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Yesterday — October 22nd 2020Your RSS feeds

Google Maps launches a new developer solution for on-demand ride and delivery companies

By Frederic Lardinois

The Google Maps Platform, the developer side of Google Maps, is launching a new service for on-demand rides and delivery companies today that ties together some of the platform’s existing capabilities with new features for finding nearby drivers and sharing trip and order progress information with customers.

This isn’t Google Maps Platform’s first foray into this business. Back in 2018, the company launched a solution for in-app navigation for ridesharing companies, for example. At the time, the team didn’t really focus on delivery solutions, though, but that’s obviously one of the few booming markets right now, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Building on 15 years of experience mapping the world, the On-demand Rides & Deliveries solution helps businesses improve operations as well as transform the driver and customer journey from booking to arrival or delivery–all with predictable pricing per completed trip,” Google senior product manager Eli Danziger writes in today’s announcement.”

At the core of the service is the Google Maps routing service, which developers can tweak for deliveries by bike or motorcycle, for example, and to find optimized routes with the shortest or fastest path. The team notes that this so-called ‘Routes Preferred’ feature also enables arrival time predictions for time-sensitive deliveries and pricing estimates.

The other new feature of this platform is to enable developers to quickly build an experience that helps users find nearby drivers. Imaginatively called ‘Nearby Drivers,’ the idea here is about as straightforward as you can imagine and allows developers to find the closest driver with a single API call. They can also add custom rankings, based on their specific needs, to ensure the right driver is matched to the right route.

Unsurprisingly, the platform also features support for in-app navigation, and that’s tied in closely with the rest of the feature set.

Developers can also easily integrate Google’s real-time trip and order progress capabilities to “keep customers informed from pickup to drop-off or delivery, with a real-time view of a driver’s current position, route, and ETA.”

All of this is pretty much what any user would expect from a modern ride-sharing or delivery app, so for the most part, that’s table stakes. The technology behind it is not, though, and a lot of delivery companies have set up large tech operations to build out exactly these features. They aren’t likely to switch to Google’s platform, but the platform may give smaller players a chance to operate more efficiently or enter new markets without the added expense of having to build this tech stack from the ground up — or cobble it together from multiple vendors.

 

Flair’s Smart Vent system is a big improvement for anyone looking to improve their home HVAC

By Darrell Etherington

Smart thermostats are fairly ubiquitous these days, but depending on which one you’re using, you could be getting a lot more from your home heating and cooling – with relatively simple DIY upgrades. The Flair Smart Vent system is one such upgrade, and though it costs a bit upfront to get going (each register is $79 to start depending on size), you won’t have to call an HVAC contractor or break down any walls to take advantage of what it offers.

The basics

Flair’s system is designed around a simple idea: Controlling the airflow across individual rooms can help you be more efficient about where you direct your heating and cooling, and when. The basic ingredients Flair uses to make this happen are its Smart Vents, which fit into existing floor and wall register slots in standard sizes. The Flair designs are low profile, with all the electronics contained in casing that rests under floor level. They can be hardwired for power, but they also ship with two C batteries the provide “years” of power before they require replacement.

Flair advises three different approaches to determining how many Smart Vents you need to complement your existing system: If you have one room that’s too cold when cooling and too hot when heating, just get a Smart Vent and Flair Puck for that room. If you have just one room that gets too little cooling, and too little heating, equip all your other rooms with Smart Vents and Pucks (or Ecobee sensors if you have an Ecobee thermostat, but we’ll get to that later). If your HVAC is already pretty even, but you just want more control and efficiency gains, then equip the whole house as a third option.

Each room will require a Puck, which is a small round device that includes temperature control and monitoring. The first of these needs to be hardwired to power via the included USB cable, since it acts a bridge connecting the Flair system to your home network. All the others can be powered by included AAA batteries, and they’re very power efficient thanks in part to the e-Ink display.

Flair works in a number of modes, including one that’s compatible with any thermostat where you simply set the temperature for any room, and the associated vent(s) will open or close depending on whether the temperature in that room matches up. It can also work directly with Ecobee and Honeywell smart thermostats for a much more intelligent mode where they receive or send the temperature to the smart unit, and coordinate their open/shut status depending on that. Google has changed the Nest API, so Flair is working on supporting similar features on Nest systems through that in future, but for now it works with Nest installations the same way it would with ‘dumb’ thermostats.

Design and features

Image Credits: Flair

Flair’s Smart Vents themselves are attractive, well-made hardware. The vent covers themselves are made of metal, with an attractive grill design that will go with most decors. They’re exclusively white, which could be an issue for dark flooring, but they’re definitely a step up from your average registers. One one side, they have an LED light strip that is used during setup for identifying which is which, and underneath, the have the battery housing, louvres and the motors that control their open and shut status.

As mentioned, the Smart Vents can be associated with a Puck, which will provide them the ambient temp information, as well as target temp, in order to set them open or shut. They can also use an Ecobee sensor to get their marching orders when set up for software integration with an Ecobee system. I installed my review units and first tried them with the Flair app providing target temp info to the Ecobee, but then switched it around so that the Ecobee determined the desired temperature, and the Flair units all inherited that info and set their open/close status accordingly.

At first, I found the Flair app a bit intimidating just because with a multi-vent system it presents a lot of information, and some degree of logic to initially set up. But once I got the Ecobee integration working, the whole Flair system just worked – and worked like magic.

In this configuration, you never even have to think about the fact that the vents are Smart; they just do whatever they need to in order to equalize the temperature and keep heating and cooling routing intelligently. It made an impressive difference in the amount of airflow circulating around my nearly 100-year old house – and my setup isn’t necessarily ideal because there are a few non-standard, larger registers around that can’t yet be Flair-equipped.

The Pucks themselves are well designed, with magnetic, stick-up and screw-in installation options, and readible, power-efficient e-Ink displays. Their bezel turns for temperature control, and they can also be placed out of sight if you really just want to use them as remote sensors.

Bottom line

You might think that whether a register is open or closed wouldn’t make much difference to the efficacy of a house-wide HVAC system, but in my experience, the before-and-after of Flair was dramatically different. I started out with one problem spot primarily (the master bedroom) and afterwards it got to target temp much more quickly, both in heating and cooling modes.

Even if you find your central air and heating are already pretty effective, Flair seems like a wise upgrade that will provide lasting benefits in terms of consistency and power efficiency. Plus, if you use Flair as the controller, you can set different target temps for different rooms depending on individual occupant preferences.

True zoned HVAC systems can cost thousands – especially if you’re replacing existing ducting in walls. Flair’s solution is a lot more affordable by comparison, and provides effective results with DIY installation that takes just minutes to set up.

The smart speaker market is expected grow 21% next year

By Brian Heater

New numbers from Canalys point to a strong growth in smart speaker shipments in Mainland China this year. The market is on track to grow 2020, having gotten the COVID-19 pandemic mostly under control in recent months. The rest of the world — much of which continues to struggle with the virus — is only expected to see a 3% growth this year.

