and a number of countries in Europe and Asia. Estimated delivery date is January or February 2016, depending on the amount pledged.
“This might appeal to business users who have entire campuses connected via WiFi,” Llamas suggested, “but the question then is, what other enterprise-oriented features are available that would work well on the phone?”
Currently most anti-malware apps available on mobile devices rely on a list of known threats, meaning that malicious software can be fairly easily tweaked to bypass their security measures. Rather than relying on these lists to identify nefarious software, Smart Protect will monitor what’s actually happening on your smartphone, tablet, or other mobile device, making it possible to warn users of unexpected activity. Asaf Ashkenazi, director of Qualcomm’s product management, says users will get “nearly instantaneous notifications of detected privacy violations and malicious activity,” and because the technology is baked into the hardware itself, these reports will be possible offline and without draining your phone’s battery excessively.
The feature is set to become available on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 processors when they launch next year. The company says it’s already working with security firms, including Avast, AVG, and Lookout, using an API to tie Smart Protect into their commercially available apps, meaning users will be able to take advantage of its capabilities.
Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the launch of Windows 95. What people often forget about Windows 95 is that it not only kicked Apple’s butt, but also kicked IBM’s — and it wasn’t even a complete product. The thing was an operating system. Most of us can see lining up to buy a complete product, but lining up to buy the software that makes a product complete would be kind of like lining up to get the latest software patch for your car or TV.
It’s especially hard to imagine now that these things typically are downloaded from the Web, and there’s no need to stand in line. However, if a company can do something once, that suggests it could do it again. Apple clearly spanked the entire cellphone market when it released the iPhone, through a process very similar to the one Microsoft used for Windows 95. I’m not saying Microsoft will do this — I’m just pointing out that it could (and looking back on Windows 95, just a little bit).
I’ll close with my product of the week: from Logitech, a nice small office/home office conferencing product that won’t break the bank.
The Windows 95 Lesson
What is funny and just a tad ironic about the success of Windows 95 is how quickly everyone, including Microsoft, seemed to see it as kind of an accident. Apple with the iPad, iPhone, and iPod actually used some of the same skills, but Microsoft never again — well, with the possible exception of the first Xbox — showcased the kind of marketing brilliance that the Windows 95 launch demonstrated. What is kind of funny is, when you look at the Apple Watch, it looks as though Apple may have forgotten this now too.
What Microsoft did right was to keep it very focused on the user/consumer, make it comparatively simple, and get folks talking about it as revolutionary months before the launch. Apple’s closest emulation of this was actually the iPhone, which it showcased months before its release. It didn’t actually work when it was shown, but promised to do a few things other phones didn’t do well — music and entertainment — and set the market on fire.
After Windows 95’s release, Microsoft brought out Windows NT and then gave the NT team control over everything. Given that Windows NT was the clean room copy of OS/2, the product that Windows 95 obliterated, it was kind of like the guys with the fastest car in the race copied the slowest and then wondered why they weren’t winning races anymore.
That’s pretty much what we are seeing now with the Apple Watch. The surprise isn’t that it’s not selling well — it’s that it is selling as well as it is. It showcases that there are a lot of people conditioned, like Pavlov’s dogs, to buy Apple stuff.
There’s an amazing little company in China that’s doing with phones what Visio does with TVs and Hyundai does with cars. It bundles in a mix of top components that folks care about and releases the phone at an aggressive price — and then make it hard to get, so it comes off as exclusive.
There are millions of people standing in a virtual line to buy its latest phone. Microsoft would kill to have nearly 4 million people lined up to buy its next Windows phone. One Plus shows it’s possible, even in an Apple-dominated world.
One of the biggest reasons the opportunity to pull a ton of share from Apple is so high is that it now seems to have forgotten its winning model — the one Microsoft forgot after Windows 95. The Apple Watch doesn’t have the “iWatch” name, and it doesn’t do a few things really well. Instead, it does a lot of things — many of them really poorly.
