Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review.
Last week, we dove into the truly bizarre machinations of the NFT market. This week, we’re talking about something that’s a little bit more impactful on the current state of the web — Apple’s NeuralHash kerfuffle.
In the past month, Apple did something it generally has done an exceptional job avoiding — the company made what seemed to be an entirely unforced error.
In early August — seemingly out of nowhere** — the company announced that by the end of the year they would be rolling out a technology called NeuralHash that actively scanned the libraries of all iCloud Photos users, seeking out image hashes that matched known images of child sexual abuse material (CSAM). For obvious reasons, the on-device scanning could not be opted out of.
This announcement was not coordinated with other major consumer tech giants, Apple pushed forward on the announcement alone.
Researchers and advocacy groups had almost unilaterally negative feedback for the effort, raising concerns that this could create new abuse channels for actors like governments to detect on-device information that they regarded as objectionable. As my colleague Zach noted in a recent story, “The Electronic Frontier Foundation said this week it had amassed more than 25,000 signatures from consumers. On top of that, close to 100 policy and rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, also called on Apple to abandon plans to roll out the technology.”
(The announcement also reportedly generated some controversy inside of Apple.)
The issue — of course — wasn’t that Apple was looking at find ways that prevented the proliferation of CSAM while making as few device security concessions as possible. The issue was that Apple was unilaterally making a massive choice that would affect billions of customers (while likely pushing competitors towards similar solutions), and was doing so without external public input about possible ramifications or necessary safeguards.
A long story short, over the past month researchers discovered Apple’s NeuralHash wasn’t as air tight as hoped and the company announced Friday that it was delaying the rollout “to take additional time over the coming months to collect input and make improvements before releasing these critically important child safety features.”
Having spent several years in the tech media, I will say that the only reason to release news on a Friday morning ahead of a long weekend is to ensure that the announcement is read and seen by as few people as possible, and it’s clear why they’d want that. It’s a major embarrassment for Apple, and as with any delayed rollout like this, it’s a sign that their internal teams weren’t adequately prepared and lacked the ideological diversity to gauge the scope of the issue that they were tackling. This isn’t really a dig at Apple’s team building this so much as it’s a dig on Apple trying to solve a problem like this inside the Apple Park vacuum while adhering to its annual iOS release schedule.
Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch /
Apple is increasingly looking to make privacy a key selling point for the iOS ecosystem, and as a result of this productization, has pushed development of privacy-centric features towards the same secrecy its surface-level design changes command. In June, Apple announced iCloud+ and raised some eyebrows when they shared that certain new privacy-centric features would only be available to iPhone users who paid for additional subscription services.
You obviously can’t tap public opinion for every product update, but perhaps wide-ranging and trail-blazing security and privacy features should be treated a bit differently than the average product update. Apple’s lack of engagement with research and advocacy groups on NeuralHash was pretty egregious and certainly raises some questions about whether the company fully respects how the choices they make for iOS affect the broader internet.
Delaying the feature’s rollout is a good thing, but let’s all hope they take that time to reflect more broadly as well.
** Though the announcement was a surprise to many, Apple’s development of this feature wasn’t coming completely out of nowhere. Those at the top of Apple likely felt that the winds of global tech regulation might be shifting towards outright bans of some methods of encryption in some of its biggest markets.
Back in October of 2020, then United States AG Bill Barr joined representatives from the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, India and Japan in signing a letter raising major concerns about how implementations of encryption tech posed “significant challenges to public safety, including to highly vulnerable members of our societies like sexually exploited children.” The letter effectively called on tech industry companies to get creative in how they tackled this problem.
Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:
LinkedIn kills Stories
You may be shocked to hear that LinkedIn even had a Stories-like product on their platform, but if you did already know that they were testing Stories, you likely won’t be so surprised to hear that the test didn’t pan out too well. The company announced this week that they’ll be suspending the feature at the end of the month. RIP.
FAA grounds Virgin Galactic over questions about Branson flight
While all appeared to go swimmingly for Richard Branson’s trip to space last month, the FAA has some questions regarding why the flight seemed to unexpectedly veer so far off the cleared route. The FAA is preventing the company from further launches until they find out what the deal is.
Apple buys a classical music streaming service
While Spotify makes news every month or two for spending a massive amount acquiring a popular podcast, Apple seems to have eyes on a different market for Apple Music, announcing this week that they’re bringing the classical music streaming service Primephonic onto the Apple Music team.
TikTok parent company buys a VR startup
It isn’t a huge secret that ByteDance and Facebook have been trying to copy each other’s success at times, but many probably weren’t expecting TikTok’s parent company to wander into the virtual reality game. The Chinese company bought the startup Pico which makes consumer VR headsets for China and enterprise VR products for North American customers.
Twitter tests an anti-abuse ‘Safety Mode’
The same features that make Twitter an incredibly cool product for some users can also make the experience awful for others, a realization that Twitter has seemingly been very slow to make. Their latest solution is more individual user controls, which Twitter is testing out with a new “safety mode” which pairs algorithmic intelligence with new user inputs.
Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:
Our favorite startups from YC’s Demo Day, Part 1
“Y Combinator kicked off its fourth-ever virtual Demo Day today, revealing the first half of its nearly 400-company batch. The presentation, YC’s biggest yet, offers a snapshot into where innovation is heading, from not-so-simple seaweed to a Clearco for creators….”
“…Yesterday, the TechCrunch team covered the first half of this batch, as well as the startups with one-minute pitches that stood out to us. We even podcasted about it! Today, we’re doing it all over again. Here’s our full list of all startups that presented on the record today, and below, you’ll find our votes for the best Y Combinator pitches of Day Two. The ones that, as people who sift through a few hundred pitches a day, made us go ‘oh wait, what’s this?’
All the reasons why you should launch a credit card
“… if your company somehow hasn’t yet found its way to launch a debit or credit card, we have good news: It’s easier than ever to do so and there’s actual money to be made. Just know that if you do, you’ve got plenty of competition and that actual customer usage will probably depend on how sticky your service is and how valuable the rewards are that you offer to your most active users….”
Summer is still technically in session, but a snowball is slowly developing in the world of apps, and specifically the world of in-app payments. A report in Reuters today says that the Competition Commission of India, the country’s monopoly regulator, will soon be looking at an antitrust suit filed against Apple over how it mandates that app developers use Apple’s own in-app payment system — thereby giving Apple a cut of those payments — when publishers charge users for subscriptions and other items in their apps.
The suit, filed by an Indian non-profit called “Together We Fight Society”, said in a statement to Reuters that it was representing consumer and startup interests in its complaint.
The move would be the latest in what has become a string of challenges from national regulators against app store operators — specifically Apple but also others like Google and WeChat — over how they wield their positions to enforce market practices that critics have argued are anti-competitive. Other countries that have in recent weeks reached settlements, passed laws, or are about to introduce laws include Japan, South Korea, Australia, the U.S. and the European Union.
And in India specifically, the regulator is currently working through a similar investigation as it relates to in-app payments in Android apps, which Google mandates use its proprietary payment system. Google and Android dominate the Indian smartphone market, with the operating system active on 98% of the 520 million devices in use in the country as of the end of 2020.
It will be interesting to watch whether more countries wade in as a result of these developments. Ultimately, it could force app store operators, to avoid further and deeper regulatory scrutiny, to adopt new and more flexible universal policies.
In the meantime, we are seeing changes happen on a country-by-country basis.
Just yesterday, Apple reached a settlement in Japan that will let publishers of “reader” apps (those for using or consuming media like books and news, music, files in the cloud and more) to redirect users to external sites to provide alternatives to Apple’s proprietary in-app payment provision. Although it’s not as seamless as paying within the app, redirecting previously was typically not allowed, and in doing so the publishers can avoid Apple’s cut.
South Korean legislators earlier this week approved a measure that will make it illegal for Apple and Google to make a commission by forcing developers to use their proprietary payment systems.
And last week, Apple also made some movements in the U.S. around allowing alternative forms of payments, but relatively speaking the concessions were somewhat indirect: app publishers can refer to alternative, direct payment options in apps now, but not actually offer them. (Not yet at least.)
Some developers and consumers have been arguing for years that Apple’s strict policies should open up more. Apple however has long said in its defense that it mandates certain developer policies to build better overall user experiences, and for reasons of security. But, as app technology has evolved, and consumer habits have changed, critics believe that this position needs to be reconsidered.
One factor in Apple’s defense in India specifically might be the company’s position in the market. Android absolutely dominates India when it comes to smartphones and mobile services, with Apple actually a very small part of the ecosystem.
As of the end of 2020, it accounted for just 2% of the 520 million smartphones in use in the country, according to figures from Counterpoint Research quoted by Reuters. That figure had doubled in the last five years, but it’s a long way from a majority, or even significant minority.
The antitrust filing in India has yet to be filed formally, but Reuters notes that the wording leans on the fact that anti-competitive practices in payments systems make it less viable for many publishers to exist at all, since the economics simply do not add up:
“The existence of the 30% commission means that some app developers will never make it to the market,” Reuters noted from the filing. “This could also result in consumer harm.”
A stealthy startup co-founded by a former senior designer from Apple and one of its ex-senior software engineers has picked up a significant round funding to build out its business. Humane, which has ambitions to build a new class of consumer devices and technologies that stem from “a genuine collaboration of design and engineering” that will represent “the next shift between humans and computing”, has raised $100 million.
This is a Series B, and it’s coming from some very high profile backers. Tiger Global Management is leading the round, with SoftBank Group, BOND, Forerunner Ventures and Qualcomm Ventures also participating. Other investors in this Series B include Sam Altman, Lachy Groom, Kindred Ventures, Marc Benioff’s TIME Ventures, Valia Ventures, NEXT VENTŪRES, Plexo Capital and the legal firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.
Humane has been around actually since 2017, but it closed/filed its Series A only last year: $30 million in September 2020 at a $150 million valuation, according to PitchBook. Previous to that, it had raised just under $12 million, with many of the investors in this current round backing Humane in those earlier fundraises, too.