The global market will return to greater growth, per the firm, with numbers hitting 163 million units in 2021, marking a 21% growth overall. In spite of a slow down in purchasing non-essentials, a prolonged shutdown in many areas should lead more consumers to consider the possibility of introducing new devices into their homes — or replacing older and outdated units.

The last couple of months have been fairly busy for such products. Amazon, Google and Apple have all announced refreshes or additions to their smart speaker line. Google recently refreshed its baseline Home devices with new hardware and a new name, as the Nest Audio. Various Echo devices were updated as well, and Apple has finally introduced the long-awaited — and significantly less expensive — HomePod mini.

Image Credits: Canalys

Canalys notes that Apple is the only one of the big three U.S. companies sell their own smart speakers in Mainland China, and the new price point could help the company build more of a footprint in the market.

“The US $99 price segment is pretty much a no-mans-land in China, yet adequate to appeal to Apple’s user-base,” analyst Cynthia Chen says in a release. “Apple should take this opportunity to drive the uptake of its music and other services consumed at home.”

Woven adds to its calendar app’s $20/mo premium plan

By Lucas Matney

Productivity software has had a huge couple of years, yet for all of the great note-taking apps that have launched, consumers haven’t gotten a lot of quality options for Google Calendar replacements.

This week, Woven, a calendar startup founded by former Facebook CIO Tim Campos is shaking up the premium tier of their scheduling software, hoping that productivity-focused users will pay to further optimize the calendar experience just as they have paid up for subscription email services like Superhuman and note-taking apps like Notion.

There’s been a pretty huge influx of investor dollars into the productivity space which has shown a lot of promise in bottoms-up scaling inside enterprises by first aiming to sell their products to individuals. Woven has raised about $5 million to date with investments from Battery Ventures, Felicis Ventures and Tiny Capital, among others.

“Time is the most valuable asset that we have,” Campos told TechCrunch. “We think there’s a real opportunity to do much more with the calendar.”

Their new product will help determine just how much demand there is for a pro-tier calendar that aims to make life easier for professionals than Google Calendar or Outlook Calendar cares to. The new product, which is $20 per month ($10 during an early access period if you pay for a year), builds on the company’s free tier product giving users a handful of new features. There’s still quite a bit of functionality in the free tier still, which is sticking around, but the lack of multi-account support is one of the big limitations there. 

Image credit: via Woven.

The core of Woven’s value is likely its Calendly-like scheduling links which allow single users to quickly show when they’re free, or give teams the ability to eliminate back-in-forth entirely when scheduling meetings by scanning everyone’s availability and suggesting times that are uniformly available. In this latest update, the startup has also launched a new feature called Open Invite which allows users to blast out links to join webinars that recipients can quickly register for.

One of Woven’s top features is probably Smart Templates which aims to learn from your habits and strip down the amount of time it takes to organize a meeting. Selecting the template can automatically set you up with a one-time Zoom link, ping participants for their availability with Woven’s scheduling links and take care of mundane details. Now, the titles automatically update depending on participants, location or company information as well. While plenty of productivity happens on the desktop, the startup is trying to push the envelope on mobile as well. They’ve added an iMessage integration to quickly allow people to share their availability and schedule meetings inside chat.

The product updates arrive soon after the announcement of the company’s Zoom “Zapp,” which shoves the app’s functionality inside Zoom and will likely be a bit sell to new users.

 

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Coalition for App Fairness, a group fighting for app store reforms, adds 20 new partners

By Sarah Perez

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 today’s announcement of 20 new partners — just one month after its launch. 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.

The coalition claims both Apple and Google engage in anti-competitive behavior, as they require publishers to use the platforms’ own payment mechanisms, and charge 30% commission on these forced in-app purchases. In some cases, those commissions are collected from apps where Apple and Google offer a direct competitor. For example, the app stores commission Spotify, which competes with Google’s YouTube Music and Apple’s own Apple Music.

The group also calls out Apple more specifically for not allowing app publishers any other means of addressing the iOS user base except through the App Store that Apple controls. Google, however, allows apps to be sideloaded, so is less a concern on that platform.

The coalition launched last month with 13 app publishers as its initial members, and invited other interested parties to sign up to join.

Since then, CAF says “hundreds” of app developers expressed interest in the organization. It’s been working through applications to evaluate prospective members, and is today announcing its latest cohort of new partners.

This time, the app publishers aren’t necessarily big household names, like Spotify and Epic Games, but instead represent a wide variety of apps, ranging from studios to startups.

The apps also hail from a number of app store categories, including Business, Education, Entertainment, Developer Tools, Finance, Games, Health & Fitness, Lifestyle, Music, Navigation, News, Productivity, Shopping, Sport and Travel.

The new partners include: development studio Beonex, health app Breath Ball, social app Challenge by Eristica, shopping app Cladwell, fitness app Down Dog Yoga, developer tool Gift Card Offerwall, game maker Green Heart Games, app studio Imagine BC, business app Passbase, music app Qobuz, lifestyle app QuackQuack and Qustodio, game Safari Forever, news app Schibsted, app studio Snappy Mob, education app SpanishDict, navigation app Sygic, app studio Vertical Motion, education app YARXI, and the Mobile Marketing Marketing Association.

With the additions, CAF now includes members from Austria, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, India, Israel, Malaysia, Norway, Singapore, Slovakia, Spain, United Kingdom and the United States.

The new partners have a range of complaints against the app stores, and particularly Apple.

SpanishDict, for instance, was frustrated by weeks of rejections with no recourse and inconsistently applied policies, it says. It also didn’t want to use Apple’s new authentication system, Apple Sign-In, but Apple made this a requirement for being included on the App Store.

Passbase, a Sign In With Apple competitor, also argues that Apple applied its rules unfairly, denying its submission but allowing its competitors on the App Store.

While some of the app partners are speaking out against Apple for the first time, others have already detailed their struggles publicly.

Eristica posted on its own website how Apple shut down its seven-year-old social app business, which allowed users to challenge each other to dares to raise money for charity. The company claims it pre-moderated the content to ensure dangerous and harmful content wasn’t published, and employed human moderators, but was still rejected over dangerous content.

Meanwhile, TikTok remained on the App Store, despite hosting harmful challenges, like the pass out challenge, cereal challenge, salt and ice challenge and others, Eristica says.

Apple, of course, tends to use its policies to shape what kind of apps it wants to host on its App Store — and an app that focused on users daring one another may have been seen as a potential liability.

That said, Eristica presents a case where it claims to have followed all the rules and made all the changes Apple said it wanted, and yet still couldn’t get back in.

Down Dog Yoga also recently made waves by calling out Apple for rejecting its app because it refused to auto-charge customers at the end of its free trial.

