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Apple’s Voice Control improves accessibility OS-wide on all its devices – TechCrunch

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Apple is known for fluid, intuitive user interfaces, but none of that matters if you can’t click, tap, or drag because you don’t have a finger to do so with. For users with disabilities the company is doubling down on voice-based accessibility with the powerful new Voice Control feature on Macs and iOS (and iPadOS) devices.

Many devices already support rich dictation, and of course Apple’s phones and computers have used voice-based commands for years (I remember talking to my Quadra). But this is a big step forward that makes voice controls close to universal — and it all works offline.

The basic idea of Voice Control is that the user has both set commands and context-specific ones. Set commands are things like “Open Garage Band” or “File menu” or “Tap send.” And of course some intelligence has gone into making sure you’re actually saying the command and not writing it, like in that last sentence.

But that doesn’t work when you have an interface that pops up with lots of different buttons, fields, and labels. And even if every button or menu item could be called by name, it might be difficult or time-consuming to speak everything out loud.

To fix this Apple simply attaches a number to every UI item in the foreground, which a user can show by saying “show numbers.” Then they can simply speak the number or modify it with another command, like “tap 22.” You can see a basic workflow below, though of course without the audio cues it loses a bit:

Remember that these numbers may be more easily referenced by someone with little or no vocal ability, and could in fact be selected from using a simpler input like a dial or blow tube. Gaze tracking is good but it has its limitations, and this is a good alternative.

For something like maps, where you could click anywhere, there’s a grid system for selecting where to zoom in or click. Just like Blade Runner! Other gestures like scrolling and dragging are likewise supported.

Dictation has been around for a bit but it’s been improved as well. You can select and replace entire phrases, like “Replace ‘be right back’ with ‘on my way.’ ” Other little improvements will be noted and appreciated by those who use the tool often.

All the voice processing is done offline, which makes it both quick and robust to things like signal problems or use in foreign countries where data might be hard to come by. And the intelligence built into Siri lets it recognize names and context-specific words that may not be part of the base vocabulary. Improved dictation means selecting emoji and adding dictionary items is a breeze.

Right now Voice Control is supported by all native apps, and third party apps that use Apple’s accessibility API should be able to take advantage of it easily. And even if they don’t do it specifically, numbers and grids should still work just fine, since all the OS needs to know are the locations of the UI items. These improvements should appear in accessibility options as soon as a device is updated to iOS 13 or Catalina.

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Apple invests $45 million more in Gorilla Glass-maker Corning

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Apple has invested an additional $45 million in US-based Corning Incorporated, the maker of Gorilla Glass, the companies announced today.

A news release from Apple says the investment will help “expand Corning’s manufacturing capacity in the US” and “drive research and development into innovative new technologies that support durability and long-lasting product life.”

The investment will come out of Apple’s $5 billion Advanced Manufacturing Fund, which was established in 2017 to invest in manufacturing jobs and infrastructure in the United States related to Apple’s products like the iPhone.

Up to this point, Corning has received $450 million from that fund. The prior cash influx played a role in the development of the ceramic shield, a new screen material that made the new iPhone 12 lineup more drop-resistant than prior iPhone models.

Apple describes the technology, its use, and the process behind it this way:

The new material was enabled by a high-temperature crystallization step which forms nano-crystals within the glass matrix. Those specialized crystals are kept small enough that the material is transparent. The resulting material makes up the revolutionary Ceramic Shield, which Apple used to fashion the new front cover featured on iPhone in the iPhone 12 lineup. Prior to Ceramic Shield, embedded crystals have traditionally affected the material’s transparency, a crucial factor for the front cover of iPhone because so many features, including the display, the camera, and sensors for Face ID, need optical clarity to function.

Apple’s relationship with Corning goes back to the very first iPhone, when a last-minute change to that product before launch replaced a scratch-prone plastic screen with a brand-new kind of comparatively scratch-resistant glass called Gorilla Glass from Corning.

Gorilla Glass has since been refined to be more durable, and it appears not just in iPhones but in numerous other mobile products from Samsung and others.

Apple hasn’t said how Corning will use this new investment. Corning is known to be working on new forms of durable, bendable glass that could be suitable to a hypothetical future foldable iPhone, but there’s no guarantee that’s what’s going on here.

We also don’t know if whatever Corning will develop with these funds will be exclusive to Apple’s products. It is likely, however, that the investment will lead to at least some new jobs at Corning, probably in the US state of Kentucky, where glass for Apple products is manufactured.

Listing image by Apple

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Google: We put YouTube TV in the main YouTube app. What now, Roku?

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Enlarge / Google tells users where they can find YouTube TV now: inside the regular YouTube app.

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Previously on Google versus Roku: Roku and Google needed to renew the contract for YouTube TV, Google’s $65-per-month cable TV replacement, on Roku’s TV platform. The two companies weren’t able to come to an agreement on the new contract, resulting in YouTube TV being pulled from the Roku store. Oh no! While existing customers could still use the YouTube TV app they had already installed, new users couldn’t sign up. Will the two companies ever be able to settle their differences, or is their friendship ruined forever?

