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The Crooked, Complex Geometry of Round Trips

By Patrick Honner
Imagine if we lived on a cube-shaped Earth. How would you find the shortest path around the world?

Want to Write a Book This Year? These Tools Can Help

By Harry Guinness
We spoke to two award-winning authors for their tips on how to make it from start to finish. Here's how they take notes, organize chapters, and—yes—get comfy.

Share Streaming Accounts? Set Up Separate User Profiles

By David Nield
Here's how to keep your recommendations and history at least semi-private. No one needs to know how much Bridgerton you watched.

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.

 

The Physics of Reddit's Spinning Solar System Icon

By Rhett Allain
If the dots on the loading screen were planets, is their motion realistic? And can we actually model it?

GitLab oversaw a $195 million secondary sale that values the company at $6 billion

By Ron Miller

GitLab has confirmed with TechCrunch that it oversaw a $195 million secondary sale that values the company at $6 billion. CNBC broke the story earlier today.

The company’s impressive valuation comes after its most recent 2019 Series E in which it raised $268 million on a 2.75 billion valuation, an increase of $3.25 billion in under 18 months. Company co-founder and CEO Sid Sijbrandij believes the increase is due to his company’s progress adding functionality to the platform.

“We believe the increase in valuation over the past year reflects the progress of our complete DevOps platform towards realizing a greater share of the growing, multi-billion dollar software development market,” he told TechCrunch.

While the startup has raised over $434 million, this round involved buying employee stock options, a move that allows the company’s workers to cash in some of their equity prior to going public. CNBC reported that the firms buying the stock included Alta Park, HMI Capital, OMERS Growth Equity, TCV and Verition.

The next logical step would appear to be IPO, something the company has never shied away from. In fact, it actually at one point included the proposed date of November 18, 2020 as a target IPO date on the company wiki. While they didn’t quite make that goal, Sijbrandij still sees the company going public at some point. He’s just not being so specific as in the past, suggesting that the company has plenty of runway left from the last funding round and can go public when the timing is right.

“We continue to believe that being a public company is an integral part of realizing our mission. As a public company, GitLab would benefit from enhanced brand awareness, access to capital, shareholder liquidity, autonomy and transparency,” he said.

He added, “That said, we want to maximize the outcome by selecting an opportune time. Our most recent capital raise was in 2019 and contributed to an already healthy balance sheet. A strong balance sheet and business model enables us to select a period that works best for realizing our long-term goals.”

GitLab has not only published IPO goals on its Wiki, but its entire company philosophy, goals and OKRs for everyone to see. Sijbrandij told TechCrunch’s Alex Wilhelm at a TechCrunch Disrupt panel in September that he believes that transparency helps attract and keep employees. It doesn’t hurt that the company was and remains a fully remote organization, even pre-COVID.

“We started [this level of] transparency to connect with the wider community around GitLab, but it turned out to be super beneficial for attracting great talent as well,” Sijbrandij told Wilhelm in September.

The company, which launched in 2014, offers a DevOps platform to help move applications through the programming lifecycle.

Update: The original headline of this story has been changed from ‘GitLab raises $195M in secondary funding on $6 billion valuation.’

 

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.”

Watch Highlights From WIRED's CES Conversations

By WIRED Staff
Check out the replays of our talks with former US defense secretary Ash Carter, Nobel laureate Jennifer A. Doudna, Slack CEO Scott Butterfield, and more.

Hackers Used Zero-Days to Infect Windows and Android Devices

By Dan Goodin, Ars Technica
Google researchers say the campaign, which booby-trapped sites to ensnare targets, was carried out by a “highly sophisticated actor.”

Samsung Has New Galaxy Phones (and New Earbuds Too)

By Julian Chokkattu, Parker Hall
A trio of new Android phones—the S21, S21+, and S21 Ultra—are joined by new Bluetooth earbuds and a Tile-like tracker.

The 15 Best Devices From CES That You Can Buy Now

By Adrienne So
Much of the trade show’s flashy tech will never hit store shelves, but here are a few gadgets that are already available.
Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Home services platform Porch acquires four companies

By Frederic Lardinois

Only a few weeks after its SPAC IPO, Porch today announced that it has made four acquisitions, worth a total of $122 million. The most important here is probably the acquisition of Homeowners of America for $100 million, which gets Porch deeper into the home insurance space. In addition, Porch is also acquiring mover marketing and data platform V12 for $22 million, as well as home inspection service Palm-Tech and iRoofing, a SaaS application for roofing contractors. Porch did not disclose the acquisition prices for the latter two companies.