Wow! Apple is rejecting our latest update because we refuse to auto-charge at the end of our free trial. They can choose to steal from their customers who forget to cancel, but we won't do the same to ours. THIS IS A LINE THAT WE WILL NOT CROSS. pic.twitter.com/s9HwD4ay4h

— Down Dog (@downdogapp) June 30, 2020

The issue, in this case, wasn’t just that Apple wants a cut of developers’ businesses, it also wanted to dictate how those businesses are run.

Another new CAF partner, Qustodio, was among the apps impacted by Apple’s 2018 parental control app ban, which arrived shortly after Apple introduced its own parental control software in iOS.

The app developer had then co-signed a letter asking Apple to release a Screen Time API rather than banning parental control apps — a consideration that TechCrunch had earlier suggested should have been Apple’s course of action in the first place.

Under increased regulatory scrutiny, Apple eventually relented and allowed the apps back on the App Store last year.

Not all partners are some little guy getting crushed by App Store rules. Some may have run afoul of rules designed to protect consumers, like Apple’s crackdown on offerwalls. Gift Card Offerwall’s SDK, for example, was used to incentivize app monetization and in-app purchases, which isn’t something consumers tend to welcome.

Despite increased regulatory pressure and antitrust investigations in their business practices, both Apple and Google have modified their app store rules in recent weeks to ensure they’re clear about their right to collect in-app purchases from developers.

Meanwhile, Apple and CAF member Epic Games are engaged in a lawsuit over the Fortnite ban, as Epic chose to challenge the legality of the app store business model in the court system.

Other CAF members, including Spotify and Tile, have testified in antitrust investigations against Apple’s business practices, as well.

“Apple must be held accountable for its anticompetitive behavior. We’re committed to creating a level playing field and fair future, and we’re just getting started,” CAF said in an announcement about the new partners. It says it’s still open to new members.

Daily Crunch: DOJ files antitrust suit against Google

By Anthony Ha

Google faces a big antitrust suit, Amazon offers to pay customers for shopping data and we review the iPhone 12. This is your Daily Crunch for October 20, 2020.

The big story: DOJ files antitrust suit against Google

The suit accuses Google of “unlawfully maintaining monopolies in the markets for general search services, search advertising, and general search text advertising in the United States.” It’s co-signed by 11 states, all with Republican attorneys general — Texas, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana and South Carolina.

Google called the U.S. Department of Justice’s case “deeply flawed” and offered a platform-by-platform argument that it doesn’t actually have unfair market dominance. For example, it attributed its popularity in search to a superior product, rather than anti-competitive practices.

Meanwhile, Wall Street investors don’t seem to be particularly alarmed by the suit.

The tech giants

Amazon launches a program to pay consumers for their data on non-Amazon purchases — The Amazon Shopper Panel program asks users to send in 10 receipts per month for any purchases made at non-Amazon retailers.

Snap shares explode after blowing past earnings expectations — The company delivered $679 million in reported revenue, smashing past Wall Street expectations.

Review: iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro, two gems, one jewel — Both of these phones offer solid value, but two challengers wait in the wings.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Perch raises $123.5M to grow its stable of D2C brands that sell on Amazon — Perch acquires D2C businesses and products that are already selling on Amazon, then continues to operate and grow them.

Gowalla is being resurrected as an augmented reality social app — The startup was an ambitious consumer social app that excited Silicon Valley investors but ultimately floundered in its quest to take on Foursquare.

Synthetaic raises $3.5M to train AI with synthetic data — It’s already working with Save the Elephants to track animal populations, as well as with the University of Michigan to classify brain tumors.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Seven investors discuss augmented reality and VR startup opportunities in 2020 — “It’s still early, but it’s no longer too early.”

As startups accelerate in record Q3, Europe and Asia rack up huge VC results — Investment outside North America just had its best quarter in years.

Now may be the best time to become a full-stack developer — Talos Digital’s Sergio Granada has thoughts about this buzzy job title.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

Equity Shot: The DoJ, Google and what the suit could mean for startups

By Alex Wilhelm

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture-capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

It’s a big day in tech because the U.S. federal government is going after Google on anti-competitive grounds. Sure, the timing appears crassly political and the case is not picking up huge plaudits thus far for its air-tightness, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore it.

So Danny and I got on the horn to chat it up for about 10 minutes to fill you in. For reference, you can read the full filing here, in case you want to get your nails in. It’s not a complicated read. Get in there.

As a pair we dug into what stood out from the suit, what we think about the historical context and also noodled at the end about what the whole situation could mean for startups; it’s not all good news, but adding lots of competitive space to the market would be a net-good for upstart tech companies in the long-run.

And consumers. Competition is good.

You can read TechCrunch’s early coverage of the suit here, and our look at the market’s reaction here. Let’s go!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PDT and Thursday afternoon as fast as we can get it out, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

Investors appear to shrug at antitrust lawsuit aimed at Google

By Alex Wilhelm

Investors do not seem concerned that the Department of Justice filed an antitrust suit against Google earlier today.

The suit, seen by some as a stunt near the election, is one of a multi-part push to change the face of the technology industry, which has seen its wealth and power expand in recent years. For example, technology companies now constitute nearly 40% of the value of the S&P 500, ahead of a 1999-era 37% share, according to The Wall Street Journal.

At the same time, the rising tide lifting many tech boats has provided huge gains to its largest players as well. Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon and Apple are each worth north of $1 trillion apiece, making them historically valuable companies even amidst an economic downturn.

Those market caps do not appear to be in danger.

Today after lunch during regular trading hours the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite index is up 0.86%, while Alphabet is up 0.91%, directly in line with broader trading. Shares of Alphabet initially rose this morning before giving back their gains. However, since those morning lows, shares of the tech giant have recovered to edge ahead of the market.

Investor reaction could shift regarding Google’s antitrust liabilities in time. The Department of Justice suit is hardly the only legal issue that the search giant is currently grappling with. But not today.

Google announces slew of Chrome OS features to help extend enterprise usage

By Ron Miller

As companies have moved to work from home this year, working on the internet has become the norm, and it turns out that Chrome OS was an operating system built for cloud-based applications. But most enterprise use cases are a bit more complex, and Google introduced some new features today to make it easier for IT to distribute machines running Chrome OS.

While the shift to the cloud has been ongoing over the last few years, the pandemic has definitely pushed companies to move faster, says John Maletis, project manager for engineering and UX for Chrome OS. “With COVID-19, the need for that productive, distributed workforce with some employees in office, but mostly [working from home] is really in the sights of businesses everywhere, and it is rapidly accelerating that move,” Maletis told TechCrunch.

To that end, Cyrus Mistry, group product manager at Google says that they want to make it easier for IT to implement Chrome OS and they’ve added a bunch of features to help. For starters, they have created a free readiness tool that lets IT get the lay of the land of which applications are ready to run on Chrome OS, and which aren’t. The tools issues a report with three colors: green is good to go, yellow is probable and red is definitely not ready.

