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Yesterday — January 17th 2021Your RSS feeds

This Week in Apps: Parler deplatformed, alt apps rise, looking back at 2020 trends

By Sarah Perez

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020.

Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

Top Stories

The right-wing gets deplatformed

Last weekend, Google and Apple removed Parler from their respective app stores, the latter after first giving the app 24 hours to come up with a new moderation strategy to address the threats of violence and illegal activity taking place on the app in the wake of the Capitol riot. When Parler failed to take adequate measures, the app was pulled down.

What happened afterwards was unprecedented. All of Parler’s technology backend services providers pulled support for Parler, too, including Amazon AWS (which has led to a lawsuit), Stripe and even Okta, which Parler was only using as a free trial. Other vendors also refused to do business with the app, potentially ending its ability to operate for good.

But although Parler is down, its data lives on. Several efforts have been made to archive Parler data for posterity — and for tipping off the FBI. Gizmodo made a map using the GPS data of 70,000 Parler posts. Another effort, Y’all Qaeda, is also using location data to map videos from Parler to locations around the Capitol building.

These visualizations are possible because the data itself was quickly archived by internet archivist @donk_enby before Parler was taken down, and because Parler stored rich metadata with each user’s post. That means each user’s precise location was recorded when they uploaded their photos and videos to the app.

It’s a gold mine for investigators and a further indication of the privilege these rioters believed they had to avoid prosecution or the extent to which they were willing to throw their life away for their cause — the false reality painted for them by Trump, his allies and other outlets that repeated the “big lie” until they truly believed only a revolution could save our democracy.

The move to kick Parler offline followed the broader deplatforming of Trump, who’s accused of inciting the violence, in part by his refusal to concede and his continued lies about a “rigged election.” As a result, Trump has been deplatformed across social platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitch, YouTube, Reddit, Discord and Snapchat, while e-commerce platform Shopify kicked out Trump merch shops and PayPal refused to process transactions for some groups of Trump supporters.

Alternative social apps post gains following Capitol riot

Parler was the most high-profile app used by the Capitol rioters, but others found themselves compromised by the same crowd. Walkie-talkie app Zello, for instance, was used by some insurrectionists during the January 6 riot to communicate. Telegram, meanwhile, recently had to block dozens of hardcore hate channels that were threatening violence, including those led by Nazis (which were reported for years with no action by the company, some claim).

Now, many in the radical right are moving to new platforms outside of the mainstream. Immediately following the Capitol riot, MeWe, CloutHub and other privacy-focused rivals to big tech began topping the app stores, alongside the privacy-focused messengers Signal and Telegram. YouTube alternative Rumble also gained ground due to recent events. Right-wingers even mistakenly downloaded the wrong “Parlor” app and a local newspaper app they thought was the uncensored social network Gab. (They’re not always the brightest bulbs.)

This could soon prove to be another difficult situation for the platforms to address, as we already came across highly concerning posts distributed on MeWe, which had used extreme hate speech or threatened violence. MeWe claims it moderates its content, but its recent growth to now 15 million users may be making that difficult — especially since it’s inheriting the former Parler users, including the radical far-right. The company has not been able to properly moderate the content, which may make it the next to be gone.

2020 annual review

App Annie this week released its annual review of the mobile app industry finding (as noted above) that mobile app downloads grew by 7% year-over-year to a record 218 billion in 2020. Consumer spending also grew by 20% to also hit a new milestone of $143 billion, led by markets that included China, the United States, Japan, South Korea and the United Kingdom. Consumers spent 3.5 trillion minutes on Android devices in 2020. Meanwhile, U.S. users now spend more time in apps (four hours) than watching live TV (3.7 hours).

The full report examines other key trends across social, gaming, finance, e-commerce, video and streaming, mobile food ordering, business apps, edtech and much more. We pulled out some highlights here, such as TikTok’s chart-topping year by downloads, the rise in livestreamed and social shopping, consumers spending 40% more time streaming on mobile YoY and other key trends.

Sensor Tower also released its own annual report, which specifically explored the impact of COVID-19; the growth in business apps, led by Zoom; mobile gaming; and the slow recovery of travel apps, among other things.

Samsung reveals its new flagships

Image Credits: Samsung

Though not “apps” news per se, it’s worth making note of what’s next in the Android ecosystem of high-end devices. This week was Samsung’s Unpacked press event, where the company revealed its latest flagship devices and other products. The big news was Samsung’s three new phones and their now lower prices: the glass-backed Galaxy S21 ($799) and S21 Plus ($999), and the S21 Ultra ($1,199), which is S Pen compatible.

The now more streamlined camera systems are the key feature of the new phones, and include:

  • S21 and S21 Plus: A 12-megapixel ultrawide, 12-megapixel wide and 64-megapixel telephoto with 30x space zoom.
  • S21 Ultra: A 12-megapixel ultra-wide, 108-megapixel wide and, for the first time, a dual-telephoto lens system with 3x and 10x optical zoom. The Ultra also improves low-light shooting with its Bright Night sensor.

The devices support UWB and there’s a wild AI-powered photo feature that lets you tap to remove people from the background of your photos. (How well it works is TBD). Other software imaging updates allow you to pull stills from 8K shooting, better image stabilization and a new “Vlogger view” for shooting from front and back cameras as the same time.

Also launched were Samsung’s AirPods rival, the Galaxy Buds Pro, and its Tile rival, the Galaxy SmartTag.

 

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

  • Apple releases second iOS 14.2 developer beta. The update brings improvements to the HomePod mini handoff experience and an update to the Find My app to ready it for supporting third-party accessories.
  • Apple will soon allow third-parties to join the Find My app ahead of its AirTags launch. Tile had argued before regulators last year that Apple was giving itself first-party advantage with AirTags in Find My. Apple subsequently launched the Find My Accessory Program to begin certifying third-party products. AirTags’ existence was also leaked again this week.
  • Apple is working to bring its Music and Podcasts apps to the Microsoft Store.
  • Apple may be working on a podcast subscription service, per The Information.

Platforms: Google

  • Google appears to be working on an app hibernation feature for Android 12. The feature would hibernate unused apps to free up space.
  • Google pulls several personal loan apps from the Play Store in India. The company said several of the apps had been targeting vulnerable borrowers, then abusing them and using other extreme tactics when they couldn’t pay. Critics say Google took too long to respond to the outcry, which has already prompted suicides. Police have also frozen bank accounts holding $58 million for alleged scams conducted through 30 apps, none of which had approval from India’s central bank.

Gaming

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

  • 48,000 mobile games were purged from the China App Store in December 2020, reports Sensor Tower. The games removed in 2020 for not having acquired the proper Chinese gaming license, had generated nearly $3 billion in lifetime revenue.
  • The top grossing mobile game in December 2020 was Honor of Kings with $258 million in player spending, up 58% year-over-year, according to Sensor Tower. PUBG Mobile was No. 2. followed by Genshin Impact.
  • Among Us was the most downloaded mobile game in December 2020, per Apptopia. with an estimated 48 million new downloads in the month, most through Google Play.
  • Epic Games demands Fortnite to be reinstated on the App Store, in a U.K. legal filing. The game maker is engaged in multiple lawsuits over the “Apple tax.”

Security

  • Amazon’s Ring app exposed users’ home addresses. Amazon says there’s no evidence the security flaw had been exploited by anyone.
  • New research details how law enforcements gets into iOS and Android smartphones and cloud backups of their data.

Privacy

  • Signal’s Brian Acton says recent outrage over WhatsApp’s terms are driving installs of the private messaging app. Third-party data indicates Signal has around 20 million MAUs as of December 2020. The app also saw a surge due to the U.S. Capitol riots, with 7.5 million downloads from January 6-10.
  • Telegram user base in India was up 110% in 2020. The app now has 115 million MAUs in India, which could allow it to better compete with WhatsApp.
  • Privacy concerns are also driving sign-ups for encrypted email providers, ProtonMail and Tutanota. The former reports a 3x rise in recent weeks, while the latter said usage has doubled size WhatsApp released its new T&Cs.
  • FTC settled with period-tracking app Flo for sharing user health data with third-party analytics and marketing services, when it had promised to keep data private. The app must now obtain user consent and will be subject to an independent review of its practices.
  • FTC settled with Ever, the maker of a photo storage app that had pivoted to selling facial recognition services. The company used the photos it collected to train facial recognition algorithms. It’s been order to delete that data and all face embeddings derived from photos without user consent.
  • Muslim prayer app Salaat First (Prayer Times) was found to be recording and selling user location info to a data broker. The firm collecting the data had been linked to a supply chain that involved a U.S. government contractor who worked with ICE, Customs and Border Protection, and the FBI.
  • TikTok changed the privacy settings and defaults for users under 18. Children 13-15 will have private accounts by default. Other restrictions apply on features like commenting, Dueting, Stitching and more for all under 18. TikTok also partnered with Common Sense Networks to help it curate age-appropriate content for users under 13.

Government & Policy

  • Italy’s data protection agency, the GPDP, said it contacted the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) to raise concerns over WhatsApp’s requirement for users to accept its updated T&Cs to continue to use the service. The law requires that users are informed of each specific use of their data and given a choice as to whether their data is processed. The new in-app notification doesn’t make the changes clear nor allow that option.
  • Turkey starts an antitrust investigation into Facebook and WhatsApp. The investigation was prompted by WhatsApp’s new Terms of Service, effective February 8, which allows data sharing with Facebook.
  • WhatsApp then delayed its T&C changes, as a result.

Health & Fitness

  • Google this week fixed an issue with its Android Exposure Notification System that’s used by COVID-19 tracking apps. The impacted apps took longer to load and carry out their exposure checks.

Edtech

  • Amazon makes an education push in India with JEE preparation app. The company launched Amazon Academy, a service that will help students in India prepare for the Joint Entrance Examinations (JEE), a government-backed entrance assessment for admission into various engineering colleges.

Funding and M&A (and IPOs)

  • PayPal acquired the 30% stake it didn’t already own in China’s GoPay, making it the first foreign firm in China with full ownership of its payments business.
  • Therapy app Talkspace will go public through a $1.4 billion merger with SPAC Hudson Executive Investment Corp.
  • Snap acquired location data startup StreetCred. The team will join the company and work on maps and location-related products for Snapchat.
  • BlaBla raised $1.5 million for its language-learning app that teaches English using TikTok-like videos. The startup, a participant in Y Combinator’s 2020 summer batch, had previously applied to YC seven times. Other investors include Amino Capital, Starling Ventures and Wayra X.
  • Poshmark, the online and mobile app for reselling clothing, IPO’d and closed up more than 140% on day one.
  • Dating app Bumble also filed to go public. The company claims 42 million MAUs, with 2.4 million paying users through the first nine months of 2020. It lost $117 million on $417 million in revenue during that time.
  • Blog platform Medium acquired Paris-based Glose, a mobile app that lets you buy and read books on mobile devices.
  • Indonesian investment app Ajaib raised $25 million Series A led by Horizons Venture and Alpha JWC. Inspired by Robinhood, the app offers low-fee stock trading and access to mutual funds.
  • Mailchimp acquired Chatitive, a B2B messaging startup that helps businesses reach customers over text messages.
  • Chinese fitness app Keep raised $360 million Series F led by SoftBank Vision Fund. The six-year-old startup that allows fitness influencers to host live classes over video is now valued at $2 billion.
  • Google finalized Fitbit acquisition. Google confirmed it will allow Fitbit users to continue to connect with third-party services and said the health data will be kept separate and not used for ads.
  • On-demand U.K. supermarket Weezy raised $20 million Series A for its Postmates-like app that delivers groceries in as fast as 15 minutes, on average.

Downloads

Bandsintown

Exclusive performances by @AdrianneLenker, @JeffTweedy, @flyinglotus, and Fleet Foxes, coming soon to Bandsintown PLUS. https://t.co/SsnrebvOUh pic.twitter.com/81haWTPf3F

— Bandsintown (@Bandsintown) January 12, 2021

COVID has cancelled concerts, which required Bandsintown to pivot from helping people find shows to attend to a new subscription service for live music. The company this week launched Bandsintown Plus, a $9.99 per month pass that gives users access to more than 25 concerts per month. The shows offered are exclusive to the platform, and not available on other sites like YouTube, Twitch, Apple Music or Spotify.

Piñata Farms

Image Credits: Piñata Farms

This new social video app lets you put anyone or anything into an existing video to make humorous video memes. The computer vision-powered app lets you do things like crop out a head from a photo, for example, or use thousands of in-app items to add to your existing video. The resulting creations can be shared in the app, privately through messaging or out to other social platforms. Available on iOS only.

