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A new project from Apple and Google alumni aims to fix an annoying Android problem

A new project from Apple and Google alumni aims to fix an annoying Android problem


NextBit tries to make it easier to switch between the same app on many devices

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Thanks to the built-in features in most games and apps, it's become increasingly difficult to lose something you're working on. Your phone or tablet can suddenly explode, but if you had an internet connection, there's a good chance you'll be able to get right back to what you were working on with some other device. One thing that hasn't changed though is the juggle involved in switching between an app or game on a phone and tablet. Your data may be syncing up behind the scenes, but not every app does it, and you still hunt down the app, open your file, and remember what exactly you were doing.

Earlier this year, Apple tried to fix this issue with something called Handoff that works behind the scenes to transfer what you're doing on an iPhone to an iPad or a Mac. If it works, you hit a button and the app you were working on pops up right where you left off. The big downside is that it requires developers to add the feature to their apps, which not everyone has done.

It's like hitting pause, but for apps

A company called NextBit, made up of Google, Apple, HTC, and Amazon alumni, thinks it has figured out the best way to make this idea sing, at least between phones and tablets running Android, and without app developers having to do anything. It's a system-level service called Baton that will basically hit pause on whatever app you're using and send that state to another device, where you can resume exactly what you were doing. All a user needs to do is do a long press on Android's recents button, which pulls up a special menu showing other Baton-ready devices you've linked to your NextBit account. Tap the one you want, and the app you were just using appears on the other device, right where you left off.

The two demos NextBit showed me with this working were puzzle app Free Flow, and a drawing program. The first, which was the game, was the more simple of the two and just involved syncing over game progress from a phone to a tablet. A level was finished, then the app was sent to the tablet where it opened in the very same spot. The drawing app was more complex, with a half-completed finger painting being sent from a phone to a tablet.

Google does something similar between Android Wear devices and Android phones, suggesting when something you're doing on your wrist might be better suited for a larger screen, then sending it over. NextBit co-founder and CTO Mike Chan, who previously worked on three major releases of Android for Google (including version 1.0), describes a similar scenario, where something you started on a phone might be better finished on a tablet (like drawing), then transferred back over to a phone when you need to take it with you.

Each "snapshot" is about half a megabyte

Behind the scenes, NextBit is not actually sending over a copy of the app, just a snapshot of the data that tells the app what you were doing. That's very similar to what Apple, Google, and Amazon all offer with user data. The big difference here is that it's been designed to cut out the steps of finding the app, and the right files when you're juggling projects between devices. According to Chan, each one of these snapshots is - on average - about half a megabyte. When the phone or tablet gets the ping from the device you're handing off from, the software unlocks the device you chose, launches the app, and loads up the data just like it was on the device you just left. In a demo I saw of this using two different apps, that's just what happened.

The key thing NextBit is pushing is that this all works without app developers having to do anything. And it doesn't just transfer data between a single app,it syncs all the app data across your entire device. "When you want to sync app data, you don't have to write to a particular SDK like ours, or Dropbox. The [developer] app functions like it does day one," Chan says. However it does require the companies that make devices or special builds of Android for handsets to include NextBit's software, meaning that if you're a casual Android user, this isn't something you'll be able to just download from the Play Store. The first partner that's bit is Cyanogen, which has added NextBit's technology into CyanogenMod. It tested this with a small and private group of users, and is opening it up today to a larger group in a public beta.

You can't go and download this right now

"Out of the box, our platform will be totally capable of it," says Steve Kondik, Cyanogen's cofounder and CTO. "If you're installing it onto your device and you have [CyanogenMod], you'll be able to use it on any app from the Play Store. And you'll be seeing it in some devices too."

Baton is free, though Tom Moss, NextBit's co-founder and CEO, says that the company eventually plans to charge for premium features that go on top of its services, as well as extend this technology to places like TV sets too. It's also not offering this directly to Android users who root their phones, and is instead relying on groups like Cyanogen to help push this onto existing devices.

This is actually the company's first project. It also built a backup tool for phones, which it has offered to some carriers, including Japan's NTT Docomo, that label it as their own. NextBit's next big project is a way to store more user files in the cloud so that people don't run out of space on their phones as easily. That's happening because everyone has approached storage on devices the wrong way, Moss argues, though he kept mum on how NextBit's actually solved it.

"Right now, there are PC-era solutions: folders and file systems. You're using your phone for apps, and app data. Something new is required," he says. "We think we've nailed something that's next generation."