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The cocktail party problem: Why voice tech isn’t truly useful yet

By Ram Iyer
Ken Sutton Contributor
Ken Sutton is CEO and co-founder of Yobe, a software company that uses edge-based AI to unlock the potential of voice technologies for modern brands.

On average, men and women speak roughly 15,000 words per day. We call our friends and family, log into Zoom for meetings with our colleagues, discuss our days with our loved ones, or if you’re like me, you argue with the ref about a bad call they made in the playoffs.

Hospitality, travel, IoT and the auto industry are all on the cusp of leveling-up voice assistant adoption and the monetization of voice. The global voice and speech recognition market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 17.2% from 2019 to reach $26.8 billion by 2025, according to Meticulous Research. Companies like Amazon and Apple will accelerate this growth as they leverage ambient computing capabilities, which will continue to push voice interfaces forward as a primary interface.

As voice technologies become ubiquitous, companies are turning their focus to the value of the data latent in these new channels. Microsoft’s recent acquisition of Nuance is not just about achieving better NLP or voice assistant technology, it’s also about the trove of healthcare data that the conversational AI has collected.

Our voice technologies have not been engineered to confront the messiness of the real world or the cacophony of our actual lives.

Google has monetized every click of your mouse, and the same thing is now happening with voice. Advertisers have found that speak-through conversion rates are higher than click-through conversation rates. Brands need to begin developing voice strategies to reach customers — or risk being left behind.

Voice tech adoption was already on the rise, but with most of the world under lockdown protocol during the COVID-19 pandemic, adoption is set to skyrocket. Nearly 40% of internet users in the U.S. use smart speakers at least monthly in 2020, according to Insider Intelligence.

Yet, there are several fundamental technology barriers keeping us from reaching the full potential of the technology.

The steep climb to commercializing voice

By the end of 2020, worldwide shipments of wearable devices rose 27.2% to 153.5 million from a year earlier, but despite all the progress made in voice technologies and their integration in a plethora of end-user devices, they are still largely limited to simple tasks. That is finally starting to change as consumers demand more from these interactions, and voice becomes a more essential interface.

In 2018, in-car shoppers spent $230 billion to order food, coffee, groceries or items to pick up at a store. The auto industry is one of the earliest adopters of voice AI, but in order to really capture voice technology’s true potential, it needs to become a more seamless, truly hands-free experience. Ambient car noise still muddies the signal enough that it keeps users tethered to using their phones.

Box, Zoom chief product officers discuss how the changing workplace drove their latest collaboration

By Christine Hall

If the past 18 months is any indication, the nature of the workplace is changing. And while Box and Zoom already have integrations together, it makes sense for them to continue to work more closely.

Their newest collaboration is the Box app for Zoom, a new type of in-product integration that allows users to bring apps into a Zoom meeting to provide the full Box experience.

While in Zoom, users can securely and directly access Box to browse, preview and share files from Zoom — even if they are not taking part in an active meeting. This new feature follows a Zoom integration Box launched last year with its “Recommended Apps” section that enables access to Zoom from Box so that workflows aren’t disrupted.

The companies’ chief product officers, Diego Dugatkin with Box and Oded Gal with Zoom, discussed with TechCrunch why seamless partnerships like these are a solution for the changing workplace.

With digitization happening everywhere, an integration of “best-in-breed” products for collaboration is essential, Dugatkin said. Not only that, people don’t want to be moving from app to app, instead wanting to stay in one environment.

“It’s access to content while never having to leave the Zoom platform,” he added.

It’s also access to content and contacts in different situations. When everyone was in an office, meeting at a moment’s notice internally was not a challenge. Now, more people are understanding the value of flexibility, and both Gal and Dugatkin expect that spending some time at home and some time in the office will not change anytime soon.

As a result, across the spectrum of a company, there is an increasing need for allowing and even empowering people to work from anywhere, Dugatkin said. That then leads to a conversation about sharing documents in a secure way for companies, which this collaboration enables.

The new Box and Zoom integration enables meeting in a hybrid workplace: chat, video, audio, computers or mobile devices, and also being able to access content from all of those methods, Gal said.

“Companies need to be dynamic as people make the decision of how they want to work,” he added. “The digital world is providing that flexibility.”

This long-term partnership is just scratching the surface of the continuous improvement the companies have planned, Dugatkin said.

Dugatkin and Gal expect to continue offering seamless integration before, during and after meetings: utilizing Box’s cloud storage, while also offering the ability for offline communication between people so that they can keep the workflow going.

“As Diego said about digitization, we are seeing continuous collaboration enhanced with the communication aspect of meetings day in and day out,” Gal added. “Being able to connect between asynchronous and synchronous with Zoom is addressing the future of work and how it is shaping where we go in the future.”

Microsoft is discontinuing its Office apps for Chromebook users in favor of web versions 

By Sean Michael Kerner

Since 2017, Microsoft has offered its Office suite to Chromebook users via the Google Play store, but that is set to come to an end in a few short weeks.

As of Sept. 18, Microsoft is discontinuing support for Office, which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and Outlook, on Chromebook. Microsoft is not, however, abandoning the popular mobile device altogether. Instead of an app that is downloaded, Microsoft is encouraging users to go to the web instead.

“In an effort to provide the most optimized experience for Chromebook customers, Microsoft apps (Office and Outlook) will be transitioned to web experiences (Office.com and Outlook.com) on September 18, 2021,” Microsoft wrote in a statement emailed to TechCrunch. 

Microsoft’s statement also noted that “this transition brings Chromebook customers access to additional and premium features.” 

The Microsoft web experience will serve to transition its base of Chromebook users to the Microsoft 365 service, which provides more Office templates and generally more functionality than what the app-based approach provides. The web approach is also more optimized for larger screens than the app.

In terms of how Microsoft wants Chromebook users to get access to Office and Outlook, the plan is for customers to, “..sign in with their personal Microsoft Account or account associated with their Microsoft 365 subscription,” according to the statement. Microsoft has also provided online documentation to show users how to run Office on a Chromebook.