Capture App

Image Credits: Numbers Protocol

This new blockchain camera app, reviewed here on TechCrunch, uses tech commercialized by the Taiwan-based startup, Numbers Protocol. The app secures the metadata associated with photos you take on the blockchain, also allowing users to adjust privacy settings if they don’t want to share a precise location. Any subsequent changes to the photo are then traced and recorded. Use cases for the technology include journalism (plus combating fake news), as well as a way for photographers to assure their photos are attributed correctly. The app is available on the App Store and Google Play.

Marsbot for AirPods

Image Credits: Foursquare Labs, Inc.

A new experiment from Foursquare Labs, Marsbot, offers an audio guide to your city. As you walk or bike around, the app gives you running commentary about the places around you using data from Foursquare, other content providers and snippets from other app users. The app is also optimized for AirPods, making it iOS-only.

Loupe

Image Credits: Loupe

Loupe is a new app that modernizes sports card collecting. The app allows users to participate in daily box breaks, host their own livestreams with chats, collect alongside fellow collectors and purchase new sports card singles, packs and boxes when they hit the market, among other things. The app is available on iOS.

 

Twitter’s decentralized future

By Lucas Matney

This week, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey finally responded publicly to the company’s decision to ban President Trump from its platform, writing that Twitter had “faced an extraordinary and untenable circumstance” and that he did not “feel pride” about the decision. In the same thread, he took time to call out a nascent Twitter-sponsored initiative called “bluesky,” which is aiming to build up an “open decentralized standard for social media” that Twitter is just one part of.

Researchers involved with bluesky reveal to TechCrunch an initiative still in its earliest stages that could fundamentally shift the power dynamics of the social web.

Bluesky is aiming to build a “durable” web standard that will ultimately ensure that platforms like Twitter have less centralized responsibility in deciding which users and communities have a voice on the internet. While this could protect speech from marginalized groups, it may also upend modern moderation techniques and efforts to prevent online radicalization.

Jack Dorsey, co-founder and chief executive officer of Twitter Inc., arrives after a break during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. Republicans pressed Dorsey for what they said may be the “shadow-banning” of conservatives during the hearing. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

What is bluesky?

Just as Bitcoin lacks a central bank to control it, a decentralized social network protocol operates without central governance, meaning Twitter would only control its own app built on bluesky, not other applications on the protocol. The open and independent system would allow applications to see, search and interact with content across the entire standard. Twitter hopes that the project can go far beyond what the existing Twitter API offers, enabling developers to create applications with different interfaces or methods of algorithmic curation, potentially paying entities across the protocol like Twitter for plug-and-play access to different moderation tools or identity networks.

A widely adopted, decentralized protocol is an opportunity for social networks to “pass the buck” on moderation responsibilities to a broader network, one person involved with the early stages of bluesky suggests, allowing individual applications on the protocol to decide which accounts and networks its users are blocked from accessing.

Social platforms like Parler or Gab could theoretically rebuild their networks on bluesky, benefitting from its stability and the network effects of an open protocol. Researchers involved are also clear that such a system would also provide a meaningful measure against government censorship and protect the speech of marginalized groups across the globe.

Bluesky’s current scope is firmly in the research phase, people involved tell TechCrunch, with about 40-50 active members from different factions of the decentralized tech community surveying the software landscape and putting together proposals for what the protocol should ultimately look like. Twitter has told early members that it hopes to hire a project manager in the coming weeks to build out an independent team that will start crafting the protocol itself.

A Twitter spokesperson declined to comment on the initiative.

Bluesky’s initial members were invited by Twitter CTO Parag Agrawal early last year. It was later determined that the group should open the conversation up to folks representing some of the more recognizable decentralized network projects, including Mastodon and ActivityPub, which joined the working group hosted on the secure chat platform Element.

Jay Graber, founder of decentralized social platform Happening, was paid by Twitter to write up a technical review of the decentralized social ecosystem, an effort to “help Twitter evaluate the existing options in the space,” she tells TechCrunch.

“If [Twitter] wanted to design this thing, they could have just assigned a group of guys to do it, but there’s only one thing that this little tiny group of people could do better than Twitter, and that’s not be Twitter,” said Golda Velez, another member of the group who works as a senior software engineer at Postmates and co-founded civ.works, a privacy-centric social network for civic engagement.

The group has had some back and forth with Twitter executives on the scope of the project, eventually forming a Twitter-approved list of goals for the initiative. They define the challenges that the bluesky protocol should seek to address while also laying out what responsibilities are best left to the application creators building on the standard.

Parrot.VC Twitter account

Image: TechCrunch

Who is involved

The pain points enumerated in the document, viewed by TechCrunch, encapsulate some of Twitter’s biggest shortcomings. They include “how to keep controversy and outrage from hijacking virality mechanisms,” as well as a desire to develop “customizable mechanisms” for moderation, though the document notes that the applications, not the overall protocol, are “ultimately liable for compliance, censorship, takedowns etc.”

“I think the solution to the problem of algorithms isn’t getting rid of algorithms — because sorting posts chronologically is an algorithm — the solution is to make it an open pluggable system by which you can go in and try different algorithms and see which one suits you or use the one that your friends like,” says Evan Henshaw-Plath, another member of the working group. He was one of Twitter’s earliest employees and has been building out his own decentralized social platform called Planetary.

His platform is based on the secure scuttlebutt protocol, which allows users to browse networks offline in an encrypted fashion. Early on, Planetary had been in talks with Twitter for a corporate investment as well as a personal investment from CEO Jack Dorsey, Henshaw-Plath says, but the competitive nature of the platform prompted some concern among Twitter’s lawyers and Planetary ended up receiving an investment from Twitter co-founder Biz Stone’s venture fund Future Positive. Stone did not respond to interview requests.

After agreeing on goals, Twitter had initially hoped for the broader team to arrive at some shared consensus, but starkly different viewpoints within the group prompted Twitter to accept individual proposals from members. Some pushed Twitter to outright adopt or evolve an existing standard while others pushed for bluesky to pursue interoperability of standards early on and see what users naturally flock to.

One of the developers in the group hoping to bring bluesky onto their standard was Mastodon creator Eugen Rochko, who tells TechCrunch he sees the need for a major shift in how social media platforms operate globally.

“Banning Trump was the right decision though it came a little bit too late. But at the same time, the nuance of the situation is that maybe it shouldn’t be a single American company that decides these things,” Rochko tells us.

Like several of the other members in the group, Rochko has been skeptical at times about Twitter’s motivation with the bluesky protocol. Shortly after Dorsey’s initial announcement in 2019, Mastodon’s official Twitter account tweeted out a biting critique, writing, “This is not an announcement of reinventing the wheel. This is announcing the building of a protocol that Twitter gets to control, like Google controls Android.”

Today, Mastodon is arguably one of the most mature decentralized social platforms. Rochko claims that the network of decentralized nodes has more than 2.3 million users spread across thousands of servers. In early 2017, the platform had its viral moment on Twitter, prompting an influx of “hundreds of thousands” of new users alongside some inquisitive potential investors whom Rochko has rebuffed in favor of a donation-based model.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Inherent risks

Not all of the attention Rochko has garnered has been welcome. In 2019, Gab, a social network favored by right-wing extremists, brought its entire platform onto the Mastodon network after integrating the platform’s open-source code, bringing Mastodon its single biggest web of users and its most undesirable liability all at once.

Rochko quickly disavowed the network and aimed to sever its ties to other nodes on the Mastodon platform and convince application creators to do the same. But a central fear of decentralization advocates was quickly realized, as the platform type’s first “success story” was a home for right-wing extremists.

This fear has been echoed in decentralized communities this week as app store owners and networks have taken another right-wing social network, Parler, off the web after violent content surfaced on the site in the lead-up to and aftermath of riots at the U.S. Capitol, leaving some developers fearful that the social network may set up home on their decentralized standard.

“Fascists are 100% going to use peer-to-peer technologies, they already are and they’re going to start using it more… If they get pushed off of mainstream infrastructure or people are surveilling them really closely, they’re going to have added motivation,” said Emmi Bevensee, a researcher studying extremist presences on decentralized networks. “Maybe the far-right gets stronger footholds on peer-to-peer before the people who think the far-right is bad do because they were effectively pushed off.”

A central concern is that commoditizing decentralized platforms through efforts like bluesky will provide a more accessible route for extremists kicked off current platforms to maintain an audience and provide casual internet users a less janky path towards radicalization.

“Peer-to-peer technology is generally not that seamless right now. Some of it is; you can buy Bitcoin in Cash App now, which, if anything, is proof that this technology is going to become much more mainstream and adoption is going to become much more seamless,” Bevensee told TechCrunch. “In the current era of this mass exodus from Parler, they’re obviously going to lose a huge amount of audience that isn’t dedicated enough to get on IPFS. Scuttlebutt is a really cool technology but it’s not as seamless as Twitter.”

Extremists adopting technologies that promote privacy and strong encryption is far from a new phenomenon, encrypted chat apps like Signal and Telegram have been at the center of such controversies in recent years. Bevensee notes the tendency of right-wing extremist networks to adopt decentralized network tech has been “extremely demoralizing” to those early developer communities — though she notes that the same technologies can and do benefit “marginalized people all around the world.”

Though people connected to bluesky’s early moves see a long road ahead for the protocol’s development and adoption, they also see an evolving landscape with Parler and President Trump’s recent deplatforming that they hope will drive other stakeholders to eventually commit to integrating with the standard.

“Right at this moment I think that there’s going to be a lot of incentive to adopt, and I don’t just mean by end users, I mean by platforms, because Twitter is not the only one having these really thorny moderation problems,” Velez says. “I think people understand that this is a critical moment.”

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Samsung unveils its newest Tile competitor, the Galaxy SmartTag

By Sarah Perez

Alongside its other CES announcements, at Samsung’s Unpacked event today the company introduced its new Galaxy SmartTag Bluetooth locator, a lost item beacon for Samsung owners and a competitor with Tile. Like Tile and Apple’s forthcoming AirTags, the beacon can be attached to keys, a bag, a pet’s collar or anything else you want to track. Initially, these SmartTags will use Bluetooth to communicate with a nearby Samsung device, however, the company confirmed an ultra-wideband (UWB) powered version called the SmartTag+ will arrive later this year.

The latter would allow the SmartTag to better compete with Apple’s AirTags, which are also expected to take advantage of newer iPhones’ UWB capabilities. Tile, in anticipation of this news, has already developed a UWB tracker arriving later this year, as well.

The SmartTag announced today, the Galaxy SmartTag, will use Bluetooth and there is only one main SKU — not a range of products in different sizes or configurations. However, the tracker will be sold in two color variations: Black and Oatmeal.

The tracker works with any Galaxy device, a Samsung rep told us, as long as the device runs Android 10 or later.

Device owners can then locate the missing item with the SmartTag attached using the SmartThings Find app.

This works similar to Tile and other BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) trackers. When the SmartTag is offline — meaning, disconnected from the Galaxy S21 or other device — it sends a BLE signal that can be detected by nearby Galaxy devices. When detected, the device will send the nearby location information to the SmartThings Fine app so you can locate the item. Samsung says the SmartThings Find user data is encrypted and securely protected, so your location and personal information is safe when you lose your device and use the app to search for it.

The app will also offer a variety of locating tools, including a “Notify me when it’s found” option, as well as “Search Nearby,” “Search” and “Ring” tools. Like Tile, you can also use a SmartTag to locate a missing phone. In this case, you push the Galaxy SmartTag button twice to receive an alert to help locate the missing phone.

The tag can also be customized to do other things when pushed once, so you could easily turn on your lights or TV when you return home, for example.

Ahead of the announcement, regulatory documents showed the tracker as a slightly chunkier version of Tile’s trackers, powered by a CR2032 cell battery, with Bluetooth connectivity. (We’ve confirmed the battery is, in fact, a user-replaceable CR2032.)

A Samsung rep could not provide us with the official and detailed tech specs for the device ahead of its announcement today, but we’ll update if the company figures it out. Unfortunately, without the confirmed details like whether the battery is user-replaceable, for example, or what the range is, it’s difficult to make a proper comparison to the existing trackers on the market. (You can’t always go off leaks alone here, either, as they aren’t always an indication of the final product. But the regulatory filings are likely a good starting point.)

To promote adoption, Samsung is giving away the new trackers via select pre-orders. From January 14-28, 2021, consumers who pre-order the Galaxy S21 Ultra will get a $200 Samsung Credit plus a free Galaxy SmartTag. That could help the devices gain a little more traction, as Samsung’s previous investments in tracking gadgets, including its 2018 LTE-based SmartThings tracking fobs, never really caught on.

Outside the pre-order promotion, the SmartTags will cost $29.99 individually and will be sold starting January 29th.

This is slightly steeper than Tile’s entry-level Bluetooth tracker, the Tile Mate, which retails for $24.99.

