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9 highlights from Snapchat CEO’s 6000-word leaked memo on survival

Adults, not teens. Messaging, not Stories. Developing markets, not the US. These are how Snapchat will make a comeback, according to CEO Evan Spiegel . In a 6,000-word internal memo from late September leaked to Cheddar’s Alex Heath, Spiegel attempts to revive employee morale with philosophy, tactics, and contrition as Snap’s share price sinks to an all-time low of around $8 — half its IPO price and a third of its peak.

“The biggest mistake we made with our redesign was compromising our core product value of being the fastest way to communicate” Spiegel stresses throughout the memo regarding ‘Project Cheetah’. It’s the chat that made Snapchat special, and burying it within a combined feed with Stories and failing to build a quick-loading Android app have had disastrous consequences.

Spiegel shows great maturity here, admitting to impatient strategic moves and outlining a cohesive path forward. There’s no talk of Snapchat ruling the social app world here. He seems to understand that’s likely out of reach in the face of Instagram’s competitive onslaught. Instead, Snapchat is satisfied if it can help us express ourselves while finally reaching even meager profitability.

Snapchat may be too perceived as a toy to win enough adults, too late to win back international markets from the Facebook empire, and too copyable by good-enough alternatives to grow truly massive. But if Snap can follow the Spiegel game-plan, it could carve out a sustainable market through a small but loyal audience who want to communicate through imagery.

Here are the most interesting takeaways from the memo and why they’re important:

1. Apologizing For Rushing The Redesign

“There were, of course, some downsides to moving as quickly as a cheetah We rushed our redesign, solving one problem but creating many others . . . Unfortunately, we didn’t give ourselves enough time to continue iterating and testing the redesign with a smaller percentage of our community. As a result, we had to continue our iterations after we launched, causing a lot of frustration for our community.”

Spiegel always went on his gut rather than relying on user data like Facebook. Aging further and further away from his core audience, he misread what teens cared about. The appealing buzz phrase of “separating social from media” also meant merging messaging and Stories into a chaotic list that made both tougher to use. Spiegel seems to have learned a valuable lessen about the importance of A/B testing.

2. Chat Is King

“Our redesigned algorithmic Friend Feed made it harder to find the right people to talk to, and moving too quickly meant that we didn’t have time to optimize the Friend Feed for fast performance. We slowed down our product and eroded our core product value. . . . Regrettably, we didn’t understand at the time that the biggest problem with our redesign wasn’t the frustration from influencers – it was the frustration from members of our community who felt like it was harder to communicate . . . In our excitement to innovate and bring many new products into the world, we have lost the core of what made Snapchat the fastest way to communicate.”

When Snap first revealed the changes, we predicted that “Teen Snap addicts might complain that the redesign is confusing, jumbling all content from friends together.” That made it too annoying to dig out your friends to send them messages, and Snap’s growth rate imploded, with it losing 3 million users last quarter. Expect Snap to optimize its engineering to make messages quicker to send and receive, and it even sacrifice some of its bells and whistles to make chat faster in developing markets.

3. Snapchat Must Beat Facebook At Best Friends

“Your top friend in a given week contributes 25% of Snap send volume. By the time you get to 18 friends, each incremental friend contributes less than 1% of total Snap send volume each. Finding best friends is a different problem than finding more friends, so we need to think about new ways to help people find the friends they care most about.”

Facebook’s biggest structural disadvantage is its broad friend graph that’s bloated to include family, co-workers, bosses, and distant acquaintances.  That might be fine in a feed app, but not for Stories and messaging where you only care about your closest friends. With friend lists and more, Facebook has tried and failed for a decade to find better ways to communicate with your besties. This is the wedge through which Snapchat can attack Facebook. If it develops special features for luring your best friends onto the app and staying in touch with them for better reasons than just maintaining a Snap “Streak”, it could hit Facebook where it can’t defend itself.

4. Discover Soars As Facebook Watch And IGTV Stumble

“Our Shows continue to attract more and more viewers, with over 18 Shows reaching monthly audiences of over 10M unique viewers. 12 of which are Original productions. As a platform overall, we’ve grown the amount of total time spent engaging with our Shows product, almost tripling since the beginning of the year. Our audience for Publisher Stories has increased over 20% YoY, and we believe there is a significant opportunity to continue growing the number of people who engage with Discover content . . .We are also working to identify content that is performing well outside of Snapchat so that we can bring it into Discover. “

Discover remains Snapchat’s biggest differentiator, scoring with premium video content purposefully made for mobile. What it really needs, though, are a few must-see tentpole shows to drag in a wider audience that can get hooked on the reimagined digital magazine experience.