Valuation with this Series B is not being disclosed, the company confirmed to me.
Given that Humane has not yet released any products, nor has said much at all about what it has up its sleeve; and given that hardware in general presents a lot of unique challenges and therefore is often seen as a risky bet (that old “hardware is hard” chestnut), you might be wondering how Humane, still in stealth, has attracted these backers.
Some of that attention possibly stems from the fact that the two co-founders, husband-and-wife team Imran Chaudhri and Bethany Bongiorno, are something of icons in their own right. Bongiorno, who is Humane’s CEO, had been the software engineering director at Apple. Chaudhri, who is Humane’s chairman and president, is Apple’s former director of design, where he worked for 20 years on some of its most seminal products — the iPhone, the iPad and the Mac. Both have dozens of patents credited to them from their time there, and they have picked up a few since then, too.
Those latest patents — plus the very extensive list of job openings listed on Humane’s otherwise quite sparse site — might be the closest clues we have for what the pair and their startup might be building.
One patent is for a “Wearable multimedia device and cloud computing platform with laser projection system”; another is for a “System and apparatus for fertility and hormonal cycle awareness.”
Meanwhile, the company currently has nearly 50 job openings listed, including engineers with camera and computer vision experience, hardware engineers, designers, and security experts, among many others. (One sign of where all that funding will be going.) There is already an impressive team of about 60 people the company, which is another detail that attracted investors.
“The caliber of individuals working at Humane is incredibly impressive,” said Chase Coleman, Partner, Tiger Global, in a statement. “These are people who have built and shipped transformative products to billions of people around the world. What they are building is groundbreaking with the potential to become a standard for computing going forward.”
I’ve asked for more details on the company’s product roadmap and ethos behind the company, and who its customers might potentially be: other firms for whom it designs products, or end users directly?
For now, Bongiorno and Chaudhri seem to hint that part of what has motivated them to start this business was to reimagine what role technology might play in the next wave of innovation. It’s a question that many ask, but not many try to actually invest in finding the answer. For that alone, it’s worth watching Humane (if Humane lets us, that is: it’s still very much in stealth) to see what it does next.
“Humane is a place where people can truly innovate through a genuine collaboration of design and engineering,” the co-founders said in a joint statement. “We are an experience company that creates products for the benefit of people, crafting technology that puts people first — a more personal technology that goes beyond what we know today. We’re all waiting for something new, something that goes beyond the information age that we have all been living with. At Humane, we’re building the devices and the platform for what we call the intelligence age. We are committed to building a different type of company, founded on our values of trust, truth and joy. With the support of our partners, we will continue to scale the team with individuals who not only share our passion for revolutionizing the way we interact with computing, but also for how we build.”
Update: After publishing, I got a little more from Humane about its plans. Its aim is to build “technology that improves the human experience and is born of good intentions; products that put us back in touch with ourselves, each other, and the world around us; and experiences that are built on trust, with interactions that feel magical and bring joy.” It’s not a whole lot to go on, but more generally it’s an approach that seems to want to step away from the cycle we’re on today, and be more mindful and thoughtful. If they can execute on this, while still building rather than wholesale rejecting technology, they might be on to something.
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.
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.
As Apple and Google continue to face increasing scrutiny over the rules they set for how third-party apps in their app stores charge for services, a significant development in that story is going down in South Korea.
South Korea’s parliamentary committee passed on Wednesday (25 August) a landmark bill to prevent Google and Apple from charging software developers’ commissions on in-app purchases, the first of its kind in the world. The final vote by all members of the National Assembly – required to pass and activate the proposal – which was expected to be held in a plenary session on the same day, was delayed until further notice.
The plenary session was tentatively delayed to 30 August, according to a media.
South Korea will be the first country to prohibit such global tech giants from imposing billing systems on in-app purchases if voted into law.
The bill, dubbed the “Anti-Google Law”, was approved by the legislation and judiciary committee of the National Assembly to revise the Telecommunication Business Act, seeking to restrict Google and Apple from requiring app developers to use their billing system.
Google said in September 2020 it would impose its billing system on all app developers, collecting up to 30 percent commission for all in-app purchases.
In July 2021, Google decided to defer its new billing policy to the end of March 2022 upon request by app developers and lowered its play store commission to 15 percent, based on local media reports.
Apple said in its statement, “The proposed Telecommunications Business Act will put users who purchase digital goods from other sources at risk of fraud, undermine their privacy protections, make it difficult to manage their purchases, and features like ‘Ask to Buy’ and Parental Controls will become less effective. We believe user trust in App Store purchases will decrease as a result of this proposal—leading to fewer opportunities for the over 482,000 registered developers in Korea who have earned more than KRW8.55 trillion to date with Apple.”
Apple and Google of course argue that there are bigger issues around better and safer user experience that come with mandating their own in-app payment systems. And this is the argument that it falls on here too.
Google did not immediately respond.
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.
Three University of Michigan students are building Channels Inc., a communication software tailored for physical workers, and already racking up some big customers in the event management industry.