Google cracks down on personal loan apps in India following abuse and outcry

By Manish Singh

Google said on Thursday it has pulled some personal loan apps from Play Store in India and was implementing stronger measures to prevent abuse following reports that said several firms were targeting vulnerable borrowers in the country and then going to extreme lengths to recover their money.

The Android-maker said users and government agencies in India recently flagged several personal loan apps and the company reviewed hundreds of them. The review found an identified number of apps violated Play Store’s safety policies and they were immediately removed from the Store.

Google, whose Android operating system powers 98% smartphones in India, said it has asked the developers of the remaining identified apps to demonstrate that their apps are in compliance with applicable local laws and regulations. (In an email reviewed by TechCrunch, Google had asked a developer to provide documentation within five days.)

“Apps that fail to do so will be removed without further notice. In addition, we will continue to assist the law enforcement agencies in their investigation of this issue,” the company said.

Users have identified several lending apps including 10MinuteLoan and Ex-Money in India in recent months that granted small ticket loans (typically in the range of $50 to $200) to people for short tenures without much verification to determine their eligibility and then charged steep processing fees.

To avoid such abuse, Google said Play Store will only allow personal apps that require customers to make their repayment in 60 days or longer.

When borrowers struggled to repay their debt in the short period, collection agents on behalf of some lending apps threatened to embarrass them in front of their friends, colleagues, and family, among other ill tactics. In November, local newspaper Indian Express reported that a 23-year-old man committed suicide after being bullied by a money lending app.

Online loan horror :

Representative of a loan app called " Udhaar Loan " Asking a girl from Tamilnadu to video call her naked , if she fails to pay loan on time .

She attempted suicide today.

Please share max until it reaches @PMOIndia . pic.twitter.com/nD9evsGrhl

— Prashanth Rangaswamy (@itisprashanth) November 8, 2020

“To protect user privacy, developers must only request permissions that are necessary to implement current features or services. They should not use permissions that give access to user or device data for undisclosed, unimplemented, or disallowed features or purposes,” wrote Suzanne Frey, Vice President, Product, Android Security and Privacy, in a blog post.

“Developers must also only use data for purposes that the user has consented to, and if they later want to use the data for other purposes, they must obtain user permission for the additional uses,” she added.

Thursday’s move comes months after Google stepped up its efforts to crack down on fantasy sports apps in India.

App stores saw record 218 billion downloads in 2020, consumer spend of $143 billion

By Sarah Perez

Mobile adoption continued to grow in 2020, in part due to the market forces of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to App Annie’s annual “State of Mobile” industry report, mobile app downloads grew by 7% year-over-year to a record 218 billion in 2020. Meanwhile, consumer spending grew by 20% to also hit a new milestone of $143 billion, led by markets that included China, the United States, Japan, South Korea and the United Kingdom.

Consumers also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone, the report found.

In another shift, app usage in the U.S. surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours on their mobile device.

The increase in time spent is a trend that’s not unique to the U.S., but can be seen across several other countries, including both developing mobile markets like Indonesia, Brazil and India, as well as places like China, Japan, South Korea, the U.K., Germany, France and others.

The trend isn’t isolated to any one demographic, either, but is seen across age groups. In the U.S., for example, Gen Z, millennials and Gen X/Baby Boomers spent 16%, 18% and 30% more time in their most-used apps year-over-year, respectively. However, what those favorite apps looked like was very different.

For Gen Z in the U.S., top apps on Android phones included Snapchat, Twitch, TikTok, Roblox and Spotify.

Millennials favored Discord, LinkedIn, PayPal, Pandora and Amazon Music.

And Gen X/Baby Boomers used Ring, Nextdoor, The Weather Channel, Kindle and ColorNote Notepad Notes.

The pandemic didn’t necessarily change how consumers were using apps in 2020, but rather accelerated mobile adoption by two to three years’ time, the report found.

Investors were also eager to fuel mobile businesses as a result, pouring $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year. According to Crunchbase data, 26% of total global funding dollars in 2020 went to businesses that included a mobile solution.

From 2016 to 2020, global funding to mobile technology companies more than doubled compared with the previous five years, and was led by financial services, transportation, commerce and shopping.

Mobile gaming adoption also continued to grow in 2020. Casual games dominated the market in terms of downloads (78%), but Core games accounted for 66% of games’ consumer spend and 55% of the time spent.

With many stuck inside due to COVID-19 lockdowns and quarantines, mobile games that offered social interaction boomed. Among Us, for example, became a breakout game in several markets in 2020, including the U.S.

Other app categories saw sizable increases over the past year, as well.

Time spent in Finance apps in 2020 was up 45% worldwide, outside of China, and participation in the stock market grew 55% on mobile, thanks to apps like Robinhood in the U.S. and others worldwide, that democratized investing and trading.

TikTok had a big year, too.

The app saw incredible 325% year-over-year growth, despite a ban in India, and ranked in the top five apps by time spent. The average monthly time spent per user also grew faster than nearly every other app analyzed, including 65% in the U.S. and 80% in the U.K., surpassing Facebook. TikTok is now on track to hit 1.2 billion active users in 2021, App Annie forecasts.

Other video services boomed in 2020, thanks to a combination of new market entrants and a lot of time spent at home. Consumers spent 40% more hours streaming on mobile devices, with time spent in streaming apps peaking in the second quarter in the west as the pandemic forced people inside.

YouTube benefitted from this trend, as it became the No. 1 streaming app by time spent among all markets analyzed except China. The time spent in YouTube is up to 6x that of the next closet app at 38 hours per month.

Of course, another big story for 2020 was the rise of e-commerce amid the pandemic. This made the past year the biggest ever for mobile shopping, with an over 30% increase in time spent in Shopping apps, as measured on Android phones outside of China.

Mobile commerce, however, looked less traditional in 2020.

Social shopping was a big trend, with global downloads of Pinterest and Instagram growing 50% and 20% year-over-year, respectively.

Livestreaming shopping grew, too, led by China. Downloads of live shopping TaoBao Live in China, Grip in South Korea and NTWRK in the U.S. grew 100%, 245% and 85%, respectively. NTWRK doubled in size last year, and now others are entering the space as well — including TikTok, to some extent.

The pandemic also prompted increased usage of mobile ordering apps. In the U.S., Argentina, the U.K., Indonesia and Russia, the app grew by 60%, 65%, 70%, 80% and 105%, respectively, in Q4.

Business apps, like Zoom and Google Meet among others, grew 275% in Q4, for example, as remote work and sometimes school, continued.

The analysis additionally included lists of the top apps by downloads, spending and monthly active users (MAUs).

Although TikTok had been topping year-end charts, Facebook continued to beat it in terms of MAUs. Facebook-owned apps controlled the top charts by MAUs, with Facebook at No. 1 followed by WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram.

TikTok, however, had more downloads than Facebook and ranked No. 2 by consumer spending, behind Tinder.

The full report is available only as an online interactive experience this year, not a download. The report largely uses data from both the iOS App Store and Google Play, except where otherwise noted.

Healthvana’s digital COVID-19 vaccination records are about communication, not passports for the immune

By Darrell Etherington

As the vaccination campaign to counter COVID-19 gets underway (albeit with a rocky start), a number of companies are attempting to support its rollout in a variety of ways. Healthvana, a health tech startup that began with a specific focus on providing patient information digitally for individuals living with HIV, is helping Los Angeles County roll-out mobile vaccination records for COVID-19 using Apple’s Wallet technology. A cursory appraisal of the implementation of this tech might lead one to believe it’s about providing individuals with easy proof of vaccination – but the tech, and Healthvana, are focused on informing individuals to ensure they participate in their own healthcare programs, not providing an immunity pass.

“I generally consider most of healthcare to look and feel like Windows 95,” Healthvana CEO and founder Ramin Bastani. “We look and feel like Instagram . Why is that important? Because patients can engage in things they understand, it’s easier for them to communicate in the way they’re used to communicating, and that ends up leading them better health outcomes.”

Bastani points out that they began the company by focusing this approach to patient education and communication on HIV, and demonstrated that using their software led to patients being 7.4 times more likely to show up for their next follow-up appointment vs. patients who received follow-up information and appointment notices via traditional methods. The company has built their tooling and their approach around not only producing better health for individuals, but also on reducing costs for healthcare providers by eliminating the need for a lot of the work that goes into clearing up misunderstandings, and essentially hounding patients to follow-up, which can significantly dig into clinician and care staff hours.

“We’re actually also reducing the cost to healthcare providers, because you don’t have 1,000 people calling you asking what are their results, and saying ‘I don’t understand, I can’t log in, I don’t know what it means to be SARS nonreactive,’ or all those things we address through simplicity,” Bastain said. “That’s made a huge difference. Overall, I think the key to all healthcare is going to be to be able to get patients to pay attention, and take action to things around their health.”

That’s the goal of Healthvana’s partnership with LA County on COVID-19 immunization records, too – taking vitally important action to ensure the successful rollout of its vaccination program. All approved COVID-19 vaccines to date require a two-course treatment, including one initial inoculation followed by a booster to be administered sometime later. Keeping LA county residents informed about their COVID-19 inoculation, and when they’re due for a second dose, is the primary purpose of the partnership, and benefits from Healthvana’s experience in improving patient follow-up activities. But the app is also providing users with information about COVID-19 care, and, most usefully, prevention and ways to slow the spread.

While Bastani stresses that Healthvana is, in the end, just “the last mile” for message delivery, and that there are many other layers involved in determining the right steps for proper care and prevention, the way in which they provide actionable info has already proven a big boon to one key measure: contact tracing. In select municipalities, Healthvana will also prompt users who’ve tested positive to anonymously notify close contacts directly from their device, which will provide those individuals with both free testing options and information resources.

“Just us doing this in the greater Los Angeles area for less than two months, 12,000+ people have been notified that they’ve been exposed,” Bastani said. “Each of them likely lives with other people and families – this is how you can help slow the spread.”

Contrast that with the relatively slow uptake of the exposure notification tools built into iOS and Android devices via recent software updates provided by Google and Apple working in a rare collaboration. While the technology that underlies it is sound, and focused on user privacy, its usage numbers thus far are far from earthshaking; only 388 people have sent alerts through Virginia’s app based on the exposure notification framework in three months since its launch, for instance.

Healthvana’s focus on timely and relevant delivery of information, offered to users in ways they’re mostly likely to understand and engage with, is already showing its ability to have an impact on COVID-19 and its community transmission. The startup is already in talks to launch similar programs elsewhere in the country, and that could help improve national vaccination outcomes, and how people handle COVID-19 once they have it, too.

Yayzy app automatically calculates the environmental impact of your spending

By Mike Butcher

Ahead of the turning of the New Year, many people are wishing they could do something about the environment. Now, a U.K. startup hopes to make our environmental impact more personal.

Yayzy has now launched an iOS app (Android is coming) which literally links to your bank account to work out the environmental impact of what you buy. It uses payment data via Open Banking standards to automatically calculate the carbon footprint of each purchase a user makes, giving them a picture of their total monthly carbon emissions. This makes the carbon footprint calculated more accurate and bespoke to the individual, allowing them to immediately connect their spending to its impact on the planet.

Yayzy has secured £900,000 in backing from Antler Venture Capital, Seedrs (a crowdfunding round) and the CoreAngels Impact Fund. As the user sees what the carbon footprint is of their purchase, they can choose to offset it right then and there on the app via the carbon offsetter Ecosphere Plus. In the app, users can also find tips to reduce their carbon footprint, eco-friendly retailers near them or insights into lifestyle choices that have the highest environmental impact.

Their competitors are people like CoGo, a real-time Carbon Footprint tracker, and and Doconomy and the soon to launch Tred.

But Yayzy is taking a different approach. It brings together all of a user’s spending and shows them item by item as they spend, what the carbon footprint of that spend is. So far – it claims – its competitors don’t do that.

Yayzy app. Image Credits: Yayzy

This can be done ad hoc, item by item, or by signing up to a monthly subscription to either carbon offsetting projects or the user’s own unique climate portfolio. This portfolio would bundle multiple projects together for a more ‘holistic’ impact. Yayzy says all of these projects have been carefully selected based on strict criteria, and also advance the UN Sustainable development goals.

For its underlying carbon data, Yayzy is using Vital Metrics https://www.vitalmetricsgroup.com/
as used by Google, Microsoft and both the UK and US governments, among others.

Mankaran Ahluwalia, cofounder and CEO of Yayzy said in a statement: “While emissions have gradually risen as lockdown eases, YAYZY wants to put us all in the driver’s seat to control our own environmental impact… It is clear from a plethora of surveys that the majority of people want to address climate change before it is too late, but that a huge intention/action gap blocks much of it. Our solution with Yayzy is to make environmental impact ‘up close and personal’ and the action to tackle it super easy, all via your phone.”