Chromebooks run on Google’s Chrome OS, which is a Linux-based operating system. Chromebooks also enable Android apps to run, as Android is also Linux based, with apps downloaded from Google Play. It’s important to note that while support for Chromebooks is going away, Microsoft is not abandoning other Android-based mobile devices, such as tablets and smartphones.

For those Chromebook users that have already downloaded the Microsoft Office apps, the apps will continue to function after September 18, though they will not receive any support or future updates.

Apple lowers commissions on in-app purchases for news publishers who participate in Apple News

By Sarah Perez

Apple today is launching a new program that will allow subscription news organizations that participate in the Apple News app and meet certain requirements to lower their commission rate to 15% on qualifying in-app purchases taking place inside their apps on the App Store. Typically, Apple’s model for subscription-based apps involves a standard 30% commission during their first year on the App Store, which then drops to 15% in year two. But the new Apple News Partner Program, announced today, will now make 15% the commission rate for participants starting on day one.

There are a few caveats to this condition, and they benefit Apple. To qualify, the news publisher must maintain a presence on Apple News and they have to provide their content in the Apple News Format (ANF). The latter is the JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) format that’s used to create articles for Apple News which are optimized for Mac, iPhone and other Apple mobile devices. Typically, this involves a bit of setup to translate news articles from a publisher’s website or from their CMS (content management system) to the supported JSON format. For WordPress and other popular CMS’s, there are also plugins available to make this process easier.

Meanwhile, for publishers headquartered outside one of the four existing Apple News markets — the U.S., U.K., Australia or Canada — they can instead satisfy the program’s obligations by providing Apple with an RSS feed.

On the App Store, the partner app qualifying for the 15% commission must be used to deliver “original, professionally authored” news content, and they must offer their auto-renewable subscriptions using Apple’s in-app purchase system.

Image Credits: Apple

While there is some initial work involved in establishing the publisher’s connection to Apple News, it’s worth noting that most major publishers already participate on Apple’s platform. That means they won’t have to do any additional work beyond what they’re already doing in order to transition over to the reduced commission for their apps. However, the program also serves as a way to push news organizations to continue to participate in the Apple News ecosystem, as it will make more financial sense to do so across their broader business.

That will likely be an area of contention for publishers, who would probably prefer that the reduced App Store commission didn’t come with strings attached.

Some publishers already worry that they’re giving up too much control over their business by tying themselves to the Apple News ecosystem. Last year, for example, The New York Times announced it would exit its partnership with Apple News, saying that Apple didn’t allow it to have as direct a relationship with readers as it wanted, and it would rather drive readers to its own app and website.

Apple, however, would argue that it doesn’t stand in the way of publishers’ businesses — it lets them paywall their content and keep 100% of the ad revenue from the ads they sell. (If they can’t sell it all or would prefer Apple to do so on their behalf, they then split the commission with Apple, keeping 70% of revenues instead.) In addition, for the company’s Apple News+ subscription service — where the subscription revenue split is much higher — it could be argued that it’s “found money.” That is, Apple markets the service to customers the publisher hadn’t been able to attract on its own anyway.

The launch of the new Apple News Partner program comes amid regulatory scrutiny over how Apple manages its App Store business and more recently, proposed legislation aiming to address alleged anticompetitive issues both in the U.S. and in major App Store markets, like South Korea.

Sensing this shift in the market, Apple had already been working to provide itself cover from antitrust complaints and lawsuits — like the one underway now with Epic Games — by adjusting its App Store commissions. Last year, it launched the App Store Small Business Program, which also lowered commissions on in-app purchases from 30% to 15% — but only for developers earning up to $1 million in revenues.

This program may have helped smaller publishers, but it was clear some major publishers still weren’t satisfied. After the reduced commissions for small businesses were announced in November, the publisher trade organization Digital Content Next (DCN) — a representative for the AP, The New York Times, NPR, ESPN, Vox, The Washington Post, Meredith, Bloomberg, NBCU, The Financial Times, and others — joined the advocacy group and lobbying organization the Coalition for App Fairness (CAF) the very next month.

These publishers, who had previously written to Apple CEO Tim Cook to demand lower commissions — had other complaints about the revenue share beyond just the size of the split. They also didn’t want to be required to use Apple’s services for in-app purchases for their subscriptions, saying this “Apple tax” forces them to raise their prices for consumers.

It remains to be seen how these publishers will now react to the launch of the Apple News Partner program.

While it gives them a way to lower their App Store fees, it doesn’t address their broader complaints against Apple’s platform and its rules. If anything, it ties the lower fees to a program that locks them in further to the Apple ecosystem.

Apple, in a gesture of goodwill, also said today it would recommit support to three leading media non-profits, Common Sense Media, the News Literacy Project, and Osservatorio Permanente Giovani-Editori. These non-profits offer nonpartisan, independent media literacy programs, which Apple views as key to its larger mission to empower people to become smart and active news readers. Apple also said it would later announce further media literacy projects from other organizations. The company would not disclose the size of its commitment from a financial standpoint however, or discuss how much it has sent such organizations in the past.

“Providing Apple News customers with access to trusted information from our publishing partners has been our priority from day one,” said Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Services, in a statement. “For more than a decade, Apple has offered our customers many ways to access and enjoy news content across our products and services. We have hundreds of news apps from dozens of countries around the world available in the App Store, and created Apple News Format to offer publishers a tool to showcase their content and provide a great experience for millions of Apple News users,” he added.

More details about the program and the application form will be available at the News Partner Program website.

Digital locker app Movies Anywhere adds AI-powered lists to organize your library

By Sarah Perez

Movies Anywhere, an app that allows you to centralize your digital movie collection from across services, is rolling out a new feature that will help you make better sense of your growing library. The company today introduced an AI-powered feature called “My Lists,” which automatically groups movies together based on any number of factors — like genre, actors, franchise, theme and more.