To help with the latter categories, the company also announced the availability of Parallels for Chrome OS, which will enable companies with Windows applications that can’t run on Chrome OS to run them natively in Windows in a virtual machine. Mistry acknowledges that companies running Windows this way will need to issue higher end Chromebooks with the resources to handle this approach, but for companies with critical Windows applications, this is a good way to extend the usage of Chromebooks to a broader population of users.

To make it easier to issue machines ready to use of the box, Google is also introducing zero touch distribution, which allows manufacturers to set up machines for a domain ready to use out of the box. All the user has to do is turn it on and it’s ready to use.

“We can do what’s called zero touch, which is the devices can be already enrolled by the manufacturers, which means they will know the domain and they can now drop ship directly,” Mistry explained. That means these machines are equipped with the right settings, policies, applications, certificates and so forth, as though IT had set up the machine for the user.

In another nod to making life easier for IT, Google  is offering a new set of certified applications like Salesforce, Zoom and Palo Alto Networks which have been certified to work well on Chrome OS. Finally, the company announced that it will be enabling multiple virtual work areas with the ability to drag and drop between them, along with the ability to group tabs and search for tabs in the Chrome browser, which should be ready in the next couple of months.

As Maletis pointed out, the company may have been ahead of the market when it released Chrome OS almost a decade ago, but this year has shown that companies need the cloud to stay in operation and Chrome OS is an operating system built from the ground up for the cloud.

Google calls DOJ’s antitrust lawsuit ‘deeply flawed’ in GIF-laden blog response

By Darrell Etherington

Google was clearly anticipating today’s U.S. Department of Justice antitrust complaint filing – the company posted an extensive rebuttal of the lawsuit to its Keyword company blog. The post, penned by SVP of Global Affairs and Google Chief Legal Officer Kent Walker, suggests that the DOJ’s case is “deeply flawed” and “would do nothing to help consumers,” before going into a platform-by-platform description of why it thinks its position in the market isn’t representative of unfair market dominance that would amount to antitrust.

Google’s blog post is even sprinkled with GIFs – something that’s pretty common for the search giant when it comes to its consumer product launches. These GIFs include step-by-step screen recordings of setting search engines other than Google as your default in Chrome on both mobile and desktop. These processes are both described as “trivially easy” by Walker in the post, but they do look like a bit of an own-goal when you notice just how many steps it takes to get the job done on desktop in particular, including what looks like a momentary hesitation in where to click to drill down further for the “Make Default” command.

Image Credits: Google

Google also reportedly makes reference to companies choosing their search engine as default because of the quality of their service, including both Apple and Mozilla (with a link drop for our own Frederic Lardinois). Ultimately, Google is making the argument that its search engine isn’t dominant because of a lack of viable options fostered by anti-competitive practices, but that instead it’s a result of building a quality product that consumers then opt in to using from among a field of choices.

The DOJ’s full suit dropped this morning, and an initial analysis suggests that this scrutiny is perhaps inopportunely timed in terms of its proximity to the election to actually have any significant teeth. There is some indication that a more broad, bipartisan investigation with support from state level attorney generals on both sides of the aisle could follow later, however, so it’s not necessarily all just going to go away regardless of election outcome.

Google Photos revives its prints subscription service, expands same-day print options

By Sarah Perez

Google Photos is reviving its photo printing subscription service and introducing same-day prints. The company earlier this year had briefly tested a new program that used A.I. to suggest the month’s 10 best photos, which were then shipped to your home automatically. But Google ended the test on June 30.

During the trial, Google had offered users a $7.99 per month subscription that would automatically select 10 photos from one of three themes, including people and pets, landscapes, or “a little bit of everything” mix. The 4×6 photos were printed on matte, white cardstock with a 1/8-inch border.

Image Credits: Google

The new subscription, launching soon, leverages feedback from the early tests to now give users more control over which prints they receive and how they look. It also drops the price to $6.99 per month, including shipping and before tax.

With the new Premium Print Series, as the subscription is called, Google Photos will use machine learning techniques to pick 10 of your recent photos to print. But users can edit the photo selection and they can choose either a matte or glossy finish or add a border before the photos ship.

The photos can optionally be turned into postcards, thanks to the cardstock paper backing, Google notes.

Subscribers can also opt to skip a month and can easily cancel the service, if they’re no longer using it.

This updated version of service was recently discovered by reverse engineer Jane Manchun Wong, who detailed the new customization options and the lower price point.

Google Photos is working on “Premium Print Series”,

a subscription service for shipping prints of your photos that Google suggested for you monthly for $6.99/month… nice!

the finish and border are adjustable. you can also skip a month of prints if you’d like

tip @Techmeme pic.twitter.com/b6fQpEZl7O

— Jane Manchun Wong (@wongmjane) October 7, 2020

Google says the Premium Print Series will make its ways to Google Photos users in the next few weeks.

The company today is also launching same-day printing at Walgreens, available immediately. This expands Google Photos’ existing same-day options, which already included same-day pickup from CVS and Walmart.

Using the Google Photos app, customers can now order 4×6, 5×7, or 8×10 photo prints for same-day pickup at Walgreens . This nearly doubles the number of stores offering same-day prints to Google Photos users, Google says.

In addition to prints and subscriptions, Google Photos continues to offer canvas prints and photo books — the latter now with up to 140 pages — as part of its online print store.

Image Credits: Google

The launch of the expanded photo printing services and subscription comes at a time when people are traveling less often, due to the pandemic, and are attending fewer large events where photo-taking may take place — like parties or concerts, for example.

But even if times have changed, people are continuing to take photos — though they may not be posting them across social media in order to avoid judgement.The subject of the photos may have changed, too, to now include more family and pets or nature scenes, instead of large, crowded places or big social gatherings, for instance.

The nostalgia for pre-pandemic times could see users turning to prints to help them relive fond memories, too.

Google didn’t say exactly when the new subscription will launch, but said users should be able to access the feature in the coming weeks.

 

 

Gowalla is being resurrected as an augmented reality social app

By Lucas Matney

Gowalla is coming back.

The startup, which longtime TechCrunch readers will likely recall, was an ambitious consumer social app that excited Silicon Valley investors but ultimately floundered in its quest to take on Foursquare before an eventual $3 million acquihire in 2011 brought the company’s talent to Facebook.

The story certainly seemed destined to end there, but founder Josh Williams tells TechCrunch that he has decided to revive the Gowalla name and build on its ultimate vision by leaning on augmented reality tech.

“I really don’t think [Gowalla’s vision] has been fully realized at all, which is why I still want to scratch this itch,” Williams tells TechCrunch. “It was frankly really difficult to see it shut down.”

After a stint at Facebook, another venture-backed startup and a few other gigs, Williams has reacquired the Gowalla name, and is resurrecting the company with the guidance of co-founder Patrick Piemonte, a former Apple interface designer who previously founded an AR startup called Mirage. The new company was incubated inside Form Capital, a small design-centric VC fund operated by Williams and Bobby Goodlatte .

