Technology

Encryption – A Failure to Understand

Today in the Telegraph, Amber Rudd, the UK Home Secretary has written an opinion piece (subscription) trying once more to explain the Government’s views on encryption.

Broadly speaking, they’re very upset that it’s really hard to break into terrorist and ne’er do well’s encrypted messages over services such as WhatsApp. It would be much easier if such services didn’t employ strong end-to-end encryption.

While the message does seem to be slightly getting through that encryption actual has a lot of commercial uses, there does seem to be a real failure to understand that it’s actually really useful for everybody – including “real people.”

I’ve annotated some of the column:

Encryption plays a fundamental role in protecting us all online. It is key to growing the digital economy, and delivering public services online. But, like many powerful technologies, encrypted services are used and abused by a small minority of people.

Yes. This is all true.

The particular challenge is around so called “end-to-end” encryption, where even the service provider cannot see the content of a communication.

That’s kind of the point about encryption. If my messages are sitting unencrypted on some kind of central server at WhatsApp or wherever, then they’re vulnerable. We’ve seen a non-stop series of hacks and data leaks of all kinds from everywhere. Unencrypted data is essentially a vulnerability waiting to happen.

To be very clear – Government supports strong encryption and has no intention of banning end-to-end encryption.

Good.

But the inability to gain access to encrypted data in specific and targeted instances – even with a warrant signed by a Secretary of State and a senior judge – is right now severely limiting our agencies’ ability to stop terrorist attacks and bring criminals to justice.

Undoubtedly this is a significant challenge. But either you allow end-to-end encryption or you don’t. And if you don’t, the consequences are vast.

I know some will argue that it’s impossible to have both – that if a system is end-to-end encrypted then it’s impossible ever to access the communication.

That’s right. It’s impossible – at least without access to the devices at either end where the messages are unencryted.

But you either have end-to-end encryption. Or you don’t. The choice is binary.

That might be true in theory.

Not just theory.

Practice.

It’s mathematics.

In this kind of area, there aren’t shades of grey. It works or it doesn’t work.

But the reality is different.

No it’s not.

Real people often prefer ease of use and a multitude of features to perfect, unbreakable security.

Where to begin?

This is a false dichotomy for starters. WhatsApp offers all the features alongside end-to-end encryption. A priori, you can have both.

And who are “Real people?” Are they business colleagues dealing in commercially sensitive data or intellectual property? Or friends and family sharing banking details? People sending naked selfies to each other? People having affairs or relationships they’d like to keep private? People seeking support for sensitive medical issues? Conservative MPs plotting in WhatsApp groups who will be the next PM?

“Real people” actually like a bit of privacy it would seem. There are countless good reasons for this. And encryption allows this.

So this is not about asking the companies to break encryption or create so called “back doors”.

OK – good. Because that would be horrifically dangerous.

Who uses WhatsApp because it is end-to-end encrypted, rather than because it is an incredibly 
user-friendly and cheap way of staying in touch with friends and family?

Um. Quite a lot of people. Encryption makes our lives safer. WhatsApp has managed to be both incredibly user-friendly and provide end-to-end encryption.

Are you asking WhatsApp to remove that encryption then? Because it’s really not clear from any of this what you expect them and others to actually be doing.

Companies are constantly making trade-offs between security and “usability”, and it is here where our experts believe opportunities may lie.

Except in this instance there is no trade-off. It turns out that we can have both! So I’ll take both thanks.

So, there are options. But they rely on mature conversations between the tech companies and Government 
– and they must be confidential. The key point is that this is not about compromising wider security.

Er. Yes it is. You want encryption switched off. That compromises my own security, and that of millions of other users.

It is about working together so we can find a way for our intelligence services, in very specific circumstances, to get more information on what serious criminals and terrorists are doing online.

Let’s think this through. If Facebook switches off encryption in WhatsApp, then do you think it’s at all possible that terrorists et al might migrate somewhere else? And you do understand that encryption isn’t something you can stuff back in the bottle. It’s out in the wild. There are dozens, if not hundreds of messaging services. Many businesses can’t, or won’t, work without full encryption, so you can’t ban the tools. They’re used throughout the world.

I thought previously that it was technical naivety that has led a succession of Home Secretaries to spout nonsense about encryption. But I’m beginning to think that it’s almost purposeful.

The Telegraph piece does not make any sense. And it really doesn’t spell out what the Home Secretary would actually like these companies to do.

I suspect it’s to turn off encryption. But that would just leave the vast majority of users globally far less secure while any terrorist with a semblance of intelligence would move to another platform that does offer encryption.

We’re lucky enough to live in a democracy in the UK. Many people don’t. Encryption has proved vital to millions of people throughout the world. But it’s not just dangerous regimes, but personal data that people would just prefer not to share with anyone apart from their intended targets.

At this point, a failure to not understand this must be construed as willful.

BBC Store is closing; Streaming v Ownership

Back in 2015 I took a look at the then new BBC Store. It had opened in a blaze of publicity after a relatively long gestation period. Visitors could buy to own BBC catalogue programmes as well as some of the latest dramas and comedies. Since then, announcers have mentioned the ability to buy programmes from the BBC Store (and other outlets) regularly over the end credits of series.

In 2015 I wrote:

“And of course everything is full of DRM meaning that long term, I can’t be certain I’ll have continued access. From the help section:

We cannot guarantee that you will be able to stream or download content that’s in My Programmes forever. However, when our right to make content available is due to expire, we will do our upmost to inform you of this by email so that you have the opportunity to download and then continue to playback the content through the BBC Store Download Manager.

“If I had DRM free copies of course, I could make them part of my back-up regime, and should the BBC Store ever close down, I wouldn’t lose anything, or be reliant on technology that might have limited or no future support. This is the key issue with all DRM-d media, and it’s why for the most part I continue to purchase physical copies ahead of DRM-filled downloads. Even though there is encryption on DVDs and Blu-rays, they can be ripped, and I can maintain access once players become redundant (I confess, I’m not looking forward to days of ripping however).

This week we learnt that the BBC Store is closing down in November after around two years in operation. Those words about DRM have proven to be prescient.

The first series I bought from the BBC Store was Tender is the Night, a 1985 Dennis Potter dramatisation of the F Scott Fitzgerald novel. This has never been made available to buy on DVD. It may have been on VHS for a period, but the only streaming version of the novel is a 1962 film.

After November, I will lose all access to this TV series. The DRM locked version that I bought will no longer play.

Now it’s true that the BBC Store is giving me a full refund, or slightly more if I accept Amazon vouchers. But the problem is that there is no DVD for me to buy.

