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Today — December 1st 2020Your RSS feeds

AWS updates its edge computing solutions with new hardware and Local Zones

By Frederic Lardinois

AWS today closed out its first re:Invent keynote with a focus on edge computing. The company launched two smaller appliances for its Outpost service, which originally brought AWS as a managed service and appliance right into its customers’ existing data centers in the form of a large rack. Now, the company is launching these smaller versions so that its users can also deploy them in their stores or office locations. These appliances are fully managed by AWS and offer 64 cores of compute, 128GB of memory and 4TB of local NVMe storage.

In addition, the company expanded its set of Local Zones, which are basically small extensions of existing AWS regions that are more expensive to use but offer low-latency access in metro areas. This service launched in Los Angeles in 2019 and starting today, it’s also available in preview in Boston, Houston and Miami. Soon, it’ll expand to Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Portland and Seattle. Google, it’s worth noting, is doing something similar with its Mobile Edge Cloud.

The general idea here — and that’s not dissimilar from what Google, Microsoft and others are now doing — is to bring AWS to the edge and to do so in a variety of form factors.

 

As AWS CEO Andy Jassy rightly noted, AWS always believed that the vast majority of companies, “in the fullness of time” (Jassy’s favorite phrase from this keynote), would move to the cloud. Because of this, AWS focused on cloud services over hybrid capabilities early on. He argues that AWS watched others try and fail in building their hybrid offerings, in large parts because what customers really wanted was to use the same control plane on all edge nodes and in the cloud. None of the existing solutions from other vendors, Jassy argues, got any traction (though AWSs competitors would surely deny this) because of this.

 

The first result of that was VMware Cloud on AWS, which allowed customers to use the same VMware software and tools on AWS they were already familiar with. But at the end of the day, that was really about moving on-premises services to the cloud.

With Outpost, AWS launched a fully managed edge solution that can run AWS infrastructure in its customers’ data centers. It’s been an interesting journey for AWS, but the fact that the company closed out its keynote with this focus on hybrid — no matter how it wants to define it — shows that it now understands that there is clearly a need for this kind of service. The AWS way is to extend AWS into the edge — and I think most of its competitors will agree with that. Microsoft tried this early on with Azure Stack and really didn’t get a lot of traction, as far as I’m aware, but it has since retooled its efforts around Azure Arc. Google, meanwhile, is betting big on Anthos.

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

By Sarah Perez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

US shopping app downloads on Black Friday reached a record 2.8M installs

By Sarah Perez

Many U.S. consumers spent this year’s Black Friday sales event shopping from home on mobile devices. That led to first-time installs of mobile shopping apps in the U.S. to break a new record for single-day installs on Black Friday 2020, according to a report from Sensor Tower. The firm estimates that U.S. consumers downloaded approximately 2.8 million shopping apps on November 27th — a figure that’s up by nearly 8% over last year.

However, this number doesn’t necessarily represent faster growth than in 2019, which also saw about an 8% year-over-year increase in Black Friday shopping app installs, the report noted. This could be because mobile shopping and the related app installs are now taking place throughout the month of November, though, as retailers adjusted to the pandemic and other online shopping trends by hosting earlier sales or even month-long sales events.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

The data seems to indicate this is true. Between Nov. 1 and Nov. 29, U.S. consumers downloaded approximately 59.2 million shopping apps from across the App Store and Google Play — an increase of roughly 15% from the 51.7 million they downloaded in Nov. 2019. That’s a much higher figure than the 2% year-over-year growth seen during this same period in 2019.

Another shift taking place in mobile shopping is the growing adoption of app from brick-and-mortar retailers. During the first three quarters of 2020, apps from brick-and-mortar retailers grew installs 27%. This trend continued on Black Friday, when 5 out of the top 10 mobile shopping apps were those from brick-and-mortar retailers, led by Walmart.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Walmart saw the highest adoption this year, with around 131,000 Black Friday installs, followed by Amazon at 106,000, then Shopify’s Shop at 81,000. Combined, the top 10 apps saw 763,000 total new installs, or 27% of the first-time downloads in the Shopping category.

Because the firms are only looking at new app installs, they aren’t giving a full picture of the U.S. mobile shopping market, as many consumers already have these apps installed on their devices. And many more simply shop online via a desktop or laptop computer.

To give these figures some context, Shopify reported on Saturday it had seen record Black Friday sales of $2.4 billion, with 68% on mobile. And today, Amazon announced its small business sales alone topped $4.8 billion from Black Friday to Cyber Monday, a 60% year-over-year increase, but it didn’t break out the percentage that came from mobile.

Sensor Tower and rival app store analytics firm App Annie largely agreed on the top 5 shopping apps downloaded this Black Friday. They both saw Walmart again beating Amazon to become the most-downloaded U.S. shopping app on Black Friday — as it did in 2019. The two firms reported that Amazon remained No. 2 by downloads, followed by Shopify’s Shop app, then Target. However, Sensor Tower put Best Buy in 5th place, followed by Nike, while App Annie saw those positions swapped.

Image Credits: App Annie

The rest of Sensor Tower’s top 10 included SHEIN, Sam’s Club, Klarna, then Offer Up, while App Annie’s list was rounded out by SHEIN, Sam’s Club, Wish, then Offer Up.

The pandemic’s impact may not have been obvious given the growth in online shopping this year, but the recession it triggered has played a role in how U.S. consumers are paying for their purchases. “Buy Now, Pay Later” apps like Klarna were up this year, even breaking into the top 10 per Sensor Tower’s data. The firm also noted that many new shopping apps launched this year focused on discounts and deals and retailers ran longer sales this year, as well.

Google Play’s Best of 2020 Awards highlight the stressful year it’s been

By Sarah Perez

Continuing its annual tradition, Google today announced its Best of 2020 awards — the company’s list of the best apps, games, movies and books for the year. Not surprisingly, the top apps picked by both Google Play users and editors reflect the stressful year that 2020 has been, with a top sleep app, Loóna, winning the title of “Best App” of 2020. Meanwhile, Google Play users picked streaming service Disney+ as their choice.

Loóna is a fitting app to win the award this year. The sleep aid promises a mood-altering experience that helps its users deal with the negative emotions that accumulate during the day and are then processed during sleep. As anxiety and stress grow, people’s sleep patterns and REM sleep be disrupted, Loóna explains. To combat this, its app offers nightly “sleepscapes,” that combined activity-based relaxation, storytelling and sounds to help people shut out their stress and relax.

Unlike other sleep or meditation apps where users close their eyes and drift off, Loóna is intended to help people wind down while still on their phones. Users tap to color images while the sleep story plays. The company also this year introduced music playlists, called soundscapes.

Image Credits: Loóna

In October, the company reported its app — which is also available on iOS — was seeing daily average time spent of 34 minutes from its subscribers. And its average conversion rate from trial to paid subscriber was 52.5%. Today, Loóna says it has reached 500,000 users and people have spent over 35 million total mindful minutes with its product to date. With version 2.0, Loóna plans to reposition its app from being solely focused on bedtime relaxation to become a broader mood management app that also covers the sleep to wake up cycle, among other things. It also plans to add personalized content recommendations.

In addition to Loóna, Google Play editors selected the free-to-play action role-playing game Genshin Impact as the year’s best game for giving players a “wondrous world to explore” while unraveling mysteries. The game, miHoYo’s first-ever open-world game, features battles with elemental magic, character switching, and gacha game monetization for obtaining new characters, weapons, and other additions.

Google Play users, however, selected SpongeBob: Krusty Cook-Off as the year’s best game.

Another app that benefitted from coronavirus lockdowns was Disney+, which won this year’s User’s Choice award for Best App. The streaming service helped families stuck at home to keep their kids entertained. Plus, with new shows like the “The Mandalorian,” the service has been a hit for adults in the family, too.

In addition to the top winners, Google gave a shout-out to a few other notable titles in its announcement, including Chris Hemsworth’s training app Centr, behavioral modification app Intellect, as well as games like The Gardens Between, Harry Potter: Puzzles & Spells, and Sky: Children of the Light.