Apple seems to be emulating a PC-company-like strategy, throwing tons of features at the market in the hope that customers like some of them. While the Apple brand makes it the most successful smartwatch in the market, it certainly isn’t a revolutionary product like the iPod, iPhone and iPad were.
Another problem for Apple is that most countries either have killed subsidies or are in the process of killing them. Subsidies worked particularly well for Apple, because they concealed how crazy that phone’s price has become. Without them, the phone goes from a few hundred dollars to nearly a thousand bucks. That is a huge perceived price jump and one of the reasons the far cheaper One Plus Two is suddenly so attractive.
So, Apple is unusually vulnerable at the moment, and Samsung is having trouble holding Android momentum — both are showcased by One Plus’ success. Finally, smartphone technology is looking a tad unexciting at the moment. I mean — at some point, all of the phones kind of look like each other.
Windows 10 Phone
There are five things that I think could make a good chunk of the folks currently buying Android and iOS products think about moving to a Windows phone.
First is to come up with a forward-looking phone design: sturdier and more flexible; more carbon fiber than aluminum or steel; maybe a transflective display for outdoor use; far better battery life in a next-generation battery with higher capacity and faster charge time.
Second, wrap it with a set of features and services that will allow it to replace office and home hard wired phones completely. Flip it into a virtual PBX or key system, so both consumers and companies could see fast cost savings.
Third, take Cortana to the next level — either by using real people, like Facebook is, or using something like Watson, which we expect Apple to do.
Finally, create an application bridge through emulation, virtualization, or common APIs either on the device (we actually are starting to reach a point where there is performance headroom on phones like we have on PCs) or in a cloud service, so that folks can keep their favorite apps.
The funny thing about this is that Apple started out with a plan to put its apps into the cloud, but connectivity just wasn’t where it needed to be. Things have improved a lot over the last decade, and it’s time to revisit that approach.
One other way Microsoft could take the market is by evolving HoloLens far more quickly and making the smartphone obsolete. If you can put a display anyplace, and create a technology you wear like glasses — without looking like a glasshole, clearly an issue with Google’s Glass — you could flip the market, much like Apple did with the iPod, iPhone and iPad. Just make smartphones obsolete.
In the end, Windows 95 reminds us that Microsoft is capable of magic — it’s just been a really long time since it’s demonstrated that capability. Maybe we are coming up on its time. On the other hand, nothing says Apple and Google can’t do the same thing, and whoever connects the next set of dots will own the market. That’s something to think about as we approach the next iPhone launch.
At under US$500, the Logitech ConferenceCam Connect is actually a pretty amazing little product. It starts out costing about half what you’d pay for the least expensive room conferencing system I’ve yet tested.
It can fit in a backpack and some larger purses; it has full zoom and scan capability; it is almost fully self-contained (the power supply is separate). Further, it is wicked-easy to set up and use. As you would expect, it has twin noise-cancelling microphones and a decent clear speaker. The camera is Zeiss HD-level 1080p.
I’ve tested it with a CNBC Asia crew, and they loved it. It has a built-in three-hour battery and will connect to your laptop with Bluetooth, so you could do a conference call from the airport or your hotel room really easily.
Logitech ConferenceCam Connect
It supports screen mirroring, and you can connect it to a TV with the included HDMI cable for a full-room video conferencing experience. (I’m using mine through my Dell 34-inch curved desktop monitor.)
Moving from Silicon Valley to Bend, Oregon, has made doing TV news far harder, but with the Logitech ConferenceCam and Skype, I appear to be back in the game. Plus, it is saving me from having to drive two-and-a-half hours to the closest studio I know of, in Eugene. Because the Logitech ConferenceCam saved my butt, it is my product of the week.
Vine is getting into music. With an update rollingout Friday, Vine will begin letting its users add music to their videos. The music will be selected and licensed by Vine — it’s not yet clear whether you’ll be able to dig into your private library to put “Bad Blood” over everything. Instead, after shooting a video, you’ll be able to look through a selection of tracks that Vine has picked out. You can place a song over your clip however you’d like, but Vine is hoping that you’ll use a feature it’s made called “Snap to Beat,” which will trim the music and video to the audio loop as perfectly as possible.