For digital movie collectors with larger libraries, the feature could make browsing through the available options feel more like scrolling through the recommendations you’d find on a modern-day streaming service, like Netflix. That is, instead of scrolling down through endless pages showing you all your purchased movies in order of purchase or alphabetically, as before, you can now quickly scan rows where the content is organized in ways that make it easier to discover what’s actually in your library.

For example, if you had purchased all the movies from a particular franchise, they would now be on their own row together. This is an improvement over how you had to locate these movies in your collection before — where they’d be sandwiched between the other titles you bought in between the franchise purchases.

You may also discover that you own a lot of movies within a particular category, like “Action Thrillers,” or those with a central theme, like “strong female friendships,” which could help you narrow down your movie night selection.

These algorithmically created lists can also be edited, allowing you to add or remove titles — or even delete the list altogether.

Image Credits: Movies Anywhere

Plus, you can now make lists of your own, too. So you could make a list of favorites, movies you want to watch with your family, or however else you want to further organize your collection. You could even use the feature to make a “to watch” list of movies you’ve purchased, but hadn’t yet made time for.

The Movie Anywhere app has been around for years, but is now jointly operated by Disney, Universal, WB, Sony Pictures and 20th Century Fox, after migrating to a new platform back in 2017. Its biggest selling point for digital movie collectors is that you can in one place get to all the movies you bought from various services. That includes digital downloads offered by iTunes, Vudu, Prime Video, YouTube, Xfinity and others. Before, you would have to switch from app to app to figure out if you had ever purchased a given title.

My Lists is one of many features the company has added over time to keep its app feeling current. Last year, for instance, it introduced a digital movie lending feature called Screen Pass, and it earlier had launched a co-watching feature called Watch Together, which let users watch with up to nine friends.

The new My Lists is available today in the Movies Anywhere mobile app, desktop and on streaming devices from the navigation bar.

Hackers Could Up Medication Doses Through Infusion Pump Flaws

By Lily Hay Newman
It would take a determined hacker to break into the vulnerable B. Braun products, but the impact could be devastating.

This Week in Apps: OnlyFans bans sexual content, SharePlay delayed, TikTok questioned over biometric data collection

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 continues to grow, 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.

This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.

Do you want This Week in Apps in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters

Top Stories

OnlyFans to ban sexually explicit content

OnlyFans logo displayed on a phone screen and a website

(Photo Illustration by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Creator platform OnlyFans is getting out of the porn business. The company announced this week it will begin to prohibit any “sexually explicit” content starting on October 1, 2021 — a decision it claimed would ensure the long-term sustainability of the platform. The news angered a number of impacted creators who weren’t notified ahead of time and who’ve come to rely on OnlyFans as their main source of income.

However, word is that OnlyFans was struggling to find outside investors, despite its sizable user base, due to the adult content it hosts. Some VC firms are prohibited from investing in adult content businesses, while others may be concerned over other matters — like how NSFW content could have limited interest from advertisers and brand partners. They may have also worried about OnlyFans’ ability to successfully restrict minors from using the app, in light of what appears to be soon-to-come increased regulations for online businesses. Plus, porn companies face a number of other issues, too. They have to continually ensure they’re not hosting illegal content like child sex abuse material, revenge porn or content from sex trafficking victims — the latter which has led to lawsuits at other large porn companies.

The news followed a big marketing push for OnlyFans’ porn-free (SFW) app, OFTV, which circulated alongside reports that the company was looking to raise funds at a $1 billion+ valuation. OnlyFans may not have technically needed the funding to operate its current business — it handled more than $2 billion in sales in 2020 and keeps 20%. Rather, the company may have seen there’s more opportunity to cater to the “SFW” creator community, now that it has big names like Bella Thorne, Cardi B, Tyga, Tyler Posey, Blac Chyna, Bhad Bhabie and others on board.

U.S. lawmakers demand info on TikTok’s plans for biometric data collection

The TikTok logo is seen on an iPhone 11 Pro max

The TikTok logo is seen on an iPhone 11 Pro max. Image Credits: Nur Photo/Getty Images

U.S. lawmakers are challenging TikTok on its plans to collect biometric data from its users. TechCrunch first reported on TikTok’s updated privacy policy in June, where the company gave itself permission to collect biometric data in the U.S., including users’ “faceprints and voiceprints.” When reached for comment, TikTok could not confirm what product developments necessitated the addition of biometric data to its list of disclosures about the information it automatically collects from users, but said it would ask for consent in the case such data collection practices began.

Earlier this month, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John Thune (R-SD) sent a letter to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, which said they were “alarmed” by the change, and demanded to know what information TikTok will be collecting and what it plans to do with the data. This wouldn’t be the first time TikTok got in trouble for excessive data collection. Earlier this year, the company paid out $92 million to settle a class-action lawsuit that claimed TikTok had unlawfully collected users’ biometric data and shared it with third parties.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Image Credits: Apple

  • ⭐ Apple told developers that some of the features it announced as coming in iOS 15 won’t be available at launch. This includes one of the highlights of the new OS, SharePlay, a feature that lets people share music, videos and their screen over FaceTime calls. Other features that will come in later releases include Wallet’s support for ID cards, the App Privacy report and others that have yet to make it to beta releases.
  • Apple walked back its controversial Safari changes with the iOS 15 beta 6 update. Apple’s original redesign had shown the address bar at the bottom of the screen, floating atop the page’s content. Now the tab bar will appear below the page’s content, offering access to its usual set of buttons as when it was at the top. Users can also turn off the bottom tab bar now and revert to the old, Single Tab option that puts the address bar back at the top as before.
  • In response to criticism over its new CSAM detection technology, Apple said the version of NeuralHash that was reverse-engineered by a developer, Asuhariet Ygvar, was a generic version, and not the complete version that will roll out later this year.
  • The Verge dug through over 800 documents from the Apple-Epic trial to find the best emails, which included dirt on a number of other companies like Netflix, Hulu, Sony, Google, Nintendo, Valve, Microsoft, Amazon and more. These offered details on things like Netflix’s secret arrangement to pay only 15% of revenue, how Microsoft also quietly offers a way for some companies to bypass its full cut, how Apple initially saw the Amazon Appstore as a threat and more.