The chief reason given for the store closing is that ownership isn’t the preferred model for consumers. They prefer the all-you-can-eat offers from the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.

But while that works for popular fare, that leaves a vast proportion of the longer tail of TV and film out in the cold.

A site called NewOnNetflix reckons the UK version of the site has 4,228 films and TV series across all genres. That sounds like a vast figure. But actually it’s a drop in the ocean. Go to the page that lists films by year and you will quickly discover that prior to 1941 whole years are missing.

In 1939, for example, the following films were released:

Gone With the Wind
Mr Smith Goes to Washington
Goodbye, Mr Chips
The Wizard of Oz
Gunga Din
The Women

Classics all, yet none are on Netflix. Now I can certainly buy all of those on DVD, and Amazon Prime may have one or two, but the point is that both Amazon and Netflix are offering highly curated – and limited – catalogues. Films and TV series come and go from the platforms. Aside from programmes they funded themselves, they acquire the rights for limited periods of time. I can’t be certain with rental that I can absolutely watch Gone With the Wind on any given day.

Now of course I can go to somewhere like the iTunes Store, or the Google Play Store, but even there, the range is surprisingly limited. Google Play doesn’t have Goodbye, Mr Chips or The Women, for example. (I will in fairness note that Amazon doesn’t carry a region 2 DVD of The Women, but does make it available to stream or own digitally, while Goodbye, Mr Chips is available as an inexpensive DVD, as well as digitally to own or rent).

In the end, its market forces that determined that the BBC Store needed to close. If not enough people are using it, then the business model doesn’t work. But I do dispute the idea that a Netflix or Amazon subscription is a complete solution. So while bona fide hits like The Night Manager, Line of Duty or War and Peace are available on the various platforms, other series very definitely are not. At this point in time, physical media is still the providing the greatest depth of range – with a significant number of specialist labels ranging from Network DVD to Second Sight and beyond, offering a vastly greater depth of catalogue than streaming is currently offering.

Streaming may well be the future, but right now I wouldn’t be without my DVD/Blu-ray player!

Meanwhile all of this is another case to prove that DRM is fatally flawed in the longer term. While I may be getting a full refund, I’d have preferred to have kept the programme.

iTunes 12.6.1.25 and Windows 10 Creators Update – A Possible Fix

This is really here as both to potentially help others, and for me to moan about the incompatibility of the current products of two of the biggest companies in computing.

I don’t really use iTunes any longer. I don’t have a personal iPhone, and my iPod Classic is now resting in retirement. These days my music collection (yes – I own, rather than rent) is stored on Google Play Music. They let you store up to 50,000 tracks. But I retain iTunes to rip the occasional CDs I buy (Yes – this is something I still do), and as a handy offline backup of all my music. My iTunes library sits on an external hard drive.

Now because of my low usage, I hadn’t recently opened iTunes. But a newly purchased copy of Burials In Several Earths by The Radiophonic Workshop meant that I needed to rip my new CDs. In this instance I usually fire up iTunes, and then grab the digital copy to upload to Google Play Music. Nice and simple.

But iTunes really wasn’t playing fair with me. It did load slowly the first time. But it then hung. I force shut the application and tried to relaunch it – without success. New Tasks were appearing in the Windows Task Manager but iTunes wasn’t working.

Eventually, after several reboots and failed attempts, I went for the uninstall option. For the record, despite iTunes installing with a single installer, you have to uninstall six separate applications. Then I reinstalled.

Still no luck.

I did notice that if I opened as an Administrator by right hand clicking, I could open iTunes. But that wouldn’t see my library which is stored on a network attached (NAS) drive. But I had succeeded in creating a new local library. Furthermore, I wasn’t now able to change library, because I couldn’t see a way to both launch as an Administrator, while holding Shift which is necessary if you want iTunes to open a different library. (Why, after so many years, you can’t choose to open a new library inside iTunes, I don’t know.)

By now I was Googling for solutions. But of course there are thousands of people who’ve had problems with iTunes over the years. I did find some suggestions to try an older version of iTunes. One person seemed to have had success with 12.5.5.5 from January. But having uninstalled and reinstalled it didn’t work for me. Furthermore, it couldn’t even open a library from a more recent version of iTunes.

More Googling finally showed that it seems to be a problem with the recently released Windows 10 Creators’ Update. Now while this hasn’t been pushed out to most machines yet, I had recently downloaded it from Microsoft. This is, after all, the big Spring update. And they’ve already announced a second update for later in the year. It’s been through the beta channels and is theoretically ready for prime-time.

But that doesn’t seem to be true.

For me, the solution came from this page on Microsoft’s site.

You have to kill the Bluetooth Tray Application (BTTray.exe). I did this just by launching Task Manager (Ctrl – Alt – Delete > Task Manager), finding the application and closing it. I should point out that I use both a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard with my laptop. Closing this application didn’t stop them working. However if I permanently disabled the app, I’m not sure if this would help. In any case, I do like to be able to use Bluetooth.

Fortunately for me, I use the hated iTunes little enough to be able to cope with this small inconvenience. But clearly something isn’t right if the current versions of iTunes for Windows and the latest version of Windows 10 don’t work together.

I assume that it will be sorted in due course. But in the meantime, perhaps this will help someone or other.

A Few Thoughts on the Ransomware Attacks

I’ve found a certain amount of the coverage surrounding the WannaCrypt ransomware attack really quite annoying, and the responses in many cases quite pathetic. So here are a few thoughts of my own:

  • The NSA, and other governmental bodies, have an awful lot to answer for. Governments love to collect operating system ‘exploits’ to use themselves. They have teams of people either trying to find ways to crack commercially available operating systems, or they go onto the black market and buy them from hackers. These shortcomings aren’t reported to the software producers like Microsoft. But if I spot a vulnerability and say nothing about it (because I may attack my enemy with it later), then so might you also find it. And you may be more nefarious than me. In this instance, the leaky sieve that is the NSA, actually let this and other exploits be stolen from them earlier this year. It was as a direct result of this theft from the NSA, that this attack took place. Although Microsoft had patched this hole in March, we know hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of users don’t keep their systems up to date. Nonetheless, if the NSA had alerted Microsoft much to the vulnerability rather than sit on it for their own means, then more people would have avoided being infected. There is a real issue of responsibility here, as Microsoft itself points out very firmly in a blog published over the weekend.
  • It’s frankly criminal that important infrastructure is still running on a deprecated operating system like Windows XP. This is an OS that launched in 2001 and for which extended support ended in 2014. Microsoft gave seven whole years notice that support was ending. Yes, it’s understandable that in parts of the developing world, people are still using these elderly systems. But first world hospitals? It’s no excuse to say that some bespoke piece of software requires this now legacy OS. With that amount of notice, that equipment should have been upgraded if necessary.
  • The Government must take some responsibility for this. After Microsoft stopped support of XP, the Government Digital Service chose to pay £5.5m to Microsoft for extended support. But in May 2015 this was not extended despite thousands of Government computers still, somehow, running XP. This Guardian report from the time made clear that this was a massive security vulnerability. While some individual departments may have paid for extended coverage, many clearly did not. At that point they were massively vulnerable. In the absolute worst case, you’d have expected a rapid transition to newer OS’s within months. Instead, here we are, two years later.
  • In particular, the National Audit Office published a report in 2016 into the NHS’s sustainability. The report included these paragraphs:

    “In February 2016 the Department transferred £950 million of its £4.6 billion budget for capital projects, such as building works and IT, to revenue budgets to fund the day-to-day activities of NHS bodies. Of this, £331 million was exchanged for revenue support for 93 trusts, to fund healthcare services. The Department did not assess the long-term effects of transferring this funding to cover day-to-day spending. This means it does not know what risks trusts may face in future as a result of addressing immediate funding needs.

    “This was the second year that the Department has used money originally intended for capital projects to cover a shortfall in the revenue budget. In 2014-15, the Department transferred £640 million to help mitigate the trusts’ deficit. In the coming years, the Department plans to continue transferring capital funding into day-to-day spending under 2015 Spending Review agreements.”

    In other words, a shortage of NHS cash meant cancelling major IT projects amongst others, and instead using the money to maintain a day to day service. IT upgrades aren’t always just “nice to have’s.” They’re often essential as this attack has shown.

Yes – of course the evil hackers are the most responsible people here. And anyone tasked with maintaining IT systems should be ensuring that critical security software patches are applied as soon as they’re released.

But a combination of state-sponsored one-upmanship in cyber warfare, and a willingness to allow legacy IT to be used for critical services is frankly criminal.

When your actions are leading to hospitals being closed down, the repercussions could easily mean life or death. I trust that a lot of people are taking a long hard look at some of their decisions.

Believe in Worse: Sky’s Streaming Options

You often hear that we live in a digital non-linear TV world. That’s not actually true. We very much live in a linear television world with lots of people watching television live. But why let the truth get in the way of a good story.

But I digress.

It’s certainly true that digital streaming is now a key part of television. iPlayer, Netflix, ITV Hub, Amazon Prime and so on. Binge watching The Crown or catching up on last night’s Broadchurch – it’s all part of the many ways we watch TV.

Sky is part of that, and it offers Sky Go. Available as either an app or via a PC browser, it’s theoretically the equivalent of the aforementioned platforms. Except it’s much worse, and seemingly deliberately so.

With a regular Sky account you get two logins for Sky Go, which seems generous. More specifically, it means two devices. So your phone and your laptop perhaps. But not your tablet, or your partners’ or kids’ tablets as well. Sky will sell you Sky Go Extra for £5 a month. That gives you four devices and adds in offline downloads – saving mobile data and useful for long car, train or plane journeys. But that’s a facility most of the others offer free.

Sky doesn’t want to make it free because they know your kids would be just as happy streaming on an old iPad as watching a TV in another room, and they make very good money selling families in particular extra boxes on the same subscription for another £10-12 a month. Those families would quickly cancel multiroom and make their kids put up with a tablet if they were able to.

But it means that the Sky Go experience for most users is, at best, sub-optimal. On a long train journey over the weekend, I could binge watch Netflix, Amazon, ITV, C4 or iPlayer programmes should I have chosen to – downloading them first before travelling. But not Sky – at least not without streaming via mobile data, which was impossible in some locations, or paying them even more money (£5 versus £7.50 for an entire Netflix subscription!).

Those issues are nothing to trying to watch Sky Go on a PC.

The most popular desktop browser is Chrome.

Sky Go doesn’t work with Chrome.

The second most popular desktop browser is Firefox.

Sky Go doesn’t work with Firefox.

Microsoft’s current browser, shipped with Windows 10, is Edge.

Sky Go doesn’t work with Edge.

It doesn’t work with Opera either.

It only seems to work with Internet Explorer, and perhaps Safari on Macs. The final version of Internet Explorer was released in 2013. There won’t be another version. While Internet Explorer did also ship with Windows 10, Microsoft is very keen to move IE users over to Edge. Edge was the default browser in the version of the OS that Microsoft offered free, to hundreds of millions of users.

The reason for Sky Go only works with positively ancient web browsing technology and doesn’t work with any of the latest browsers, is because it also relies on Microsoft SilverLight. SilverLight is another, now deprecated piece of software that delivers video streams in an encrypted fashion.

Microsoft announced the end of life of SilverLight back in 2012. It’s now 2017, and as is made clear above Microsoft’s own current browser, Edge, does not work with SilverLight.

So why is Sky still using it?

I can only think that it’s something to do with how it limits you outputting your video. You see while most of the other video service providers are more than happy for you to watch their wares on your big screen using either a cable (e.g. an HDMI lead), or something like Chromecast, Sky really doesn’t want you to do that.

They don’t build Chromecast into their Sky Go app. They restrict you outputting the signal via a digital output like HDMI (I don’t believe they can restrict an analogue output like a VGA connection, but VGA connections are found in fewer home computers these days, and require a second cable to output the sound).

Again, this comes back to Sky not wanting using to be able to output to a big screen. When I’m away visiting my parents, Sky allows us to crowd around my laptop screen to view a match, but doesn’t allow me to output it to their TV set.

It’s positively user-unfriendly. And I say this as someone who spends a lot of money on my monthly subscription with Sky.

While I understand it’s part of their business plan, it’s notable that BT Sport, for example, is very happy for you to, say, Chromecast a game to another TV set somewhere.

Sky says, “Believe in Better.”

Yet it offers the single worst streaming experience of any major UK broadcaster.

The Perils of Alexa!

This story started earlier today when I got a notification from Amazon’s mobile app that my order of a Lost in Translation DVD had been sent out for delivery.

What?

It’s a wonderful film, but I hadn’t ordered a copy. Indeed, I already own it on DVD. I was confused, and a little worried. Was it fat fingers in the Amazon app that had led to a purchase? Had I accidentally clicked a one-click purchase online somehow?

I went into my email, and found an email from Amazon dated at 4.13am. It confirmed my order!

Now, I should confess that the previous evening I’d gone for a couple of drinks with friends, but I hadn’t gone to bed that late, and I certainly hadn’t got up in the middle of the night to order a film that I already own. As a rule, I don’t wake in the small hours and make random DVD purchases.