Siddharth Kaul, 18, Elan Rosen, 20, and Ibrahim Mohammed, 20, started the company after finding some common ground in retail and events. The company’s customer list boasts names like Marriott Hotels, and it announced a $520,000 seed round, led by Sahra Growth Capital, to give it nearly $570,000 in total funding.
Kaul grew up going to a lot of events in Kuwait and Dubai, but started noticing there was a delay in things that should happen and many processes were being done on pen and paper.
“The technology that was available was inharmonious and made it hard for physical workers to fulfill tasks,” Kaul told TechCrunch. “We saw it happening in the event management space, forcing workers to coordinate across technologies.”
Legacy communication platforms like Slack are aggregating communications, but are better for remote workers; for physical workers, they rely more on text communication, he said. However, the disadvantage with texting is that you have to keep scrolling to get to the new message, and old communication is lost amid all of the replies.
They began developing a platform for small hotels to help them transition to digital and provide communication in a non-chronological order that is easier to access, enables discussion and can be searched. Users of the SaaS platform can build live personnel maps to see where employees are and what the event floor looks like, prioritize alerts and automate tasks while monitoring progress.
Marriott became a customer after one of its employees saw the Channels platform was being tested at an event. He saw employees pulling out their phones and asked the manager why they were doing that, and was told they were testing out the product and referred him to Kaul.
“What they thought was helpful was that it was communication, and though the employees were checking their phones, it was quick and they remained attentive,” Kaul said.
Channels provides a solid platform in terms of analytics and graphical representation, which is a major selling point for customers, leading to initial traction and revenue for the company that Rosen said he expects can occur at the convention level the company is striving for.
The new funding will be used to grow in development and bring additional engineering talent to the team. In addition, it will allow Kaul and Rosen to continue with their studies, while Mohammed will be doing more full-time work. They want to increase their recurring revenue in the Middle East while building up operations in the United States.
Jamal Al-Barrak, managing partner of Sahra Growth Capital, said Channels was on his firm’s radar ever since they won the 2020 Dubai X-Series competition it sponsors. As a result of winning the competition, he was able to see the founders on multiple occasions and hear their growth.
Sahra doesn’t typically invest in companies like Channels, but the firm started a “seed sourcing effort” to make investments of between $200,000 and $800,000 into early-stage companies, Al-Barrak said. Channels is one of the first investments with that effort.
“Channels is one of our first investments in this initiative and they look very promising so far even compared to our investments before we started this initiative,” Al-Barrak said. He liked the founders’ work ethic and their focus on the event industry, which he called, “historically outdated and bereft of technological innovation.”
“Sid, Elan and Ibrahim are some of the youngest yet brightest entrepreneurs I have come across to this day and I have invested in over 25 technology startups,” he said. “Additionally, I enjoyed that they had proof of concept with a prior customer base and revenue. I was most impressed by their vision past their current industry and bounds as they want to encapsulate communication for all physical workers, whether it is events, retail or more.”
Apple recently began a research study designed to collect speech data from study participants. Earlier this month, the company launched a new iOS app called “Siri Speech Study” on the App Store, which allows participants who have opted in to share their voice requests and other feedback with Apple. The app is available in a number of worldwide markets but does not register on the App Store’s charts, including under the “Utilities” category where it’s published.
According to data from Sensor Tower, the iOS app first launched on August 9 and was updated to a new version on August 18. It’s currently available in the U.S., Canada, Germany, France, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, and Taiwan — an indication of the study’s global reach. However, the app will not appear when searching the App Store by keyword or when browsing through the list of Apple’s published apps.
The Siri Speech Study app itself offers little information about the study’s specific goals, nor does it explain how someone could become a participant. Instead, it only provides a link to a fairly standard license agreement and a screen where a participant would enter their ID number to get started.
Reached for comment, Apple told TechCrunch the app is only being used for Siri product improvements, by offering a way for participants to share feedback directly with Apple. The company also explained people have to be invited to the study — there’s not a way for consumers to sign up to join.
Image Credits: App Store screenshot
The app is only one of many ways Apple is working to improve Siri.
In the past, Apple had tried to learn more about Siri’s mistakes by sending some small portion of consumers’ voice recordings to contractors for manual grading and review. But a whistleblower alerted media outlet The Guardian that the process had allowed them to listen in on confidential details at times. Apple shortly thereafter made manual review an opt-in process and brought audio grading in-house. This type of consumer data collection continues, but has a different aim that what a research study would involve.
Unlike this broader, more generalized data collection, a focus group-like study allows Apple to better understand Siri’s mistakes because it combines the collected data with human feedback. With the Siri Speech Study app, participants provide explicit feedback on per request basis, Apple said. For instance, if Siri misheard a question, users could explain what they were trying to ask. If Siri was triggered when the user hadn’t said “Hey Siri,” that could be noted. Or if Siri on HomePod misidentified the speaker in a multi-person household, the participant could note that, too.
Another differentiator is that none of the participants’ data is being automatically shared with Apple. Rather, users can see a list of the Siri requests they’ve made and then select which to send to Apple with their feedback. Apple also noted no user information is collected or used in the app, except the data directly provided by participants.