You may still think of Porch as a marketplace for home improvement and repair services — and that’s what it started out as when it launched about seven years ago. Yet while it still offers those services, a couple of years after its 2013 launch, the company pivoted to building what it now calls a “vertical software platform for the home.” Through a number of acquisitions, the Porch Group now includes Porch.com, as well as services like HireAHelper, Inspection Support Network for home inspectors, Kandela for providing services around moving and an insurance broker in the form of the Elite Insurance Group. In some form or another, Porch’s tools are now used — either directly or indirectly — by two-thirds of U.S. homebuyers every month.

Porch founder and CEO Matt Ehrlichman. Image Credits: Porch

As Porch founder and CEO Matt Ehrlichman told me, he had originally planned to take his company public through a traditional IPO. He noted that going the increasingly popular SPAC route, though, allowed him to push his timeline up by a year, which in turn now enables the company to make the acquisitions it announced today.

“In total, we had a $323 million fundraise that allows us now to not only be a public company with public currency, but to be very well capitalized. And picking up that year allows us to be able to go and pursue acquisitions that we think make really good fits for Porch,” Ehrlichman told me. While Porch’s guidance for its 2021 revenue was previously $120 million, it’s now updating that guidance to $170 million based on these acquisitions. That would mean Porch would grow its revenue by about 134% year-over-year between 2020 and 2021.

As the company had previously laid out in its public documents, the plan for 2021 was always to get deeper into insurance. Indeed, as Ehrlichman noted, Porch these days tends to think of itself as a vertical software company that layers insurtech on top of its services in order to be able to create a recurring revenue stream. And because Porch offers such a wide range of services already, its customer acquisition costs are essentially zero for these services.

Image Credits: Homeowners of America

Porch was already a licensed insurance brokerage. With Homeowners of America, it is acquiring a company that is both an insurance carrier as well as a managing general agent..

“We’re able to capture all of the economic value from the consumer as we help them get insurance set up with their new home and we can really control that experience to delight them. As we wrap all the technology we’ve invested in around that experience we can make it super simple and instant to be able to get the right insurance at the right price for your new home. And because we have all of this data about the home that nobody else has — from the inspection we know if the roof is old, we know if the hot water system is gonna break soon and all the appliances — we know all of this data and so it just gives us a really big advantage in insurance.”

Data, indeed, is what a lot of these acquisitions are about. Because Porch knows so much about so many customers, it is able to provide the companies it acquires with access to relevant data, which in turn helps them offer additional services and make smarter decisions.

Homeowners of America is currently operating in six states (Texas, Arizona, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia) and licensed in 31. It has a network of more than 800 agencies so far and Porch expects to expand the company’s network and geographic reach in the coming months. “Because we have [customer acquisition cost]-free demand all across the country, one of the opportunities for us is simply just to expand that across the nation,” Ehrlichman explained.

As for V12, Porch’s focus is on that company’s mover marketing and data platform. The acquisition should help it reach its medium-term goal of building a $200 million revenue stream in this area. V12 offers services across multiple verticals, though, including in the automotive space, and will continue to do so. The platform’s overall focus is to help brands identify the right time to reach out to a given consumer — maybe before they decide to buy a new car or move. With Porch’s existing data layered on top of V12’s existing capabilities, the company expects that it will be able to expand these features and it will also allow Porch to not offer mover marketing but what Ehrlichman called “pro-mover” services, as well.

“V12 anchors what we call our marketing software division. A key focus of that is mover marketing. That’s where it’s going to have, long term, tremendous differentiation. But there are a number of other things that they’re working on that are going to have really nice growth vectors, and they’ll continue to push those,” said Ehrlichman.

As for the two smaller acquisitions of iRoofing and Palm-Tech, these are more akin to some of the previous acquisitions the company made in the contractor and inspection verticals. Like with those previous acquisitions, the plan is to help them grow faster, in part through integrating them into the overall Porch group’s family of products.

“Our business is and continues to be highly recurring or reoccurring in nature,” said Porch CFO Marty Heimbigner. “Nearly all of our revenues, including that of these new acquisitions, is consistent and predictable. This repeat revenue is also high margin with less than 20% cost of revenue and is expected to grow more than 30% per year on our platform. So, we believe these deals are highly accretive for our shareholders.”

2020 was one of the warmest years in history and indicates mounting risks of climate change

By Jonathan Shieber

It’s official. 2020 was one of the warmest years on record either edging out or coming in just behind 2016 for the warmest year in recorded history according to data from US government agencies.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration had the year just tied with 2016, while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration put the figure just behind 2016’s totals.