The Play Store also awarded various gaming subgenres with awards of their own, like best competitive games, best indies, best pick up and play, and best game changers. These winners include Brawlhalla, Bullet Echo, GWENT: The Witcher Card Game, Legends of Runeterra, The Seven Deadly Sins: Grand Cross, Cookies Must Die, GRIS, inbento, Maze Machina, Sky: Children of Light, Disney Frozen Adventures, DreamWorks Trolls Pop, EverMerge, Harry Potter: Puzzles & Spells, SpongeBob: Krusty Cook-Off, Fancade, Genshin Impact, Minimal Dungeon RPG, Ord., and The Gardens Between.

Other top apps won awards in categories like best everyday essentials, best for personal growth, best hidden gems, best for fun, and best apps for good. These app winners include Calmaria, Grid Diary, The Pattern, Whisk, Zoom, Centr, Intellect, Jumprope: How-to Videos, Paird: Couples App, Speekoo, Cappuccino, Explorest, Loóna, Paperless Post, Tayasui Sketches, Bazaart, Disney+, Dolby On, Reface, Vita, GreenChoice, Medito, and ShareTheMeal.

Movies that won “Best of” for 2020 included Bill & Ted Face the Music, Just Mercy, Miss Juneteenth, Onward, and Parasite; while book winners included A Promised Land by Barack Obama, The City We Became by N.K. Jesmin, Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi, Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh, and You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria,

Yesterday — November 30th 2020Your RSS feeds

Alphabet’s DeepMind achieves historic new milestone in AI-based protein structure prediction

By Darrell Etherington

DeepMind, the AI technology company that’s part of Google parent Alphabet, has achieved a significant breakthrough in AI-based protein structure prediction. The company announced today that its AlphaFold system has officially solved a protein folding grand challenge that has flummoxed the scientific community for 50 years. The advance inn DeepMind’s AlphaFold capabilities could lead to a significant leap forward in areas like our understanding of disease, as well as future drug discovery and development.

The test that AlphaFold passed essentially shows that the AI can correctly figure out, to a very high degree of accuracy (accurate to within the width of an atom, in fact), the structure of proteins in just days – a very complex task that is crucial to figuring out how diseases can be best treated, as well as solving other big problems like working out how best to break down ecologically dangerous material like toxic waste. You may have heard of ‘Folding@Home,’ the program that allows people to contribute their own home computing (and formerly, game console) processing power to protein folding experiments. That massive global crowdsourcing effort was necessary because using traditional methods, portion folding prediction takes years and is extremely expensive in terms of straight cost, and computing resources.

DeepMind’s approach involves using an “Attentionb-basd neural network system” (basically a neural network that can focus on specific inputs in order to increase efficiency). It’s able to continually refine its own predictive graph of possible protein folding outcomes based on their folding history, and provide highly accurate predictions as a result.

How proteins fold – or go from being a random string of amino acids when originally created, to a complex 3D structure in their final stable form – is key to understanding how diseases are transmitted, as well as how common conditions like allergies work. If you understand the folding process, you can potentially alter it, halting an infection’s progress mid-stride, or conversely, correct mistakes in folding that can lead to neurodegenerative and cognitive disorders.

DeepMind’s technological leap could make accurately predicting these folds a much less time- and resource-consuming process, which could dramatically change the pace at which our understanding of diseases and therapeutics progresses. This could come in handy to address major global threats including future potential pandemics like the COVID-19 crisis we’re currently enduring, by predicting viral protein structures to a high degree of accuracy early in the appearance fo any new future threats like SARS-CoV-2, thus speeding up the development of potential effective treatments and vaccines.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

This Week in Apps: Snapchat clones TikTok, India bans 43 Chinese apps, more data on App Store commission changes

By Sarah Perez

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the 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 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. People now spend three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. 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.

This week, we’re digging into more data about how the App Store commission changes will impact developers, as well as other top stories, like Snapchat’s new Spotlight feed and India’s move to ban more Chinese apps from the country, among other things.

We also have our weekly round-up of news about platforms, services, privacy, trends, and other headlines.

Top Stories

More on App Store Commissions

Last week, App Annie confirmed to TechCrunch around 98% of all iOS developers in 2019 (meaning, unique publisher accounts) fell under the $1 million annual consumer spend threshold that will now move App Store commissions from a reduced 15% to the standard 30%. The firm also found that only 0.5% of developers were making between $800K and $1M; only 1% were in $500K-$800K range; and 87.7% made less than $100K.

This week, Appfigures has compiled its own data on how Apple’s changes to App Store commissions will impact the app developer community.

According to its findings, of the 2M published apps on the App Store, 376K apps are a paid download, have in-app purchases, or monetize with subscriptions. Those 376K apps are operated by a smaller group of 124.5K developers. Of those developers, only a little under 2% earned more than $1M in 2019. This confirms App Annie’s estimate that 98% of all developers earned under the $1M threshold.

Image Credits: Appfigures

The firm also took a look at companies above the $1M mark, and found that around 53% were games, led by King (of the Candy Crush titles). After a large gap, the next largest categories in 2019 were Health & Fitness, Social Networking, Entertainment, then Photo & Video.

 

Of the developers making over $1M, the largest percentage — 39% — made between $1M and $2.5M in 2019.

Image Credits: Appfigures

The smallest group (1.5%) of developers making more than $1M is the group making more than $150M. These accounted for 29% of the “over $1M” crowd’s total revenue. And those making between $50M and $150M accounted for 24% of the revenue.

Image Credits: Appfigures

AppFigures also found that of those making less than $1M, most (>97%) fell into the sub $250K category. Some developes were worried about the way Apple’s commission change system was implemented — that is, it immediately upon hitting $1M and only annual reassessments. But there are so few developers operating in the “danger zone” (being near the threshold), this doesn’t seem like a significant problem. Read More.

Snapchat takes on TikTok

After taking on TikTok  with music-powered features last month, Snapchat this week launched a dedicated place within its app where users can watch short, entertaining videos in a vertically scrollable, TikTok-like feed. This new feature, called Spotlight, will showcase the community’s creative efforts, including the videos now backed by music, as well as other Snaps users may find interesting. Snapchat says its algorithms will work to surface the most engaging Snaps to display to each user on a personalized basis. Read More

India bans more Chinese apps

India, which has already banned at least 220 apps with links to China in recent months, said on Tuesday it was banning an additional 43 Chinese apps, again citing cybersecurity concerns. Newly banned apps include short video service Snack Video, e-commerce app AliExpress, delivery app Lalamove, shopping app Taobao Live, business card reader CamCard, and others. There are now no Chinese apps in the top 500 most-used apps in India, as a result. Read More.

Weekly News

Platforms

  • Apple’s App Store Connect will now require an Apple ID with 2-step verification enabled.
  • Apple announces holiday schedule for App Store Connect. New apps and app updates won’t be accepted Dec. 23-27 (Pacific Time).
  • SKAdNetwork 2.0 adds Source App ID and Conversion Value. The former lets networks identify which app initiated a download from the App Store and the latter lets them know whether users who installed an app through a campaign performed an action in the app, like signing up for a trial or completing a purchase.
  • Apple rounded up developer praise for its App Store commission change. Lending their names to Apple’s list: Little 10 Robot (Tots Letters and Numbers), Broadstreet (Brief), Foundermark (Friended), Shine, Lifesum, Med ART Studios (Sprout Fertility Tracker), RevenueCat, OK Play, SignEasy, Jump Rope, Wine Spectator, Apollo for Reddit, SwingVision Tennis, Cinémoi.