Image Credits: Apple WWDC 2021
Apple understands that an intelligent virtual assistant that understands you is a competitive advantage.
This year, the company scooped up ex-Google AI scientist Samy Bengio to help make Siri a stronger rival to Google Assistant, whose advanced capabilities are often a key selling point for Android devices. In the home, meanwhile, Alexa-powered smart speakers are dominating the U.S. market and compete with Google in the global landscape, outside China. Apple’s HomePod has a long way to go to catch up.
But despite the rapid progress in voice-based computing in recent years, virtual assistants can still have a hard time understanding certain types of speech. Earlier this year, for example, Apple said it would use a bank of audio clips from podcasts where users had stuttered to help it improve its understanding of this kind of speech pattern. Assistants can also stumble when there are multiple devices in a home that are listening for voice commands from across several rooms. And assistants can mess up when trying to differentiate between different family members’ voices or when trying to understand a child’s voice.
In other words, there are still many avenues a speech study could pursue over time, even if these aren’t its current focus.
That Apple is running a Siri speech study isn’t necessarily new. The company has historically run evaluations and studies like this in some form. But it’s less common to find Apple’s studies published directly on the App Store.
Though Apple could have published the app through the enterprise distribution process to keep it more under wraps, it chose to use its public marketplace. This more closely follows the App Store’s rules, as the research study is not an internally-facing app meant only for Apple employees.
Still, it’s not likely consumers will stumble across the app and be confused — the Siri Speech Study app is hidden from discovery. You have to have the app’s direct link to find it. (Good thing we’re nosy!)
If you use AirPods Pro or AirPods Max, your mobile Netflix-watching is about to get a bit more immersive. Yesterday, Netflix confirmed that it has begun rolling out spatial audio support on iPhone and iPad on iOS 14 after the feature was spotted by a Reddit user.
Netflix joins streaming competitors like HBO Max, Disney+, and Peacock in enabling this feature, while other popular apps like Amazon Prime Video and YouTube still don’t have this functionality. Still, Netflix said the rollout won’t be immediate — users who have the update should be able to toggle it on or off in the Control Center.
Recently, Apple has been emphasizing its spatial audio features. The company first announced that it would bring spatial audio to AirPods Pro during the WWDC conference in 2020 — during this year’s conference, Apple added that Apple Music subscribers would gain access to spatial audio and lossless audio streaming at no extra charge. This even supports dynamic head tracking, which adjusts the sound when you move your head. The Android version of the Apple Music app also supports spatial and lossless audio. In February, Spotify said it would rollout a high-end subscription service, Spotify HiFi, which would enable lossless audio, though there’s been no news since.
Last month, Netflix revealed that it start looking toward mobile gaming in addition to its original movies and television series. The company has already experimented with interactive entertainment with projects like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and its Stranger Things games.
“We view gaming as another new content category for us, similar to our expansion into original films, animation and unscripted TV,” the company said in its quarterly earnings report.
Spatial audio is popular among video game players — so while this update will enhance the streaming video experience on iPhone and iPad, perhaps we’ll see this feature at play in eventual Netflix mobile games, too.
Apple has encountered monumental backlash to a new child sexual abuse material (CSAM) detection technology it announced earlier this month. The system, which Apple calls NeuralHash, has yet to be activated for its billion-plus users, but the technology is already facing heat from security researchers who say the algorithm is producing flawed results.
NeuralHash is designed to identify known CSAM on a user’s device without having to possess the image or knowing the contents of the image. Because a user’s photos stored in iCloud are end-to-end encrypted so that even Apple can’t access the data, NeuralHash instead scans for known CSAM on a user’s device, which Apple claims is more privacy friendly, as it limits the scanning to just photos rather than other companies which scan all of a user’s file.
Apple does this by looking for images on a user’s device that have the same hash — a string of letters and numbers that can uniquely identify an image — that are provided by child protection organizations like NCMEC. If NeuralHash finds 30 or more matching hashes, the images are flagged to Apple for a manual review before the account owner is reported to law enforcement. Apple says the chance of a false positive is about one in one trillion accounts.
But security experts and privacy advocates have expressed concern that the system could be abused by highly resourced actors, like governments, to implicate innocent victims or to manipulate the system to detect other materials that authoritarian nation states find objectionable. NCMEC called critics the “screeching voices of the minority,” according to a leaked memo distributed internally to Apple staff.
Last night, Asuhariet Ygvar reverse-engineered Apple’s NeuralHash into a Python script and published code to GitHub, allowing anyone to test the technology regardless of whether they have an Apple device to test. In a Reddit post, Ygvar said NeuralHash “already exists” in iOS 14.3 as obfuscated code, but was able to reconstruct the technology to help other security researchers understand the algorithm better before it’s rolled out to iOS and macOS devices later this year.
It didn’t take long before others tinkered with the published code and soon came the first reported case of a “hash collision,” which in NeuralHash’s case is where two entirely different images produce the same hash. Cory Cornelius, a well-known research scientist at Intel Labs, discovered the hash collision. Ygvar confirmed the collision a short time later.