5. But Discover Is A Mess

“Our content team is working hard to experiment with new layouts and content types in the wake of our redesign to drive increased engagement.”

Snapchat Discover is an overcrowded pile of clickbait. News outlets, social media influencers, original video Shows, and aggregated user content collections all battle for attention in a design that feels overwhelming to the point of exhaustion. Thankfully Snapchat seems to recognize that more cohesive sorting with fewer images and headlines bombarding you might make Discover a more pleasant lean-back consumption experience.

6. Aging Up To Earn Money

“Most of the incremental growth in our core markets like the US, UK, and France will have to come from older users who generate higher average revenue per user . . . Growing in older demographics will require us to mature our application . . . Many older users today see Snapchat as frivolous or a waste of time because they think Snapchat is social media rather than a faster way to communicate. Changing the design language of our product and improving our marketing and communications around Snapchat will help users understand our value . . . aging-up our community in core markets will also help the media, advertisers, and Wall Street understand Snapchat.”

Snapchat can’t just be for cool kids anymore. Their lower buying power and lifestage make them less appealing to brands. The problem is that Snapchat risks turning off younger users by courting their older siblings or adults. If, like Facebook, users start to feel like Snapchat is a place for parents, they may defect in search of the next purposefully built to confuse adults to stay hip.

7. Finally Prioritizing Developing Markets

“We already have many projects underway to unlock our core product value in new markets. Mushroom allows our community to use Snapchat on lower-end devices. Arroyo, our new gateway architecture, will speed up messaging and many other services . . . It might require us to change our products for different markets where some of our value-add features detract from our core product value”

Sources tell me Snapchat’s future depends on the engineering overhaul of its Android app, a project codenamed ‘Mushroom’. Slow video load times and bugs have made Snapchat practically unusable on low-bandwidth connections and old Android phones in the developing world. The company concentrated on the US and other first-world markets, leaving the door open for copycats of Stories built by Instagram (400 million daily users) and WhatsApp (450 million daily users) to invade the developing world and dwarf Snap’s 188 million total daily users. In hopes of a smooth rollout, Snapchat is already testing Mushroom, but it will have to do a ton of marketing outreach to convince frustrated users who ditched the app to give it another try.

8. Fresh Ideas, Separate Apps

“We’re currently building software that takes the millions of Snaps submitted to Our Story and reconstructs parts of the world in 3D. We can then build augmented reality experiences on top of those models and distribute them as Lenses . . . If our innovation compromises our core product of being the fastest way to communicate, we should consider create [sic] separate applications or other ways of delivering our innovation.”

Snapchat has big plans for augmented reality. It doesn’t just want to stick animations over the top of anywhere, or create AR art installations in a few big cities. It wants to build site-specific AR experiences across the globe. And while everything the company has built to date has lived inside of Snapchat, it’s willing to spawn standalone apps if necessary so that it doesn’t bog down its messaging service. That could give Snapchat a lot more leeway to experiment.

9. The Freedom Of Profitability

“Our 2019 stretch output goal will be an acceleration in revenue growth and full year free cash flow and profitability. With profitability comes increased autonomy and freedom to operate our business in the long term best interest of our community without the pressure of needing to raise additional capital.”

Snapchat is still bleeding money, losing $353 million last quarter. Snapchat ended up selling 2.3 percent of its equity to a Saudi Arabian prince in exchange for $250 million to lengthen its rapidly shortening runway. And last year it took $2 billion from Chinese gaming giant Tencent. Deals like that could threaten Snapchat’s ability to prioritize its goals alone, not the moral imperatives or developer platforms that would benefit its benefactors. Once profitable, Snapchat won’t have to worry so much about struggling with short-term user growth and can instead focus on retention, societal impact, and its true purpose — creativity.

Here are all of Google’s 20th anniversary Easter eggs

Twenty years ago this month, a pair of Stanford PhD students founded a search engine company based in their friend Susan’s Menlo Park garage. Initially named “BackRub,” Larry Page and Sergey Brin eventually thought better of it and opted for a misspelling of the term googol, denoting the number one followed by 100 zeros.