Services

  • Fortnite adds a $12/mo subscription offering a full season battle pass, 1,000 monthly bucks and a Crew Pack featuring an exclusive outfit bundle. More money for Apple to miss out on, I guess.
  • 14 U.S. states plus Washington D.C. have now adopted COVID-19 contact tracing apps. CA and other states may release apps soon. Few in the U.S. have downloaded the apps, however, which limits their usefulness. 
  • Samsung’s TV Plus streaming TV service comes to more Galaxy phones

Security & Privacy

  • Apple’s senior director of global privacy, Jane Horvath, in a letter to the Ranking Digital Rights organization, confirms App Tracking Transparency feature will arrive in 2021. The feature will allow users to disable tracking between apps. The letter also slams Facebook for collecting “as much data as possible” on users.
  • Baidu’s apps banned from Google Play, Baidu Maps and the Baidu App, were leaking sensitive user data, researchers said. The apps had 6M U.S. users and millions more worldwide.

Apps in the News

Trends

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

  • U.S. Brick-and-mortar retail apps saw 27% growth in first three quarters of 2020, or nearly double the growth of online retailer apps (14%), as measured by new installs. Top apps included Walmart, Target, Sam’s Club, Nike, Walgreens, and The Home Depot.
  • App Annie forecast estimates shoppers will spend over 110M hours in (Android) mobile shopping apps this holiday season.
  • PayPal and Square’s Cash app have scored 100% of the newly-issued supply of bitcoins, report says.
  • All social media companies now look alike, Axois argues, citing Twitter’s Fleets and Snap’s TikTok-like feature as recent examples.

Funding and M&A

  • CoStar Group, a provider of commercial real estate info and analytics, acquires Homesnap’s platform and app for $250M to move into the residential real estate market.
  • Remote work app Friday raises $2.1M seed led by Bessemer Venture Partners
  • Stories-style Q&A app F3 raises $3.9M. The team previously founded Ask.fm.
  • Edtech company Kahoot acquires Drops, a startup whose apps help people learn languages using games, for $50M.
  • Mobile banking app Current raises $131M Series C, led by Tiger Global Management.
  • Square buys Credit Karma’s tax unit, Credit Karma Tax, for $50M in cash.

No Google-Fitbit merger without human rights remedies, says Amnesty to EU

By Natasha Lomas

Human rights NGO, Amnesty International, has written to the EU’s competition regulator calling for Google’s acquisition of wearable maker Fitbit to be blocked — unless meaningful safeguards can be baked in.

The tech giant announced its intent to splash $2.1 billion to acquire Fitbit a year ago but has yet to gain regulatory approval for the deal in the European Union.

In a letter addressed to the blocs competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, Amnesty writes: “The commission must ensure that the merger does not proceed unless the two business enterprises can demonstrate that they have taken adequate account of the human rights risks and implemented strong and meaningful safeguards that prevent and mitigate these risks in the future.”

The letter urges the commission to take heed of an earlier call by a coalition of civil society groups also raising concerns about the merger for “minimum remedies” that regulators must guarantee before any approval.

In a report last year the NGO attacked the business model of Google and Facebook — arguing that the “surveillance giants” enable human rights harm “at a population scale.”

Amnesty warns now that Google is “incentivized to merge and aggregate data across its different platforms” as a consequence of that surveillance-based business model.

“Google’s business model incentivizes the company to continuously seek more data on more people across the online world and into the physical world. The merger with Fitbit is a clear example of this expansionist approach to data extraction, enabling the company to extend its data collection into the health and wearables sector,” it writes. “The sheer scale of the intrusion of Google’s business model into our private lives is an unprecedented interference with our privacy, and in fact has undermined the very essence of privacy.”

We’ve reached out to the commission and Google for a response to Amnesty’s letter. Update: A commission spokesperson confirmed it’s received the letter and said it will reply in due course.

Google’s plan to gobble Fitbit and its health tracking data has been stalled as EU regulators dig into competition concerns. Vestager elected to open an in-depth probe in August, saying she wanted to make sure the deal wouldn’t distort competition by further entrenching Google’s dominance of the online ad market.

The commission has also voiced concerns about the risk of Google locking other wearable device makers out of its Android mobile ecosystem.

However concerns over Google’s plan to gobble up Fitbit range wider than the risk of it getting more market muscle if the deal gets waved through.

Put simply, letting sensitive health data fall into the hands of an advertising giant is a privacy trash fire.

Amnesty International is just the latest rights watcher to call for the merger to be blocked. Privacy campaign groups and the EU’s own data protection advisor have been warning for months against letting the tech giant gobble up sensitive health data.

The commission’s decision to scrutinize the acquisition rather than waiving it through with a cursory look has led Google to make a number of concessions in an attempt to get it cleared — including a pledge not to use Fitbit data for ad targeting and to guarantee support for other wearables makers to operate on Android.

In its letter, Amnesty argues that the “safeguards” Google has offered are not enough.

“The company’s past practice around privacy further heighten the need for strict safeguards,” it warns, pointing to examples such as Google combining data from advertising network DoubleClick after it had acquired that business with personal data collected from its other platforms.

“The European Data Protection Board has recognized the risks of the merger, stating that the “combination and accumulation of sensitive personal data” by Google could entail a “high level of risk” to the rights to privacy and data protection,” it adds.

As well as undermining people’s privacy, Google’s use of algorithms fed with personal data to generate profiles of internet users in order to predict their behavior erodes what Amnesty describes as “the critical principle that all people should enjoy equal access to their human rights.”

“This risk is heightened when profiling is deployed in contexts that touch directly on people’s economic, social and cultural rights, such as the right to health where people may suffer unequal treatment based on predictions about their health, and as such must be taken into account in the context of health and fitness data,” it suggests.

“This power of the platforms has not only exacerbated and magnified their rights impacts but has also created a situation in which it is very difficult to hold the companies to account, or for those affected to access an effective remedy,” Amnesty adds, noting that while big tech companies have faced a number of regulatory actions around the world none has so far been able to derail what it calls “the fundamental drivers of the surveillance-based business model.”

So far the commission has stood firm in taking its time to consider the issue in detail.

A series of extensions mean a decision on whether to allow the Google-Fitbit merger may not come until early 2021. Though we understand the bloc’s national competition authorities are meeting to discuss the merger at the start of December so it’s possible a decision could be issued before the end of the year.

Per EU merger law, the commission college takes the final decision — with a requirement to take “utmost account” of the opinion of the member states’ advisory committee (though it’s not legally binding).

So it’s ultimately up to Brussels to determine whether Google-Fitbit gets green lit.

In recent years, competition chief Vestager, who is also EVP for the commission’s digital strategy, has said she favors tighter regulation as a tool for ensuring businesses comply with the EU’s rules, rather than blocking market access or outright bans on certain practices.

She has also voiced opposition to breaking up tech giants, again preferring to advocate for imposing controls on how they can use data as a way to rebalance digital markets.

To date, the commission has never blocked a tech/digital merger (it has in telecoms, where it stepped in in 2016 to block Hutchison’s proposed acquisition of Telefonica UK) though it has had its fingers burnt by big tech’s misleading filings — so has its own reputation to consider above reaching for the usual rubber stamp.

Simultaneously, EU lawmakers are working on a proposal for an ex ante regulation to address competition concerns in digital markets that would put specific rules and obligations on dominant players like Google — again in areas such as data use and data access.

That plan is due to be presented early next month — so it’s another factor that may be adding to delay the commission’s Google-Fitbit decision.

UK to set up ‘pro-competition’ regulator to put limits on big tech

By Natasha Lomas

The U.K. is moving ahead with a plan to regulate big tech, responding to competition concerns over a “winner-takes-all” dynamic in digital markets.

It will set up a new Digital Market Unit (DMU) to oversee a “pro-competition” regime for internet platforms — including those funded by online advertising, such as Facebook and Google — the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) announced today.

It’s moving at a clip — with the new unit slated to begin work in April. Although the necessary law to empower the new regulator to make interventions will take longer. The government said it will consult on the unit’s form and function in early 2021 — and legislate “as soon as parliamentary time allows.”

A core part of the plan is a new statutory code of conduct aimed at giving platform users more choice and third-party businesses more power over the intermediaries that host and monetize them.

The government suggests the code could require tech giants to allow users to opt out of behavioral advertising entirely — something Facebook’s platform, for example, does not currently allow.

It also wants the code to support the sustainability of the news industry by “rebalancing” the relationship between publishers and platform giants, as it puts it.