The next exciting episode in this saga aired on Friday, when Google announced in a blog post that it was just going to run an end-around on Roku and stick the YouTube TV app in the YouTube app. YouTube and YouTube TV exist as separate apps, and while the YouTube TV contract expired and the app was taken off the Roku store, the YouTube contract does not expire until December.

Since the YouTube app is still running, Google was able to quickly shove YouTube TV functionality into it. On the side navigation menu, the last link in the list reads, “Go to YouTube TV.” This is not unprecedented—it’s actually the way YouTube Music works, too, with a sort of app-within-an-app interface.

Google says it is “still working to come to an agreement with Roku to ensure continued access to YouTube TV for our mutual customers.” But Google threatened Roku with another escalation, saying, “We’re also in discussions with other partners to secure free streaming devices in case YouTube TV members face any access issues on Roku.”

A few weeks ago, Google offered to “renew the YouTube TV deal under the existing reasonable terms” with Roku, so Roku seems to be the current aggressor. In response to this latest move, Roku sent the following statement to The Verge.

Google’s actions are the clear conduct of an unchecked monopolist bent on crushing fair competition and harming consumer choice. The bundling announcement by YouTube highlights the kind of predatory business practices used by Google that Congress, Attorney Generals and regulatory bodies around the world are investigating. Roku has not asked for one additional dollar in financial value from YouTubeTV. We have simply asked Google to stop their anticompetitive behavior of manipulating user search results to their unique financial benefit and to stop demanding access to sensitive data that no other partner on our platform receives today. In response, Google has continued its practice of blatantly leveraging its YouTube monopoly to force an independent company into an agreement that is both bad for consumers and bad for fair competition.

These are the same claims Roku has made before, and Google has already responded to them, saying, “To be clear, we have never, as they have alleged, made any requests to access user data or interfere with search results. This claim is baseless and false.”

The real reason for the rift between the two companies seems to be over Google’s AV1 video codec requirements for YouTube (presumably only for new devices), and it seems these requirements would start in December, when the mainline YouTube app contract expires.

AV1 is a cutting-edge, royalty-free video codec that will likely be the next de facto video standard, since it’s backed by Google, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Microsoft, Samsung, Intel, Facebook, Arm, Hulu, and a ton of other companies. AV1 would save on bandwidth for streaming companies and customers, but it requires hardware decode support on cheaper devices like a Roku box. Google wants to make AV1 a requirement for YouTube, but that requires new chips, which are probably more expensive than the older chips Roku would prefer to use.

Google says, “Separately, we are also in ongoing, long-term conversations with Roku to certify that new devices meet our technical requirements. This certification process exists to ensure a consistent and high-quality YouTube experience across different devices, including Google’s own—so you know how to navigate the app and what to expect. We’ll continue our conversations with Roku on certification, in good faith, with the goal of advocating for our mutual customers.”

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Security researcher successfully jailbreaks an Apple AirTag

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This weekend, German security researcher stacksmashing declared success at breaking into, dumping, and reflashing the microcontroller of Apple’s new AirTag object-location product.

Breaking into the microcontroller essentially meant being able both to research how the devices function (by analyzing the dumped firmware) and to reprogram them to do unexpected things. Stacksmashing demonstrated this by reprogramming an AirTag to pass a non-Apple URL while in Lost Mode.

Lost Mode gets a little more lost

When an AirTag is set to Lost Mode, tapping any NFC-enabled smartphone to the tag brings up a notification with a link to found.apple.com. The link allows whoever found the lost object to contact its owner, hopefully resulting in the lost object finding its way home.

After breaching the microcontroller, stacksmashing was able to replace the found.apple.com URL with any other URL. In the demonstration above, the modified URL leads to stacksmashing.net. By itself, this is pretty innocuous—but it could lead to an additional minor avenue toward targeted malware attacks.

Tapping the AirTag won’t open the referenced website directly—the owner of the phone would need to see the notification, see the URL it leads to, and elect to open it anyway. An advanced attacker might still use this avenue to convince a specific high-value target to open a custom malware site—think of this as similar to the well-known “seed the parking lot with flash drives” technique used by penetration testers.

AirTag’s privacy problems just got worse

AirTags already have a significant privacy problem, even when running stock firmware. The devices report their location rapidly enough—thanks to using detection by any nearby iDevices, regardless of owner—to have significant potential as a stalker’s tool.

It’s not immediately clear how far hacking the firmware might change this threat landscape—but an attacker might, for instance, look for ways to disable the “foreign AirTag” notification to nearby iPhones.

When a standard AirTag travels near an iPhone it doesn’t belong to for several hours, that iPhone gets a notification about the nearby tag. This hopefully reduces the viability of AirTags as a stalking tool—at least if the target carries an iPhone. Android users don’t get any notifications if a foreign AirTag is traveling with them, regardless of the length of time.

After about three days, a lost AirTag will begin making audible noise—which would alert a stalking target to the presence of the tracking device. A stalker might modify the firmware of an AirTag to remain silent instead, extending the viability window of the hacked tag as a way to track a victim.

Now that the first AirTag has been “jailbroken,” it seems likely that Apple will respond with server-side efforts to block nonstandard AirTags from its network. Without access to Apple’s network, the utility of an AirTag—either for its intended purpose or as a tool for stalking an unwitting victim—would become essentially nil.

Listing image by stacksmashing

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