Hash collisions can be a death knell to systems that rely on cryptography to keep them secure, such as encryption. Over the years several well-known password hashing algorithms, like MD5 and SHA-1, were retired after collision attacks rendered them ineffective.
Kenneth White, a cryptography expert and founder of the Open Crypto Audit Project, said in a tweet: “I think some people aren’t grasping that the time between the iOS NeuralHash code being found and [the] first collision was not months or days, but a couple of hours.”
When reached, an Apple spokesperson declined to comment on the record. But in a background call where reporters were not allowed to quote executives directly or by name, Apple downplayed the hash collision and argued that the protections it puts in place — such as a manual review of photos before they are reported to law enforcement — are designed to prevent abuses. Apple also said that the version of NeuralHash that was reverse-engineered is a generic version, and not the complete version that will roll out later this year.
It’s not just civil liberties groups and security experts that are expressing concern about the technology. A senior lawmaker in the German parliament sent a letter to Apple chief executive Tim Cook this week saying that the company is walking down a “dangerous path” and urged Apple not to implement the system.
Apple is slowly walking back its controversial decision to redesign mobile Safari in iOS 15 to show the address bar at the bottom of the screen, floating atop the page’s content. The revamp, which was largely meant to make it easier to reach Safari’s controls with one hand, has met with criticism as Apple’s other design choices actually made the new experience less usable than before. With the latest release of iOS 15 beta 6, Apple is responding to user feedback and complaints with the introduction of yet another design that now shows the bottom tab bar below the page content, offering a more standardized experience for those who would have otherwise liked the update. More importantly, perhaps, Apple is no longer forcing the bottom tab bar on users.
With the new release, there’s now an option to show the address bar at the top of the page, as before. For all those who truly hated the update, this means they can set things back to “normal.”
Image Credits: Screenshots, tab bar before and after
One significant complaint with the floating tab bar was that it made some websites nearly unusable, as the bar would block out elements you needed to click. (To get to these unreachable parts of the page, you’d have to swipe the bar down — a less-than-ideal experience).
Just another day being unable to order takeout because iOS 15 Safari’s bottom bar makes this checkout button untappable.
thanks Safari for not letting me have that bruschetta pic.twitter.com/e23YTYzGM6
— Federico Viticci (@viticci) July 22, 2021
In iOS 15 beta 6, these and other issues are addressed. Essentially, the tab bar looks much like it used to — with a familiar row of buttons, like it had before when it had been available at the top of the screen. And the bar will no longer get in the way of website content.
Testers had also pointed out that Apple’s original decision to hide often-used features — like the reload button or Reader Mode — under the three-dot “more” menu made Safari more difficult to use than in the past. With the release of iOS 15 beta 4, Apple had tried to solve this problem by bringing back the reload and share buttons, and making Reader Mode appear when available. But the buttons were still small and harder to tap than before.
The new tab bar and the return to normal it offers — regardless of its placement at the top or bottom of the screen — is an admission from Apple that users’ complaints on this matter were, in fact, valid. And it’s a demonstration of what beta testing is meant to be about: trying out new ideas and fixing what doesn’t work.
Separately, beta 6 users can now restore the tab bar to the top of the page, if that’s your preference. You can now find an option under Settings –> Safari to choose between the Tab Bar default and the Single Tab option — the latter which relocates the address bar to the top of the screen. (Doing so means you’ll lose the option to swipe through your open tabs, as you could with the Tab Bar, however.)
It’s fairly common for Apple to offer alternatives to its default settings — like how it allows users to configure how gestures and clicks work on the Mac’s trackpad, for example, or how it allows users to turn off the once–debated “natural” scroll direction option. But adding the option to return the tab at the top is an admission that some good portion of Safari users didn’t want to relearn how to use one of the iPhone’s most frequently accessed apps. And if forced to do so, they may have switched browsers instead.
As Apple typically releases the latest version of its iOS software in the fall, this update may represent one of the final changes to Safari we’ll see ahead of the public release.
With two giants calling the shots and collecting whatever tolls they see fit, mobile software makers have long complained that app stores take an unfair cut of the cash that should be flowing directly to developers. Hearing those concerns, a group of senators introduced a new bill this week that, if passed, would greatly diminish Apple and Google’s ability to control app purchases in their operating systems and completely shake up the way that mobile software gets distributed.
The new bill, called the Open App Markets Act, would enshrine quite a few rights that could benefit app developers tired of handing 30% of their earnings to Apple and Google. The bill, embedded in full below, would require companies that control operating systems to allow third-party apps and app stores.
It would also prevent those companies from blocking developers from telling users about lower prices for their software that they might find outside of official app stores. Apple and Google would also be barred from leveraging “non-public” information collecting through their platforms to create competing apps.
“This legislation will tear down coercive anticompetitive walls in the app economy, giving consumers more choices and smaller startup tech companies a fighting chance,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who introduced the bipartisan bill with Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). Klobuchar chairs the Senate’s antitrust subcommittee and Blackburn and Blumenthal are both subcommittee members.