Founders Patrick Piemonte (left) and Josh Williams (right). Image credit: Josh Williams.

Williams hopes that AR can bring the Gowalla brand new life.

Despite significant investment from Facebook, Apple and Google, augmented reality is still seen as a bit of a gamble with many proponents estimating mass adoption to be several years out. Apple’s ARKit developer platform has yielded few wins despite hefty investment and Pokémon Go — the space’s sole consumer smash hit — is growing old.

“The biggest AR experience out there is Pokémon Go, and it’s now over six years old,” Williams says. “It’s moved the space forward a lot but is still very early in terms of what we’re going to see.”

Williams was cryptic when it came to details for what exactly the new augmented reality platform would look like when it launches. He did specify that it will feel more like a gamified social app than a social game, though he also lists the Nintendo franchise Animal Crossing as one of the platform’s foundational inspirations.

A glimpse of the branding for the new Gowalla. Image credit: Josh Williams

“It’s not a game with bosses or missions or levels, but rather something that you can experience,” Williams says. “How do you blend augmented reality and location? How do you see the world through somebody else’s eyes?”

A location-based social platform will likely rely on users actually going places, and the pandemic has largely dictated the app’s launch timing. Today, Gowalla is launching a waitlist, Williams says the app itself will launch in beta “in a number of cities” sometime in the first-half of next year. The team is also trying something unique with a smaller paid beta group called the “Street Team,” which will give users paying a flat $49 fee early access to Gowalla as well as “VIP membership,” membership to a private Discord group and some branded swag. A dedicated Street Team app will also launch in December.

The Justice Department has filed its antitrust lawsuit against Google

By Jonathan Shieber

The Justice Department said it has filed its long-awaited antitrust lawsuit against Google, confirming an earlier report from The Wall Street Journal.

In the suit, the Justice Department is expected to argue that Google used anticompetitive practices to safeguard its monopoly position as the dominant force in search and search-advertising, which sit at the foundation of the company’s extensive advertising, data mining, video distribution, and information services conglomerate.

It would be the first significant legal challenge that Google has faced from U.S. regulators despite years of investigations into the company’s practices.

A 2012 attempt to bring the company to the courts to answer for anti-competitive practices was ultimately scuttled because regulators at the time weren’t sure they could make the case stick. Since that time Alphabet’s value has skyrocketed to reach over $1 trillion (as of today’s share price).

Alphabet, Google’s parent company, holds a commanding lead in both search and video. The company dominates the search market — with roughly 90% of the world’s internet searches conducted on its platform — and roughly three quarters of American adults turn to YouTube for video, as the Journal reported.

In the lawsuit, the Department of Justice will say that Alphabet’s Google subsidiary uses a web of exclusionary business agreements to shut out competitors. The billions of dollars that the search giant collects wind up paying mobile phone companies, carriers and browsers to make the Google search engine a preset default. That blocks competitors from being able to access the kinds of queries and traffic they’d need to refine their own search engine.

It will be those relationships — alongside Google’s insistence that its search engine come pre-loaded (and un-deletable) on phones using the Android operating system and that other search engines specifically not be pre-loaded — that form part of the government’s case, according to Justice Department officials cited by the Journal.

The antitrust suit comes on the heels of a number of other regulatory actions involving Google, which is not only the dominant online search provider, but also a leader in online advertising and in mobile technology by way of Android, as well as a strong player in a web of other interconnected services like mapping, online productivity software, cloud computing and more.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, UNITED STATES – 2020/02/23: American multinational technology company Google logo seen at Google campus. (Photo by Alex Tai/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

A report last Friday in Politico noted that Democrat Attorneys General would not be signing the suit. That report said those AGs have instead been working on a bipartisan, state-led approach covering a wider number of issues beyond search — the idea being also that more suits gives government potentially a stronger bargaining position against the tech giant.

A third suit is being put together by the state of Texas, although that has faced its own issues.

While a number of tech leviathans are facing increasing scrutiny from Washington, with the US now just two weeks from Election Day, it’s unlikely that we are going to see many developments around this and other cases before then. And in the case of this specific Google suit, in the event that Trump doesn’t get re-elected, there will also be a larger personnel shift at the DoJ that could also change the profile and timescale of the case.

In any event, fighting these regulatory cases is always a long, drawn-out process. In Europe, Google has faced a series of fines over antitrust violations stretching back several years, including a $2.7 billion fine over Google shopping; a $5 billion fine over Android dominance; and a $1.7 billion fine over search ad brokering. While Goolge slowly works through appeals, there are also more cases ongoing against the company in Europe and elsewhere.

Google is not the only one catching the attention of Washington. Earlier in October, the House Judiciary Committee released a report of more than 400 pages in which it outlined how tech giants Apple, Amazon, Alphabet (Google’s parent company) and Facebook were abusing their power, covering everything from the areas in which they dominate, through to suggestions for how to fix the situation (including curtailing their acquisitions strategy).

That seemed mainly to be an exercise in laying out the state of things, which could in turn be used to inform further actions, although in itself, unlike the DoJ suit, the House report lacks teeth in terms of enforcement or remedies.

Adobe Lightroom gets a new color grading tool, auto versions, graphical watermarking and more

By Frederic Lardinois

At its MAX conference, Adobe today announced the launch of the latest version of Lightroom, its popular photo management and editing tool. The highlights of today’s release are the introduction of a new color grading tool that’s more akin to what you’d find in a video editor like Adobe Premiere or DaVinci Resolve, auto versioning that’s saved in the cloud (and hence not available in Lightroom Classic) and graphical watermarks, in addition to a number of other small feature updates across the application.

Adobe had already teased the launch of the new color grading feature last month, which was probably a good idea given how much of a change this is for photographers who have used Lightroom before. Adjusting color is, after all, one of the main features of Lightroom and this is a major change.

Image Credits: Adobe

At its core, the new color wheels replace the existing ‘split toning’ controls in Lightroom.

“Color Grading is an extension of Split Toning — it can do everything Split Toning did, plus much more,” Adobe’s Max Wendt explains in today’s announcement. “Your existing images with Split Toning settings will look exactly the same as they did before, your old Split Toning presets will also still look the same when you apply them, and you can still get the same results if you had a familiar starting point when doing Split Toning manually.”

My guess is that it’ll take a while for many Lightroom users to get a hang of these new color wheels. Overall, though, I think this new system is more intuitive than the current split toning feature that a lot of users regularly ignored.

The new color grading feature will be available across platforms and in Lightroom Classic, as well as Camera Raw.

The other new feature Adobe is highlighting with this release is graphical watermarks (available on Windows, Mac, iOS, iPadOS, Android and Chrome OS), that augments the existing text-based watermarking in Lightroom. This does exactly what the name implies and the watermarks are automatically applied when you share or export and image.