Platforms: Google

  • A beta version of the Android Accessibility Suite app (12.0.0) which rolled out with the fourth Android beta release added something called “Camera Switches” to Switch Access, a toolset that lets you interact with your device without using the touchscreen. Camera Switches allows users to navigate their phone and use its features by making face gestures, like a smile, open mouth, raised eyebrows and more.
  • Google announced its Pixel 5a with 5G, the latest A-series Pixel phone, will arrive on August 27, offering IP67 water resistance, long-lasting Adaptive Battery, Pixel’s dual-camera system and more, for $449. The phone makes Google’s default Android experience available at a lower price point than the soon to arrive Pixel 6.
  • An unredacted complaint from the Apple-Epic trial revealed that Google had quietly paid developers hundreds of millions of dollars via a program known as “Project Hug,” (later “Apps and Games Velocity Program”) to keep their games on the Play Store. Epic alleges Google launched the program to keep developers from following its lead by moving their games outside the store.

Augmented Reality

  • Snap on Thursday announced it hired its first VP of Platform Partnerships to lead AR, Konstantinos Papamiltiadis (“KP”). The new exec will lead Snap’s efforts to onboard partners, including individual AR creators building via Lens Studio as well as large companies that incorporate Snapchat’s camera and AR technology (Camera Kit) into their apps. KP will join in September, and report to Ben Schwerin, SVP of Content and Partnerships.

Fintech

  • Crypto exchange Coinbase will enter the Japanese market through a new partnership with Japanese financial giant Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG). The company said it plans to launch other localized versions of its existing global services in the future.

Social

Image Credits: Facebook

  • Facebook launched a “test” of Facebook Reels in the U.S. on iOS and Android. The new feature brings the Reels experience to Facebook, allowing users to create and share short-form video content directly within the News Feed or within Facebook Groups. Instagram Reels creators can also now opt in to have their Reels featured on users’ News Feed. The company is heavily investing its its battle with TikTok, even pledging that some portion of its $1 billion creator fund will go toward Facebook Reels.
  • Twitter’s redesign of its website and app was met with a lot of backlash from users and accessibility experts alike. The company choices add more visual contrast between various elements and may have helped those with low vision. But for others, the contrast is causing strain and headaches. Experts believe accessibility isn’t a one-size fits all situation, and Twitter should have introduced tools that allowed people to adjust their settings to their own needs.
  • The pro-Trump Twitter alternative Gettr’s lack of moderation has allowed users to share child exploitation images, according to research from the Stanford Internet Observatory’s Cyber Policy Center.
  • Pinterest rolled out a new set of more inclusive search filters that allow people to find styles for different types of hair textures — like coily, curly, wavy, straight, as well as shaved or bald and protective styles. 

Photos

  • Photoshop for iPad gained new image correction tools, including the Healing Brush and Magic Wand, and added support for connecting an iPad to external monitors via HDMI or USB-C. The company also launched a Photoshop Beta program on the desktop.

Messaging

  • WhatsApp is being adopted by the Taliban to spread its message across Afghanistan, despite being on Facebook’s list of banned organizations. The company says it’s proactively removing Taliban content — but that may be difficult to do since WhatsApp’s E2E encryption means it can’t read people’s texts. This week, Facebook shut down a Taliban helpline in Kabul, which allowed civilians to report violence and looting, but some critics said this wasn’t actually helping local Afghans, as the group was now in effect governing the region.
  • WhatsApp is also testing a new feature that will show a large preview when sharing links, which some suspect may launch around the time when the app adds the ability to have the same account running on multiple devices.

Streaming & Entertainment

  • Netflix announced it’s adding spatial audio support on iPhone and iPad on iOS 14, joining other streamers like HBO Max, Disney+ and Peacock that have already pledged to support the new technology. The feature will be available to toggle on and off in the Control Center, when it arrives.
  • Blockchain-powered streaming music service Audius partnered with TikTok to allow artists to upload their songs using TikTok’s new SoundKit in just one click.
  • YouTube’s mobile app added new functionality that allows users to browse a video’s chapters, and jump into the chapter they want directly from the search page.
  • Spotify’s Anchor app now allows users in global markets to record “Music + Talk” podcasts, where users can combine spoken word recordings with any track from Spotify’s library of 70 million songs for a radio DJ-like experience.
  • Podcasters are complaining that Apple’s revamped Podcasts platform is not working well, reports The Verge. Podcasts Connect has been buggy, and sports a confusing interface that has led to serious user errors (like entire shows being archived). And listeners have complained about syncing problems and podcasts they already heard flooding their libraries.

Dating

  • Tinder announced a new feature that will allow users to voluntarily verify their identity on the platform, which will allow the company to cross-reference sex offender registry data. Previously, Tinder would only check this database when a user signed up for a paid subscription with a credit card.

Gaming

Image Source: The Pokémon Company

  • Pokémon Unite will come to iOS and Android on September 22, The Pokémon Company announced during a livestream this week. The strategic battle game first launched on Nintendo Switch in late July.
  • Developer Konami announced a new game, Castlevania: Grimoire of Souls, which will come exclusively to Apple Arcade. The game is described as a “full-fledged side-scrolling action game,” featuring a roster of iconic characters from the classic game series. The company last year released another version of Castelvania on the App Store and Google Play.
  • Dragon Ball Z: Dokkan Battle has now surpassed $3 billion in player spending since its 2015 debut, reported Sensor Tower. The game from Bandai Namco took 20 months to reach the figure after hitting the $2 billion milestone in 2019. The new landmark sees the game joining other top-grossers, including Clash Royale, Lineage M and others.
  • Sensor Tower’s mobile gaming advertising report revealed data on top ad networks in the mobile gaming market, and their market share. It also found puzzle games were among the top advertisers on gaming-focused networks like Chartboost, Unity, IronSource and Vungle. On less game-focused networks, mid-core games were top titles, like Call of Duty: Mobile and Top War. 