Avicii, Migos, and Odesza are among the first artists who will be included in Vine’s “Featured Tracks.” Vine is also pitching this as a way to discover new music. When a Vine video includes one of those tracks, a music note will appear beside it that you can tap to get information on the song and artist. Artists will also be able to include a link to wherever they choose, be it a social media profile, a website, or a music store, so that you can find out more about them. I’m not convinced that it’ll be an amazing way to sell songs, but it should definitely make for more pleasantly loopable Vines.
The tens of thousands of migrants who have flooded into the Balkans in recent weeks need food, water and shelter, just like the millions displaced by war the world over. But there is also one other thing they swear they cannot live without: a smartphone charging station.
“Every time I go to a new country, I buy a SIM card and activate the Internet and download the map to locate myself,” Osama Aljasem, a 32-year-old music teacher from Deir al-Zour, Syria, explained as he sat on a broken park bench in Belgrade, staring at his smartphone and plotting his next move into northern Europe.
“I would never have been able to arrive at my destination without my smartphone,” he added. “I get stressed out when the battery even starts to get low.”
Technology has transformed this 21st-century version of a refugee crisis, not least by making it easier for millions more people to move. It has intensified the pressures on routes that prove successful — like this one through the Balkans, where the United Nations said Tuesday that about 3,000 people a day continued to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia.
In this modern migration, smartphone maps, global positioning apps, social media and WhatsApp have become essential tools.
Migrants depend on them to post real-time updates about routes, arrests, border guard movements and transport, as well as places to stay and prices, all the while keeping in touch with family and friends.
The first thing many do once they have successfully navigated the watery passage between Turkey and Greece is pull out a smartphone and send loved ones a message that they made it.
Much of the change is driven by the tens of thousands of middle-class Syrians who have been displaced by war. Such tools are by no means limited to them, and are also used by migrants from Africa and the Middle East to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Traffickers advertise their services on Facebook like any legitimate travel agency, with dynamic photographs of destination cities and generous offers.
On the Arabic-language Facebook group Trafficking to Europe, one trafficker offers a 50 percent discount for children under 5. The 1,700 euro price of the journey from Istanbul to Thessaloniki, Greece, about $1,900, includes travel by car to and from each side of the border with a two-hour walk across.
“We have cars going every day,” the trafficker boasts. One user asked whether there was a family discount for multiple passengers. And in case one doubts the offer’s veracity, the post has 39 “likes.”
The Trafficking to Europe group, with 6,057 members, is merely one small corner of an entire new world of social media available to Syrians and others making the perilous journey to Europe.
Syrians are helped along their journeys by Arabic-language Facebook groups like “Smuggling Into the E.U.,” with 23,953 members, and “How to Emigrate to Europe,” with 39,304.
The discussions are both public and private, requiring an invitation from a group administrator. Migrants share photos and videos of their journeys taken on their smartphones.
The groups are used widely by those traveling alone and with traffickers. In fact, the ease and autonomy the apps provide may be cutting into the smuggling business.
“Right now, the traffickers are losing business because people are going alone, thanks to Facebook,” said Mohamed Haj Ali, 38, who works with the Adventist Development and Relief Agency in Belgrade, Serbia’s capital — a major stopover for migrants.
Originally from Syria, Mr. Ali has lived in Belgrade for three years, helping migrants and listening to their stories. At first, he said, most migrants passing through Serbia had paid traffickers for most or all of their trip.
But as tens of thousands completed their journeys, they shared their experiences on social media — even the precise GPS coordinates of every stop along their routes, recorded automatically by some smartphones.
For those traveling today, the prices charged by traffickers have gone down by about half since the beginning of the conflict, Mr. Ali said.