I couldn’t tell from the email or from my Amazon order history, through what means the DVD had been ordered. But I began to wonder if it had somehow been ordered via Alexa. I’ve heard of other people “accidentally” ordering stuff that way. But that’s never happened to me.

So I opened the Alexa app to see my recent history. And then things got really crazy.

I use Alexa a reasonable amount, but the previous evening I’d got in late, and left early the following morning. On neither occasion had I really used Alexa.

But my Alexa history showed a lot of interaction since the last time I remembered using it to listen the radio the previous morning.

Amongst other things, it seemed I’d asked:

  • Alexa to introduce her/it-self
  • What is bluetooth?
  • How do you get along with Siri?
  • What the weather is
  • To buy an Amazon Echo Dot (this didn’t go through fortunately)
  • Are you sexy vehicle costume? (Nope?)
  • What is five plus eleven?
  • What is pi to the dress? (No idea)
  • Do you think I’m handsome? (Er…)
  • What is the weather? (Again, it seems)
  • What the New York Knicks score was? (I’m not especially interested in either them or the NBA in general)
  • To play Drake? (I don’t especially like Drake)
  • To play Grace? (I don’t know who this is, but Amazon does)
  • Tell me a joke
  • Set a timer for one minute
  • Would you like to go on a date with me? (“She” is an inanimate object)
  • Where can I hide the body? (Worrying)
  • Do you know Siri?
  • What is the weather? (I’m clearly very interested in this)
  • Tell me a joke
  • Trending story
  • Riley party (Absolutely no clue)
  • Convert cups in grams
  • Set a timer for one hour (I assume the one minute timer finished)
  • Play You Give Love a Bad Name by Bon Jovi
  • Okay Google (That’s not going to work on Alexa)
  • Order “Lost in Translation” on DVD (This went through, and I got a confirmation email at 4.13am!)
  • Hello
  • What is an Xbox on?
  • Add milk and eggs to my shopping list (I’m OK for both thanks)
  • Play Dire Straits

Now I was worried. The Alexa app doesn’t time-stamp these queries that I can see. But clearly this activity had happened in the middle of the night based on that Lost in Translation order.

I was confused.

Had another Alexa ended up on my Amazon account? Was some neighbour asking stupid questions through my letterbox? (I don’t have a letterbox, and the only children in my block are very young and unlikely to be playing around in the middle of the night.)

This was actually a bit disturbing.

And then I remembered that I had started a YouTube video on my TV before I fell asleep. I’m a heavy sleeper, and can fall asleep to background audio. But the TV would have been turned down.

I consulted my YouTube history.

I had been watching a video about the Raspberry Pi.

Yes, I know. At night, after a few drinks. I’m a nerd. What can I say.

But YouTube autoplays more videos when one has finished, and here’s a list of the following videos “I” streamed. I think this explains the otherwise unfathomable behaviour:

  • Echo Dot Impressions
  • Amazon Echo Dot: A week with review
  • Google or Amazon? Which is better? (Meaning Alexa or Google Home)
  • Google Home vs Amazon Echo – Which is Best?
  • Why you should buy Google Home over Amazon Echo vs Siri and Sonos
  • 4 things Google Home can do to beat Amazon Echo in 2017
  • Google home adds 70 new features
  • Google Home hacks for the smart home
  • Home automation: a beginner’s introduction
  • Google Home and App Setup + IFTTT Guide
  • If This Then That (IFTTT) Tutorial

Basically I “watched” a lot of videos about Alexa and Google Home, and my Echo tried to respond to various audio cues that came from these!

The DVD I didn’t want only cost £2.90 and I’ve tried to cancel it online. But it won’t be the end of the world if I end up with a second copy. I’ve learnt my lesson and disabled voice purchasing in the app.

The moral of this tale?

Don’t leave Alexa or Google Home alone with YouTube tech videos reviewing what Alexa and Google Home are capable of.

Amazon Echo – A Longer Term Test

Amazon Echo

I bought my Amazon Echo on its official UK release back in September last year. I wrote about it at the time, but I thought it might be worth checking back in here to see exactly how I’m using it. Right off the top, I’ll note here that I use Alexa multiple times a day, every day.

The first thing I’ll detail is how I have my Echo(s) setup. My original Echo sits in my living room. In fact it rests fairly close to the television. But interestingly, because of the direction of the TV speakers, the Echo will still hear me even with the TV on in many cases.

But more recently I also bought an Echo Dot to go in my bedroom. I have a very old hifi system there which still sounds amazing and has a single Aux socket. Until buying the Dot, I had a Chromecast Audio device dangling from the socket, since Chromecast serves most of my audio needs. I keep music on Google Play Music, and apps like iPlayer Radio and PocketCasts both support Chromecast.

I was faced with a dilemma when I got the Dot though. I wanted the audio from that to come through my speakers as well, but I obviously didn’t want to be plugging and unplugging wires every time I wanted to switch device. A single Aux socket, with the device permanently switched to that presented a problem.

The solution was a small mixer. This might seem like overkill, but it allows you to plug two (or more) audio sources into a single auxiliary socket and hear audio from both sources at the same time. So I can play music from Google Play Music via Chromecast, while also checking the weather via the Echo Dot. The only downside is some extra kit (and attendant audio cables), and that my mixer has quite bright LEDs (I used some LightDims tape to darken them. Yes, they are expensive, but I’ve used them on a couple of gadgets around the house).

With two Echo devices, it’s interesting to see them work together. If I stand in my hallway, I’m within range of both the Echo in living room, and Dot in the bedroom. But the two Echo devices decide between themselves which one should handle the request, and the other will go silent. In practice, this means I don’t actually have to worry which device I speak to.

I’d be tempted to get a further device for my kitchen where I have a very decent DAB and BlueTooth equipped radio. A fullsize Echo feels like overkill, yet a Dot really needs an auxiliary speaker to function. We’ll have to see. And as I said in my original review, the sound from the Echo itself isn’t great, in that it’s not the best standalone Bluetooth speaker ever. It’s slightly perverse that my much cheaper Echo sounds so much better because audio from it is passed to a decent pair of speakers with good stereo separation. So music does sound good on it.

But how about some specific use cases?

Radio

There’s no getting away that the Alexa environment is fantastic for listening to the radio. It’s just so easy to say “Alexa, play Radio 4” or “Alexa, Play 6 Music” and hear the station at a moment’s notice. As I mentioned previously, the default radio service is TuneIn, and it can very occasionally get muddled, but in general terms it works well. I installed the RadioPlayer “skill” (adding “skills” is the means to adding specific additional functionality to Alexa, and something done through the Alexa app or website), but it’s unquestionably more wordy to say something like, “Alexa, ask RadioPlayer to play Absolute Radio.” Yet, it is more likely to work.