Senator Blackburn called Apple and Google’s app store practices a “direct affront to a free and fair marketplace” and Sen. Klobuchar noted that their behavior raises “serious competition concerns.”
The bill draws on information collected earlier this year from that subcommittee’s hearing on app stores and competition. In the hearing, lawmakers heard from Apple and Google as well as Spotify, Tile and Match Group, three companies that argued their businesses have been negatively impacted by anti-competitive app store policies.
“… We urge Congress to swiftly pass the Open App Markets Act,” Spotify Chief Legal Officer Horacio Gutierrez said of the new bill. “Absent action, we can expect Apple and others to continue changing the rules in favor of their own services, and causing further harm to consumers, developers and the digital economy.”
The Coalition for App Fairness, a developer advocacy group, praised the bill for its potential to spur innovation in digital markets. “The bipartisan Open App Markets Act is a step towards holding big tech companies accountable for practices that stifle competition for developers in the U.S. and around the world,” CAF executive director Meghan DiMuzio said.
Hoping to head off future regulatory headaches, Apple dropped its own fees for companies that generate less than $1 million in App Store revenue from 30% to 15% last year. Google followed suit with its own gesture, dropping fees to 15% for the first $1 million in revenue a developer earns through the Play Store in a year. Some developers critical of the companies’ practices saw those changes as little more than a publicity stunt.
Developers have long complained about the high tolls they pay to distribute their software through the world’s two major mobile operating systems. That fight escalated over the last year when Epic Games circumvented Apple’s payments rules by allowing Fortnite players to pay Epic directly, setting off a legal fight that has huge implications for the mobile software world. Following a May trial, the verdict is expected later this year.
“This will make it easier for developers of all sizes to challenge these harmful practices and seek relief from retaliation, be it during litigation or simply because they dared speak up,” Epic Games VP of Public Policy Corie Wright said of the new bill.
Unlike Apple, Google does allow apps to be “sideloaded,” installed onto devices outside of the Google Play Store. But documents unsealed in Epic’s parallel case against Google revealed that the Play Store’s creator knows the sideloading process is a terrible experience for users — something the company brings up when pressuring developers to stick with its official app marketplace.
The counterargument here is that official app stores make apps safer and smoother for consumers. While Apple and Google extract heavy fees for selling mobile software through the App Store and the Google Play Store, the companies both argue that streamlining apps through those official channels protects people from malware and allows for prompt software updates to patch security concerns that could jeopardize user privacy.
“At Apple, our focus is on maintaining an App Store where people can have confidence that every app must meet our rigorous guidelines and their privacy and security is protected,” an Apple spokesperson told TechCrunch.
Adam Kovacevich, a former Google policy executive who leads the new tech-backed industry group Chamber of Progress, called the new bill “a finger in the eye” for Android and iPhone owners.
“I don’t see any consumers marching in Washington demanding that Congress make their smartphones dumber,” Kovacevich said. “And Congress has better things to do than intervene in a multi-million-dollar dispute between businesses.”
At least in Google’s case, the counterargument has its own counterargument. Android has long been notorious for malware, but apparently most of that malicious software isn’t making its way onto devices through sideloading — it’s walking through the Google Play Store’s front door.
As more people are venturing out into the world this summer (safely, we hope!), Snapchat wants to make it easier for people to find restaurants, stores, parks and other interesting spots in their neighborhood. Today, Snapchat is starting to roll out the My Places feature on its Snap Map, which connects users with over 30 million businesses. Users can log their favorite spots, send them to friends, and find recommendations.
My Places has three main tabs: visited, favorites and popular. Visited lists places you’ve checked into on Snapchat, and favorites saves, well, your favorites. But the popular tab is particularly interesting because it marks the first time that Snapchat is using an algorithm to provide personalized recommendations to help people engage with the world around them. The algorithm considers where you are, what you’ve tagged or favorited already, and where your friends and other Snapchatters have visited.
This further differentiates the social-forward Snap Map from more established resources like Google Maps and Apple Maps, which you can’t really use to find out what restaurants your friends like. Sure, Snapchat can’t give you directions to that trendy sushi bar, but it’s not meant to, just like how Google Maps isn’t meant to show you what bar all your friends went to without you last night.
Image Credits: Snapchat
Snapchat shared survey results indicating that its users are more likely on average to engage in “post-pandemic” activities (is that a good thing?) and added that 44% of Snapchatters turn to the Snap Map to find places around them that they’re interested in.
With over 250 million monthly active users on Snap Map, the company announced an update in May called Layers, which lets partner companies add data directly to their own map. So far, Snapchat has collaborated with Ticketmaster and The Infatuation, a restaurant recommendation website — these partnerships help users see where they can find live entertainment, or what great restaurants are hidden in plain sight. Snapchat plans to further integrate Layers into Snap Map and My Places later this year.
Last week, Snap announced that during Q2 this year, it grew both revenue and daily active users at the highest rates it has achieved in the last four years. Year over year, the app grew 23%.