Ahluwalia, was as a technology analyst with Infosys and built a lending platform for alternate credit. Cofounder Cristian Dan, CTO, previously built a discounts platform and cofounder Pedro Cabrero, CFO was in equity sales and trading for UBS and Citigroup, and co-founded the a leading online pharmacy in Mexico.

Google invests in Indian startups Glance and DailyHunt

By Manish Singh

Google said on Tuesday it is investing in two Indian startups, Glance and DailyHunt, as the Android-maker makes a further push into the world’s second-largest internet market.

Two-year-old Indian startup Glance, which serves news, media content and games on the lock screen of more than 100 million smartphones, has raised $145 million in a new financing round from Google and existing investor Mithril Partners.

Glance, which is part of advertising giant InMobi Group, uses AI to offer personalized experience to its users. The service replaces the otherwise empty lock screen with locally relevant news, stories and casual games. Late last year, InMobi acquired Roposo, a Gurgaon-headquartered startup, that has enabled it to introduce short-form videos on the platform. Google is also investing in Roposo.

Roposo is a short-video platform with more than 33 million monthly active users. These users spend about 20 minutes consuming content across multiple genres in more than 10 languages on the app everyday. 

Glance ships pre-installed on several smartphone models. The subsidiary maintains tie-ups with nearly every top Android smartphone vendor, including Xiaomi and Samsung, the two largest smartphone vendors in India. The service has amassed over 115 million daily active users.

“Glance is a great example of innovation solving for mobile-first and mobile-only consumption, serving content across many of India’s local languages,” said Caesar Sengupta, VP, Google, in a statement. “Still too many Indians have trouble finding content to read or services they can use confidently, in their own language. And this significantly limits the value of the internet for them, particularly at a time like this when the internet is the lifeline of so many people. This investment underlines our strong belief in working with India’s innovative startups and work towards the shared goal of building a truly inclusive digital economy that will benefit everyone.” 

Naveen Tewari, founder and chief executive of Glance and InMobi Group, said the investment will pave the way for “deeper partnership between Google and Glance across product development, infrastructure, and global market expansion.” The startup plans to deploy the fresh capital to expand in the U.S.

Investment in DailyHunt

Google said on Tuesday that it is also investing in VerSe Innovation, the parent firm of Indian startup DailyHunt. Across its apps including eponymous service and short-video platform Josh, DailyHunt claims to serve over 300 million users news and entertainment content in 14 Indian languages. The startup said it has completed a round of over $100 million from Google, Microsoft and AlphaWave among other investors, and this new round values it at over $1 billion, making it a unicorn.

DailyHunt — which is co-run by Umang Bedi, former Facebook India head — plans to deploy the fresh capital to scale the Josh app, the augmentation of local language content offerings, the development of content creator ecosystem, innovation in AI and ML and the growth of its truly “made-in-Bharat-for-Bharat short-video platform,” it said.

Josh and Roposo are among over a dozen apps in India that are attempting to fill the void New Delhi created after banning TikTok in late June in the country. TikTok identified India as its biggest overseas market prior to the ban.

Google is writing both these checks from India Digitization Fund that it unveiled this year. Google has committed to invest $10 billion in India over the course of the next few years. Prior to today, the company invested $4.5 billion from this fund in Indian telecom giant Jio Platforms.

California’s CA Notify app to offer statewide exposure notification using Apple and Google’s framework

By Darrell Etherington

The state of California has now expanded access of its CA Notify app to all in the state, after originally deploying the app in a pilot program at UC Berkeley in November, which later expanded to other UC campuses. The statewide launch of the app, announced by California Governor Gavin Newsom on Monday, means that the tool based on Apple and Google’s exposure notification API will be available for download and opt-in use to anyone with a compatible iPhone or Android device as of this Thursday, December 10.

Apple and Google’s jointly-developed exposure notification API uses Bluetooth to determine contact between confirmed COVID-positive individuals and others, alerting users to potential exposure without storing or transmitting any data related to their identity or location. The system uses a randomized, rolling identifier to communicate possible exposure to other devices, and individual state health authorities can customize specific details like how close, and for how long individuals need to be in contact in order to quality as an exposure risk.

In the case of California, the state has set contact with a confirmed COVID-19 positive individual of within 6 feet, for a period of 15 minutes or more as meriting an exposure notification. Users who receive a positive COVID-19 test will get a text message from the Department of Public Health for the state that contains a code they input in the CA Notify app in order to trigger an alert broadcast to any phones that met the criteria above during the prior 14 days (the period during which the virus is transmissible).

As mentioned, there’s no personal information transmitted from a user’s device via the notification system, and it’s a fully opt-in arrangement. Other states have already deployed exposure notification apps based on the Apple/Google API, as have many other countries around the world. It’s not a replacement for a contact tracing system, in which healthcare professionals attempt to determine who a COVID-19 patient came in contact with to find out how they might have contracted the virus, and to whom they may spread it, but it is a valuable component of a comprehensive tracing program that can improve its efficacy and success.

Google Maps takes on Facebook with launch of its own news feed

By Sarah Perez

People are getting frustrated that Stories are everywhere now, but Google Maps is keeping it old school. Instead of adding tiny circles to the top of the app’s screen, Google Maps is introducing its own news feed. Technically, Google calls its new feature the “Community Feed,” as it includes posts from a local area. However, it’s organized as any other news feed would be — a vertically scrollable feed with posts you can “Like” by tapping on a little thumbs up icon.

The feed, which is found with the Explore tab of the Google Maps app, is designed to make it easier to find the most recent news, updates, and recommendations from trusted local sources. This includes posts business owners create using Google My Business to alert customers to new deals, menu updates, and other offers. At launch, Google says the focus will be on highlighting posts from food and drink businesses.

For years, businesses have been able to make these sorts of posts using Google’s tools. But previously, users would have to specifically tap to follow the business’s profile in order to receive their updates.

Now, these same sort of posts will be surfaced to even those Google Maps users who didn’t take the additional step of following a particular business. This increased exposure has impacted the posts’ views, Google says. In early tests of Community Feed ahead of its public launch, Google found that businesses’ posts saw more than double the number of views than before the feed existed.

Image Credits: Google

In addition to posts from businesses, the new Community Feed will feature content posted by Google users you follow as well as recent reviews from Google’s Local Guides — the volunteer program where users share their knowledge about local places in order to earn perks, such as profile badges, early access to Google features, and more. Select publishers will participate in the Community Feed, too, including The Infatuation and other news sources from Google News, when relevant.

Much of the information found in the Community Feed was available elsewhere in Google Maps before today’s launch.

For example, the Google Maps’ Updates tab offered a similar feed that included businesses’ posts along with news, recommendations, stories, and other features designed to encourage discovery. Meanwhile, the Explore tab grouped businesses into thematic groupings (e.g. outdoor dining venues, cocktail bars, etc.) at the top of the screen, then allowed users to browse other lists and view area photos.

With the update, those groups of businesses by category will still sit at the top of the screen, but the rest of the tab is dedicated to the scrollable feed. This gives the tab a more distinct feel than it had before. It could even position Google to venture into video posts in the future, given the current popularity of TikTok-style  short-form video feeds that have now cloned by Instagram and Snapchat.

Image Credits: Google

Today, it’s a more standard feed, however. As you scroll down, you can tap “Like” on those posts you find interesting to help better inform your future recommendations. You can also tap “Follow” on businesses you want to hear more from, which will send their alerts to your Updates tab, as well. Thankfully, there aren’t comments.

Google hopes the change will encourage users to visit the app more often in order to find out what’s happening in their area — whether that’s a new post from a business or a review from another user detailing some fun local activity, like a day trip or new hiking spot, for example.

The feature can be used when traveling or researching other areas, too, as the “Community Feed” you see is designated not based on where you live or your current location, but rather where you’re looking on the map.

The feed is the latest in what’s been a series of updates designed to make Google Maps more of a Facebook rival. Over the past few years, Google Maps has added features that allowed users to follow businesses, much like Facebook does, as well as message those businesses directly in the app, similar to Messenger. Businesses, meanwhile, have been able to set up their own profile in Google Maps, where they could add a logo, cover photo, and pick short name — also a lot like Facebook Pages offer today.

With the launch of a news feed-style feature, Google’s attempt to copy Facebook is even more obvious.

Google says the feature is rolling out globally on Google Maps for iOS and Android.

 

 

Google launches Android Enterprise Essentials, a mobile device management service for small businesses

By Sarah Perez

Google today introduced a new mobile management and security solution, Android Enterprise Essentials, which, despite its name, is actually aimed at small to medium-sized businesses. The company explains this solution leverages Google’s experience in building Android Enterprise device management and security tools for larger organizations in order to come up with a simpler solution for those businesses with smaller budgets.

The new service includes the basics in mobile device management, with features that allow smaller businesses to require their employees to use a lock screen and encryption to protect company data. It also prevents users from installing apps outside the Google Play Store via the Google Play Protect service, and allows businesses to remotely wipe all the company data from phones that are lost or stolen.

As Google explains, smaller companies often handle customer data on mobile devices, but many of today’s remote device management solutions are too complex for small business owners, and are often complicated to get up-and-running.

Android Enterprise Essentials attempts to make the overall setup process easier by eliminating the need to manually activate each device. And because the security policies are applied remotely, there’s nothing the employees themselves have to configure on their own phones. Instead, businesses that want to use the new solution will just buy Android devices from a reseller to hand out or ship to employees with policies already in place.

Though primarily aimed at smaller companies, Google notes the solution may work for select larger organizations that want to extend some basic protections to devices that don’t require more advanced management solutions. The new service can also help companies get started with securing their mobile device inventory, before they move up to more sophisticated solutions over time, including those from third-party vendors.

The company has been working to better position Android devices for use in workplace over the past several years, with programs like Android for Work, Android Enterprise Recommended, partnerships focused on ridding the Play Store of malware, advanced device protections for high-risk users, endpoint management solutions, and more.

Google says it will roll out Android Enterprise Essentials initially with distributors Synnex in the U.S. and Tech Data in the U.K. In the future, it will make the service available through additional resellers as it takes the solution global in early 2021. Google will also host an online launch event and demo in January for interested customers.

Google brings ‘The Mandalorian’ to AR in its new app

By Sarah Perez

Google has teamed up with Disney and Lucasfilm to bring the Star Wars streaming series “The Mandalorian” to augmented reality. The company announced this morning the launch of a new Android AR app,  “The Mandalorian” AR Experience, which will display iconic moments from the first season of the show in AR, allowing fans to retrace the Mandalorian’s steps, find the Child, harness the Force, and more, according to the app’s Play Store description.

In the app, users will be able to follow the trail of Mando, Din Djarin and the Child, interact with the characters, and create scenes that can be shared with friends.

New AR content will be released for the app on Mondays, starting today Nov. 23 and continuing for nearly a year to wrap on Oct. 31, 2021. That makes this a longer-term promotion than some of the other Star Wars experiences Google has offered in the past.

Image Credits: Google/Lucasfilm

Meanwhile, the app itself takes advantage of Google’s developer platform for building augmented reality experiences, ARCore, in order to create scenes that interact with the user’s surroundings. This more immersive design means fans will be able to unlock additional effects based on their actions. The app also leverages Google’s new ARCore Depth API, which allows the app to enable occlusion. This makes the AR scenes blend more naturally with the environment that’s seen through the smartphone’s camera.

However, because the app is a showcase for Google’s latest AR technologies, it won’t work with all Android devices.

Google says the app will only support “compatible 5G Android devices,” which includes its 5G Google Pixel smartphones and other select 5G Android phones that have the Google Play Services for AR updated. You can check to see if your Android phone is supported on a list provided on the Google Developers website. Other phones may be supported in the future, the company also notes.

Image Credits:

While the experience requires a 5G-capable Android device, Google says that you don’t have to be on an active 5G connection to use the app. Instead, the requirement is more about the technologies these devices include and not the signal itself.

Google has teamed up with Lucasfilm many times over the past several years for promotional marketing campaigns. These are not typically considered ads, because they give both companies the opportunity to showcase their services or technologies. For example, Google allowed users to give its apps a Star Wars-themed makeover back in 2015, which benefited its own services like Gmail, Maps, YouTube, Chrome and others. It has also introduced both AR and VR experiences featuring Star Wars content over the past several years.

The  “The Mandalorian” AR Experience” is a free download on the Play Store.

Google plans to test end-to-end encryption in Android messages

By Zack Whittaker

For the past year and a half, Google has been rolling out its next-generation messaging to Android users to replace the old, clunky, and insecure SMS text messaging. Now the company says that rollout is complete, and plans to bring end-to-end encryption to Android messages next year.

Google’s Rich Communications Services is Android’s answer to Apple’s iMessage, and brings typing indicators, read receipts, and you’d expect from most messaging apps these days.