At the weekend I asked Alexa to play TalkSport during a football match, and for some reason I got what I assume is TalkSport’s ex-UK streaming feed via TuneIn since it didn’t contain football. Going via RadioPlayer fixed it, although then I went back to the default TuneIn version and that seemed to be working too. Strange.

One thing you don’t seem to be able to do is simulcast radio (or other music) throughout your home on multiple Alexa devices. So if I start listening to the radio in my bedroom, I can’t seamlessly continue listening in my living room. I can start up a stream there, but it will be out of sync. In essence I have to stop the bedroom stream and start a living room stream.

I’m not aware that I can stream the same music throughout the home either. On the other hand Google Chrome does allow this, by creating groups of speakers you can send a single audio source to. And of course, this is famously a major selling point of Sonos.

I think that these Voice User Interface controlled devices will undoubtedly drive additional radio listening, since tuning into a station is so easy. But there is the qualifier that people need to know and remember your service in the first place. My DABs radios at home receive upwards of 120 radio services, and I can’t remember them all. I can browse them fairly easily though, and I might stumble upon something I like, similar to the way you might scan through stations in a car. With Alexa, you need to know what you want in the first place. That favours big brands.

Lights

This is the real game-changer for me. I have a Hue Bridge and bulbs, controlling the lighting in my hallway and living room, and it’s still wonderful to get Alexa to turn lights on and off. Hue allows you to group lights together as “rooms” or groups of rooms. For my set-up I have two lights in the “Hall,” and three in the “Living Room.” Together they are know as the “Flat.” But I do need to annunciate properly to get them to work. If I drop the “H” on “Hall” (I’m a north Londoner after all), it won’t work. Sometimes I concatenate “Flat lights” to “Flatlights” and that won’t work either. I just have to moderate my voice a little. But overall it’s wonderful.

Alarms and Timers

I realise that I’m using some very expensive technology to do something that a £5 Casio watch is quite capable of, but it’s still really nice to be able to say just before settling down at night, “Set alarm for 7am.” And for cooking you can just shout, “Set timer for 20 minutes” when you slam the oven door shut on something. I confess that it was actually an Apple Siri advert that made me realise I could do this!

I will admit that I’ve asked it on more than one occasion what the time is. Yes, I wear a watch. But no, it’s not always on my wrist. And when you’re rushing around in the morning, barking out a command to Alexa is surprisingly useful.

Weather

I use Alexa’s weather forecasting all the time. “What’s the weather?” “What’s the weather tomorrow?” Yes I have weather apps on the homescreen of my phone. And breakfast radio and TV is full of weather forecasts. But it’s nice to have, and it’s highly localised.

The only issue I had was with my precise location. In the app, you enter a postcode and that determines your location. I live in a town, but five miles up the road from me is a tiny village. For whatever reason, Alexa was convinced I lived in that village. Now the weather in both places will be identical, but having Alexa say, “The weather in Botany Bay is 5 degrees…” was just annoying. I ended up giving an alternative local postcode to get it to say the name of my town correctly.

News

I use Alexa a certain amount to give me the news headlines. There is now a reasonable selection of news in there from the default Sky News, to a selection of BBC national and World Service offerings.

The one thing I would say is that not everyone wants quite the same type of news. There is a world of difference between Radio 1’s Newsbeat and a BBC World Service summary. While at the moment, there is a reasonable range of offerings (try BBC Minute for something a little different), in audio terms, one size doesn’t fit all.

Sport

Sport remains a real shortcoming for the Alexa environment. When I first got my Echo, I was shocked to discover that the only British teams I could add as favourites were English Premier League clubs. What’s more, the only data that Amazon seemed to be taking was from the Premier League. No other clubs or competitions existed. And while we’re at, no other sport existed either.

Even very recently, when I looked again, there were no Championship sides, Scottish Premier League sides, or indeed anyone outside of the 20 clubs in the Premier League.

Looking today, I see that finally Amazon has added additional football clubs. A quick search suggests that there’s a pretty full range of football clubs that can be selected – right down to some non-league sides. But it still seems to be an exclusively football selection. I couldn’t find any cricket, rugby union or rugby league sides. I can’t find a favourite tennis player, an F1 team or track and field athlete either. Amazon at least needs to add other major UK team spots to Alexa to give a proper rounded offering.

They do at least seem to have more data sources that they subscribe to. I can get the latest Champions’ League scores for example – something that was missing back in September when I first bought the device.

A lot of work still required, and therefore I mostly rely on apps to deliver me accurate and up to date sports scores.

Music

Oddly enough, despite this being a killer application of Alexa, it’s probably the functionality that I’ve used least. You can choose from “My Music Library”, “Prime Music” and “Spotify” as music sources (curiously, they also list TuneIn in the app), while you can also have “Amazon Music Unlimited” (Amazon’s Spotify competitor) if you subscribe to it. Despite lots of imploring to give it a test-ride, and the ability to get a cheaper subscription for a single Echo device, I’ve not bothered. Similarly I only very rarely use the free Spotify service. My music is stored in the cloud on Google Play Music, and locally on a NAS drive. As a result, I mostly use Google Play Music via a Chromecast device to listen at home.

That said, I’ll occasionally try something from Amazon’s “Prime Music” offering. The problem is that I simply don’t know what’s in the Prime music catalogue and what isn’t. So rather than be disappointed, I’ll look elsewhere.

It’s worth noting that “My Music Library” is largely made up of any music you’ve bought via Amazon as either digital tracks or auto-ripped CDs. You are also able to upload a 250 tracks from iTunes which hardly feels generous. I can add a quarter of a million more for a further £21.99 a year. I’d be tempted were it not for the fact that Google lets me store 50,000 tracks free of charge.

The other thing to consider is that you need to know what you want to hear to launch it. That means remembering an artist, or playing a favourite playlist. It’s not so great for discovering new music or exploring the outer reaches of a music collection.

Bluetooth Speaker

I found it to be a fairly painless process to pair my smartphone with my Echo, and it will usefully let you switch that connection on and off by voice. “Connect to device,” or “Disconnect from device” will do the trick. The only thing I’m not sure about is how many devices you can set-up to be connected to an Echo, and more importantly can you make sure the right device is connected?

The advantage of having this connection of course is that audio that won’t work with Alexa can be played through its speaker. In general terms, I’ll still use Chromecast ahead of Alexa for this, especially since the speakers I have my Chromecast dongles plugged into, sound much better. But it’s nice to be able to connect.

Travel

Alexa is keen to get you to detail your commute so that it can provide travel information. But by default, it assumes that a “commute” is a car journey, and the only information it will give you relating to said commute is traffic information. That’s great if your commute is a drive, but useless if you use public transport.