Concern over how to support quality public interest journalism in an era of ad-funded user-generated-content giants has been stepping up in recent years as online disinformation has been actively weaponized to attack democracies and try to influence votes.

“The new code will set clear expectations for platforms that have considerable market power — known as strategic market status — over what represents acceptable behaviour when interacting with competitors and users,” DCMS writes in a press release.

It suggests the DMU will have powers to “suspend, block and reverse decisions of tech giants, order them to take certain actions to achieve compliance with the code, and impose financial penalties for noncompliance,” although full details are set to be worked out next year.

Digital Markets Taskforce, which the government set up earlier this year to advise on the design of the competition measures, will inform the unit’s work, including how the regime will work in practice, per DCMS.

The taskforce will also come up with the methodology that’s used to determine which platforms/companies should be designated as having strategic market status.

On that front it’s all but certain Facebook and Google will gain the designation and be subject to the code and oversight by the DMU, although confirmation can only come from the unit itself once it’s up and running. But U.K. policymakers don’t appear to have been fooled by bogus big tech talking points of competition being “only a click away.”

The move to set up a U.K. regulator for big tech’s market power follows a competition market review chaired by former U.S. President Barack Obama’s chief economic advisor, professor Jason Furman, which reported last year. The expert panel recommended existing competition policy was fit for purpose but that new tools were needed for it to tackle market challenges flowing from platform power and online network effects.

Crucially, the Furman report advocated for a “broad church” interpretation of consumer welfare as the driver of competition interventions — encompassing factors such as choice, quality and innovation, not just price.

That’s key given big tech’s strategic application of free-at-the-point-of-use services as a tool for dominating markets by gaining massive marketshare that in turn gives it the power to set self-serving usage conditions for consumers and anti-competitive rules for third-party businesses — enabling it to entrench its hold on the digital attention sphere.

The U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) also undertook a market study of the digital advertising sector — going on to report substantial concerns over the power of the adtech duopoly. Although in its final report it deferred competitive intervention in favor of waiting for the government to legislate.

Commenting on the announcement of the DMU in a statement, digital secretary Oliver Dowden said: “I’m unashamedly pro-tech and the services of digital platforms are positively transforming the economy — bringing huge benefits to businesses, consumers and society. But there is growing consensus in the U.K. and abroad that the concentration of power among a small number of tech companies is curtailing growth of the sector, reducing innovation and having negative impacts on the people and businesses that rely on them. It’s time to address that and unleash a new age of tech growth.”

Business secretary Alok Sharma added: “The dominance of just a few big tech companies is leading to less innovation, higher advertising prices and less choice and control for consumers. Our new, pro-competition regime for digital markets will ensure consumers have choice and mean smaller firms aren’t pushed out.”

The U.K.’s move to regulate big tech means there’s now broad consensus among European lawmakers that platform power must be curtailed — and that competition rules need proper resourcing to get the job done.

A similar digital market regime is due to be presented by EU lawmakers next month.

The European Commission has said the forthcoming ex ante pan-EU regulation — which it’s calling the Digital Markets Act — will identify platforms that hold significant market power, so-called internet gatekeepers, and apply a specific set of fairness and transparency rules and obligations on them with the aim of rebalancing competition. Plans to open algorithmic blackboxes to regulatory oversight is also in the cards at the EU level.

A second piece of proposed EU legislation, the Digital Services Act, is set to update rules for online businesses by setting clear rules and responsibilities on all players in specific areas such as hate speech and illegal content.

The U.K. is also working on a similar online safety-focused regime — proposing to regulate a range of harms in its Online Harms white paper last year though it has yet to come forward with draft legislation.

This summer the BBC reported that the government has not committed to introduce a draft bill next year either — suggesting its planned wider internet regulation regime may not be in place until 2023 or 2024.

It looks savvy for U.K. lawmakers to prioritize going after platform power since many of the problems that flow from harmful internet content are attached to the reach and amplification of a handful of tech giants.

A more competitive landscape for social media could encourage competition around the quality of the community experienced for users — meaning that, for example, smaller platforms that properly enforce hate speech rules and don’t torch user privacy could gain an edge.

Although rules to enable data portability and/or interoperability are likely to be crucial to kindling truly vibrant and innovative competition in markets that have already been captured by a handful of data-mining adtech giants.

Given the U.K.’s rush to address the market power of big tech, it’s interesting to recall how many times the Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg snubbed the DCMS committee’s calls for him to give evidence over online disinformation and digital campaigning (including related to the Cambridge Analytica data misuse scandal) — not once but so many times we lost count.

It seems U.K. lawmakers kept a careful note of that.

 

Gift Guide: 7 great gifts for anyone working from home

By Brian Heater

Let’s just get this out of the way: for the past several years, I’ve contributed the “Best Gifts for Frequent Travelers” segment to TechCrunch’s annual gift guide. I love it. It was easily my favorite gift guide to write, and it was an audience favorite, as well. But I am no longer a frequent traveler. I’ve left New York City exactly once since March. Odds are that special person in your life isn’t traveling much, either.

So, in honor of this new sedentary life to which we’ve all grown accustom over the past eight or nine months, I’m bringing you the polar opposite. This, friends, is the gift guide for those who have come to carve out office space in their homes. For everyone who’s come to blur the important lines between work and personal life.

The transition hasn’t been an easy one for everyone, but here are a handful of gifts that can help ease the transition and make someone’s home office a…well, a home, I guess. They’re not necessary the most fun gifts, but odds are someone in your life can really use them.

This article contains links to affiliate partners where available. When you buy through these links, TechCrunch may earn an affiliate commission.

Hyken Mesh Task Chair

Image Credits: Staples

I never truly appreciated the value of a good office chair until this pandemic. I’ve been lucky to work for a corporation that considers Herman Millers a necessary expense. I honestly can’t remember which manner of ratty Amazon bargain bin chair I had held onto for the last several years, but a month or two into this, I rolled it into the donation pile.

There’s truth in the conventional wisdom that you get what you pay for when it comes to office chairs. And, indeed, it’s an investment. But there are deals to be had. I didn’t spend an arm or leg, so I’m not going to encourage you to. After a good about of research, I landed on this beast from Staples. It’s big, and comfortable and offers great full body support that won’t leave you sore after eight hours in front of the computer (I mean, do get up and move around at least once an hour for your health and sanity).

Best of all, it’s almost shockingly affordable.

Price: $169-200 from Amazon, depending on color

Apple iMac

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Remember how I told you I wasn’t going to encourage you to spend an arm and a leg on the chair? Well, consider this a gift for the person in your life who was really good this year. If a good office chair is an investment, a computer is lifeline. I wouldn’t recommend an iMac for, say, a 3D designer, but for many or most, you can’t really argue with ease of use for Apple’s all-in-one.

Apple refreshed the system earlier this year, with some improved features, including, notably, an improved webcam — that’s obviously an important upgrade these days. There are no external monitors to deal with and minimal futzing required out of the box. There is, of course, a big Apple Silicon redesign coming in the next year or two, but that won’t do you a whole lot of good in the meantime.

Price: Starting at $1,019 from Apple

Razer Kiyo

Image Credits: Razer

Much like the office chair, Webcams were one of those those things I really didn’t pay much mind to before the pandemic. But the truth is this: Built-in webcams, as a category, suck. There are exceptions to this, of course, but unlike with smartphone makers, cameras have nearly universally been an afterthought with PC manufactures. I do suspect there’s a good chance this will finally shift in the next year or so, but for now, you really want to avoid using your computer’s built-in camera for those important Zoom meetings, if you can.

There are a ton of options out there, and you can get a decent webcam at a decent price — Logitech is usually a pretty solid choice. This time out, however, I’m giving the prize to Razer. The gaming company has delivered a clever and versatile camera. It’s got an adjustable clip/stand, can capture video at 1080p @ 30FPS / 720p @ 60FPS and best of all, there’s a built-in light ring. It’s not going to replace a pro-level camera set up, obviously, if they do a lot of conference appearances or frequently appear on CNN. But if they’re looking to liven up a Zoom call or two, this is a solid choice.