In a blog post Thursday, Google said it plans to roll out end-to-end encryption — starting with one-on-one conversations — leaving open the possibility of end-to-end encrypted group chats. It’ll become available to beta testers, who can sign up here, beginning later in November and continue into the new year.

End-to-end encryption prevents anyone — even Google — from reading messages as they travel between sender and the recipient.

Google dipped its toes into the end-to-end encrypted messaging space in 2016 with the launch of Allo, an app that immediately drew criticism from security experts for not enabling the security feature by default. Two years later, Google killed off the project altogether.

This time around, Google learned its lesson. Android messages will default to end-to-end encryption once the feature becomes available, and won’t revert back to SMS unless the users in the conversation loses or disables RCS.

Google Pay gets a major redesign with a new emphasis on personal finance

By Frederic Lardinois

Google is launching a major redesign of its Google Pay app on both Android and iOS today. Like similar phone-based contactless payment services, Google Pay — or Android Pay as it was known then — started out as a basic replacement for your credit card. Over time, the company added a few more features on top of that but the overall focus never really changed. After about five years in the market, Google Pay now has about 150 million users in 30 countries. With today’s update and redesign, Google is keeping all the core features intact but also taking the service in a new direction with a strong emphasis on helping you manage your personal finances (and maybe get a deal here and there as well).

Google is also partnering with 11 banks to launch a new kind of bank account in 2021. Called Plex, these mobile-first bank accounts will have no monthly fees, overdraft charges or minimum balances. The banks will own the accounts but the Google Pay app will be the main conduit for managing these accounts. The launch partners for this are Citi and Stanford Federal Credit Union.

Image Credits: Google

“What we’re doing in this new Google Pay app, think of it is combining three things into one,” Google director of product management Josh Woodward said as he walked me through a demo of the new app. “The three things are three tabs in the app. One is the ability to pay friends and businesses really fast. The second is to explore offers and rewards, so you can save money at shops. And the third is getting insights about your spending so you can stay on top of your money.”

Paying friends and businesses was obviously always at the core of Google Pay — but the emphasis here has shifted a bit. “You’ll notice that everything in the product is built around your relationships,” Caesar Sengupta, Google’s lead for Payments and Next Billion Users, told me. “It’s not about long lists of transactions or weird numbers. All your engagements pivot around people, groups, and businesses.”

It’s maybe no surprise then that the feature that’s now front and center in the app is P2P payments. You can also still pay and request money through the app as usual, but as part of this overhaul, Google is now making it easier to split restaurant bills with friends, for example, or your rent and utilities with your roommates — and to see who already paid and who is still delinquent. Woodward tells me that Google built this feature after its user research showed that splitting bills remains a major pain point for its users.

In this same view, you can also find a list of companies you have recently transacted with — either by using the Google Pay tap-and-pay feature or because you’ve linked your credit card or bank account with the service. From there, you can see all of your recent transactions with those companies.

Image Credits: Google

Maybe the most important new feature Google is enabling with this update is indeed the ability to connect your bank accounts and credit cards to Google Pay so that it can pull in information about your spending. It’s basically Mint-light inside the Google Pay app. This is what enables the company to offer a lot of the other new features in the app. Google says it is working with “a few different aggregators” to enable this feature, though it didn’t go into details about who its partners are. It’s worth stressing that this, like all of the new features here, is off by default and opt-in.

Image Credits: Google

The basic idea here is similar to that of other personal finance aggregators. At its most basic, it lets you see how much money you spent and how much you still have. But Google is also using its smarts to show you some interesting insights into your spending habits. On Monday, it’ll show you how much you spent on the weekend, for example.

“Think of these almost as like stories in a way,” Woodward said. “You can swipe through them so you can see your large transactions. You can see how much you spent this week compared to a typical week. You can look at how much money you’ve sent to friends and which friends and where you’ve spent money in the month of November, for example.”

This also then enables you to easily search for a given transaction using Google’s search capabilities. Since this is Google, that search should work pretty well and in a demo, the team showed me how a search for ‘Turkish’ brought up a transaction at a kebab restaurant, for example, even though it didn’t have ‘Turkish’ in its name. If you regularly take photos of your receipts, you can also now search through these from Google Pay and drill down to specific things you bought — as well as receipts and bills you receive in your Gmail inbox.

Also new inside of Google Pay is the ability to see and virtually clip coupons that are then linked to your credit card, so you don’t need to do anything else beyond using that linked credit card to get extra cashback on a given transaction, for example. If you opt in, these offers can also be personalized.

Image Credits: Google

The team also worked with the Google Lens team to now let you scan products and QR codes to look for potential discounts.

As for the core payments function, Google is also enabling a new capability that will let you use contactless payments at 30,000 gas stations now (often with a discount). The partners for this are Shell, ExxonMobil, Phillips 66, 76 and Conoco.

In addition, you’ll also soon be able to pay for parking in over 400 cities inside the app. Not every city is Portland, after all, and has a Parking Kitty. The first cities to get this feature are Austin, Boston, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C., with others to follow soon.

It’s one thing to let Google handle your credit card transaction but it’s another to give it all of this — often highly personal — data. As the team emphasized throughout my conversation with them, Google Pay will not sell your data to third parties or even the rest of Google for ad targeting, for example. All of the personalized features are also off by default and the team is doing something new here by letting you turn them on for a three-month trial period. After those three months, you can then decide to keep them on or off.

In the end, whether you want to use the optional features and have Google store all of this data is probably a personal choice and not everybody will be comfortable with it. The rest of the core Google Pay features aren’t changing, after all, so you can still make your NFC payments at the supermarket with your phone just like before.

Google updates Maps with more COVID info and finally launches its Assistant driving mode

By Frederic Lardinois

Google today announced an update to Google Maps that includes a number of new COVID-related features, as well as the ability to see the live status of your takeout or delivery orders, as well as the launch of the long-expected new Assistant driving mode.

In addition, the company shared a few new stats around Google Maps today. The company says that it makes 50 million updates to Maps each day now, for example, though that includes user-generated content like user reviews, photos and ratings. The company also now features “popular times” information for 20 million places around the globe.

Image Credits: Google Maps

As far as COVID is concerned, there are two announcements here. First, Google is updating the COVID layer in Google Maps on Android and iOS with some new information, including the number of all-time detected cases in an area and links to COVID resources from local governments. Second, Google Maps can now tell you, in real time, how busy a given transit line is so you can avoid packed trains or busses, for example. That’s based on real-time feedback from Google Maps users and will feel familiar if you are aware of how Google Maps can already show you how busy a given store or restaurant currently is.

Image Credits: Google Maps

Semi-related — delivery services are booming during the pandemic, after all (even as they continue to struggle to make a profit) — Google Maps on mobile will now be able to show you the live delivery status of your takeout and delivery orders in the U.S., Canada, Germany, Australia, Brazil and India. To do so, you have to book your order from Google Maps on Android or iOS.

For Google Maps users who don’t have an Android Auto-compatible car, the new Google Assistant driving mode in Maps has long been something to look forward to. The company first talked about this set of new features at its I/O developers conference in May 2019, but as is so often the case, features announced at I/O take a while to get to market. Originally, this was supposed to launch last summer.

Image Credits: Google Maps

The idea here is to allow drivers to get alerts about incoming calls, have the Assistant read out text messages and control your music right inside of Google Maps. Using the Assistant ideally reduces driver distractions. For now, this new mode is only coming to Android users in the U.S., though, and the number of features it supports remains limited. Google promises to support more features over time, but it’s not clear which features it plans to add to this mode.

Strava raises $110 million, touts growth rate of 2 million new users per month in 2020

By Darrell Etherington

Activity and fitness tracking platform Strava has raised $110 million in new funding, in a Series F round led by TCV and Sequoia, and including participation by Dragoneer group, Madrone Capital Partners, Jackson Square Ventures and Go4it Capital. The funding will be used to propel the development of new features, and expand the company’s reach to cover even more users.

Already in 2020, Strava has seen significant growth. The company claims that it has added more than 2 million new “athletes” (how Strava refers to its users) per month in 2020. The company positions its activity tracking as focused on the community and networking aspects of the app and service, with features like virtual competitions and community goal-setting as representative of that approach.

Strava has 70 million members, according to the company, with presence in 195 countries globally. The company debuted a new Strava Metro service earlier this year, leveraging the data it collects from its users in an aggregated and anonymized way to provide city planners and transportation managers with valuable data about how people get around their cities and communities — all free for these governments and public agencies to use, once they’re approved for access by Strava.

The company’s uptick in new user adds in 2020 is likely due at least in part to COVID-19, which saw a general increase in the number of people pursuing outdoor activities, including cycling and running, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic when more aggressive lockdown measures were being put in place. As we see a likely return of many of those more aggressive measures due to surges in positive cases globally, gym closures could provoke even more interest in outdoor activity — though winter’s effect on that appetite among users in colder climates will be interesting to watch.

Strava’s app is available free on iOS and Android, with in-app purchases available for premium subscription features.

This Week in Apps: Conservative apps surge, Instagram redesigned, TikTok gets ghosted

By Sarah Perez

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the TechCrunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. People are now spending three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

Top Stories

Trump administration backs down on TikTok ban

CULVER CITY, CA - OCTOBER 13: General view of the TikTok headquarters on October 13, 2020 in Culver City, California. (Photo by AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

(Photo by AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

The Trump administration seemingly forgot it had banned the TikTok app in the U.S., as the president focused this week instead on sowing doubt over the integrity of the U.S. elections — which the Dept. of Homeland Security just called the “most secure in American History,” by the way.

The inaction on the Trump administration’s part revealed what many suspected all along: that the TikTok ban was largely performative.

Earlier this week, TikTok went public with the fact that it hadn’t heard anything about its ban for weeks, despite the fact that it had a deadline of November 12 to divest its U.S. assets. The company filed a petition in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on Tuesday, calling for a review of actions by CFIUS (Trump’s committee on foreign investment in the United States).

TikTok had earlier asked for an extension, but never heard back, it said.

Or, as the winning headline put it, courtesy of The Verge: “TikTok says the Trump administration has forgotten about trying to ban it, would like to know what’s up.”

In a statement, TikTok said:

“For a year, TikTok has actively engaged with CFIUS in good faith to address its national security concerns, even as we disagree with its assessment. In the nearly two months since the President gave his preliminary approval to our proposal to satisfy those concerns, we have offered detailed solutions to finalize that agreement – but have received no substantive feedback on our extensive data privacy and security framework.

Facing continual new requests and no clarity on whether our proposed solutions would be accepted, we requested the 30-day extension that is expressly permitted in the August 14 order. Today, with the November 12 CFIUS deadline imminent and without an extension in hand, we have no choice but to file a petition in court to defend our rights and those of our more than 1,500 employees in the US. We remain committed to working with the Administration — as we have all along — to resolve the issues it has raised, but our legal challenge today is a protection to ensure these discussions can take place.”

After getting the reminder, the Commerce Dept. on Thursday said it wouldn’t enforce the order that required TikTok to shut down, citing a preliminary injunction against the shutdown last month that came about as a result of the lawsuit by TikTok stars, who claimed the app’s closure would impact their ability to make an income. However, it also appealed that same ruling, leading to further confusion.

The question now is how will the incoming Biden administration proceed with regard to the Trump TikTok ban. Though Biden has criticized Trump’s China policy, concern over TikTok was one that saw bipartisan support. Biden even said during a campaign stop in September that it was worrisome that a Chinese operation would have access to over 100 million young people in the U.S.

Election results send conservative apps up the charts

After a nerve-wracking week of election results which devolved into political chaos as Trump rallied his base to believe baseless claims of fraud, a number of right-wing Trump supporters turned to alternative apps for social media and news.

The App Store’s top charts, which are determined by a combination of downloads and velocity, among other factors, soon featured a new set of alternative apps, led by free speech network Parler, which found itself in the No. 1 spot. (It’s since slipped thanks to Walmart’s Black Friday sales, which sent the retailer’s app flying up to No. 1.)

Image Credits: Screenshot from App Store

According to one estimate, Parler saw 980K downloads from November 3 through November 8. Other apps also benefitted from the election drama, including social network MeWe (now No. 10 on the iPhone Top Free Apps chart in the U.S. and right-wing news network Newsmax TV (No. 7).

Unlike Facebook and Twitter — which increasingly use fact-checking services to label or, in extreme cases, hide false claims behind an extra click — alternative apps do not. But they are not neutral platforms by any means. The verified account from “Team Trump” was among those that automatically greeted new Parler users, for example. Right-wing politicians like senator Ted Cruz and representative Devin Nunes as well as other conservative personalities have set up shop on Parler, too.