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Health & Fitness

  • Apple is reportedly scaling back HealthHabit, an internal app for Apple employees that allowed them to track fitness goals, talk to clinicians and coaches at AC Wellness (a doctors’ group Apple works with) and manage hypertension. According to Insider, 50 employees had been tasked to work on the project.
  • Samsung launched a new product for Galaxy smartphones in partnership with healthcare nonprofit The Commons Project, that allows U.S. users to save a verifiable copy of their vaccination card in the Samsung Pay digital wallet.

Image Credits: Samsung

Adtech

Government & Policy

  • China cited 43 apps, including Tencent’s WeChat and an e-reader from Alibaba, for illegally transferring user data. The regulator said the apps had transferred users location data and contact list and harassed them with pop-up windows. The apps have until August 25 to make changes before being punished.

Security & Privacy

  • A VICE report reveals a fascinating story about a jailbreaking community member who had served as a double agent by spying for Apple’s security team. Andrey Shumeyko, whose online handles included JVHResearch and YRH04E, would advertise leaked apps, manuals and stolen devices on Twitter and Discord. He would then tell Apple things like which Apple employees were leaking confidential info, which reporters would talk to leakers, who sold stolen iPhone prototypes and more. Shumeyko decided to share his story because he felt Apple took advantage of him and didn’t compensate him for the work.

Funding and M&A

💰 South Korea’s GS Retail Co. Ltd will buy Delivery Hero’s food delivery app Yogiyo in a deal valued at 800 billion won ($685 million USD). Yogiyo is the second-largest food delivery app in South Korea, with a 25% market share.

💰 Gaming platform Roblox acquired a Discord rival, Guilded, which allows users to have text and voice conversations, organize communities around events and calendars and more. Deal terms were not disclosed. Guilded raised $10.2 million in venture funding. Roblox’s stock fell by 7% after the company reported earnings this week, after failing to meet Wall Street expectations.

💰 Travel app Hopper raised $175 million in a Series G round of funding led by GPI Capital, valuing the business at over $3.5 billion. The company raised a similar amount just last year, but is now benefiting from renewed growth in travel following COVID-19 vaccinations and lifting restrictions.

💰 Indian quiz app maker Zupee raised $30 million in a Series B round of funding led by Silicon Valley-based WestCap Group and Tomales Bay Capital. The round values the company at $500 million, up 5x from last year.

💰 Danggeun Market, the publisher of South Korea’s hyperlocal community app Karrot, raised $162 million in a Series D round of funding led by DST Global. The round values the business at $2.7 billion and will be used to help the company launch its own payments platform, Karrot Pay.

💰 Bangalore-based fintech app Smallcase raised $40 million in Series C funding round led by Faering Capital and Premji Invest, with participation from existing investors, as well as Amazon. The Robinhood-like app has over 3 million users who are transacting about $2.5 billion per year.

💰 Social listening app Earbuds raised $3 million in Series A funding led by Ecliptic Capital. Founded by NFL star Jason Fox, the app lets anyone share their favorite playlists, livestream music like a DJ or comment on others’ music picks.

💰 U.S. neobank app One raised $40 million in Series B funding led by Progressive Investment Company (the insurance giant’s investment arm), bringing its total raise to date to $66 million. The app offers all-in-one banking services and budgeting tools aimed at middle-income households who manage their finances on a weekly basis.

Public Markets

📈Indian travel booking app ixigo is looking to raise Rs 1,600 crore in its initial public offering, The Economic Times reported this week.

📉Trading app Robinhood disappointed in its first quarterly earnings as a publicly traded company, when it posted a net loss of $502 million, or $2.16 per share, larger than Wall Street forecasts. This overshadowed its beat on revenue ($565 million versus $521.8 million expected) and its more than doubling of MAUs to 21.3 million in Q2.  Also of note, the company said dogecoin made up 62% of its crypto revenue in Q2.

Downloads

Polycam (update)

Image Credits: Polycam

3D scanning software maker Polycam launched a new 3D capture tool, Photo Mode, that allows iPhone and iPad users to capture professional-quality 3D models with just an iPhone. While the app’s scanner before had required the use of the lidar sensor built into newer devices like the iPhone 12 Pro and iPad Pro models, the new Photo Mode feature uses just an iPhone’s camera. The resulting 3D assets are ready to use in a variety of applications, including 3D art, gaming, AR/VR and e-commerce. Data export is available in over a dozen file formats, including .obj, .gtlf, .usdz and others. The app is a free download on the App Store, with in-app purchases available.

Jiobit (update)

Jiobit, the tracking dongle acquired by family safety and communication app Life360, this week partnered with emergency response service Noonlight to offer Jiobit Protect, a premium add-on that offers Jiobit users access to an SOS Mode and Alert Button that work with the Jiobit mobile app. SOS Mode can be triggered by a child’s caregiver when they detect — through notifications from the Jiobit app — that a loved one may be in danger. They can then reach Noonlight’s dispatcher who can facilitate a call to 911 and provide the exact location of the person wearing the Jiobit device, as well as share other details, like allergies or special needs, for example.

Tweets

When your app redesign goes wrong…

Image Credits: Twitter.com

Prominent App Store critic Kosta Eleftheriou shut down his FlickType iOS app this week after too many frustrations with App Review. He cited rejections that incorrectly argued that his app required more access than it did — something he had successfully appealed and overturned years ago. Attempted follow-ups with Apple were ignored, he said. 

Image Credits: Twitter.com

Anyone have app ideas?

Facebook finally made a good virtual reality app

By Lucas Matney

Facebook’s journey toward making virtual reality a thing has been long and circuitous, but despite mixed success in finding a wide audience for VR, they have managed to build some very nice hardware along the way. What’s fairly ironic is that while Facebook has managed to succeed in finessing the hardware and operating system of its Oculus devices — things it had never done before — over the years it has struggled most with actually making a good app for VR.