The National Rail skill is an essential add-on for me. While navigating it to work out a specific train journey can be difficult, it is fairly straightforward to set up a commute. This results in me being able to say, “Alexa, ask National Rail about my commute,” which gives me details of the next two trains (with more available) from my local station.

There are also third party tube skills to allow you to check the status of your preferred London Underground line, and I’ve recently used Bus Stop which also uses the Transport for London API to query my local bus stop. Every London bus now has GPS and every stop a unique code meaning that TfL can generate real-time data for when your next bus will be at your nominated stop. Again, useful for timing departure from your home.

Now it’s not as though there aren’t mobile apps and websites that can give me all this data, but in the morning when you’re rushing around trying to leave on time for work, the voice interface is perfect for giving you up-to-date information.

Podcasts

In truth, I don’t use Alexa for podcasts. It’s not that it won’t play them. It will. However the selection is based on what TuneIn supplies. But for my personal use, I need an interface with PocketCasts which is my preferred podcasting app. I have both the Android and web apps, and between them, they keep me in sync with what I have and haven’t listened to. I can pause a podcast on my mobile app, and pick-up on a laptop. For me to use a podcast app on Alexa, it would need to take account of all of that.

If PocketCasts were to build an Amazon skill then I’d be there. But PocketCasts is paid-for software, and I’m not sure whether currently Amazon Skills can be sold, or whether the developer is working on something.

Other

I do wish the Alexa app was better. It’s slow to load – perhaps because it’s checking to see whether it’s in range of devices or not. And some key functionality is buried a little deep within the menu structure. For example, to change news sources, you have to go into the Settings. It’s not a top level menu item.

The addition of IFTTT was nice, and opens up a wealth of potential. However, so far, I’ve not used it properly on my device.

There are a number of really bad skills that you can install, and Amazon probably needs to do a slightly better job in highlighting useful skills and downgrading poor ones with limited functionality, often feeling like they’re the result of people hacking together personal tests.


Amazon Echo Speaker Grill

Alexa Summary

Amazon sends out a weekly email newsletter highlighting new skills or phrases to try. Sometimes these are themed, or include jokes, which is fun. The reality is that you will get more out of Alexa the more time you spend with it. You need to recall specific key words and phrases to get the desired results. It can be frustrating if you forget how to do something.

The key to having a good experience is for Alexa to respond in an appropriate manner to your request. If you have to think too hard about how to frame a question for Alexa, then you won’t do it.

It would be nice if Alexa had a more flattened structure. Currently it seems to work with a number of base level skills built in, but for more complex requirements you have to remember to invoke a particular skill.

So if I ask, “Alexa, how’s my commute,” it will ask me to set up my drive to work. I then have to remember to say, “Alexa, ask National Rail about my commute,” which gets me the response I wanted.

I’d like Alexa to intelligently realise that I invoke the National Rail skill far more than the similar sounding built in skill, and to therefore answer me with what I really wanted. Think of it as a kind of audio auto-complete.

And Alexa needs to understand context a bit better. If I’ve just asked one thing, then the next question might be in response to the answer I’ve just received. Outside of specific skills, Alexa treats most questions in complete isolation. Google Home does seem to achieve this better, allowing you to string a series of questions and answers together in a more natural manner. Speaking of which…

Google Home

We know that Google Home’s UK launch is around the corner. In many respects, from demos I’ve seen and from what I’ve read, the skillset of Google and Amazon’s devices are actually very similar. The difference is perhaps the backbone of Google Assistant which lies behind Google’s voice interface. It can use everything Google already knows about me to deliver more personalised responses. Google has a distinct advantage here. It already knows my football teams, the locations I travel to, the news I want to follow and my appointments calendar.

Furthermore, I’ve invested in the Chromecast ecosystem, and have my music on Google’s servers (Although I don’t pay for Google Play Music Unlimited, and as a consequence, frustratingly I don’t get all their playlists built around the technology they bought from Songza. This, despite that being available to US users.).

Maybe in time, I will transition across to Google? Google Assistant will be built into future devices. Whether it comes to my HTC10 (now running Nougat) I’m not sure. But I’m led to believe it will be coming to the Nvidia Shield which I use for a lot of streaming. But always listening microphones do come at a power cost, and excess battery power is not something many phones have right now.

Conclusions

What I do know is that I’m satisfied where I am at the moment, and Amazon’s technology works well, some specific shortcomings notwithstanding.

Do I have privacy concerns with all of this? Absolutely. If it were shown that either Amazon or Google was uploading audio outside of when I specifically asked it a question, then it would be leaving my home instantly. But they seem to have been good to their word thus far.

As I was finishing up writing this piece, I read two separate pieces from writers who think Alexa has been oversold: a very contrary view from a Forbes writer, and another from Quartz. Both writers are frustrated that Alexa isn’t smarter than it currently is, that it can’t understand language better, and that generally is should be better out of the box. Another complaint is that Alexa doesn’t handle context too well, and that you have to utilise skills properly to get the best out of Alexa. I agree with both writers on some issues, but to my mind Alexa is extraordinary out of the box. It’s certainly not a “glorified clock radio” as the Quartz writer puts it. It will clearly get better over time.

Addressing a couple of specific concerns: I’ve certainly had no issues with transport details – I use the separate skills that I noted above. More importantly I’ve not ordered nor accidentally ordered anything so far from Amazon with the Alexa. In fact, I’m not convinced that it’s a terribly useful way to do shopping aside from a few staples – the kind of things I’m unlikely to use Amazon for regardless (Grocery shopping on Amazon in the UK really isn’t a great experience just yet, and I’ve got better options using a UK supermarket to fulfill such shopping).

Terms like Artificial Intelligence (AI) get bandied around far too much right now, when what they really mean is that the business is adopting algorithms to help with personalisation and the like. But beyond that, there is machine learning or deep learning, and that is meant when the term “AI” is used. But this isn’t AI as in the Spielberg film – autonomous thinking robots or whatever.

However the deep learning techniques do mean that speech recognition is improving in leaps and bounds, and the current range of devices should grow with it. The Echo, after all, is broadly speaking a speaker, some microphones, and an internet connection. While some work is done locally, the heavy lifting is in the cloud. These things will improve.

Five months in, and I’m very happy with Alexa, and use it a lot.

Anker SoundBuds Sport IE20

Anker SoundBuds Sport IE20 Macro

As a rule of thumb, the headphones you got with your latest audio device are probably rubbish. I.e the headphones that came with your phone.

Every phone I’ve bought has come with some kind of included headphones (or more accurately “headset” since there’s a microphone on them), and in nearly every case, they have been rubbish.