As a result, the community is lopsided. Users are posting to amplify their beliefs among those who largely feel the same as they do. And, because Parler does not combat misinformation and conspiracy theories with fact-checking, it’s already been targeted by a conspiracy theory of its very own. A Photoshopped image of a Fox News ticker spread confusion on Parler this week, as the modified image claimed that George Soros owned the social network. The conspiracy got enough traction that Parler founder John Matze had to post that it was not true. But Parler’s true origins and ownership are still being discussed.

It’s unclear to what extent the conservative apps represent a new wave of social media with long-term staying power, given that any relative newcomer to the space will still ultimately have to compete with very large networks, like Facebook’s 2 billion users. Though smaller than Facebook, Twitter’s 330 million monthly active users is still much larger than Parler’s monthly active user base of about 4 million (its active users are around half of its registered users, which is now 8 million.)

Larger platforms have resources to pour into more than just the basics of keeping the servers running. And, to date, that’s led to the demise of numerous other would-be Facebook rivals. The few apps that manage to grow a following these days are those that get a majority of younger, mainstream users, like TikTok and Snapchat.

Regardless of your political leanings, I think we can all agree there was a lot of this going on this week:

Instagram Redesign

Image Credits: Instagram

Instagram this week put its TikTok competitor Reels front-and-center in a redesigned version of its app by giving it the center position on its new navigation bar. The update also replaced the Activity tab (heart icon) with the Shop tab, following a test that had changed this aspect of the app’s home screen earlier this summer. And it revamped the Camera interface and did away with the IGTV button.

In the redesigned app, both the Compose button and the Activity tab have been relocated to the top-right of the home screen, while the center middle button now belongs to Reels.

Image Credits: Instagram

The redesign is an aggressive attempt on Instagram’s part to direct users to its short-form video feed, Reels, which has so far seen only a lukewarm reception from reviewers, who have called it stale, lacking in effects and another contributor to Instagram bloat.

The changes were also a big push to make the Instagram app more of an online shopping destination at a critical time for the e-commerce market. The coronavirus pandemic accelerated the shift to e-commerce by at least five years, according to some analysts. That means any plans Instagram had to become a major player in online commerce were also just expedited.

Both moves signal a company that’s worried about the impact TikTok may have on the long-term future of its business. TikTok is now projected to top 1.2 billion monthly active users in 2021. And as its recent partnership with Shopify on social commerce indicates, it could be a new home for social commerce soon too.

Weekly News

Platforms

  • Apple at its Mac event detailed that its new Apple Silicon Macs would be able to run iOS apps. The news was first announced at WWDC, but is now officially going to roll out with Big Sur and the new Macs. Apple showed off Among Us and HBO Max apps during a demo, but it’s unclear if others are being allowed to opt out.
  • Apple’s TestFlight beta testing app now supports automatic updates. At last!
  • iOS 14.3 and iPadOS 14.3 beta 1 releases arrived.
  • Android added support for PyTorch for on-device AI processing.
  • Epic Games scores a point in the App Store legal battle over in-app purchase fees. A judge dismissed Apple’s claims that Epic’s actions were wrong, which reduces the potential risk of its lawsuit, limiting Apple’s counterclaims to breach of contract. (Punitive damages have not yet been discussed.)
  • Apple to suggest third-party apps during setup, with iOS 14.3, according to details found in the app’s code. This appears to be there for compliance with local laws in select countries where antitrust issues are a concern.
  • Android Enterprise Recommended program adds Samsung and others. The program, launched in 2018, helps enterprise customers evaluate and approve devices that meet Google’s requirements for hardware, software and updates. This change brings Samsung Galaxy devices and others into the fold.
  • Time to vote for Google Play’s “Best of 2020.” You can vote through November 23 to help pick Google’s Users’ Choice winners.

Security & Privacy

  • Zoom settled with FTC after making deceptive security claims. The company had claimed its video calls were protected by “end-to-end” encryption that made it impossible for anyone, including Zoom to listen in. This wasn’t true, as Zoom maintained the cryptographic keys that could allow it to access the content of its customers’ meetings.

Apps in the News

Image Credits: Facebook

  • Facebook copies Snapchat…again. Messenger and Instagram are getting a new “Vanish Mode” feature that lets you enable disappearing messages from within a conversation. The upgrade on Instagram is only part of the big messaging update that unifies the inbox with Facebook.
  • Apple cracked down on iOS terminal apps. a-Shell and iSH, two terminal apps popular with developers, were blocked from the App Store because they…drum roll…execute scripts. Oh c’mon, Apple. iSH appealed and was returned to the App Store. a-Shell has appealed as well. Apple ended up apologizing.
  • No more free storage for your Google Photos. Google this week said all your photo uploads will now count towards your Google account’s 15GB of free storage. Get ready to pay for Google One.
  • TikTok expands fundraising features. The company already allowed users to fundraise from donation stickers. Now you can do so directly from your profile, too.
  • Disney+ app reaches 100M+ global downloads, with 62% coming from the U.S., according to Apptopia data. 
  • TikTok to top 1.2B MAUs by 2021, per App Annie’s forecast.
  • Bumble’s new feature prevents bad actors from using “unmatch” to avoid being reported for harassment and other issues. The change came following reports of victims of harassment and crime, including rape, were unable to report their abusers because they had unmatched their victims.
  • Zynga recorded a 46% rise in revenue in Q3 2020, to reach $503 million, an increase in DAUs of 53% to 31 million, and a 23% increase in MAUs to 83 million.

Trends

Image Credits: Netflix/TechCrunch

  • Netflix tries a TikTok-like feature. Netflix experiments with a full-screen vertical video feed featuring comedy clips. The company says the goal is to help users discover new shows and add them to their watch list.
  • U.S. Elections boosted mental wellness app installs by 30%. According to Sensor Tower data, the top five meditation apps (Calm, Headspace, Pray.com, Breethe and Insight Timer) saw their installs collectively grow 30% week-over-week in the period from November 3 to November 5 as compared to October 27 to October 29.
  • App Annie 2021 forecast: Remote business apps (e.g. Zoom) are expected to see a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 57% and remote learning apps will see 62% growth in 2021. Total time in mobile banking and finance apps will surpass 31 billion hours annually in 2021, representing a four-year CAGR of 35%. Fitness and e-commerce will grow as well, at +23% and +40%, respectively.
  • Chinese e-commerce platforms are gamifying Single’s Day, the world’s largest shopping festival, to keep consumers in their apps longer. Friends can join each other’s teams to get even bigger deals. Some people, however, criticize.

Funding and M&A

  • JumpCloud raises $75M in Series E funding for its cloud directory and Apple MDM expansion
  • Nigeria’s Kuda raises $10M to be the mobile-first challenger bank for Africa.
  • Food delivery app and website DoorDash filed to go public. The company has raised $2.5 billion in capital to date.
  • Personal finance app Truebill raises $17M. The app and website help users track down subscriptions they no longer want to pay for, negotiate to lower bills and more.

Downloads

HBO’s “His Dark Materials: My Daemon”

HBO teamed up with creative studio Framestore to create a new iOS and Apple Watch app that lets fans of the show “His Dark Materials” interact with their own “daemons” — the magical animal companions that serve as an extension of characters’ souls, TechCrunch reported. The app uses AR to allow the daemon to interact with the world around you.

NightWare for Apple Watch treats PTSD

Image Credits: NightWare

The FDA approved an Apple Watch app for the treatment of PTSD. The app, NightWare, is only available with a prescription, and uses Apple Watch sensors to track body movements and the heart rate during sleep to create a profile. When it detects a PTSD nightmare, the watch vibrates to disrupt the the user’s sleep and bring them out.

OmniFocus launches iOS 14 widgets 

Image Credits: OmniFocus

Productivity app OmniFocus launched new iOS 14 widgets this week, including a forecast widget with a calendar view for today and the days ahead and a perspective items widget with a list of upcoming items in a perspective of your choice. The widgets are available in small, medium, and large sizes, and can have their font size customized.

Review: The iPhone 12 Pro Max is worth its handling fee

By Matthew Panzarino

The iPhone 12 Pro Max is probably the easiest of all of the new iPhone 12 models to review. It’s huge and it has a really, really great camera. Probably one of the best cameras ever in a smartphone if not the best. For those of you coming from an iPhone “Max” or “Plus” model already, it’s a no brainer. Get it, it’s fantastic. It’s got everything Apple has to offer this year and it’s even a bit smaller than the iPhone 11 Pro Max. 

For everyone else — the potential upsizers — this review has only a single question to answer: Do the improvements in camera and screen size and potentially battery life make it worth dealing with the hit in handling ergonomics from its slim but thicc build?

The answer? Yes, but only in certain conditions. Let’s get into it.

Build

I’m not going to spend a ton of time on performance or go through a feature-by-feature breakdown of the iPhone 12 Pro Max. I’ve published a review of the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro here and just today published a review of the iPhone 12 mini. You can check those out for baseline chat about the whole lineup. 

Instead, I’m going to focus specifically on the differences between the iPhone 12 Pro Max and the rest of the lineup. This makes sense because Apple has returned us to a place that we haven’t been since the iPhone 8. 

Though the rest of the lineup provides a pretty smooth arc of choices, the iPhone 12 Pro Max introduces a pretty solid cliff of unique features that could pull some people up from the iPhone 12 Pro. 

The larger size sets off all of the work Apple did to make the iPhone 12 Pro look like a jewel. Gold coated steel edges and the laminated clear and frosty back with gold accent rings around the cameras and glossy logo. All of it screams posh. 

Some of you may recall that there was a period of time where there existed a market for ultra-luxury phone makers like Vertu to use fine materials to “elevate” what were usually pretty poorly implemented Symbian or Android phones at heart. Leather, gold, crystal and even diamond were used to craft veblen goods for the über rich just so they could stay ‘above’ the proles. Now, Apple’s materials science experimentation and execution level is so high that you really can’t get anything on the level of this kind of pure luxe manifestation in a piece of consumer electronics from anyone else, even a ‘hand maker’. 

To be fair, Vertu and other makers didn’t die because Apple got good at gold, they died because good software is needed to invest life into these bejeweled golems. But Apple got better at what they did faster than they could ever get good at what Apple does. 

This is a great piece of kit and as mentioned even smaller than previous Max models with the same size screen. But in my opinion, the squared off edges of this year’s aesthetic make this phone harder to hold, not easier at this size. This is essentially the opposite effect from the smaller models. For a phone this size I’d imagine everyone is going to use a case anyway so that’s probably moot, but it’s worth noting. 

My feelings on the larger iPhones, which I haven’t used as a daily driver since the iPhone 8, remain unchanged: these are two-handed devices best used as tablet or even laptop replacements. If you run your life from these phones then it makes sense that you’d want a huge screen with plenty of real-estate for a browser and a pip video chat and a generous keyboard all at once. 

The differences 

When we’re talking about whether or not to move up to this beast I think it’s helpful to have a list of everything here that is different, or you think might be but isn’t, from the iPhone 12 Pro. 

Screen. The 6.7” iPhone 12 Pro Max screen has a resolution of 2778×1284 at 458 ppi. That’s nearly identical but slightly under the iPhone 12 Pro’s 460ppi. So though this is a difference I’d count it as a wash. The screen’s size, of course, and the software support that some Apple and third-party apps to take advantage of the increased real-estate are still a factor. 

Performance. The iPhone 12 Pro Max performs exactly as you’d expect it to in the CPU and GPU department, which is to say exactly the same as the iPhone 12 Pro. It also has the same 6GB of RAM on board. Battery performance was comparable to my iPhone 11 Pro Max testing which is to say it outlasted a typical waking day though I could probably nail it in a long travel day. 

Ultra wide angle camera. Exactly the same. Improved over the iPhone 11 Pro massively due to software correction and the addition of Night Mode, but the same across the iPhone 12 Pro lineup.

Telephoto camera. This is a tricky one because it uses the same sensor as the iPhone 12 Pro, but features a new lens assembly that results in a 2.5x (65mm equivalent) zoom factor. This means that though the capture quality is the same, you can achieve tighter framing at the same distance away from your subject. As a heavy telephoto user (I shot around 30% of my pictures over the last year in the iPhone 11 Pro’s telephoto) I love this additional control and the slightly higher compression that comes with it. 

The framing control is especially nice with portraits. 

Though it comes in handy with distant subjects as well.

There is also one relatively stealthy (I cannot find this on the website but I verified that it is true) update to the telephoto. It is the only lens other than the wide angle across all of the iPhone 12 lineup to also get the new optical stabilization upgrades that allow it to make 5,000 micro-adjustments per second to stabilize an image in low light or shade. It still uses the standard lens-style stabilization, not the new sensor-shift OIS used in the wide angle lens, but it goes up 5x in the amount of adjustments it can make from the iPhone 11 Pro or even the iPhone 12 Pro. 