Image Credits: Adobe

The most important overall quality of life feature the team is adding is auto versions (also available on Windows, Mac, iOS, iPadOS, Android and Chrome OS). This makes it far easier to save different versions of an image — and these versions are synced across platforms. That way, you can easily go back and forth between different edits and revert those as necessary, too.

Image Credits: Adobe

With its new ‘best photos’ feature, Adobe is now also using its Ai smarts to find the best photos you’ve taken, but only on iOS, iPadOS, and Android, Chrome OS and the web. It’ll look at the technical aspects of your photo, as well as whether your subjects have their eyes open and face forward, for example, and the overall framing of the image. Users can decide how many of their images make the cut by toggling a threshold slider.

Another nifty new feature for Canon shooters who use Lightroom Classic is the addition of a tethered live view for Canon – with support for other cameras coming soon. With this, you get a real-time feed from your camera, making it easier to collaborate with others in real time.

 

This Week in Apps: Apple’s big event, lidar comes to iPhone, Android gets a new IDE

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.

In this series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

Top Story

Apple introduces four new iPhones (and more)

Apple hosted its iPhone event this week, where it introduced the new iPhone 12… and the iPhone 12 mini, the iPhone 12 Pro and the iPhone 12 Pro Max — effectively plugging all the holes in the market. With the release of the four new iPhones, app developers will have a range of devices to build for, from small to very large — the 12 Pro Max, for example, introduces the iPhone’s biggest-ever screen and the highest resolution, at nearly 3.5M pixels.

It also, of course, includes serious camera improvements, from a redesign of the three-lens system to including a new deeper telephoto camera, now a 65 mm-equivalent instead of 52 mm, as on previous models. There’s also an improved wide-angle lens, larger sensor, the addition of sensor-level image stabilization and a revamped Night Mode. Photographers will appreciate the new Apple ProRAW format, as well. (More on that here).

The iPhone 12 mini, meanwhile, aims to serve the customer base that prefers a smaller phone, like the iPhone SE, but without sacrificing functionality.

All the devices share some key features, including 5G connectivity, the new MagSafe connector for wireless charging and snap-on magnetic accessories, OLED displays and the A14 chip. They also have a more classic look, with straight edges that allow for additional antennas, providing next-gen wireless connectivity.

One of the bigger differences, however, between the Pro models and the regular iPhone 12 is the addition of the LiDAR Scanner, which is also found in the latest iPad Pro. The scanner measures how long it takes for light to reach an object and reflect back. The new depth-sensing technology has big implications for AR, as it allows augmented reality objects to interact with objects in the real world. AR apps will be more user-friendly, too, as they won’t need to first scan the room to place the AR object in the real world. It can be placed instantly.

Apple is leveraging the sensor for the iPhone 12 Pro camera to offer up to 6x faster focus in low-light conditions. Developers, meanwhile, can leverage lidar for use cases like AR-enabled games that work in the real world, social media (like Snapchat’s new lidar-powered Lens), home design and improvement apps involving room scans, spatial layout planning (like JigSpace), better AR shopping experiences and more.

The company also announced an affordable version of its HomePod smart speaker, the $99 HomePod Mini. The item works best for those fully locked inside the Apple universe, as it will stream a handful of music services, but not one of the most popular — Spotify. However, Apple also introduced a nifty feature for the HomePod devices, Intercom, which lets you send announcements across the speakers. While Apple and Google have offered a similar feature for their smart speakers, Intercom also works across other Apple devices, including iPhone, iPod, AirPods and even CarPlay. (What, no Mac?)

If Apple isn’t too late to capture smart speaker market share, the new speaker could see more users adopting smart home devices they can voice control through the HomePod Mini.

During the event, Apple also subtly snubbed its nose at Epic’s Fortnite with the announcement that
League of Legends: Wild Rift would be coming to iPhone 12 to take advantage of its new 5G capabilities and A14 Bionic chip.

Weekly News Round-Up

Platforms

  • Lidar comes to iPhone 12 Pro. Developers can now build AR experiences that interact with real-world objects, and AR apps can now instantly place AR objects in the real world without scanning the room. The update will mean a huge increase in the usability of AR apps but is limited to the Pro model of iPhone for now. Snapchat is already using it.
  • Apple developers can now make their apps available for pre-order even earlier — up to 180 days before release on the App Store.
  • Android Studio 4.1 launches. The new, stable version of the IDE for building Android apps introduces better TensorFlow Lite support and a new database inspector. The team also fixed a whopping 2,370 bugs during this release cycle and closed 275 public issues.
  • Google introduces the Android for Cars library. The library, now in open beta, gives developers tools to design, develop and test new navigation, parking or charging apps for Android Auto. The Google Play Store will be enabled for publishing beta apps in the “coming months.”
  • Google stops selling music. The company no longer sells tracks and albums on its Play Store, shifting all its focus to YouTube Music. The latter also just launched on Apple Watch this week.

Trends

  • Shopping apps forecast. U.S. consumers were expected to spend 60M hours in Android shopping apps during Prime Day week, (which just wrapped) according to one forecast from App Annie.
  • Prime Day downloads grow. Sensor Tower estimates global installs of the Amazon app grew 23% year-over-year, to 684K, as Prime Day neared. Installs on Wednesday were up 33% to 750K. However, U.S. installs were down by 22% 10/13-10/14. Apptopia noted that app sessions, however, were up 27% year-over-year.
  • Shopping, Food & Drink app launches up more than 50% year-over-year. Shopping apps grew 52% while Food & Drink apps grew 60%, due to COVID-19 impacts, according to Sensor Tower.
  • Subscriptions. U.S. consumers spend $20.78 per month on app subscriptions, Adjust study says.
  • TikTok sale impact on ad industry. 73% of marketers said a TikTok sale in the U.S. would impact their 2021 advertising plans. 41% also believed the deal could allow Walmart to overtake Amazon in e-commerce.
  • Amazon expands AR experimentation to its boxes. The retailer launched a new AR application that works with QR codes on the company’s shipping boxes to create “interactive, shareable” AR experiences, like a pumpkin that comes to life.

Security

  • Robinhood said a “limited number” of its users’ accounts were hacked. The service itself was not hacked, but around 2,000 customers had accounts compromised by cybercriminals who first compromised users’ personal emails outside the trading app.

Other News

  • Zoom’s new events platform brings apps to video conferencing calls.
  • Messenger update brings new features, including cross-app communication with Instagram. The app gets fun features like chat themes, custom reactions and, soon, selfie stickers and vanish mode. But the bigger news is the (potentially anti-competitive) merging of Facebook’s chat platforms.
  • Life360 leverages TikTok teens’ complaints to start a dialogue and invent a new feature, “Bubbles,” which allows teens (or anyone) to share a generalized location instead of an exact one. The feature gives teens a bit more freedom to roam and make choices without so much parental oversight. Parents, meanwhile, can still be sure their teen is OK, as features like emergency SOS and crash alerts remain functional.
  • Must-read: The MacStories iOS and iPadOS 14 Review. Federico Viticci offers a 23-page deep dive into the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system.