To mark its 20th anniversary, Google’s peppering its properties with some fun Easter eggs, in addition to the above doodle. Starting today, a number of circa 1998-style queries will prompt the suggestion “It’s 2018! Did you mean?

There are 17 such queries. So, spoilers, here’s the list:

mp3 file

stream music

watch a dvd

streaming subscription

googol

Google

gettin’ jiggy wit it

floss dance

page me

New phone, who dis?

butterfly clip styles

top knot

soccer world champions 1998

soccer world champions 2018

chat room

text the group

how to tell someone you like them

swipe right

low-rider pants

how to style high-waisted pants

digital pet

fidget spinner

baby

bae

143

ILYSM

what is Y2K?

how does cryptocurrency work?

screen name

social handle

clip art

GIF

The Google Street View feature is even more fun. The aforementioned Susan (who now runs a little video site) has kindly offered up an inside glimpse of the space where it all started. The garage has been restored to its old glory, with the old-school Google homepage on an equally old-school monitor. There’s also the bedroom that serviced as the company’s “Worldwide Headquarters.”

It’s a history littered with school jackets, empty pizza boxes and a stray Koosh ball or two.

Instagram says it’s not testing or building a reposting feature

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Instagram is reportedly testing new features that could dramatically change what your feed looks like.

As first reported by The Verge, the company is looking to introduce native reposting, which will allow users to share posts from other accounts to your own feed.

An Instagram spokesperson, however, told Mashable that it is not a feature the company is currently building or testing.

According to The Verge, who viewed two screenshots of the feature, the “seamless sharing” feature will introduce a “share to feed” button when you open the “…” menu in the top right corner of a post. Currently, users need to use a third-party app to repost. Read more…

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Job Today gets a $16M top up as it preps for Brexit bump

Accel-backed mobile-first jobs app Job Today has pulled in another $16M — an expansion to its November 2016 $20M Series B round. It raised a $10M Series A in January of the same year.

The 2015 founded startup offers a mobile app for job seekers that does away with the need for a CV.

Instead job seekers create a profile in the app and can apply to relevant jobs. Employers can then triage potential applicants via the app and chat to any they like the look of via its messaging platform.

The approach has been especially popular with fast turnover jobs in the service industry, such as hospitality and retail.

Job Today says it has more than five million job seekers registered on its platform, and claims to have delivered more than 100 million candidate applications to the 400,000+ predominantly small businesses posting jobs via the app to date (with 1M+ jobs posted). It currently operates in two markets: Spain and the UK.

The additional funding will be put towards expanding its presence in the UK market — where it says it’s seen “significant growth” in both job postings and candidate applications.

It says the overall volume of applications has increased by 46% year-on-year in the market, with the number of applications per candidate growing by 32% in the same period. The likes of Costa Coffee, Pret A Manger and Eat are named as among its “regular hirers”.

It’s also envisaging a Brexit bump for the local casual job market, as the UK’s decision to leave the European Union looks set to impact the supply of labor for employers…

Commenting in a statement, CEO Eugene Mizin, said: “The casual job market is often the first to experience the effects from macro-economic forces and Brexit will mean that many non-skilled and non-British workers will leave the UK. This will create a demand to fill casual jobs and create new opportunities for the less-skilled school, college and university leavers entering the workforce for the first time in 2019.”

The Series B expansion funds are coming from New York based investor 14W.

Job Today says it got additional growth uplift after integrating with Google Jobs — aka Google search’s built in AI-powered jobs engine. This launched in the UK in July 2018, and Job Today said it saw 101% growth in users in the first month of integration.

Not hog dog? PixFood lets you shoot and identify food

What happens when you add AI to food? Surprisingly, you don’t get a hungry robot. Instead you get something like PixFood. PixFood lets you take pictures of food, identify available ingredients, and, at this stage, find out recipes you can make from your larder.

It is privately funded.

“There are tons of recipe apps out there, but all they give you is, well, recipes,” said Tonnesson. “On the other hand, PixFood has the ability to help users get the right recipe for them at that particular moment. There are apps that cover some of the mentioned, but it’s still an exhausting process – since you have to fill in a 50-question quiz so it can understand what you like.”