The company has released a number of social VR apps over the years, and while each of them managed to do something right, none of them did anything quite well enough to stave off a shutdown. Setting aside the fact that most VR users don’t have a ton of other friends that also own VR headsets, the broadest issue plaguing these social apps was that they never really gave users a great reason to use them. While watching 360-videos or playing board games with friends were interesting gimmicks, it’s taken the company an awful lot of time to understand that a dedicated ”social” app doesn’t make much sense in VR and that users haven’t been looking for a standalone social app, so much as they’ve been looking for engaging experiences that were improved by social dynamics.

This all brings me to what Facebook showed me a demo of this week — a workplace app called Horizon Workrooms which is launching in open beta for Quest 2 users starting today.

The app seems to be geared towards providing work-from-home employees a virtual reality sphere to collaborate inside. Users can link their Mac or PC to Workrooms and livestream their desktop to the app while the Quest 2’s passthrough cameras allow users to type on their physical keyboard. Users can chat with one another as avatars and share photos and files or draw on a virtual whiteboard. It’s an app that would have made a more significant splash for the Quest 2 platform had it launched earlier in the pandemic, though it’s tackling an issue that still looms large among tech savvy offices — finding tech solutions to aid meaningful collaboration in a remote environment.

Horizon Workrooms isn’t a social app per se but the way it approaches social communication in VR is more thoughtful than any other first-party social VR app that Facebook has shipped. The spatial elements are less overt and gimmicky than most VR apps and simply add to an already great functional experience that, at times, felt more productive and engaging than a normal video call.

It all plays into CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent proclamation that Facebook is transitioning into becoming a “metaverse company.”

Now, what’s the metaverse? In Zuckerberg’s own words, “It’s a virtual environment where you can be present with people in digital spaces. You can kind of think of this as an embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at.” This certainly sounds like a fairly significant recalibration for Facebook, which has generally approached AR/VR as a wholly separate entity from its suite of mobile apps. Desktop users and VR users have been effectively siloed from each other over the years.

Generally, Facebook has been scaling Oculus like they’re building the next smartphone, building its headsets with a native app paradigm at their core. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg’s future-minded “metaverse” sounds much more like what Roblox has been building towards than anything Facebook has actually shipped. Horizon Workrooms is living under the Horizon brand which seems to be where Facebook’s future metaverse play is rooted. The VR social platform is interestingly still in closed beta after being announced nearly two years ago. If Facebook can ever see Horizon’s vision to fruition, it could grow to become a Roblox-like hub of user-created games, activities and groups that replaces the native app mobile dynamics with a more fluid social experience.

The polish of Workrooms is certainly a promising sign of where Facebook could be moving.

Pokémon Unite is coming to iOS and Android on September 22

By Amanda Silberling

During today’s Pokémon Presents livestream, The Pokémon Company announced that Pokémon Unite will become available for iOS and Android on September 22. The strategic battle game came out for Nintendo Switch in late July, but its arrival on mobile devices will expand the game’s potential user base.

For users already playing on Nintendo Switch, fear not — the game allows cross-platform play, which means you can play on your Switch, then pick up where you left off on mobile. All users can play together regardless of which device they’re using, and it’s not necessary to have a Switch to get the mobile game. Pokémon Unite is free-to-start with microtransactions — you can purchase in-game currency to get certain items or Pokémon.

The presentation also unveiled new gameplay footage and feature news for upcoming Nintendo Switch releases: Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl (November 19, 2021), remakes of the Nintendo DS games from 2006 and Pokémon Legends: Arceus (January 28, 2022), the first open-world RPG in the Pokémon universe.

Image Credits: Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl

Like previous main series game remakes, Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl will expand upon the original games’ foundation and introduce features that appeared in later games, like Following Pokémon, Secret Bases and — very importantly — changing your trainer’s outfit. The game will also include re-designed features from its original release, like designing Poké Ball capsules and competing in Pokémon Contests.

But for the first time in a Pokémon Game, Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl will introduce a new aspect of gameplay called the Sinnoh Underground. Players can collect statues of Pokémon for their Secret Base, and depending on which statues are on display, different Pokémon will appear in Pokémon Hideaways within the Sinnoh Underground. To commemorate the 15-year-old games’ remakes, on November 5, 2021, Nintendo will release a “Dialga and Palkia Edition” of the Nintendo Switch Lite, which features the legendary Pokémon in gold and silver on a grey console.

Then, the Pokémon Company shared more information about Pokémon Legends: Arceus, a first-of-its-kind release for the iconic franchise. Fans have compared its open-world design to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which is the fourth-best-selling Nintendo Switch game with 23.2 million copies sold, but others say it’s more similar to Monster Hunter. The new game introduces the Hisui Region (an ancient version of the Sinnoh Region), along with new Pokémon like a grandpa-esque Growlithe, and an evolution of Basculin called Basculegion, which can evolve when “possessed by the souls of other Basculin from their school that could not withstand the harsh journey upstream”… Yes, this is a children’s franchise.

Welcome to the Hisui region, Trainers.

Newly discovered Pokémon, newly discovered regional forms, and new gameplay features are coming to #PokemonLegendsArceus! pic.twitter.com/h08CvKToSf

— Pokémon (@Pokemon) August 18, 2021

Nightmare-inducing new Pokémon aside, the livestream revealed more information about how exactly this new type of Pokémon game will work.

Like standard Pokémon games, players will set out on a mission to complete a Pokédex, but rather than training to become “the best like no one ever was,” they will be part of an expedition team, conducting survey work to learn more about the nature of Pokémon and the secrets they hold. In between field assignments, players can heal their party, craft items, and buy supplies at outposts (ancient Pokémon Centers?). Pokémon Legends: Arceus will also introduce a new battle style — like Pokémon Unite, it won’t simply repurpose the turn-based gameplay we’ve been accustomed to since the first Pokémon games were released in 1998.

Anyway, these games seem promising, but just try your best not to think about Basculegion.