Funding and M&A

    • Future raises $24M Series B for its $150/mo workout coaching app amid at-home fitness boom. The app pairs users with real-life fitness coaching for personal training at home. The round was led by Trustbridge Partners with Caffeinated Capital and Series A investors Kleiner Perkins participating.
    • River raises $10.4M for its app offering news, events and other happenings from around the web, ranging from news stories from top publishers to sports to even notable tweets. The app presents the information in a real-time stream, browsed vertically. There’s also a “For You” page, similar to TikTok.
    • Roblox confidentially filed with the SEC to go public. This cross-platform gaming platform has boomed during coronavirus lockdowns. According to reports, the listing could double Robox’s $4B valuation.
    • Robo Adviser Wealthsimple raises $87M. The funding for the investing app with comparisons to Robinhood was led by Menlo Park-based Technology Crossover Ventures (TCV), valuing the business at $1B.
    • Fitness platform Playbook raises $9.3M. The company offers tools for personal trainers who want to make their own videos, which consumers then browse in Playbook’s mobile app. Backers include E.ventures, Michael Ovitz, Abstract, Algae Ventures, Porsche Ventures and FJ Labs.
    • Live streaming app Moment House raises $1.5M seed. The startup aims to recreate live events in a digital format. LA area investors invested, including Scooter Braun, Troy Carter, Kygo’s Palm Tree Crew and Jared Leto. Patreon chief executive Jack Conte and Sequoia Capital partner Jess Lee also participated.
    • Twilio acquires Segment for $3.2B to help developers build data-fueled apps.
    • E-learning platform Kahoot raises $215M from SoftBank. The Norwegian startup claims to have hosted 1.3 billion “participating players” in the last 12 months. The company’s gamified e-learning platform is used both in schools and in enterprise environments.

Downloads

Mycons

Mycons is a new app that makes it easier for users, including non-designers, to create and buy custom icons for their iOS home screen makeovers. In the app’s “Icon Studio,” users can create icons by swapping out the background, choosing a symbol and placing it on the icon accordingly. You can also create a whole set of icons in a batch export. If you don’t feel like designing your own, you can opt to purchase premade packs instead.

The app is a free download with a one-time, in-app purchase to unlock the fully functionality of the icon designer. The icon packs, which include different variations and matching wallpaper, range from $7.99-$9.99.

Spotify’s new iOS 14 widget

Image Credits: TechCrunch screenshot of Spotify widget

It’s here! The widget a number of people have waited for since the launch of the new version of iOS has arrived. 

The widget, which arrives in the latest version of the Spotify iOS app, comes in two sizes. The smaller widget will display just your most recently listened to item, while the medium-sized widget will instead show the five most recent items — four in a horizontal row and the most recent at the top. In that case, you can actually tap on the small thumbnail for which of the five you want to now stream to be taken directly to that page in the Spotify app. The widget also automatically updates its background color to match the thumbnail photo.

Google Assistant, Maps and Search can now help you figure out where to vote

By Greg Kumparak

Election Day approaches! Still not sure where the nearest polling place or ballot drop box is? Google wants to help.

This morning the company rolled out a handful of features across Google Assistant, Google Maps and Google Search, all meant to kick in when a user seems to be looking for information on voting locations.

On Google Search, for example, a search for “ballot drop boxes near me” will now bring up a dedicated tool for finding just that — punch in the address where you’re registered to vote, and it’ll help you find a drop box or polling place accordingly. The same tool will also pop up when you search for things like “how to find polling place” or “where to vote,” so there’s some flexibility in it.

Or if you’ve got an Assistant-powered device nearby (like a Nest Mini, Nest Hub or an Android phone), you can say “Hey Google, where do I vote?” and Assistant should be able to figure it out accordingly based on your current location (with Assistant assuming, as it’ll note in its response, that your current location is where you’re registered to vote).

The Maps integration is a bit more limited, but it gets the job done. Searching for “where do I vote” in the Google Maps mobile app results in a prompt that will toss you into the above web-based Google Search flow. Once you’ve found your location, tapping the “Directions” button will swing you back into the Maps app.

Google says it’s pulling its polling location information from the Voting Information Project as part of a partnership with Democracy Works. The company says they’ll be adding more polling places leading up until Election Day, expecting to have more than 200,000 in the system when all is said and done.

Don’t want to get your polling place details from Google, or just want to double check things? There’s always sites like Vote.org (which, if you’re curious, is what Siri recommends when prompted with the “Where do I vote?” question), which also provides info on checking your voter registration status, becoming a poll worker, etc.

We need universal digital ad transparency now

By Walter Thompson
Laura Edelson Contributor
Laura Edelson is a PhD Candidate in Computer Science at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering and is a team member on The Online Political Transparency Project.
Erika Franklin Fowler Contributor
Erika Franklin Fowler is Professor of Government at Wesleyan University where she directs the Wesleyan Media Project (WMP), which tracks and analyzes political advertising in real-time during elections.
Jason Chuang Contributor
Jason Chuang is a researcher at Mozilla.

Dear Mr. Zuckerberg, Mr. Dorsey, Mr. Pichai and Mr. Spiegel: We need universal digital ad transparency now!

The negative social impacts of discriminatory ad targeting and delivery are well-known, as are the social costs of disinformation and exploitative ad content. The prevalence of these harms has been demonstrated repeatedly by our research. At the same time, the vast majority of digital advertisers are responsible actors who are only seeking to connect with their customers and grow their businesses.

Many advertising platforms acknowledge the seriousness of the problems with digital ads, but they have taken different approaches to confronting those problems. While we believe that platforms need to continue to strengthen their vetting procedures for advertisers and ads, it is clear that this is not a problem advertising platforms can solve by themselves, as they themselves acknowledge. The vetting being done by the platforms alone is not working; public transparency of all ads, including ad spend and targeting information, is needed so that advertisers can be held accountable when they mislead or manipulate users.

Our research has shown:

  • Advertising platform system design allows advertisers to discriminate against users based on their gender, race and other sensitive attributes.
  • Platform ad delivery optimization can be discriminatory, regardless of whether advertisers attempt to set inclusive ad audience preferences.
  • Ad delivery algorithms may be causing polarization and make it difficult for political campaigns to reach voters with diverse political views.
  • Sponsors spent more than $1.3 billion dollars on digital political ads, yet disclosure is vastly inadequate. Current voluntary archives do not prevent intentional or accidental deception of users.

While it doesn’t take the place of strong policies and rigorous enforcement, we believe transparency of ad content, targeting and delivery can effectively mitigate many of the potential harms of digital ads. Many of the largest advertising platforms agree; Facebook, Google, Twitter and Snapchat all have some form of an ad archive. The problem is that many of these archives are incomplete, poorly implemented, hard to access by researchers and have very different formats and modes of access. We propose a new standard for universal ad disclosure that should be met by every platform that publishes digital ads. If all platforms commit to the universal ad transparency standard we propose, it will mean a level playing field for platforms and advertisers, data for researchers and a safer internet for everyone.