They launched in August and currently have 3,000 monthly active users from 10,000 downloads. They’re working on perfecting the system for their first users.

“PixFood is AI-driven food app with advanced photo recognition. The user experience is quite simple: it all starts with users taking a photo of any ingredient they would like to cook with, in the kitchen or in the supermarket,” said Tonnesson. “Why did we do it like this? Because it’s personalized. After you take a photo, the app instantly sends you tailored recipe suggestions! At first, they are more or le

ss the same for everyone, but as you continue using it, it starts to learn what you precisely like, by connecting patterns and taking into consideration different behaviors.”

In my rudimentary tests the AI worked acceptably well and did not encourage me to eat a monkey. While the app begs the obvious question – why not just type in “corn?” – it’s an interesting use of vision technology that is definitely a step in the right direction.

 

Tonnesson expects the AI to start connecting you with other players in the food space, allowing you to order corn (but not a monkey) from a number of providers.

“Users should also expect partnerships with restaurants, grocery, meal-kit, and other food delivery services will be part of the future experiences,” he said.

Google lets you create a sticker version of yourself with selfies

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With tools like Apple’s Memoji and Snapchat’s Bitmoji, you’re missing out if you don’t have an animated version of yourself on your phone.

Google is making that process easier on its iOS and Android keyboard extension, Gboard, with the addition of “Minis.” The feature will let you convert your selfies into stickers that are based on your likeness.

As per Engadget, the feature uses a combination of machine learning, neural networks, and artist illustrations to come up with cartoon emoji. 

Meet Minis! Easy to create and share right from #Gboard, these AI-powered personal stickers are made with just a snap of a selfie → https://t.co/d5BBLdt8As pic.twitter.com/39l4vZNjIS

— Google (@Google) August 27, 2018 Read more…

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Apple has removed Infowars podcasts from iTunes

Apple has followed the lead of Google and Facebook after it removed Infowars, the conspiracy theorist organization helmed by Alex Jones, from its iTunes and podcasts apps.

Unlike Google and Facebook, which removed four Infowars videos on the basis that the content violated its policies, Apple’s action is wider-reaching. The company has withdrawn all episodes of five of Infowars’ six podcasts from its directory of content, leaving just one left, a show called ‘Real News With David Knight.’

The removals were first spotted on Twitter. Later, Apple confirmed it took action on account of the use of hate speech which violates its content guidelines.

“Apple does not tolerate hate speech, and we have clear guidelines that creators and developers must follow to ensure we provide a safe environment for all of our users. Podcasts that violate these guidelines are removed from our directory making them no longer searchable or available for download or streaming. We believe in representing a wide range of views, so long as people are respectful to those with differing opinions,” a spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Apple’s action comes after fellow streaming services Spotify and Stitcher removed Infowars on account of its use of hate speech.

Jones has used Infowars, and by association the platforms of these media companies, to broadcast a range of conspiracy theories which have included claims 9/11 was an inside job and alternate theories to the San Bernardino shootings. In the case of another U.S. mass shooting, Sandy Hook, Jones and Infowars’ peddling of false information and hoax theories was so severe that some of the families of the deceased, who have been harassed online and faced death threats, have been forced to move multiple times. A group is suing Jones via a defamation suit.

Starbucks partners with Alibaba on coffee delivery to boost China business

Starbucks is palling up with Alibaba as it seeks to rediscover growth for its business in China.

China has been a bright spot for some time for the U.S. coffee giant, but lately it has struggled to maintain growth — its China business dragged on its Q3 financials — and it is up against some ambitious new rivals, including billion-dollar startup Luckin Coffee.

One-year-old Luckin recently raised $200 million from investors and it has already built quite a presence. It claims over 500 outlets across China and it taps into the country’s mobile trends, with mobile payments and orders and delivery, too. Then there are some deep discounts aimed at getting new users, as is common with food, cars and other on-demand services.

In response, Starbucks is injecting some of that ‘New Retail’ strategy into its own China presence — and it is doing so with none other than Alibaba, the company that coined the phrase, which signifies a marriage between online and offline commerce.

The partnership between Alibaba and Starbucks is wide-ranging and it will cover delivery, a virtual store and collaboration on Alibaba’s “new retail” Hema stores.