The results of this can be seen in this shot, a handheld indoor snap. Aside from the tighter lens crop, the additional stabilization adjustments result in a crisper shot with finer detail even though the base sensor is identical. It’s a relatively small improvement in comparison to the wide angle, but it’s worth mentioning and worth loving if you’re a heavy telephoto user.  

Wide angle camera. The bulk of the iPhone 12 Pro Max difference is right here. This is a completely new camera that pushes the boundaries of what the iPhone has been capable of shooting to this point. It’s actually made up of 3 big changes:

  • A new f1.6 aperture camera. A larger aperture is plain and simple a bigger hole that lets more light in.
  • A larger sensor with 1.7 micron pixels (bigger pixels mean better light gathering and color rendition), a larger sensor means higher quality images.
  • An all-new sensor-shift OIS system that stabilizes the sensor, not the lens. This is advantageous for a few reasons. Sensors are lighter than lenses, which lets the adjustments happen faster because it can be moved, stopped and started again with more speed and precision. 

Sensor-shift OIS systems are not new, they were actually piloted in the Minolta Dimage A1 back in 2003. But most phone cameras have used lens shift technology because it is very common, vastly cheaper and easier to implement. 

All three things work together to deliver pretty stellar imaging results. It also makes the camera bump on the iPhone 12 Pro Max a bit taller. Tall enough that there is actually an additional lip on the case meant for it made by Apple to cover it. I’d guess that this additional thickness stems directly from the wide angle lens assembly needing to be larger to accommodate the sensor and new OIS mechanism and then Apple being unwilling to let one camera stick out further than any other. 

These are Night Mode samples, but even there you can see the improvements in brightness and sharpness. Apple claims 87% more light gathering ability with this lens and in the right conditions it’s absolutely evident. Though you won’t be shooting SLR-like images in near darkness (Night Mode has its limits and tends to get pretty impressionistic when it gets very dim) you can absolutely see the pathway that Apple has to get there if it keeps making these kinds of improvements. 

Wide angle shots from the iPhone 12 Pro Max display slightly better sharpness, lower noise and better color rendition than the iPhone 12 Pro and much more improvement from the iPhone 11 Pro. In bright conditions you will be hard pressed to tell the difference between the two iPhone 12 models but if you’re on the lookout the signs are there. Better stabilization when handheld in open shade, better noise levels in dimmer areas and slightly improved detail sharpness. 

The iPhone 12 Pro already delivers impressive results year on year, but the iPhone 12 Pro Max leapfrogs it within the same generation. It’s the most impressive gain Apple’s ever had in a model year, image wise. The iPhone 8 Plus and the introduction of Apple’s vision of a blended camera array was forward looking, but even then image quality was pretty much parity with the smaller models that year. 

A very significant jump this year. Can’t wait for this camera to trickle down the lineup.

LiDAR. I haven’t really mentioned LiDAR benefits yet, but I went over them extensively in my iPhone 12 Pro review, so I’ll cite them here.

LiDAR is an iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max only feature. It enables faster auto-focus lock-in in low light scenarios as well as making Portrait Mode possible on the Wide lens in Night Mode shots. 

First, the auto-focus is insanely fast in low light. The image above is what is happening, invisibly, to enable that. The LiDAR array constantly scans the scene with an active grid of infrared light, producing depth and scene information that the camera can use to focus. 

In practice, what you’ll see is that the camera snaps to focus quickly in dark situations where you would normally find it very difficult to get a lock at all. The LiDAR-assisted low light Portrait Mode is very impressive, but it only works with the Wide lens. This means that if you are trying to capture a portrait and it’s too dark, you’ll get an on-screen prompt that asks you to zoom out. 

These Night  Mode portraits are demonstrably better looking than the standard portrait mode of the iPhone 11 because those have to be shot with the telephoto, meaning a smaller, darker aperture. They also do not have the benefit of the brighter sensor or LiDAR helping to separate the subject from the background — something that gets insanely tough to do in low light with just RGB sensors.

As a note, the LiDAR features will work great in situations under 5 meters along with Apple’s Neural Engine, to produce these low-light portraits. Out beyond that it’s not much use because of light falloff. 

Well lit Portrait Mode shots on the iPhone 12 Pro Max will still rely primarily on the information coming in through the lenses optically, rather than LiDAR. It’s simply not needed for the most part if there’s enough light.

The should I buy it workflow

I’m straight up copying a couple of sections for you now from my iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 mini reviews because the advice applies across all of these devices. Fair warning.

In my iPhone 12/12 Pro review I noted my rubric for selecting a personal device:

  • The most compact and unobtrusive shape.
  • The best camera that I can afford.

And this is the conclusion I came to at the time:

The iPhone 12 Pro is bested in the camera department by the iPhone 12 Pro Max, which has the biggest and best sensor Apple has yet created. (But its dimensions are similarly biggest.) The iPhone 12 has been precisely cloned in a smaller version with the iPhone 12 mini. By my simple decision-making matrix, either one of those are a better choice for me than either of the models I’ve tested. If the object becomes to find the best compromise between the two, the iPhone 12 Pro is the pick.

But now that I’ve had time with the Pro Max and the mini, I’ve been able to work up a little decision flow for you:

If you haven’t gathered it by now, I recommend the iPhone 12 Pro Max to two kinds of people: the ones who want the absolute best camera quality on a smartphone period and those who do the bulk of their work on a phone rather than on another kind of device. There is a distinct ‘fee’ that you pay in ergonomics to move to a Max iPhone. Two hands are just plain needed for some operations and single-handed moves are precarious at best. 

Of course, if you’re already self selected into the cult of Max then you’re probably just wondering if this new one is worth a jump from the iPhone 11 Pro Max. Shortly: maybe not. It’s great but it’s not light years better unless you’re doing photography on it. Anything older though and you’re in for a treat. It’s well made, well equipped and well priced. The storage upgrades are less expensive than ever and it’s really beautiful. 

Plus, the addition of the new wide angle to the iPhone 12 Pro Max makes this the best camera system Apple has ever made and quite possibly the best sub compact camera ever produced. I know, I know, that’s a strong statement but I think it’s supportable because the iPhone is best in class when it comes to smartphones, and no camera company on the planet is doing the kind of blending and computer vision Apple is doing. Though larger sensor compact cameras still obliterate the iPhone’s ability to shoot in low light situations, the progress over time of Apple’s ML-driven blended system.

A worthy upgrade, if you can pay the handling costs.

This Week in Apps: Quibi dies, Snapchat soars, Halide upgrades for iPhone 12

By Sarah Perez

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the TechCrunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. People are now spending three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

Top Stories

Quibi dies…and no one was surprised

There was so much wrong with Quibi’s premise that it’s sometimes hard to even know where to start. But at the core, its problem was that it fundamentally misunderstood how, when and why users would watch video on their phones.

The company’s thinking was that you could fund high-production value content ($100K/minute, yikes) then chop it up into smaller “bites,” add a technology layer, then call this a reinvention of cinema.

The reality is there was little demand for this sort of content, and it didn’t fit with how people want to be entertained on their phones.

When people want to appreciate high-quality filmmaking (or even TV production), they tend to want a bigger screen — they’ve spent money for their fancy high-def or 4K TV, after all. Pre-COVID, they might even pay to go a movie theater. On mobile, the production value of content is far less of a concern, if it even registers.

Quibi also misunderstood what users want to watch in terms of video on their phones when they have a few minutes to kill.

By positioning its app in this space, it had to compete with numerous and powerful sources for “short-form” content — existing apps like YouTube, TikTok, Facebook (e.g. News Feed content, Watch feeds), Instagram Stories, Snapchat and so on. This is content you don’t have to get invested in, since you’re just distracting yourself from a few minutes of boredom. It’s not a time or place to engage with a longer story — chopped or otherwise.

Quibi also cut the length of content to serve its artificial limitations — at the expense of story quality and enjoyment.

A reality show dumbed down to just its highlights is almost unwatchable, as it exposes the editors’ machinations and manipulations that are better hidden among longer stretches of fluff. And there was simply no reason to cut down movies — like Quibi’s “The Dangerous Game,” for example — into pieces. It didn’t elevate the storytelling; it distracted from it. And if you wanted a quick news update (e.g. Quibi’s “Daily Essentials”), you didn’t need a whole new app for that.

Quibi content may have been considered “high quality,” but it often wasn’t good. (I still can’t believe I sat through an episode of “Dishmantled,” where chefs had to recreate dishes of food that were thrown in their face. And Quibi had the nerve to shame YouTube’s low-quality and lack of talent?!)

Quibi also wanted to charge for its service, but its catalog wasn’t designed for families, with content that ranged from kids to adult programming. It didn’t offer parental controls. This immediately limited its competitiveness.

At launch, Quibi also limited itself to the phone, which meant it limited your ability to use the phone as a second screen while you watched a show. (There was no PiP support). TechCrunch has been writing about phones as the second screen for the better part of a decade, often with a focus on startups. But in Quibi’s case, it killed the second screen experience, seemingly forgetting that people text friends, order food, check Twitter and peek in on other apps while a TV show plays in the background. Did it really think that a reboot of “Punk’d” deserved our full attention?

Quibi naturally blamed COVID for its failure to thrive. It had imagined a world where users had ample time to kill while out and about: commuting on the subway, standing in long lines, that sort of thing.

But even this premise was flawed. It would have eventually caught up to Quibi, too; COVID just accelerated it. The issue is that Quibi imagined the U.S. as only a swath of urban metros where public transportation is abundant and standing in lines is the norm. In reality, more than half (52%) the U.S. is described as suburban, 27% is urban and 21% is rural. Non-urban commuters often drive themselves to work. Sure, they could stream Quibi during those commutes, but not really look at it. So why burn high-production value on them? And standing in long lines, believe it or not, is not actually that common in smaller cities and towns, either. If it only takes two minutes to grab a coffee or a burrito before you hop back in your car, do you really want to start a new show?

So where would that have left Quibi? Hoping for Gen Z’ers attention as they lounge around their bedrooms looking for something to do? And yet it wanted to appeal to these kids using Hollywood A-Listers they don’t even know? As COVID pressed down, it left Quibi in competition with (often arguably better) content that streamed natively on the TV from apps like Netflix, HBO, Hulu, Prime Video, Disney+, and others where you could binge through seasons at once instead of waiting every week for a new “quick bite” to drop.

There’s more, so much more that could still be said, including the fact that a former eBay and HP CEO may not be the right person to lead a company that wanted to dazzle a younger demographic. Or how its video-flipping TurnStyle feature was clever, but added complexity to filmmaking, and was not enough of a technological leap to build a business around. Or how, no matter how much money it had raised, it was still not enough, compared with the massive budgets of competitors like Netflix and Amazon.

You can read a further post-mortem round-up here. And another here. Because we can’t get enough post-mortems, apparently.

In the meantime, TikTok still isn’t banned.

Snap hits record $50B valuation

Snapchat’s maker was forecast to bring around $555 million in revenues in Q3 but posted $679 million instead, a 52% YoY increase, in a surprise earnings beat. EPS were an adjusted $0.01, beating an expected loss of $0.04. The company also grew daily active users by 4% (11 million) to 249 million, an 18% YoY increase. Snap’s net loss of $200 million was a 12% improvement over last year, too.

As a result of the earnings, shares jumped nearly 30% the next day and its valuation cracked $50 billion for the first time, a record high.

During earnings, the company touted it now reaches 90% of the Gen Z population and 75% of millennials in the U.S., U.K. and France. User growth was attributed to new products, including Profiles, Minis, Lens creation tools and AR ads. In particular, Snap leveraged the Facebook ad boycott to reach out to brands that wanted to “realign their marketing efforts” with companies that “share their corporate values,” the company said.

Snap also just launched its TikTok competitor, Sounds on Snapchat, which lets users add licensed music to their Stories.

Weekly News Round-Up

Platforms

  • Apple releases iOS and iPadOS 14.1. The first major update to iOS 14 delivers multiple bug fixes, including those impacting widgets, streaming video and Family Setup on Apple Watch, among others. It also added support for 10-bit HDR video playback and editing in Photos on iPhone 8 and later.
  • iOS 14 bug continues to reset default email and browser apps. After updating your preferred email or browser app, iOS 14 forgets what third-party app you’ve set as the default. Yes, it was doing this before. Are we still so sure it’s a bug?
  • DOJ antitrust lawsuit goes after the multibillion-dollar deal that positioned Google as the default search engine on browsers, phones and other Apple devices.
  • AirTags patent applications describe use cases like locating the nearest defibrillator, monitoring users’ posture and playing avatar-based games, giving a little more insight into how Apple envisions the future of its smartphone-findable tags.
  • Google embraces iOS 14 widgets. Google already offered one of the more useful widgets for iOS 14 with its Search widget, which has been downloaded by “millions.” This week, it introduced more, including a Google Photos widget that let you revisit your memories, and a YouTube Music widget.
  • RCS support in Android Messages expands. Following the U.S. debut, RCS has rolled out to a number of new countries, and can now be found in Italy, Portugal, Singapore, Argentina, Pakistan, Poland, Turkey, Denmark, Netherlands, Austria, Bangladesh, Belgium, Croatia, Czechia, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Kosovo, Lithuania, New Zealand, Serbia, Slovenia, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Australia, Bulgaria, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, Latvia, Lebanon, Uganda and Ukraine. The last nine were just this month.