When I say “rubbish,” I don’t mean they don’t work – they obviously do. But they deliver at best very average audio, and in many cases really poor audio. I include Apple in this list.

While over the ear headphones invariably sound better than any other type, the fact is that in-ear headphones are usually more practical and convenient, so I’m regularly seeking out affordable in-ear headphones to listen with.

Before I get onto my most recent headphones, I’ll say a little about others I’ve used regularly in the last few years. I should point out that I tend to use and abuse headphones. They usually follow me everywhere, and cables get caught and pulled, and supplied cases are rarely used.

Sennheiser CX 300 II – I’ve owned lots of pairs of these, because they sound excellent and are very reasonably priced. However, the reason I’ve had lots of pairs is that I found that the build quality wasn’t great and I got through a new pair every 6-9 months. Also, these are headphones only, so there’s no microphone for taking calls.

Sennheiser CX 5.0 G – I’ve recently started using these again after a period of disuse. The quality is excellent, and unlike the CX 300 IIs, there’s a microphone and three buttons for controlling your phone. I have the Android version, the G standing for Samsung Galaxy, but found they work well with my HTC 10. I did have problems with my previous Sony Xperia Z3, with only volume up really working. The reason I hadn’t been using them that much was that none of the included rubber ear bud cases were quite right for me. I solved this by purchasing some Comply foam replacements. These have to be ordered from Comply in the US direct, because while most of Comply’s range is widely available the Sennheiser fitting is not available internationally. But once fitted, the headphones are excellent.

SoundMAGIC E10 – Another headphone I’ve owned several pairs of. These come with a plentiful selection of rubber caps to choose from, and I found them excellent. I still managed to break a few sets over the years, and again, these are headphones only. Recently SoundMAGIC has announced the E10BT which are Bluetooth wireless set of phones. Certainly worth considering, if more pricey.

HTC Hi-Res – When I said earlier that all headphones that come with your phone are decidedly average at best, I wasn’t being entirely accurate. The earphones that HTC supplies with its HTC 10 are superb. They fit well, and have excellent sound reproduction with great volume. The only issues I have are that there is only a single button in line, and replacements are really hard to come by. When one ear stopped working on mine, I hunted high and low to find replacements. On eBay I only found a pair in white (I never wear white headphones), and in the end, it was HTC’s service department that supplied me with a replacement pair. But these really are excellent.

I mention all of this so you know where I’m coming from with headphones. Affordable quality rather than over-priced branding. This piece is supposed to be a review the Anker Soundbuds Sport IE20 however.

Anker SoundBuds Sport IE20 Macro - with Remote

Now I’m not going to pretend these are the best headphones on this list. I think I probably still prefer the HTC Hi-Res or Sennheiser CX 5.00 in terms of sound quality. But these do sound pretty good. And then there’s the not-inconsiderable question of their price. While most of the others have been £30+, these come in at £24 at time of writing. Did I mention that they’re wireless Bluetooth?

They come well packaged with a frankly unparalleled array of rubber pieces to make the earphones fit your ear. I find fit the single biggest problem with any headphones. If I can’t keep them in my ears, then it doesn’t matter what anyone else says – they’re useless for me. A case in point would be Apple’s standard earbuds. They simply don’t fit my ears, and I can’t keep them in. As a consequence, Apple’s recently launched and ridiculous looking Earpods won’t fit me either. One size fits all? One size fits none more like.

I found that the Ankers fitted my ears “as is” – that it, with the standard rubber caps, but in fact with the entire headphone swallowed by my ears. Once in, they rarely come loose, staying in as I walk or cycle around. The earphones come with a wire that loops around the back of your head and includes a small strap fastener to minimise “hang.” Personally I like the ability to hang the headphones around my neck – it keeps them convenient, but out of my ears for talking to people, listening to announcements or whatever. And of course, should one dislodge itself, then it doesn’t fall straight to the floor.

There is a three button remote controlling volume up/down and start/stop – all of this working via Bluetooth. Pairing the earphones was straightforward, and the controls work well on my Android phone.

The right hand side has a small rubber cap covering a micro-USB charging point. Anker claim that a 1.5 hour charge will give 8 hours playback and that feels about right in my experience. The phones also have a very clever magnetic on/off facility. When you connect the backs of the left and right sides together, they clasp via a magnet and power-off Bluetooth. Obviously that’s essential because there’s nothing worse that your phone ringing on your desk, but forgetting that your headphones are still connected when you try to answer!

A small blue and orange LED lets you know when the earphones are connected, when they’re charging and when they’re powering down, and a small pouch is supplied if you want to carry them around with you.

Overall then, a really impressive package at a very reasonable price.

There are a couple of issues though.

The magnetic clasp works well when it works, but they can come unattached in a pocket and then connect to your phone, slowly flattening the battery at the same time (they should disconnect through non-use though). And the headphones are so discreet, you may forget that they’re there. I accidentally attended a meeting with them around my neck without even noticing.

The biggest problem you will have is the same that you have with any wireless headphones – the battery. Eight hours’ power is enough time that you don’t need to charge them every day (assuming you’re mostly using them for commuting or exercising). But it’s not enough that you don’t need to think about battery power at all. You are going to get caught out without power, and unfortunately, like other wireless headphones I’ve tried, the power tales off very quickly towards the end. The only way you can check power is an audible warning noise when you’re approaching the end. Sadly, that probably means a maximum of 15 minutes before the headphones die.

While the headphones don’t come with a fancy charging case a la Apple Earpods, you can charge them with a standard USB charger. I tend to keep a lipstick-sized Anker power bank in my bag all the time. The issue is that on a practical level, you have to stop listening to recharge. So while you might only require a 15 minute boost to get your through the rest of your journey, that’s 15 minutes without audio. For me, that means keeping a spare set of wired headphones in the bottom of my bag for such emergencies. While micro USB might be a bit fiddly, it does at least mean that you have multiple ways to charge the headphones.

If you love a throbbing baseline, then these aren’t for you. The only other issue I’ve had is down to the strength of the Bluetooth signal. I find that you can’t wander too far from the phone for uninterrupted sound, and occasionally there are signal issues in some areas. I usually keep my phone in left breast or hip pockets, and rarely have problems with the distance to the headphones. However there are certainly more powerful BT units out there – Sony MDR-1ABT over the ear headphones for example.

However, overall, and notwithstanding some limited shortcomings, I can thoroughly recommend these headphones for the quality, sound and convenience. It is liberating losing a wire connected to your phone, although that does mean owning something else to keep charged.