More doesn’t necessarily mean better — and that’s a lesson for life and for tech. To focus on the latter, the startup ecosystem is experiencing a boggling influx of capital right now. However, the increase in dollars isn’t being evenly distributed to all founders. For the vast majority of people, especially women and nonbinary entrepreneurs, it’s still hard to raise money — and perhaps even harder than before the pandemic.
All Raise, a nonprofit that has for years worked to advance women and nonbinary folks within tech, has been watching closely the dip in funding for female and nonbinary founders. Per VP of Marketing Caroline Caswell, while pockets of progress do exist, funding for female founders is still “lukewarm.” She noted how in the first half of this year, 1.6% of venture capital went to female founders, down 30% from 2.3% in 2020, which was already a dip from the year prior, per PitchBook.
“The narrative that ‘VC is back?’ ” Caswell said. “It is back for the same people as it was before.”
The misconception that the hot-deal summer is benefitting everyone has given All Raise some urgency to launch a new product for women and nonbinary founders, which it’s announcing today.
The nonprofit is releasing a series of master classes meant to give an inside glimpse at raising first institutional rounds and scaling companies. The material, which includes pre-recorded sessions from All Raise’s in-person Founder Bootcamp, will be free to access for anyone interested.
Instructors include checkwriters such as Cowboy Ventures’ Aileen Lee and Benchmark Capital’s Sarah Tavel, as well as seasoned executives like Figma’s VP of Communications Nairi Hourdajian and Solv Health co-founder and CEO Heather Fernandez. All Raise said that it did not track ethnicity or racial data of its instructors, however it did offer a breakdown of the 400 beta users who tested the master class series.
There’s constantly a disconnect between tactical content on how to fundraise and true access to capital; tips don’t necessarily lead to a closed check, which leaves some founders skeptical of yet another launch of resources.
That said, Caswell says that the master classes are trying to move beyond the “typical Sandhill Road Medium post” or Twitter threads, and thinks that the explicitness and real-world examples could serve as an empowering tool to founders.
Topics range from basics like how to prepare for your Series A to more nuanced thoughts like the emotions of fundraising, and how to say goodbye to a team. The programming is meant to be a more intimate look at early-stage tech, beyond what you’d find on a Twitter thread, Caswell explains.
Image Credits: All Raise
“When it comes to resources and insight for typically underrepresented founders, more is more is more,” she added. Lessons range between three to 60 minutes, and amount to some 15 hours of content.
The structure of All Raise’s master classes looks similar in format to what Y Combinator offers in its free series Startup School, which includes some light content specifically targeted toward female founders. Long-term, it’d be interesting to see how All Raise refreshes material to work more for online learning, as it already has an engaged community that it could easily turn into a living, breathing class that filters through the nonprofit’s other tools.
There’s not much that thrills us more than a startup competition — and we mean deep down in our bones thrilled. That’s why we’re beyond excited to host the Extreme Tech Challenge (XTC) Global Finals on July 22 starting at 9:00 am (PT). This event is virtual and free to attend — but you need to register for your free ticket.
We’re serious when we describe this particular startup competition as extraordinary. Why? This pitch throw-down is all about startups determined to power a more equitable, inclusive and healthy world, and we need more of that visionary thinking put into action.
The competition just to reach the finals was fierce. More than 3,700 startups — from 92 countries — applied across XTC’s competition tracks: Agtech, Food & Water, Cleantech & Energy, Edtech, Enabling Tech, Fintech, Healthtech and Mobility & Smart Cities. Learn more about XTC here.
You know they’ll bring the heat and present a finely tuned pitch. And they’ll need it to impress this panel of judges — all of whom focus on sustainable impact.
So, without further ado, meet seven of the world’s best purpose-driven startups as they vie to be crowned the Extreme Tech Challenge 2021 global winner.
AgTech & FoodTech: Wasteless, a patented fully automated AI solution that applies optimal markdowns in real-time — based on products’ expiration dates and other factors — to reduce food waste and increase profitability.
CleanTech & Energy: Mining and Process Solutions, a non-toxic, natural alternative to cyanide and acid for the extraction of metals in mining operations.
EdTech: Testmaster, a mobile app that helps secondary students in West African countries successfully pass their matriculation exams. “The best private tutor in one’s pocket” delivers short, intuitive and accessible exercises and tutorial videos.
Enabling Tech: Dot Inc., the maker of the first tactile monitor that enables STEM education, visual works and games for the 285 million visually impaired people worldwide. Dot Inc. is expanding its technologies to help all disabled people to access public information in smart cities through barrier-free kiosks and IoT infrastructures.
FinTech: Hillridge Technology has developed weather-based parametric insurance for farmers to help protect crop yields and livestock.
HealthTech: Genetika+ combines genetics, patient history and unique brain biomarkers to help people suffering from depression, thereby helping to save patients’ lives, physicians’ time and healthcare payers’ costs.
Mobility & Smart Cities: Fotokite helps public safety teams save lives with elevated and actionable intelligence at the push of a button. Fully autonomous and field proven, Fotokite solutions are used daily by firefighters and first responders to assess, visualize and document their incidents within seconds of arriving on scene.