The only part of the journey that most migrants still pay traffickers for, he said, is the crossing from Turkey to Greece. Many migrants now feel able to make the rest of the journey on their own with a GPS-equipped smartphone and without paying traffickers.
Mr. Ali noted the popularity of Facebook groups such as “Smuggle Yourself to Europe Without a Trafficker.”
“Syrians are not idiots,” he said.
Mr. Aljasem, encountered in the park, said he kept in touch with his 21 siblings in five countries through WhatsApp, which requires only an Internet connection. Their private messaging group is called Our Family.
Once he left Syria, Mr. Aljasem said one of the first things he did was get a new smartphone, because it was too dangerous to travel with one in Syria. Soldiers at government checkpoints, as well as at Islamic State checkpoints, commonly demand Facebook passwords, he said. They look at Facebook profiles to determine one’s allegiance in the war.
“If you didn’t give the soldiers your Facebook password, they would beat you, destroy your phone or worse,” Mr. Aljasem said.
The technology is transforming the ways refugees and international aid agencies interact, even before the refugees enter Europe.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has distributed 33,000 SIM cards to Syrian refugees in Jordan and 85,704 solar lanterns that can also be used to charge cellphones.
“For the U.N.H.C.R., there is a shift in understanding of what assistance provision actually is,” said Christopher Earney of the refugee agency’s innovation office in Geneva.
Pawel Krzysiek, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Damascus, Syria, said smartphones enabled refugees to exchange information and interact with international agencies rather than just receive information passively.
“We are at the end of the social network age and are entering the social messaging age,” Mr. Krzysiek said.
When a water main broke in Aleppo in northern Syria in July, the committee helped organize a network of clean drinking-water points, and posted a map of the sites on Facebook. Mr. Krzysiek said that because of the water crisis, posts on the group’s Facebook Syria page had reached 10 times as many people as regular posts about the group’s activities.
According to a Facebook analytics report, the committee’s map of safe water distribution sites in Aleppo was seen by 133,187 people, and received 14,683 clicks and 4,859 likes, comments and shares.
Another example Mr. Krzysiek gave was a popular Facebook page in Syria reporting real-time counts of mortar rounds falling on Damascus and maps of their locations, allowing users to avoid certain areas.
Mohammed Salmoni, 21, from Kabul, Afghanistan, who had stopped to charge his phone at a newspaper kiosk in Belgrade, credited it with saving his life.
He used it to navigate a 40-hour walk across the Afghan province of Nimruz to the Iranian city of Zahedan. “It was very dangerous,” he said.
For others, cellphones are an archive of still deeper connections.
Shadad Alhassan, 39, said he had “lost everything” when his home was bombed in Damascus, where he once worked installing electrical inverters in a skyscraper under construction.
“My wife died in the bombing,” he said. “Now I have nothing left besides my two sons.” He indicated Wassem, 10, and Nazih, 9, sitting with him on a sleeping bag on the dirt in the park.
His smartphone held photographs, his only connection to the life he once lived.
Back in June, HTC CEO Cher Wang promised that her beleaguered company would launch a new “hero product” this October, revitalizing its core smartphone business. Now, newly leaked images via Twitter account OnLeaks suggest that this device (codenamed Aero) seems to be taking a leaf out of Apple’s design book. Photos purportedly showing the front and rear of the forthcoming smartphone reveal a case that’s extremely similar to the back of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. Although, this comparison is slightly unfair considering that Apple’s use of metal cases with inset plastic lines to let the phone signal escape was a design feature seen in HTC’s One handsets first.
BUT WHAT PHONE CAN HELP HTC NOW?
Reports from Android Central suggest that the HTC Aero will be marketed as the A9 and will feature curved glass at the front, a 5.2-inch quad HD display, a deca-core MediaTek X20 processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 3,500mAh battery. These specs are far from certain though, and we may see some differences when the handset is (hopefully) announced this October. Still, it’s hard to imagine any single smartphone turning around HTC’s current financial woes, even with elements of Apple’s design in play.