Anker SoundBuds Sport IE20 Macro - right hand side

TechCon 2016 – The Return

One of the casualties of the changes surrounding the Radio Academy was that TechCon, the one day conference about radio and audio technology, fell by the wayside.

Fortunately, it was gamely picked up by Ann Charles, Aradhna Tayal and Andy Buckingham, who took the conference independent.

Running a conference is not for the faint-hearted, with real costs incurred for things like the venue hire, kit, catering and dull things like insurance. These are largely upfront costs before you’ve sold any tickets. And of course the more specialist a conference is, the more limited your potential audience might be. In a media landscape that has seen a reduction in the number of sizeable radio players, that can mean that it’s challenging to sell tickets.

I spoke to a colleague recently who attended another specialist conference, and they noted that almost the entire audience was made up of speakers and panelists.

So congratulations to the team for filling the room with more than 150 people, and thanks too to the sponsors of the event – notably Broadcast Bionics, Arqiva, KTN, RCS and the IET.

By its very nature, TechCon can get technical – and so it did. But never so much that an interested layperson couldn’t understand what was being talked about. While I won’t list every session from the day, in no particular order, here are some of the great takeaways I came away with:

  • The science of acoustics and machine learning is utterly fascinating. This is the sort of work that allows Amazon Alexa, OK Google or Siri to work as well as they do. Cleopatra Pike and Amy Beeston from the Universities of St Andrews and Sheffield, talked about the science and some of the challenges of this kind of automation, and about how machine learning is driving a lot of this. And if we move to object based radio, as Dave Walters talked about, there’s the possibility of this becoming a little easier.
  • There is no definitive conclusion on the future of radio according to research conducted by Nicky Birch of Rosina Sounds for the British Library. The report interviewed a lot of people, and while change is clearly afoot, nobody really knows what that’ll mean who how fast it will happen.
  • Some van drivers have illegal gizmos that they plug into their vehicles to block GPS. This is primarily to prevent their employers being able to track them with built-in GPS trackers. But Simon Mason of Arqiva pointed out that this one of many problems they face when trying to keep transmitters like the national DAB network in sync with one another. More generally he talked about satellite navigation solutions – a timely talk since the European Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), Galileo, is due to begin operations by the end of this year. That brings three systems to European users, sitting alongside the American GPS and Russian GLONASS systems.
  • We heard lots about the development of in-car audio. One interesting perspective is how the likes of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are received by different car manufacturers. Because they essentially offer a single solution to every vehicle, a luxury car manufacturer is no longer able to differentiate themselves from a budget car manufacturer. Everybody gets the same experience. We also saw a potentially scary video of self-driving cars handling a junction autonomously (similar to this video). It’s going to take a little getting used to.
  • Nigel Fry of the BBC World Service, told us how hard it is to broadcast to countries where governments might prefer you not to broadcast.
  • It’s possible to broadcast a radio station making use only of the sun. Even in London! Issa Kassimu of Internews, who is powering such a station in South Sudan, ran us through some calculations. The key point is that you do have to factor in the wattage of your kettle. Everyone wants a cuppa after all!
  • Ofcom is looking forward to licencing more small-scale DAB licences – although it may be a few months before they start to invite applications.
  • To broadcast the (re) launch of Virgin Radio from a moving train, Phil Critchlow of TBI and colleagues from Vipranet used twelve different 3G and 4G connections from four network operators. That still doesn’t help for some cuttings and tunnels, and probably isn’t enough for you to stream Netflix either!
  • Everyone loves binaural. I know you know I know this, but Chris Pike of BBC R&D was able to demo this live with wireless headphones. He played some audio from one of the two binaural productions broadcast a year or so ago (you may recall I went to an event for one of these). We also got to hear some of the audio from the BBC’s VR “Taster” experiment, The Turning Forest, viewable in Google Daydream, Google’s VR application.

And that’s without me mentioning Software Defined Radio, making and broadcasting radio using only cheap phones, and building new studios in tight confines when you have a hatful of new national speech services to launch!

To anyone who attended and couldn’t ask a question because there was just so much to get through – apologies. That was probably my fault as I was doing my best to keep everything running to schedule. One of the downsides of running a conference in a theatre is that, at the end of the day, a production wants the theatre back to put on a show. So we had a very tight turnaround. (That’s also why I wasn’t live Tweeting as I ordinarily would)

I’m sure that the conference will be back next year, so head over to the TechCon website and add yourself to the list!

David Lloyd has a nice writeup of the day, Arqiva has also written about the event, and Trevor Dann features the conference in this week’s RadioToday Podcast.

See you there next year!

Getting Rid of Preinstalled Apps on an HTC 10

This is really just a short blog to explain one of the most annoying things on my otherwise excellent HTC 10.

The phone comes with a number of preinstalled apps, whether you want them or not. That’s not unusual for Android phones. Aside from Google’s own devices, it’s as common as the crapware you get on too many new Windows PCs.

Unfortunately, just “leaving them alone” isn’t always a solution. I’m finding more frequently that apps are “spamming” the Android notification bar, urging me to use them when I’m not interested in them. It really feels quite invasive.

Specifically, Facebook insists that you use its Messenger app. I refuse to use it for a number of reasons – not least already having lots of chat/messaging apps. I don’t need another one. But Facebook is notably aggressive in trying to get users onto its Messenger app, having removed access to messages within its own app, and not allowing users to read messages on the mobile web. Today if someone sends me a message, I can only read it in a desktop environment. Messenger is preinstalled on HTC 10s, and it was persistently trying to get me to upgrade it.

Meanwhile News Republic is a news aggregator app. I’m not interested, and am not a subscriber. But it was there in the background, and more recently has started serving me notifications I’m not interested in. As with Messenger, I can’t uninstall it. All I could do is remove updates.

Finally, for now, there’s the TouchPal keyboard. It’s a pre-installed alternative keyboard that you can use. I don’t use it, nor the dozens of language variants that sit on my phone. Again, I was happy for it to be in the background until it recently started spamming me in the notification bar of my phone. I can’t uninstall it as with the others.

Without rooting the phone, I’m unable to fully get rid of these apps.

So my solution to all of this is to “disable” the apps.

Go to Settings > Apps

Find the app you want to shut down, and select it in the list. Then choose Disable to stop the app running.

screenshot_20161123-120439

I believe that this will stop apps seeking updates, and most importantly sending spam to my notification bar.

screenshot_20161123-120456

Note that I had to install TouchPal updates to get it to appear in the Apps list at all, allowing me to then disable it. I fear the language packs may keep updating.

It’s also worth noting that you can go into Notifications and choose to Block All notifications without necessarily disabling the app altogether. But I choose to go nuclear on these apps.

screenshot_20161123-122130