Biofourmis receives FDA breakthrough device designation for heart failure “digital therapy”

By Emma Betuel

Kuldeep Singh Rajput, the founder of Boston-based Biofourmis, is imagining a future where heart failure patients go home with a prescription, a wearable sensor and an app. Today, a new FDA designation gets the company one step closer to that goal. 

Founded in 2015, Biofourmis is a digital therapeutics company that develops software to “augment” patient care. So far, the company has raised about $145 million in funding, and has around 350 employees, Rajput estimates. 

On Thursday, Biofourmis BiovitalsHF, a platform designed for heart failure medication monitoring received an FDA breakthrough device designation. Breakthrough device designation doesn’t signal FDA clearance, but it does allow for an expedited review process, and gives the company access to expertise from the federal agency during development. 

Biofourmis has two major focus areas, says Rajput. The first is on developing digital therapies in conjunction with drug companies (apps for dosage delivery, for instance, or sensors that can monitor health). The second is on providing followup care for patients with acute conditions at home. 

BiovialsHF is an example of the company’s forays into that first area of focus. So far, the company has developed digital therapies for a “pipeline” of conditions, like coronary artery disease or atrial fibrillation, and has digital therapies in the works for patients managing chemotherapy, or people dealing with chronic pain. The BiovitalsHF system, though, is the first to receive FDA breakthrough designation, and Rajput calls it the company’s “lead digital therapy.”

The BiovitalsHF product is a software platform designed manage medication for patients with heart failure. The idea is patients may initially get a certain prescription, but once they go home, they might need to adjust the levels of certain medication they’re taking. 

Doctors do often treat heart failure with multiple medications, and doses may need to be changed over time. Particularly in the case of two types of medication, ACE inhibitors or beta-blockers, medication may need to be titrated – a process where a patient begins treatment on a low dose, and slowly up the dosage over time to achieve the optimal “target” dose.

However, titration is hard to achieve in real life – one 2020 study suggests that less than 25 percent of heart failure patients are on their optimal dosages (other studies suggest it’s less than one percent). Another 2017 commentary in Cardiac Failure Review estimates that just 29 percent of patients were on target doses of ACEs and 18 percent on their target beta blocker dose. 

By contrast, in clinical trials, many to 50-60 percent of patients manage to obtain their optimal dosages, suggesting that there is a gap between how people take medicine in studies and how they do so in the real world. 

BiovitalsHF is supposed to streamline the titration process once patients leave hospitals by collecting and analyzing data from a wearable device. That data, in theory, could be used to titrate the medication depending on a patient’s health status. 

The software tweaks medication dosage using information from the patient, a wearable, and outside lab results. The wearable device would collect data like heart rate, respiration rate, stroke volume or cardiac output. Meanwhile, a patient might report their own symptoms into an app, and a physician might input lab results. 

“Based on the data collected from the patients using sensors, and the mobile platform, we are able to automatically up titrate or down titrate and switch medication, so that patients are on the right, optimal dose,” says Rajput. 

Patients would then receive a notification to let them know medications were going to be tweaked. 

The BiovitalsHF program has only been tested in one proof-of-concept study (more on that later), but the Biovitals patient monitoring platform has been tested on other diseases as well. 

For example, the Biovitals system was adapted to monitor 34 mild COVID-19 patients from the Queen Mary Hospital in Hong Kong who wore a biosensor 23 hours per day. A paper published in Scientific Reports suggested that the platform was able to predict whether a patient would deteriorate with 93 percent accuracy, and predict length of hospital stay with 78 percent accuracy. 

The BiovitalsHF system is slightly different. While the system does aim to monitor patients, Rajput aspires to have the technology itself be administered as a treatment program. 

In essence, a doctor might “prescribe” you three months of BiovitalsHF program in which the software itself might monitor patient outcomes and help determine dosage on its own. 

The aim is to be able to market Biovials HF not just as a decision support software, but as a treatment regimen. The distinction is subtle, but it means that the company is trying to be more than a delivery device, and more like a drug in itself. 

 “The label of the product for digital therapy will have actual treatment claims as compared to just a monitoring tool for clinical decision support,” says Rajput. 

Naturally, you need robust results to make these claims. The company has already done some early testing of the concept in a proof-of-concept clinical trial that concluded in March 2021, but will need to perform more rounds of testing in the future to prove efficacy. 

The study monitored 282 patients for 90 days, and compared people using BiovitalsHF to those using regular standard of care. The goal of the trial was to determine whether the platform could optimize medication dosage – which, in this case, means getting them within 50 percent of optimal dose. 

Results have yet to be posted publicly from that study. However, Rajput notes that the study did meet that endpoint, and seemed to be linked with other improvements in patients’ life quality and heart health. 

“Patients had, within three months, significant increases in quality of life, cardiac function, as well as reduction in a blood biomarker NT-proBNP [a marker of heart failure]. Based on this, we submitted the data to the FDA and received the breakthrough designation,” he says. 

The company has submitted the data for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. 

With the breakthrough designation in hand, we might expect progress on BiovitalsHF to proceed quickly – though it’s still a long way from true FDA approval, or even a premarket approval at the moment.

“We will be kicking off our pivotal trial, you know, anytime now. And we expect to make a formal submission to the FDA sometime in June [or] July next year,” Rajput says. 

Zuckerberg is turning trillion-dollar Facebook into a ‘metaverse’ company, he tells investors

By Lucas Matney

Magic lands $27M Series A for its ‘plug and play’ passwordless tech

By Carly Page

Magic, a San Francisco-based startup that builds “plug and play” passwordless authentication technology, has raised $27 million in Series A funding.

The round, led by Northzone and with participation from Tiger Global, Volt Capital, Digital Currency Group and CoinFund, comes just over a year after Magic launched from stealth, rebranding from its previous name Formatic. 

The company, like many others, is on a mission to end traditional password-based authentication. Magic’s flagship SDK, which launched in April 2020, enables developers to implement a variety of passwordless authentication methods with just a few lines of code and integrates with a number of modern frameworks and infrastructures.