Price: $100 from Razer 

RØDE NT-USB Mini

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Okay, so, as a long-time podcaster this is something I’ve been thinking about well before the pandemic started. The truth is a decent set of headphones should double as an okay meeting mic. But if conference calls are central to work days, a good mic is a great way to up that game. And hey, everyone’s starting a podcast these days, right?

RØDE has some great USB mic options. The NT-USB Mini wouldn’t be by first (or probably even 10th) choice for podcasting. But its price and size make it a nice option for augmenting meetings and other calls. It also has the advantage of size and a removable stand that will make it a good travel companion if we’re able able to travel again.

Price: $100 from Amazon

Cubii Pro desk elliptical

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Living in Queens at the height of the pandemic in New York — and dealing with my own personal health issues — I basically didn’t leave my apartment in April or May. Cubii’s sit down elliptical isn’t a replacement for full body exercise, but it’s a nice supplement, if you’re housebound for any reason.

 

I might have to put it under my desk again as the weather starts getting cold. There’s a mobile component, as well, that tracks progress and integrates it into third-party trackers like Apple Health.

Price: $349 from Amazon

Nest Audio

Headphones are necessary for working from home, but I’d also recommend getting a semi-decent speaker for your desk. A smart speaker is likely the path of least resistance for listening to streaming services like Spotify, and Nest Audio is probably the most well-rounded of the bunch. Google Assistant is great for all of the smart stuff and the new hardware sounds really solid.

Price: $100 from Amazon

Aarke Carbonator

Image Credits: Aarke

Did I need to spend $200 on a seltzer maker? No, of course not. Do I regret spending $200 on a seltzer maker? Also no. Aarke’s system looks great, has a solid build and the pulling down that hand crank is decidedly satisfying. Hydration is important, friends. Honorable mention to the LARQ UV disinfecting bottle. You’ll need something to drink that carbonated water out of, after all.

Price: $200 from Aarke

Really good, customizable lighting for the entire office

Image Credits: Philips

Bonus entry, this one from TechCrunch Editor Greg Kumparak:

I’ve been working from home for a few years now, and honestly the most important change I’ve made this year is vastly improving my home office’s lighting situation. Lighting — both natural and artificial — is hugely important to how we feel throughout the day, and being able to customize the lights to your exact likings is one of the huge plusses of working from home. No more awful flickering fluorescent lights! Want to make the lights purple and blue? You do you.

Smart lighting lets you do fancy things like shifting the colors to those that make you feel alert/productive, or dim them as evening approaches. During the California wildfires, when smoke and haze dyed the sky a terrifying orange, I shifted all of my lighting to be way more blue than it otherwise would be to help my brain realize it was the afternoon and not, as it seemed, an impossibly long sunrise.

Philips Hue bulbs are a solid pick, generally. They offer a ton of flexibility and options, the downside being that they’re generally on the more expensive end. I also don’t expect Philips to drop support for the Hue line or go out of business any time soon. New competition has been entering the market at lower price points, but my hesitation there is always how well they’ll be supported in the years to come.

If they’ve already got other smart lights around their house though, try to stick within the same brand. It makes things considerably easier to not have to deal with new hubs, apps, etc.

Price: $90 for a starter pack of two Philips Hue color shifting bulbs from Amazon

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

By Sarah Perez

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

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

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

Image Credits: Google/Lucasfilm

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

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

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

Image Credits:

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

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

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

Digital marketing firms file UK competition complaint against Google’s Privacy Sandbox

By Natasha Lomas

Google’s push to phase out third party tracking cookies — aka its ‘Privacy Sandbox’ initiative — is facing a competition challenge in Europe. A coalition of digital marketing companies announced today that it’s filed a complaint with the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), calling for the regulator to block implementation of the Sandbox.

The coalition wants Google’s phasing out of third party tracking cookies to be put on ice to prevent the Sandbox launching in early 2021 to give regulators time to devise or propose what it dubs “long term competitive remedies to mitigate [Google’s dominance]”.

“[Our] letter is asking for the introduction of Privacy Sandbox to be delayed until such measures are put in place,” they write in a press release.

The group, which is badging itself as Marketers for an Open Web (MOW), says it’s comprised of “businesses in the online ecosystem who share a concern that Google is threatening the open web model that is vital to the functioning of a free and competitive media and online economy”.

A link on MOW’s website to a list of “members” was not functioning at the time of writing. But, per Companies House, the entity was incorporated on September 18, 2020 — listing James Roswell, CEO and co-founder of UK mobile marketing company, 51 Degrees, as its sole director.

The CMA confirmed to us that it’s received MOW’s complaint, adding that some of the coalition’s concerns reflect issues identified in a detailed review of the online ad market it published this summer.

However it has not yet taken a decision on whether or not to investigate.

“We can confirm we have received a complaint regarding Google raising certain concerns, some of which relate to those we identified in our online platforms and digital advertising market study,” said the CMA spokesperson. “We take the matters raised in the complaint very seriously, and will assess them carefully with a view to deciding whether to open a formal investigation under the Competition Act.

“If the urgency of the concerns requires us to intervene swiftly, we will also assess whether to impose interim measures to order the suspension of any suspected anti-competitive conduct pending the outcome of a full investigation.”

In its final report of the online ad market, the CMA concluded that the market power of Google and Facebook is now so great that a new regulatory approach — and a dedicated oversight body — is needed to address what it summarized as “wide ranging and self reinforcing” concerns.

Although the regulator chose not to take any enforcement action at that point — preferring to wait for the UK government to come forward with pro-competition legislation.

In its statement today, the CMA makes it clear it could still choose to act on related competition concerns if it feels an imperative to do so — including potentially blocking the launch of Privacy Sandbox to allow time for a full investigation — while it waits for legislators to come up with a regulatory framework. Though, again, it has not yet made any decision to do so.

Reached for a response to the MOW complaint, Google sent us this statement — attributed to a spokesperson:

The ad-supported web is at risk if digital advertising practices don’t evolve to reflect people’s changing expectations around how data is collected and used. That’s why Google introduced the Privacy Sandbox, an open initiative built in collaboration with the industry, to provide strong privacy for users while also supporting publishers.

Also commenting in a statement, MOW’s director Roswell said: “The concept of the open web is based on a decentralised, standards-based environment that is not under the control of any single commercial organisation.  This model is vital to the health of a free and independent media, to a competitive digital business environment and to the freedom and choice of all web users.  Privacy Sandbox creates new, Google-owned standards and is an irreversible step towards a Google-owned ‘walled garden’ web where they control how businesses and users interact online.”

The group’s complaint follows a similar one filed in France last month (via Reuters) — albeit, in that case targeting privacy changes incoming to Apple’s smartphone platform that are also set to limit advertisers access to an iPhone-specific tracking ID that’s generated for that purpose (IDFA).

Apple has said the incoming changes — which it recently delayed until early next year — will give users “greater control over whether or not they want to allow apps to track them by linking their information with data from third parties for the purpose of advertising, or sharing their information with data brokers”. But four online ad associations — IAB France, MMAF, SRI and UDECAM — bringing the complaint to France’s competition regulator argues Apple is abusing its market power to distort competition.

The move by the online ad industry to get European competition regulators to delay Apple’s and Google’s privacy squeeze on third party ad tracking is taking place at the same time as industry players band together to try to accelerate development of their own replacement for tracking cookies — announcing a joint effort called PRAM (Partnership for Responsible Addressable Media) this summer to “advance and protect critical functionalities like customization and analytics for digital media and advertising, while safeguarding privacy and improving consumer experience”, as they put it.

The adtech industry now appears to be coalescing behind a cookie replacement proposal called UnifiedOpen ID 2.0 (UID2).

A document detailing the proposal which had been posted to the public Internet — but was taken down after a privacy researcher drew attention to it — suggests they want to put in place a centralized system for tracking Internet users that’s based on personal data such as an email address or phone number.