No matter the ranking, the big picture for the climate isn’t pretty according to scientists from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York and the Washington, DC-based NOAA.

“The last seven years have been the warmest seven years on record, typifying the ongoing and dramatic warming trend,” said GISS Director Gavin Schmidt, in a statement. “Whether one year is a record or not is not really that important – the important things are long-term trends. With these trends, and as the human impact on the climate increases, we have to expect that records will continue to be broken.”

That’s a dire message for the nation considering the cost of last year’s record-breaking 22 weather and climate disasters. At least 262 people died and scores more were injured by climate-related disasters, according to the NOAA.

And the combination of wildfires, droughts, heatwaves, tornados, tropical cyclones, and severe weather events like hail storms in Texas and the derecho that wrecked the Midwest cost the nation $95 billion.

Homes are engulfed in flames in Vacaville, California during the LNU Lightning Complex fire on August 19, 2020.

Homes are engulfed in flames in Vacaville, California during the LNU Lightning Complex fire on August 19, 2020. – As of the late hours of August 18,2020 the Hennessey fire has merged with at least 7 fires and is now called the LNU Lightning Complex fires. Dozens of fires are burning out of control throughout Northern California as fire resources are spread thin. (Photo by JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Both organizations track temperature trends to get some sort of picture of the impact that human activities — specifically greenhouse gas emissions — have on the planet. The image that comes into focus is that human activity has already contributed to increasing Earth’s average temperature by more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the industrial age took hold in the late 19th century.

Most troubling to scientists is that this year’s near record-setting temperatures happened without a boost from the climatic weather phenomenon known as El Niño, which is a large-scale ocean-atmosphere climate interaction linked to a periodic warming.

“The previous record warm year, 2016, received a significant boost from a strong El Niño. The lack of a similar assist from El Niño this year is evidence that the background climate continues to warm due to greenhouse gases,” Schmidt said, in a statement.

The warming trends the word is experiencing are most pronounced in the Arctic, according to NASA. There, temperatures have warmed three times as a fast as the rest of the globe over the past 30 years, Schmidt said. The loss of Arctic sea ice — whose annual minimum area is declining by about 13 percent per decade — makes the region less reflective, which means more sunlight is being absorbed by oceans, causing temperatures to climb even more.

These accelerating effects of climate change could be perilous for the world at large, Katharine Hayhoe, a professor at Texas Tech University wrote in an email to The Washington Post.

“What keeps us climate scientists up in the dead of night is wondering what we don’t know about the self-reinforcing or vicious cycles in the Earth’s climate system,” Hayhoe wrote. “The further and faster we push it beyond anything experienced in the history of human civilization on this planet, the greater the risk of serious and even dangerous consequences. And this year, we’ve seen that in spades… It’s no longer a question of when the impacts of climate change will manifest themselves: They are already here and now. The only question remaining is how much worse it will get.”

Beyond Meat shares soar after inking deal with Taco Bell on new menu items

By Jonathan Shieber

Shares of Beyond Meat are soaring on news that the company will be working with Taco Bell on new menu items.

The company’s stock was up $17.13, or 13.67%, to $142.48 and climbing in midday trading after Taco Bell announced that it would embrace Beyond Meat to come up with new menu items due to be tested in the next year.

The decision from Taco Bell, a subsidiary of Yum Brands, is a departure from the Mexican fast food chain’s commitment to go it alone as it developed new vegetarian menu items.

“We’ve looked. We’ve met with Beyond, we’ve met with Impossible — our head of innovation knows everybody, and they all know her,” Julie Felss Masino, Taco Bell’s president of North American operations, told CNBC back in 2019. “But I think what we’re proud of is that we’ve been doing vegetarian for 57 years.”

Now the company wants más alternative proteins from the Southern California alternative protein provider. “We have long been a leader in the vegetarian space, but this year, we have more meatless options in store that vegetarians, veggie-curious and even meat-eaters will love,” said Liz Matthews, Taco Bell’s Global Chief Food Innovation Officer. 

Taco Bell boasts that it already has over 30 vegetarian ingredients on the U.S. menu, but its lack of protein alternatives was noticeable, as many of its competitors embraced the meat substitute craze.