Not only does the SDK make it easier for companies and developers to implement passwordless auth methods in their applications, but it could also help to mitigate the expensive fallout that many have to deal with as a result of data breaches.

“This is why the password is so dangerous,” Sean Li, Magic co-founder and CEO tells TechCrunch. “It’s like a Jenga tower right now — a hacker breaching your system can download an entire database of encrypted passwords, and then easily crack them. It’s a huge central point of failure.”

The company recently built out its SDK to add support for WebAuthn, which means it can support hardware-based authentication keys like Yubico, as well as biometric-based Face ID and fingerprint logins on mobile devices. 

“It’s less mainstream right now, but we’re making it super simple for developers,” says Li. “This way we can help promote new technologies, and that’s really good for user security and privacy.” 

It’s a bet that seems to be working: Magic has recorded a 13% month-over-month increase in developer signups, and the number of identities secured is growing at a rate of 6% weekly, according to Magic. It has also secured a number of big-name customers, from crypto news publisher Decrypt to fundraising platform Fairmint.

Wendy Xiao Schadeck, a partner at Northzone said: “We couldn’t be more excited to support Sean and the Magic team as they redefine authentication for the internet from the bottom up, solving a core pain point for developers, users, and companies. 

“It was clear to us that they’re absolutely loved by their customers because the team is so obsessed with serving every single part of the developer journey across several communities. What’s potentially even more exciting is what they will be able to do to empower users and decentralize the identity layer of the web.”

The company now plans to continue to scale its platform and expand its team to meet what Magic describes as “soaring” demand. The startup, which currently has 30 employees that work remotely on a full-time basis, expects to at least double its headcount across all core functions, including product, engineering, design, marketing, finance, people and operations.

It’s also planning to build out the SDK even further; Li says he wants to be able to plug into more kinds of technology, from low-code applications to workflow automations. 

“The vision is much bigger than that. We want to be the passport of the internet,” Li adds.

Read more:

Amazon aims to inject new life into Alexa with release of developer tools and features

By Sarah Perez

Amazon is giving its Alexa voice platform a shot in the arm after seeing further declines in skill growth over the past year, indicating lagging interest from third-party voice app developers. At the company’s Alexa Live developer event today, the company announced a slew of new features and tools for the developer community — its largest release of new tools to date, in fact. Among the new releases are those to encourage Alexa device owners to discover and engage with Alexa skills, new tools for making money from skills, and other updates that will push customers to again make Alexa more a part of their daily routines.

The retailer’s hopes for Alexa as voice shopping platform may have not panned out as it had hoped, as only a sliver of Alexa customers actually made Amazon.com purchases through the smart speakers. However, the larger Alexa footprint and developer community remains fairly sizable, Amazon said today, noting there are “millions” of Alexa devices used “billions of times” every week, and over 900,000 registered developers who have published over 130,000 Alexa skills.

However, Amazon hasn’t yet solved the challenge of helping customers find and discover skills they want to use — something that’s been historically difficult on voice-only devices. That’s improved somewhat with the launch of Alexa devices with screens, like the Alexa Show, which offers a visual component.

Image Credits: Amazon

On this front, Amazon says it will introduce a way for developers to create Widgets for their skills which customers can then add to their Echo Show or other Alexa device with a screen sometime later this year. Developers will also be able to build Featured Skill Cards to promote their skills in the home screen rotation.

For voice-only devices, developers will now be able to have their skill suggested when Alexa responds to common requests, like “Alexa, tell me a story,” “Alexa, let’s play a game,” or “Alexa, I need a workout,” among others. Alexa will begin to offer personalized skill suggestions based on customers’ use of similar skills, while new “contextual discovery” mechanisms that will allow customers to use natural language and phrases to accomplish tasks across skills.

Amazon also said it’s expanding the ways developers can get paid for their skills.

Already, it offers tools like consumables, paid subscriptions and in-skill purchases. Now, it will add support for Paid Skills, a new in-skill purchase that allows customers to pay a one-time fee to access the content a skill provides. It will also now expand in-skill purchases to India and Canada.

Amazon will attempt to leverage the developer community to drive sales on its retail site, too. With new Shopping Actions, developers can sell Amazon products in their skill. For example, a role-playing game could suggest customers buy the tabletop version, as sci-fi game Starfinder does. Developers can also earn affiliate revenue on their product referrals.

Music and media skill developers will be able to use new tools for more entertaining experiences, like a Song Request Skill that DJs can use to take song requests via Alexa, which iHeartRadio will adopt. Others will shorten the time it takes for Radio, Podcast and Music providers to launch interactive experiences.

Other new features aim to make skills more practical and useful.

Image Credits: Amazon

For example, restaurants will gain access to a Food Skill API that will allow them to create pickup and delivery order experiences. A new “Send to Phone” feature will allow developers to connect their skill with mobile devices, and new event-based triggers and proactive suggestions will enable new experiences — like a skill that reminds users to lock their home when they are leaving. Amazon-owned Whole Foods will use these features for a curbside pickup experience arriving later this year, the company says.

Alexa replenishment support, which allows customers to reorder common household items like laundry detergent or batteries, will also expand to replacement parts to better tie in with other sorts of household and smart home devices. Thermostat makers Carrier and Resideo will use this to replenish air filters and Bissell will use this with its vacuum cleaners.

Menahile, safety device makers — like smoke, carbon-monoxide, and water leak detectors — will be able to tie into Alexa’s security system, Alexa Guard to send notifications to mobile devices.

Amazon is also introducing a set of new tools that make creating skills easier for developers, including the ability to use Alexa Entities, which is basically Amazon’s own set of general, Wikipedia-like knowledge. They’ll also gain access to new tools to aid with custom pronunciations plus the previously U.S.-only Alexa Conversations nature language feature (now in beta in Germany, developer preview in Japan, and live all English locales). A longer list of tools, detailed on Amazon’s announcement, focus on regional expansions of existing toolkits (i.e. AVS, ACK), and others that enable better interoperability with smart home devices — like those that allow for unique wake words, among others.

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