“UID2 is based on authenticated PII (e.g. email, phone) that can be created and managed by constituents across advertising ecosystem, including Advertisers, Publishers, DSPs, SSPs,” runs a short outline of the proposal in a paper authored by two people from a Demand Side Platform called The Trade Desk (which is proposing to build the tech but then hand it off to an “independent and non-partial entity” to manage).

One component of the UID2 proposal consists of a “Unified ID Service” that it says would apply a salt and hash process to the PII to generate UID2 and encrypting that to create a UID2 Token, as well as provision login requests from publishers to access the token.

The other component is a user facing website that’s described as a “transparency & consent service” — to handle requests for data or UID2 logouts etc.

However the proposal by the online ad industry to centralize Internet users’ identity by attaching it to hashed pieces of actual personal data — and with a self-regulating “Trusted Ads Ecosystem” slated to be controlling the mapping of PII to UID2 — seems unlikely to assuage the self-same privacy concerns which are fuelling the demise of tracking cookies in the first place (to put it mildly).

Trusting the mass surveillance industry to self regulate a centralized ID system for Internet users is for the birds.

But adtech players are clearly hoping they can buy themselves enough time to cobble together a self-serving cookie alternative — and sell it to regulators as a competition remedy. (Their parallel bet is they can buy off inactive privacy regulators with bogus claims of ‘transparency and consent’.)

So it will certainly be interesting to see whether the adtech industry succeeds in forcing competition regulators to stand in the way of platform level privacy reforms, while pulling off a major reorg and rebranding exercise of its privacy-hostile tracking operations.

In a counter move this month, European privacy campaign group, noyb, filed two complaints against Apple for not obtaining consent from users to create and store the IDFA on their devices.

So that’s one bit of strategic pushback.

Real-time bidding, meanwhile, remains under regulatory scrutiny in Europe — with huge questions over the lawfulness of its processing of Internet users’ personal data. Privacy campaigners are also now challenging data protection regulators over their failure to act on those long-standing complaints.

A flagship online ad industry tool for gathering web users’ consent to tracking is also under attack and looks to be facing imminent action under the bloc’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) .

Last month an investigation by Belgium’s data protection agency found the IAB Europe’s so-called Transparency and Consent Framework (TCF) didn’t offer either — failing to meet the GDPR standard for transparency, fairness and accountability, and the lawfulness of data processing. Enforcement action is expected in early 2021.

Google, Facebook and Twitter threaten to leave Pakistan over censorship law

By Manish Singh

Global internet companies Facebook, Google and Twitter and others have banded together and threatened to leave Pakistan after the South Asian nation granted blanket powers to local regulators to censor digital content.

Earlier this week, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan granted the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority the power to remove and block digital content that pose “harms, intimidates or excites disaffection” toward the government or in other ways hurt the “integrity, security, and defence of Pakistan.”

Through a group called the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), the tech firms said that they were “alarmed” by the scope of Pakistan’s new law targeting internet firms.” In addition to Facebook, Google and Twitter, AIC represents Apple, Amazon, LinkedIn, SAP, Expedia Group, Yahoo, Airbnb, Grab, Rakuten, Booking.com, Line and Cloudflare.

If the message sounds familiar, it’s because this is not the first time these tech giants have publicly expressed their concerns over the new law, which was proposed by Khan’s ministry in February this year.

After the Pakistani government made the proposal earlier this year, the group had threatened to leave, a move that made the nation retreat and promise an extensive and broad-based consultation process with civil society and tech companies.

That consultation never happened, AIC said in a statement on Thursday, reiterating that its members will be unable to operate in the country with this law in place.

“The draconian data localization requirements will damage the ability of people to access a free and open internet and shut Pakistan’s digital economy off from the rest of the world. It’s chilling to see the PTA’s powers expanded, allowing them to force social media companies to violate established human rights norms on privacy and freedom of expression,” the group said in a statement.

“The Rules would make it extremely difficult for AIC Members to make their services available to Pakistani users and businesses. If Pakistan wants to be an attractive destination for technology investment and realise its goal of digital transformation, we urge the Government to work with industry on practical, clear rules that protect the benefits of the internet and keep people safe from harm.”

Under the new law, tech companies that fail to remove or block the unlawful content from their platforms within 24 hours of notice from Pakistan authorities also face a fine of up to $3.14 million. And like its neighboring nation, India — which has also proposed a similar regulation with little to no backlash — Pakistan now also requires these companies to have local offices in the country.

The new rules comes as Pakistan has cracked down on what it deems to be inappropriate content on the internet in recent months. Earlier this year, it banned popular mobile game PUBG Mobile and last month it temporarily blocked TikTok.

Countries like Pakistan and India contribute little to the bottom line for tech companies. But India, which has proposed several protectionist laws in recent years, has largely escaped any major protest from global tech companies because of its size. Pakistan has about 75 million internet users.

By contrast, India is the biggest market for Google and Facebook by users. “Silicon Valley companies love to come to India because it’s an MAU (monthly active users) farm,” Kunal Shah, a veteran entrepreneur, said in a conference in 2018.

Index ventures into Latin America to back Sofia, a Mexico City-based telemedicine and health insurer

By Jonathan Shieber

Arturo Sanchez and his co-founders have spent the past two years developing the telemedicine and insurance platform, Sofia, as a way to give customers across Mexico better access to quality healthcare through their insurance plan.

Along with his co-founders, Sebastian Jimenez, a former Google employee who serves as the company’s chief product officer, and Manuel Andere an ex-Patreon employee who’s now Sofia’s chief technology officer, Sanchez  (a former Index Ventures employee) is on a path to provide low-cost insurance for middle class consumers across Latin America, starting in Mexico City.

Backing that vision are a clutch of regional and international investors including Kaszek Ventures, Ribbit Capital, and Index Ventures. When Index Ventures came in to lead the company’s $19 million round earlier this year, it was the first commitment that the venture firm had made in Latin America, but given the strength of the market, it likely won’t be their last.

In Sofia, Index has found a good foothold from which to expand its activity. The company which initially started as a telemedicine platform recently received approvals to operate as an insurer as well — part of a long-term vision for growth where it provides a full service health platform for customers.

Founded by three college friends who graduated from the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (Mexico’s version of MIT), the company initially launched with COVID-19 related telemedicine service as the pandemic took hold in Mexico.

That service was a placeholder for what Sanchez said was the broader company vision. And while that product alone had 10,000 users signed up for it, the new vision is broader.

“We registered as an insurance company because we want to go deeper into people’s health. We have built a telemedicine solution, which is a core component of the product. The goal is to be an integrated provider that provide primary care and handles more significant types of illnesses,” said Sanchez.

The company already has a core group of 100 physicians in Mexico City and initially will be serving the city with 70 different specialist areas.

All the virtual consultations are covered without an additional payment and in-person or specialty consultations come at a 30% reduced rate to an out-of-pocket payment, according to Sanchez.

Fees depend on age and gender, but Sanchez said a customer would typically pay around $500 per-year or roughly between $40 and $50 per-month.

The company covers 70% of the cost of most treatments that’s capped at $2,000 per-year and coverage maxes out at $75,000. “In Mexico that covers north of 98% of all illnesses or treatment episodes,” said Sanchez.

In Mexico, insurance is even less common than in the US.

90% of private health spend happens out of pocket. The problem that we’re trying to solve is for these people that are already spending money on healthcare but doing it in an unpredictable and risky way,” said Sanchez. “They buy [our service] and they have access to great quality healthcare that they buy it and it’s a significant step up from what they’ve been living with.”

 

Thank you, Chrome team

By Alex Wilhelm

Since Chrome came out back in 2008, it’s been a constant companion in my life. In fact, Chrome’s launch is how I helped get the startup I worked for at the time onto TechCrunch for the first time.

We did shots to celebrate. Chrome rocked, and we were Day One Fans.

But over time what was once a romance began to sour, as Chrome got a bit slower, a bit heavier and a bit worse over the years.

The devolution felt a bit like what was happening to Google search, in which a very good idea was slowly turned into something that made more money at the cost of functionality, speed, and user happiness (more on that natural terminus of that progression here).