The public deserves full transparency of all digital advertising. We want to acknowledge that what we propose will be a major undertaking for platforms and advertisers. However, we believe that the social harms currently being borne by users everywhere vastly outweigh the burden universal ad transparency would place on ad platforms and advertisers. Users deserve real transparency about all ads they are bombarded with every day. We have created a detailed description of what data should be made transparent that you can find here.

We researchers stand ready to do our part. The time for universal ad transparency is now.

Signed by:

Jason Chuang, Mozilla
Kate Dommett, University of Sheffield
Laura Edelson, New York University
Erika Franklin Fowler, Wesleyan University
Michael Franz, Bowdoin College
Archon Fung, Harvard University
Sheila Krumholz, Center for Responsive Politics
Ben Lyons, University of Utah
Gregory Martin, Stanford University
Brendan Nyhan, Dartmouth College
Nate Persily, Stanford University
Travis Ridout, Washington State University
Kathleen Searles, Louisiana State University
Rebekah Tromble, George Washington University
Abby Wood, University of Southern California

EU’s Google-Fitbit antitrust decision deadline pushed into 2021

By Natasha Lomas

The deadline for Europe to make a call on the Google -Fitbit merger has been pushed out again — with EU regulators now having until January 8, 2021, to take a decision.

The latest change to the provisional deadline, spotted earlier by Reuters, could be the result of one of the parties asking for more time.

Last month the deadline for a decision was extended until December 23 — potentially pushing the decision out beyond a year after Google announced its intention to buy Fitbit, back in November 2019. So if the tech giant was hoping for a simple and swift regulatory rubberstamping its hopes have been diminishing since August when the Commission announced it was going to dig into the detail. Once bitten and all that.

The proposed Fitbit acquisition also comes as Alphabet, Google’s parent, is under intense antitrust scrutiny on multiple fronts on home turf.

Google featured prominently in a report by the House Judiciary Committee on big tech antitrust concerns earlier this month, with US lawmakers recommending a range of remedies — including breaking up platform giants.

European lawmakers are also in the process of drawing up new rules to regulate so-called ‘gatekeeper’ platforms — which would almost certainly apply to Google. A legislative proposal on that is expected before the end of this year, which means it may appear before EU regulators have taken a decision on the Google-Fitbit deal. (And one imagines Google isn’t exactly stoked about that possibility.)

Both competition and privacy concerns have been raised against allowing Google get its hands on Fitbit users’ data.

The tech giant has responded by offering a number of pledges to try to convince regulators — saying it would not use Fitbit health and wellness data for ads and offering to have data separation requirements monitored. It has also said it would commit to maintain third parties’/rivals’ access to its Android ecosystem and Fitbit’s APIs.

However rival wearable makers have continued to criticize the proposed merger. And, earlier this week, consumer protection and human rights groups issued a joint letter — urging regulators to only approve the takeover if “merger remedies can effectively prevent [competition and privacy] harms in the short and long term”.

One thing is clear: With antitrust concerns now writ large against ‘big tech’ the era of ‘friction-free’ acquisitions looks to be behind Google et al.

Duplex, Google’s conversational AI, has updated 3M+ business listings since pandemic

By Sarah Perez

Google today offered an update on the status of Duplex, its A.I. technology that uses natural conversations to get things done — like making restaurant reservations, booking appointments, or updating a Google Business listing, for example. When the pandemic began, Google expanded its use of Duplex for business updates to eight countries, and has since made over 3 million updates to business listings — including pharmacies, restaurants and grocery stores.

These updates have been seen over 20 billion times across Maps and Search, the company says.

The A.I. technology, first introduced at the Google I/O developer conference in 2018, is able to place calls to businesses and interact with the people who answer the phone. In the case of reservations or appointment setting, it can request dates and times, respond to questions, and even make sounds to make the A.I. seem more like a person. For instance, it can insert subtle vocal breaks, like “mm-hm” and “um,” into its conversations.

Since launching, Duplex in Google Assistant has completed over a million bookings, Google announced today.

The company also noted it began to use Duplex to automatically update business information on Google Maps and Search in the U.S. last year, saving business owners from having to manually update details like store hours, or whether they offer takeout, among other things.

Last year, Google also brought Duplex to the web in the U.S., to help users book things like movie tickets and rental cars. Today, Google says it will begin piloting the same experience with other things, like shopping and ordering food for a faster checkout experience.

Just a few weeks ago, Google also introduced another Duplex-powered feature, “Hold for Me,” which lets you use Google Assistant to wait on hold on your phone call, then alert you when someone joins the line.

Thanks to advances in neural speech recognition and synthesis, and in Google’s own new language understanding models, the company says today that 99% of Duplex calls are entirely automated.

The Duplex update was one of several announcements Google made today at its Search On 2020 event, where it introduced a number of search improvements, including the ability to search for songs by humming, better guess at misspellings, point users to the correct part of a page to answer their question, tag key moments in videos, and more.

Google introduces song matching via humming, whistling or singing

By Darrell Etherington

Google has added a new feature that lets you figure out what song is stuck in your head by humming, whistling or singing – a much more useful version of the kind of song-matching audio feature that it and competitors like Apple’s Shazam have offered previously. As of today, users will be able to open either the latest version of the mobile Google app, or the Google Search widget, and then tap the microphone icon, and either verbally ask to search a song or hit the ‘Search a song button’ and start making noises.

The feature should be available to anyone using Google in English on iOS, or across over 20 languages already on Android, and the company says it will be growing that user group to more languages on both platforms in the future. Unsurprisingly, it’s powered behind the scenes by machine learning algorithms developed by the company.

Google says that it’s matching tech won’t require you to be a Broadway star or even a choir member – it has built-in abilities to accommodate for various degrees of musical sensibility, and will provide a confidence score as a percentage alongside a number of possible matches. Clicking on any match will return more info about both artist and track, as well as music videos, and links that let you listen to the full song in the music app of your choice.

Google explains in a blog post announcing the feature that it’s able to do this because it basically ignores the fluff that is the quality of your voice, any accompanying instruments, tone and other details. The algorithm is basically boiling the song down to its essence, and coming up with a numerical pattern that represents its essence, or what Google calls its ‘fingerprint.’

This is an evolution of how Google’s existing music recognition tech works, which is present in the passive ‘Now Playing’ feature that’s available on its Pixel smartphones. That feature will listen passively in the background for music, and provide a match when it finds one in its offline database (all done locally). That same technology is at work in the SoundSearch feature that Google later introduced via its app.

Google isn’t the first to do this – SoundHound’s Midomi offers music matching via singing or humming. But Google is obviously much more widely used, so it’ll be interesting to see if it can achieve better hit rates, and overall usage.

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