Trends

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

  • Buy Now, Pay Later app usage in the U.S. up 186% year-over-year as of Sept. According to Sensor Tower, apps that let consumers make purchases on payment plans have been climbing steadily this year since the COVID-19 pandemic. The report looked at Klarna, Affirm, Afterpay and QuadPay, which together have generated 18 million lifetime installs across the App Store and Google Play. Installs were up 115% YoY in September, while monthly actives were up 186%.
  • U.S. contact-tracing apps are a disjointed wreck. The WSJ examined the state of COVID-19 contact-tracing apps in the U.S. and found that states focusing on their own efforts, due to the lack of a national plan, has left a disjointed patchwork of tools. Only 10 states, plus D.C., have used the framework built by Google and Apple; 11 are piloting or building apps. The EU, meanwhile, switched on cross-border interoperability for its first batch of tracing apps.
  • Gen Z spends 10% more time using top non-game apps than older users, at 4.1+ hours per month. The figure excludes pre-installed apps and was calculated on Android devices in select markets, including the U.S. Gen Z users also engaged with non-game apps more often than older users, at 120 sessions per month per app.
  • U.S. consumers spend $20.78/mo on average on their app subscriptions, according to new data from Adjust. The 25 to 34-year-old age group spends the most on subscription apps at $25.85/mo, while those 55 and over spend the least, at $13.97/mo. In addition, more than a quarter of millennials and Gen Z consumers said they have stopped paying for other services in order to buy subscriptions on mobile app services (e.g. option for fitness apps over going to the gym).
  • Dating apps are on the rise in the U.S., says Apptopia. New users for Hily, Match, BLK, Bumble and Grindr are on pace to grow month-over-month at 32%, 28%, 20%, 18% and 11%, respectively.

 

Services

  • Amazon’s Luna game streaming service opens in early access to its first customers. The service offers a library of 50 games and works on Mac, PC, Amazon Fire TV, and iOS devices, courtesy of a web app to work around the App Store rules. Initial reviews describe the service as sometimes struggling with performance over Wi-Fi, but offering a good web app experience. Luna features some big titles but xCloud still has the better lineup. Its real killer feature, however, may be the promised Twitch integration, arriving in the future.
  • SoundCloud launches a $19.99/month DJ plan, SoundCloud DJ, that offers unlimited offline access to its catalog. Users can also stream high-quality audio and mix tracks using select DJ apps, including Virtual DJ, Cross DJ and Denon DJ.
  • Put your five-star reviews on your home screen. IMore spotted a must-have motivational tool for developers: a way to put your app’s five-star reviews as a widget on your home screen; $1.99 for this happiness boost.

Security/Privacy

Deadpool

  • Apple quietly discontinues its Apple TV Remote app. The app was removed from the App Store on Wednesday. Users are now expected to use the Remote feature built into the Control Center since iOS 12 instead.
  • Google will end support for its location-sharing Trusted Contacts app in December, and removes it from the Play Store. Users are directed to use similar features in Google Maps instead for finding friends and family.

Policies and Politics

  • Coalition for App Fairness more than doubles a month after its debut. The Coalition for App Fairness (CAF), a newly formed advocacy group pushing for increased regulation over app stores, has more than doubled in size with this week’s announcement of 20 new partners. The organization, led by top app publishers and critics, including Epic Games, Deezer, Basecamp, Tile, Spotify and others, debuted in late September to fight back against Apple and Google’s control over app stores, and particularly the stores’ rules around in-app purchases and commissions.

App News

  • Facebook to increase investments in WhatsApp for business. The company said it will expand Shopping on WhatsApp and will charge businesses for some of the services it offers on the chat app, in order to grow revenues. This includes offering to manage businesses’ WhatsApp messages via Facebook’s own hosting services. Facebook offered this info as more of a look into its roadmap, but without specifics on new services or pricing.
  • Facebook is cloning Nextdoor. The feature is in testing in Canada and sees Facebook automatically generating neighborhood groups to connect local users with people, activities and items for sale.
  • Court approves Kik’s settlement with SEC. The ruling ends a multi-year court battle by allowing Kik to pay a one-time $5 million fine for its violation of securities law for failing to register its 2017 distribution of its Kin tokens in its ICO.
  • Roblox passes $2B in mobile player spending ahead of its planned IPO. The company’s revenues, accelerated by the pandemic, crossed the $1.5 billion mark in May 2020, then picked up another $500 million in five months, says Sensor Tower.
  • Cameo enters B2B sales. The custom celebrity video app repositions its business of personalized greetings for B2B sales through an integration and rev share agreement with corporate gifting platform Sendoso.
  • Adobe adds a chain of custody tool in the beta release of Photoshop and Behance that will fight misinformation and keep content attributed properly.
  • Stitcher’s podcasts come to Pandora as acquisition completes. The Stitcher app also got a revamp following the deal’s finalization. The move brought several bigger podcast titles in house, thanks to Earwolf, including “Freakonomics Radio,” “My Favorite Murder,” “SuperSoul Conversations from the Oprah Winfrey Network,” “Office Ladies,” “Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend,” “Literally! with Rob Lowe,” “LeVar Burton Reads” and “WTF with Marc Maron.”
  • NYT has an iOS 14 widget now. The new widget will put NYT headlines on your home screen. Note that while the widget can be installed by anyone, if you want to click through to read, you’ll still need to be a subscriber.
  • PicsArt brings its app-based design tools to the web. The creative platform is chasing business users with the launch of its AI tools on picsart.com. The debut suite includes a template editor, background and object remover, video slideshow maker, text editor, and others.

Funding and M&A

  • Chinese tutoring app Yuanfudao has raised $2.2 billion from investors, surpassing Byju’s as the most valuable edtech company in the world, as it’s now worth $15.5 billion.
  • Retool raises $50M in funding, led by Sequoia, for its low-code tools for building internal apps that work on either desktop or mobile. The new round values the business at nearly $1 billion. Other backers include GitHub CEO Nat Friedman, Stripe founders Patrick and John Collison, Brex Inc. founders Henrique Dubugras and Pedro Franceschi and Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham.
  • Syte raises $40M to bring visual shoppers to e-commerce retailers. Visual search is already popular in apps like Google, Pinterest and eBay, but Syte wants under retailers to have the option. The round was led by return investor Viola Ventures.
  • 98point6 raises $118M for its AI-powered telemedicine platform that works on web and mobile (iOS and Android).

Recommended Downloads

Halide Mark II

Image Credits: Lux

The developers of popular pro iPhone camera apps Halide and Spectre this week launched their latest creation, the Halide Mark II camera app. The new interface has been designed for one-handed operation and includes a range of new features.

These include a new gesture-based automatic and manual switcher; tactile touch for enabling and disabling features like exposure warnings, focus peaking, and loupe as you adjust exposure or focus; an overhauled manual mode; new dynamic labeling of controls and actions to explain features to new users; support for the edge-to-edge interface of the iPhone 12 models; a redesigned reviewer with a full metadata read-out; in-app memberships for photo lessons; and over 40 more changes.

A new “Coverage” feature can take a photo with Smart HDR 2/3 and Deep Fusion for maximum quality and computational processing as well as a RAW file — with only a slight delay between captures.

Image Credits: Lux

Halide Mark II also uses machine learning to process an iPhone RAW file in the app (ProRAW) with 17 steps, including detail enhancement, contrast and color adjustment and more. This feature, called Instant RAW, intelligently develops the file to get the best possible results.

And the app includes top pro tools, like a new waveform and color exposure warnings (zebras) that use XDR (Extended Dynamic Range) 14-bit RAW sampling, for accurate exposure previews and readings.

The app is $36 (currently $30 during a promo period) if you want to only pay once. Otherwise it’s $11.99 per year on subscription (currently $9.99 per year if you lock in the price now during the promo period). Subscribers to the membership plan also get perks, like custom icons. Existing Halide 1 users, unbelievably, are upgraded for free but are asked to support the app with a membership.

ClipDrop — AR Copy Paste

Aaand here it is..!!! 😱

After months of hard work with @jblanchefr, @ClipDropApp beta (AR Copy Paste) is now publicly available on #Android, #iOS, #macOS, and #Windows

🔥https://t.co/52eLMEfXNR 🔥

Here's a thread of what you can already do with it ↓ 1/n#ML #AR #AI pic.twitter.com/0fQJQ8KRBv

— Cyril Diagne (@cyrildiagne) October 22, 2020

A new app called ClipDrop launches on iOS, Android, macOS and Windows as a new sort of “copy and paste” experience. The app uses state-of-the-art vision AI to copy images from your desktop with a screenshot to any other app (e.g. Docs, Photoshop, Canva, etc.) and it allows you to extract anything — objects, people, drawings or text.

The mobile app lets you snap photos of real-world items and then digitally transfer them to other apps or websites. In the below demo, the company shows how you could “clip” an image of an article of clothing using the camera, then import the photo into a document.

The company also just released a plugin for Photoshop that lets you drop the image into its app as a new layer with an editable mask.

The app is $39.99 per year (until November 2020, when it ups to $79.99 per year.)

Adobe Illustrator on iPad + Adobe Fresco on iPhone

Image Credits: Adobe

As part of Adobe’s virtual MAX 2020 conference this week, the company launched the first public version of its Illustrator vector graphics app on the iPad and brought its Fresco drawing and painting app to the iPhone. In time, the company plans to bring more effects, brushes and AI features to Illustrator. Fresco 2.0, meanwhile, includes new smudge brushes and support for personalized brushes, among other things.

Party Squasher

Designed for landlords, Airbnb owners or other vacation rental property owners, Party Squasher offers a hardware device and paired mobile app that counts the number of people at your house by counting the mobile phones in or around a house. The phones can be counted even if they’re not connected to the home’s Wi-Fi.

Because the device doesn’t include cameras or microphones, it’s ideal for ensuring that renters aren’t hosting large (and these days, potentially illegal) parties without violating privacy.

In the event that a large gathering is present, you’re sent a text or email so you can take action.

The device is $249 and the app charges a $199 per year subscription.

Tweets

🧲pic.twitter.com/IC5Ey4ONjK

— Jonathan Morrison 🙋🏻‍♂️ (@tldtoday) October 22, 2020

Remember App Clips?

— Paul Haddad (@tapbot_paul) October 22, 2020

Quibi made their “episodes” 11 minutes to avoid paying union writers. Everyone should MC Hammer dance on their grave.

— Jawn Wick (@LukeXCunningham) October 21, 2020

Omg I forgot to turn her app time limits back on pic.twitter.com/wrzSTGizWA

— Sarah Perez (@sarahintampa) October 22, 2020

 

The No. 1 game in the App Store is now Among Us!.

Can you guess why?

The best moments from @AOC's Among Us stream on @Twitch last night. pic.twitter.com/13dGGgeWTF

— The Recount (@therecount) October 21, 2020

OnePlus’s 8T handset brings faster charging and a 120Hz display for $749 

By Brian Heater

OnePlus continues its twice-yearly smartphone cycle with today’s arrival of the 8T. The latest device isn’t a huge upgrade over April’s OnePlus 8, but continues the company’s longstanding tradition of offering some of the most solid Android handsets at a reasonable price point. The cost has edged up a bit in recent years, but $749 is still pretty good for what the 8T offers.

The big updates this time out are the 120Hz refresh rate for its 6.55-inch display and super-fast charging via the Warp Charge 65. That should get the 4,450 mAh of battery capacity up to a full day’s charge in 15 minutes, with a full charge taking a little less than 40 minutes.

There are an abundance of cameras here — four in total. That includes a 48-megapixel main (with built in optical image stabilization), 16-megapixel ultra-wide angle and, more surprisingly, a macro and monochrome lens. The handset joins the even more affordable Nord, which is set to arrive in the U.S. in the near future, sporting 5G at a sub-$500 price point.

OnePlus has been undergoing some corporate changes in recent weeks, as well. Co-founder Carl Pei recently announced he will be leaving the company. “These past years, OnePlus has been my singular focus, and everything else has had to take a backseat,” he told TechCrunch. “I’m looking forward to taking some time off to decompress and catch up with my family and friends,” he wrote. “And then follow my heart on to what’s next.”

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