And because I am a petulant child, I have been very annoyed by what has happened to Chrome, software that I have never paid a single dollar to use. To make this point, I went out to round up a tweet or two from myself complaining about Chrome over the years, but after finding at least nine examples since May I started to feel bad (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine). So let’s move on.

What went wrong with Chrome? I don’t know. Over time its taste for RAM, lag, and being generally annoying grew. But as I was living in a G Suite world, sticking to Chrome made sense — so I endured.

And now, I may not have to any longer. This week Google detailed an impending set of Chrome updates that are amazing to read through and imagine the real-world impact of. Big Goog appears to have gone deep into its browser’s code, finding ways to make it faster, lighter on memory usage, and smarter.

I am so very excited.

What’s coming? Pulling from Google’s Chromium blog instead of its more consumer-friendly post (a big thanks to The Verge for bringing this set of updates to my attention), here are the highlights as far as I am concerned (Bolding: TechCrunch in each block quote):

Even if you have a lot of tabs open, you likely only focus on a small set of them to get a task done. Starting in this release, Chrome is actively managing your computer’s resources to make the tabs you care about fastwhile allowing you to keep hundreds of tabs open—so you can pick up where you left off.

In this release, we’re improving how Chrome understands and manages resources with Tab throttling, occlusion tracking and back/forward caching, so you can quickly get to what you need when you need it.

Google this is literally me. I feel incredibly seen. Thank you.

We investigated how background tabs use system resources and found that JavaScript Timers represent >40% of the work in background tabs. Reducing their impact on CPU and power is important to make the browser more efficient. Beginning in M87, we’re throttling JavaScript timer wake-ups in background tabs to once per minute. This reduces CPU usage by up to 5x, and extends battery life up to 1.25 hours in our internal testing.

When the world works again, I want to buy lunch for everyone who took part in this effort.

Next, we’re bringing Occlusion Tracking–which was previously added to Chrome OS and Mac–to Windows, which allows Chrome to know which windows and tabs are actually visible to you. With this information, Chrome can optimize resources for the tabs you are using, not the ones you’ve minimized, making Chrome up to 25% faster to start up and 7% faster to load pages, all while using less memory.

Hell yes.

How many times have you visited a website and clicked a link to go to another page, only to realize it’s not what you wanted and click the back button? […] In Chrome 87, our back/forward cache will make 20% of those back/forward navigations instant, with plans to increase this to 50% through further improvements and developer outreach in the near future.

I didn’t even know I needed this, but I do. And I can’t wait to have it.

All in all, as I write this short post to you inside of Chrome, I cannot help but be freaking excited about New And Improved Chrome. More later after I get some testing in, but, honestly, yay!

 

Is the internet advertising economy about to implode?

By Danny Crichton

Advertising drives the modern digital economy. Whether it’s reading news sites like this one or perusing your social media feeds, advertising is the single most important industry that came out of the development of the web. Yet, for all the tens of billions of dollars poured into online advertising just in the United States alone, how much does that money actually do its job of changing the minds of consumers?

Tim Hwang has a contrarian stance: it doesn’t. In his new book published as a collaboration between Logic Magazine and the famed publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux, he argues in “Subprime Attention Crisis” that the entire web is staring into an abyss of its own making. Advertising is overvalued due to the opaqueness of the market, and few actors are willing to point out that the advertising emperor has no clothes. Much like the subprime mortgage crisis, once people come to realize the true value of digital ads, the market could crater. I found the book provocative, and I wanted to chat further with Hwang about his thoughts on the market.

Hwang formerly worked at Google on policy and has developed many, many projects across a whole swath of tech-oriented policy issues. He’s currently a research fellow at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

TechCrunch: Let’s dive straight into the book. How did you get started on this topic of the “subprime attention economy”?

Tim Hwang: There were two incidents where I was like, something is going on here. I was having conversations with a couple of friends who are product managers at Facebook, and I remember making the argument that that there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that this whole adtech thing is maybe just mostly garbage. The most interesting thing that they said was, “Oh, like, advertising works but we can’t really tell you how.” That’s like talking to someone from the national security establishment and they’re like, “Oh yeah, we can stop terrorists but, like, we can’t tell you exactly how that goes down.”

I think one thing that got me really interested in it was how opaque a lot of these things are. The companies make claims that data-driven programmatic advertising really is as effective as it is but then they’re kind of strangely hesitant to show evidence of that.

Second, I was doing research with a lot of people who I think you’d rightly call sort of tech critics — strong critics of the power that these platforms have. I think one of the most interesting things is that even among the strongest critics of tech, I think a lot of them have just bought this claim that advertising and particularly data-driven advertising is as powerful as industry says it is.

It’s a kind of strange situation. Tech optimists and tech pessimists don’t agree on a whole lot, but they do seem to agree on the idea that this sort of advertising works. That was what I wanted to explore in the book.

Why don’t we talk a bit about the thesis?

The thesis of the book is really quite simple, which is you look around and basically our modern experience of the web is almost entirely shaped by advertising. The way social media is constructed, for example, is largely as a platform for delivering ads. Engagement with content is really good for creating profiles and it’s really good for delivering ads. It really has been the thing that has powered the current generation of companies in the space.

As you sort of look closer though, it really starts to resemble the market bubbles that we know of and have seen in other places. So explicitly, the metaphor of the book is the subprime mortgage crisis. I think the idea though is that you have this market that is highly opaque, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that the value of ads is misidentified, and you have a lot of people interested in boosting it even in spite of all that.

For the book, I wanted to look at that market and then what the internet could look like after all this. Are there other alternative business models that we want to adopt for the web going forward?

Google Stadia and GeForce Now are both coming to iOS as web apps

By Romain Dillet

Google and Nvidia both had some news about their respective cloud gaming service today. Let’s start with Nvidia. GeForce Now is now available on the iPhone and the iPad as a web app. The company says it’s a beta for now, but you can start using it by heading over to play.geforcenow.com on your iOS device.

GeForce Now is a cloud gaming service that works with your own game library. You can connect to your Steam, Epic or Battle.net account and play games you’ve already purchased on those third-party platforms. GeForce Now is also available on macOS, Android and Windows.

Game publishers have to opt in to appear on GeForce Now, which means that you won’t find your entire Steam library on the service. Still, the list is already quite long.

Right now, it costs $5 per month to access the Founders edition, which lets you play whenever you want and for as long as you want. It’s an introductory price, which means that Nvidia could raise prices in the future.

You can also try the service with a free account. You’re limited to one-hour sessions and less powerful hardware. There are also few slots. For instance, you have to wait 11 minutes to launch a game with a free account right now.

Once you add the web app to your iOS home screen, you can launch the service in full screen without the interface of Safari. You can connect a Bluetooth controller. Unfortunately, you can’t use a keyboard and a mouse.

The company says it is actively working with Epic Games on a touch-friendly version of Fortnite so that iOS players can play the game again. It could definitely boost usage on the service.

As for Google, the company issued an update 12 months after the launch of Stadia. Unlike GeForce Now, Stadia works more like a console. You have to buy games for the platform specifically. There are a hundred games on the platform including some games that you get with an optional Stadia Pro subscription.

The company says that iOS testing should start in the coming weeks. “This will be the first phase of our iOS progressive Web application. As we test performance and add more features, your feedback will help us improve the Stadia experience for everyone. You can expect this feature to begin rolling out several weeks from now,” the company wrote.

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

By Zack Whittaker

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

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

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

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

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

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

Investors including Microsoft’s climate fund back hyperlocal environmental monitoring tech developer Aclima

By Jonathan Shieber

Mitigating the effects of climate change and pollution is a global problem, but it’s one that requires local solutions.

While that seems like common sense, most communities around the world don’t have tools that can monitor emissions and pollutants at the granular levels they need to develop plans that can address these pollutants.

Aclima, a decade-old startup founded by Davida Herzl, is looking to solve that problem and has raised $40 million in new funding from strategic and institutional venture capital investors to accelerate its growth.