Tech and health companies including Microsoft and Salesforce team up on digital COVID-19 vaccination records

By Darrell Etherington

A new cross-industry initiative is seeking to establish a standard for digital vaccination records that can be used universally to identify COVID-19 vaccination status for individuals, in a way that can be both secure via encryption and traceable and verifiable for trustworthiness regarding their contents. The so-called ‘Vaccination Credential Initiative’ includes a range of big-name companies from both the healthcare and the tech industry, including Microsoft, Oracle, Salesforce and Epic, as well as the Mayo Clinic, Safe Health, Change Healthcare and the CARIN Alliance to name a few.

The effort is beginning with existing, recognized standards already in use in digital healthcare programs, like the SMART Health Cards specification, which adheres to HL7 FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources) which is a standard created for use in digital health records to make them interoperable between providers. The final product that the initiative aims to establish is an “encrypted digital copy of their immunization credentials to store in a digital wallet of their choice,” with a backup available as a printed QR code that includes W3C-standards verifiable credentials for individuals who don’t own or prefer not to use smartphones.

Vaccination credentials aren’t a new thing – they’ve existed in some form or another since the 1700s. But their use and history is also mired in controversy and accusations of inequity, since this is human beings we’re dealing with. And already with COVID-19, there efforts underway to make access to certain geographies dependent upon negative COVID-19 test results (though such results don’t actually guarantee that an individual doesn’t actually have COVID-19 or won’t transfer it to others).

A recent initiative by LA County specifically also is already providing digital immunization records to individuals via a partnership with Healthvana, facilitated by Apple’s Wallet technology. But Healthvana’s CEO and founder was explicit in telling me that that isn’t about providing a proof of immunity for use in deterring an individual’s social or geographic access. Instead, it’s about informing and supporting patients for optimal care outcomes.

It sounds like this initiative is much more about using a COVID-19 immunization record as a literal passport of sorts. It’s right in the name of the initiative, for once (‘Credential’ is pretty explicit). The companies involved also at least seem cognizant of the potential pitfalls of such a program, as MITRE’s chief digital health physician Dr. Brian Anderson said that “we are working to ensure that underserved populations have access to this verification,” and added that “just as COVID-19 does not discriminate based on socio-economic status, we must ensure that convenient access to records crosses the digital divide.”

Other quotes from Oracle and Salesforce, and additional member leaders confirm that the effort is focused on fostering a reopening of social and economic activity, including “resuming travel,” get[ting] back to public life,” and “get[ting] concerts and sporting events going again.” Safe Health also says that they’ll help facility a “privacy-preserving health status verification” solution that is at least in part “blockchain-enabled.”

Given the urgency of solutions that can lead to a safe re-opening, and a way to keep tabs on the massive, global vaccination program that’s already underway, it makes sense that a modern approach would include a digital version of historic vaccination record systems. But such an approach, while it leverages new conveniences and modes made possible by smartphones and the internet, also opens itself up to new potential pitfalls and risks that will no doubt be highly scrutinized, particularly by public interest groups focused on privacy and equitable treatment.

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.

CES 2021 Highlights: 79 Gadgets and Glimpses Into the Future

By Gear Team
The consumer electronics show was virtual this year, and the WIRED Gear crew watched all the Zooms to bring you this list of nearly 80 products, trends, musings, and photos.

How Amazon Sidewalk Works—and Why You May Want to Turn It Off

By David Nield
The premise is convenient. But the ecommerce giant’s record on privacy isn't exactly inspiring.

Intuitive Machines taps SpaceX for second lunar lander mission

By Darrell Etherington

The first commercial lunar landers are set to start making their trips to the moon as early as this year, and now another one has a confirmed ride booked: Intuitive Machines is sending its second lander aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9, with a projected launch time frame happening sometime around 2022 at the earliest. Intuitive Machines has already booked a first lander mission via SpaceX, which is also hosting payloads for other private companies seeking to make lunar landfall under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.

Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander can carry up to 100 kg (around 222 lbs) of cargo to the moon’s surface, and can communicate back to Earth for transmitting the results of its missions. It has both internal and surface-mounting capacity, and will carry science experiments for a variety of customers to the lunar surface through NASA’s commercial partnership program, partly to support future NASA missions including its planned Artemis human moon landings.

The first Intuitive Machines lunar lander mission, which will also use a Nova-C lander, is set to take place sometime in the fourth quarter of 2021 based on current timelines. It’ll include a lunar imaging suite, which will seek to “capture some of the first images of the Milky Way Galaxy Center from the surface of the Moon,” and the second mission will include delivering a polar resource mining drill and a mass spectrometer to the moon’s south pole on behalf of NASA, in addition to other payloads.

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