For Global Accessibility Awareness Day, Google is announcing a few updates to its suite of accessibility features for Android. The biggest one is the final, public release of Action Blocks. They let you create big, customized buttons for relatively complex actions like playing music or calling somebody — tasks that might be difficult for people with a cognitive disability. Google is also adding features to Live Transcribe, Bluetooth support to Sound Amplify, and better navigation options to Voice Access.
Each of these features could be critically important to a person with a disability, though they could be useful regardless. Action Blocks, in particular, could help you set up little Google Assistant macros to automate common things you’d normally have to use your voice for, like asking it to turn off all of the lights in your house.
After you install the Action Blocks app, you set one up by choosing from a list of predefined actions or by typing in your own. It works via Google Assistant, so anything you can ask for with your voice can be typed in. After you test that it works, you can save it as a button on the home screen.
Importantly, you’ll have the option to put your own custom image on the button. Again, the purpose of the features isn’t to let productivity junkies make workflows; it’s to help people with cognitive disabilities achieve tasks on their phones. So setting a big photo of a family member to make a video call is an essential feature.
That’s not to say that Action Blocks don’t have the potential to become more powerful. I asked Google if it would support Google Assistant Connect, the API it announced in 2019 that allows third-party accessories like buttons and E Ink screens to interact with Assistant. It doesn’t yet.
Live Transcribe is next, and it remains one of the most helpful Android features Google has ever made. It does exactly what it sounds like, automatically transcribing speech into text — in more than one language if you like.
The new feature here is that you can set specific words that Google’s transcription engine might not recognize, like a specifically hard-to-transcribe name or technical term. You do so by simply typing the word into Live Transcribe’s settings; you don’t actually need to train it by speaking the word out loud.
Live Transcribe already offered the ability to save transcriptions locally, but now, Google’s finally adding the ability to search them by keyword. Google notes that even with the search feature, data is all based locally on your phone instead of on Google’s servers. Transcriptions are sent to the cloud “ephemerally to be processed” but aren’t kept.
Finally, Live Transcribe will let you set your name as a keyword that will vibrate the phone when it’s heard. For people who are deaf or hard of hearing, it could allow others to get their attention.
Android’s Sound Amplify feature lets people use their phones to amplify and clarify audio. It’s not a replacement for a dedicated hearing aid, but it is still useful. Until now, it only worked with wired headphones, a fairly big problem in a world where few phones have a headphone jack anymore. Today, it will finally support Bluetooth headphones.
Last but not least, Google Maps across both Android and iOS will give users the option to show wheelchair access right away when they search instead of making users tap into the location’s details. Maps still shows multiple types of access, including the building itself, bathrooms, seating areas, and parking areas.
Google discontinues the Pixel 3A and 3A XL
Google has discontinued its mid-range Pixel 3A and 3A XL smartphones, the company announced today (via Android Police). “Google Store has sold through its inventory and completed sales of Pixel 3A,” Google said in a statement to The Verge. “For people who are still interested in buying Pixel 3A, the product is available from some partners while supplies last.”
That might be disappointing to hear for people who were on the market for a more affordable Google-made phone. In his review last year, my colleague Dieter Bohn found the 3A had an excellent camera, especially for its low price.
With the discontinuation of the Pixel 3A, the only phone Google sells on its own store is its flagship Pixel 4, which was released last October. But a mid-range successor to the Pixel 4, supposedly called the Pixel 4A, could be coming soon, and we may already know a lot about it after months of rumors and leaks.
The rumored Pixel 4A apparently has a 5.81-inch display with a 2340 x 1080 resolution, a Snapdragon 730 processor, a 12.2-megapixel rear camera, an 8-megapixel front-facing camera, a fingerprint reader on the back of the phone, and a headphone jack. And we possible know what it looks like thanks to a hands-on posted on YouTube in March and photos of what appear to be a retail Pixel 4A box that hit the web in April.
But the Pixel 4A isn’t actually for sale yet. So for now, if you want the latest mid-range Google phone, you’ll have to snag one of the last Pixel 3As, if you can find one.
Arizona sues Google over claims it illegally tracked location of Android users
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich has filed a lawsuit against Google over allegations the company illegally tracked Android users’ location without their consent and even when the location tracking features had been manually disabled, according to a report from The Washington Post.
The suit argues Google kept location tracking running in the background for certain features, like weather and for web searches using its search engine and Chrome browser, even after the user disabled app-specific location tracking. Only when a user dug further into the Android system settings and turned off broader system-level tracking did Google stop surreptitiously siphoning location data, the complaint argues.
Google has found itself in similar controversies in the past over location tracking of Android users. The company has responded to privacy concerns over the years with various stopgap measures like making it easier to auto-delete your location data, and cracking down on offending third-party apps that do so without consent. But its efforts to improve privacy protections and the various settings you need to monitor to ensure you’re not being overly tracked remain complex and confusing to average users, and it can often seem impossible to keep tabs on just how much Google knows about you and what sources of data it maintains.
Brnovich is asking a court force Google to pay back profits it may have earned from monetizing this data through ads served to Arizona residents. The Post says Arizona’s anti-fraud laws also might subject Google to $10,000 per fine violations. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“At some point, people or companies that have a lot of money think they can do whatever the hell they want to do, and feel like they are above the law,” Brnovich told The Post in an interview. “I wanted Google to get the message that Arizona has a state consumer fraud act. They may be the most innovative company in the world, but that doesn’t mean they’re above the law.”
Google and its YouTube subsidiary, as well as the other major tech companies, are facing a number of regulatory and legal quagmires right now, following antitrust and privacy enforcement in the European Union that resulted in multi-billion fines against Google over the last decade.
Now, US politicians and regulators are following suit and have begun engaging in a broad and coordinated effort across the Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission, and state legislators to reign in Big Tech and enforce antitrust, privacy, and other laws. These are rules Silicon Valley has largely flouted over the last couple of decades as lawmakers failed to keep up with the pace of technological change and the scale of Big Tech’s ability to exploit loopholes and skirt regulation for monetary gain and market consolidation.
YouTube settled with the FTC last year for violations of Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), while Google is currently under investigation by all 50 state attorneys general and the subject of a broader antitrust probe led by the Justice Department.
Gmail’s latest update makes it easier to change the look of your inbox
Accessing the plethora of settings hidden in Gmail can be a pain, but it’s about to get a little easier. Google is rolling out a quick settings menu, which offers a sampling of options that let you adjust the look of your inbox without leaving the page. Once this new tweak arrives on your account, it will activate automatically, and you won’t have to leave the page to see the visual changes you make to your inbox.
The quick settings menu contains an option to change the density of information displayed (between default, comfortable, or compact). It also lets you choose which emails you want to have prioritized in your inbox. Another option lets you add a reading pane so you can see an email’s contents without actually opening it. Lastly, you can adjust your Gmail theme from the quick settings menu.
You’ll still need to drill into the full list of settings if you want to, say, make a vacation response for some out-of-office time. Google’s putting a link to all of those options right at the top of the quick settings menu, and it mentioned in a press release for this feature that no new features are being added to Gmail. This is simply a nip and tuck of previous features to make its email service a little easier to use.
The rollout has begun for personal Gmail accounts as well as G Suite users who work at corporations on Google’s rapid-release track. If you don’t notice the quick settings menu soon, your workplace might be on Google’s scheduled release track. If that’s the case, the quick settings menu won’t begin rolling out until June 22nd.