“We’ve built a platform that enables hyperlocal measurement. We measure all the greenhouse gases as well as regulated air pollutants. We deploy sensor networks that combine mobile sensing where we use fleets of vehicles as a roving network. And we bring that all together and bring that into a back end,” Herzl said. 

The networks of air quality monitoring technology that exists — and is subsidized by the government — is costly and lacking in the kinds of minute details on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis that communities can use to effectively address pollution problems.

“A typical air quality monitoring station would cost somewhere between $1 million to $2 million. Here in the Bay Area, the regulator is paying less than $3 million for access to all of this for the entire Bay Area,” Herzl said. 

Aclima’s technologies are already being deployed across California, and some of the company’s largest customers are municipalities in the Bay Area and down south in San Diego. 

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Image Credits: Getty Images under a license.

The company has two main offerings: an enterprise professional software product that’s geared toward regulators, experts, and businesses that want to get a handle on their greenhouse gas emissions and environmentally polluting operations and a free tool that’s available to the public.

A third revenue stream is through partnerships with companies like Google, which have attached Aclima’s sensors to its roving mapping vehicles to capture climate and environmental quality data alongside geographic information.

“You’re seeing a lot of large companies in traditionally who are now investing significant amount into really trying to understand their emissions profile and prioritize emission reductions in a data driven way,” Herzl said.

The company’s data is also providing real world tools to communities that are looking to address systemic inequalities in locations that have been hardest hit by industrial pollution.

West Oakland, for instance, has used Aclima’s data to develop community intervention plans to reduce pollution in the communities that have been most impacted by the regions industrial economy.

“The interconnected crises of climate change, public health and environmental justice urgently require lasting solutions,” said Herzl, in a statement. “Measurement will play a key role in shaping solutions and tracking progress. With this coalition of investors, we’re expanding our capacity to support new and existing customers and partners taking bold climate action.”

As a result of the new round of funding, led by Clearvision Ventures, the fund’s founder and managing partner, Dan Ahn will take a seat on the board of directors.

Photo: Greg Epperson/Getty Images

“They are the clear category leader in an important and emerging field of data and standards at the intersection of climate, public health and the economy,” Ahn said in a statement. “Both governments and industry will need Aclima’s critical data and analytics to benchmark and accelerate progress to reduce emissions.”

Other investors in Aclima’s latest round include the corporate investment arm of the sensor manufacturer Robert Bosch, which views the company as a strategic component of its efforts to use sensor data to combat climate change. 

“Aclima has built an expansive mobile and stationary sensor network that generates billions of measurements about our most critical resources every week,” says Dr. Ingo Ramesohl, Managing Director of RBVC, in a statement. “Bosch invents and delivers connected solutions for a smarter future across transportation, home, industrial, and many other fields. What Aclima has achieved in connected environmental sensing is an impressive feat. Together, we can accelerate Aclima’s ability to support customers in taking decisive and data-driven climate action.”

Another key investor is Microsoft, which has backed the company through one of the first direct investments from the Microsoft Climate Innovation Fund. 

“We established our Climate Innovation Fund earlier this year to accelerate the development of environmental sustainability solutions based on the best available science,” said Brandon Middaugh, Director, Climate Innovation Fund, Microsoft, in a statement. “We’re encouraged by Aclima’s pioneering approach to mapping air pollution sources and exposures at a hyperlocal level and the implications this technology can have for making data-driven environmental decisions with consideration for climate equity.”

Other investors also adding Aclima to their portfolios in this round include Splunk Inc. GingerBread Capital, KTB Network, ACVC Partners, and the Womens VC Fund II. Existing shareholders participating in the round include Social Capital, Rethink Impact, Kapor Capital, and the Schmidt Family Foundation, the company said in a statement.

 

Messaging app Go SMS Pro exposed millions of users’ private photos and files

By Zack Whittaker

Go SMS Pro, one of the most popular messaging apps for Android, is exposing photos, videos and other files sent privately by its users. Worse, the app maker has done nothing to fix the bug.

Security researchers at Trustwave discovered the flaw in August and contacted the app maker with a 90-day deadline to fix the issue, as is standard practice in vulnerability disclosure to allow enough time for a fix. But after the deadline elapsed without hearing back, the researchers went public.

Trustwave shared their findings with TechCrunch this week.

When a Go SMS Pro user sends a photo, video or other file to someone who doesn’t have the app installed, the app uploads the file to its servers, and lets the user share a web address by text message so the recipient can see the file without installing the app. But the researchers found that these web addresses were sequential. In fact, any time a file was shared — even between app users — a web address would be generated regardless. That meant anyone who knew about the predictable web address could have cycled through millions of different web addresses to users’ files.

Go SMS Pro has more than 100 million installs, according to its listing in Google Play.

TechCrunch verified the researcher’s findings. In viewing just a few dozen links, we found a person’s phone number, a screenshot of a bank transfer, an order confirmation including someone’s home address, an arrest record, and far more explicit photos than we were expecting, to be quite honest.

Karl Sigler, senior security research manager at Trustwave, said while it wasn’t possible to target any specific user, any file sent using the app is vulnerable to public access. “An attacker can create scripts that could throw a wide net across all the media files stored in the cloud instance,” he said.

We had about as much luck getting a response from the app maker as the researchers. TechCrunch emailed two email addresses associated with the app. One email immediately bounced back saying the email couldn’t be delivered due to a full inbox. The other email was opened, according to our email open tracker, but a follow-up email was not.

Since you might now want a messaging app that protects your privacy, we have you covered.

Weather forecasts get an AI update with Atmo as businesses grapple with climate-related catastrophes

By Jonathan Shieber

“Almost every business on earth is affected by weather,” says Alexander Levy, an investor serial entrepreneur whose latest company is the new weather prediction startup Atmo.

The company, which graduated from Y Combinator earlier this year, has recently raised $2 million from Signia Venture Partners and Sound Ventures for its predictive software, because sometimes businesses do need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

Atmo was founded by Johan Mathe, a former Google X employee who worked on Project Loon, the business unit focused on providing internet connectivity via floating balloons that would create a network of wireless coverage in emerging markets.

“I spent a lot of time working on weather,” said Mathe. It was his job to find ways for the balloons to navigate different areas and much of that navigation was complicated by weather patterns, he said.

“As I needed to build that there was so much complexity from the sheer amount of data with the weather,” Mathe said. “I thought I have to build something to make the intersection of weather and AI much more available for everyone.”

That was the beginning of a four year journey, which culminated in Atmo (formerly known as Froglabs.ai), the Berkeley, Calif.-based startup that’s providing predictive weather analysis for businesses ranging from renewable energy to ice cream shops.

Levy, who had co-founded the drug discovery company Atomwise, knew Mathe socially and initially invested in his company when it was just an idea. But  as he saw the value in weather data and made the jump from investor and advisor to co-founder.

Now Mathe, Levy, and chief technology officer Jeremy Lequeux all work from Levy’s Berkeley house as they develop their software and take their company to the next level.

And recent events make the need for the company’s services abundantly transparent. Since 2019, climate-related events have cost the US roughly $89 billion, according to data compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Every business is on this weather spectrum,” said Levy. “Let’s say you just are an ice cream location. Degree to which it’s hot or cold will affect your sales 10%. We’ve worked towards creating a general purpose predictive system and takes weather data on one hand and all the historical weather collected around the world. It compares the two and analyzes how are all of your key business metrics affected by the weather.”

The company already has a half dozen customers including two billion-dollar businesses in the renewable energy and eCommerce and logistics industries, Levy said.

“One of the areas that we work on is risk and extreme weather, like how do you predict these fluke events that you have very little intervention around,” said Levy. “We make that kind of prediction separate and apart from how you can best optimize when things are in a relatively normal state.”

Demand is only going to increase as these extreme events become more common, because governments and businesses will be looking at ways to improve their ability to withstand or adapt to these catastrophic conditions. “There’s a need because everybody is talking about resilience these days,” said Levy. “I see Atmo as the company that’s going to provide these insights for the big companies that are concerned about this problem now.”

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