The delivery piece is perhaps most obvious, and it’ll see Starbucks work with Ele.me, the $9.5 billion food delivery platform owned by Alibaba, to allow customers to order and receive coffee without visiting a store. The service will start in September in Beijing and Shanghai, with plans to expand to 30 cities and over 2,000 stores by the end of this year.

Starbucks is also building its app into Alibaba’s array of e-commerce sites, including its Tmall brand e-mall and Taobao marketplace. That’s a move that Starbucks President and CEO Kevin Johnson told CNBC would operate “similar to the mobile app embedded right into that experience” and open Starbucks up to Alibaba’s 500 million-plus users.

Finally, Starbucks is bringing its own “Starbucks Delivery Kitchens” to Alibaba’s Hema stores, which feature robots and mobile-based orders, that will combine Starbucks stores to boost its delivery capacity and speed.

Starbucks, as mentioned, needed a boost in China but the deal is also a major coup for Alibaba, which is battling JD.com on the new retail front as well as ambitious on-demand service Meituan. The latter is reported to have recently filed for an IPO in Hong Kong that could raise it $4 billion.

Facebook cuts off access to user data for ‘hundreds of thousands’ of apps

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Facebook has just blocked a truckload of apps from accessing its user’s data.

Facebook’s VP of Product Partnerships, Ime Archibong, explained in a blog post Tuesday that Facebook had cut off API access for “hundreds of thousands of inactive apps that have not submitted for our app review process.” That’s a lot of random, dormant apps that had access.

The social media giant, which was once very open to developers until the whole Cambridge Analytica thing, announced in May during F8 that it was tightening up the review process for apps.

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And now, here’s a ‘Trumpy Cat’ augmented reality app from George Takei

Anyone who follows George Takei on Twitter can tell you that Star Trek‘s original Sulu is not a fan of President Donald Trump. But he’s found a new way to express that criticism — not just in tweets, interviews and op-eds, but also in an augmented reality app called House of Cats.

The app was built in partnership with Montreal-based development company BMAD, and it allows users to interact animated animal characters like Trumpy Cat, Meowlania, Vladdy Putin and Lil’ Rocket Pug. They can add their own voice recordings, superimpose the animals on real environments and take photos with them — Takei suggested including Trumpy Cat in photos of real-world protests.

When I asked where the idea came from, Takei had a simple explanation : “The Internet loves the combination of politics and cats.”

While the app looks pretty silly, Takei made the by-now-commonplace observation that satire is having a hard time keeping up with the daily news.

We spoke shortly after Trump had his press conference with Vladimir Putin — setting off this week’s cycle of criticism, denial and missing double negatives — and Takei told me, “No augmented reality could have created the true reality of what we saw this morning: Donald Trump standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Vladimir Putin … his denial of the attack on the core activity of our democratic system.”

Takei added that humor is a key ingredient in getting a serious message out into the world. He’s pointed to his embrace of memes (particularly Grumpy Cat) as one of the main drivers of his popularity on social media, which in turn gives him a bigger platform for his political views.

“I’m a political activist — I have been since I was a teenager, largely because of my childhood incarceration behind American barbed wire fences,” Takei said. He said his social media presence is meant to be an extension of that activism, but, “I notice that if I’m documenting the truth, people are nodding off. [So] I try to kind of inject a little humor into it.”

The app costs 99 cents, and there are plans for subscription content as well. It might seem strange to pay money for a satirical cat app, but keep in mind that some of the profits will go to Refugees International.

“Making a mockery of this particular person is going to be a very effective tool,” Takei said. “We’ll have fun while we also accomplish our mission to make this a better America.”

Grab co-founder says Southeast Asia still has plenty of competition despite Uber’s exit

Grab may have bought itself a dominant position in Southeast Asia through its acquisition of Uber’s regional business, but the company still believes there’s competition in the ride-hailing space despite what consumers may feel.

But Grab customers aren’t alone in feeling that the Grab-Uber deal is detrimental, the Competition and Consumer Commission Singapore (CCCS) last week expressed concern that the tie-up is hurting consumers and that a lack of competition will reduce innovation. The watchdog is in the process of an investigation into the deal which could see it dish out fines for Uber and Grab, or potentially unwind the deal in Singapore altogether.

Despite that threat looming, Grab co-founder Hooi Ling Tan told an audience at the Rise conference in Hong Kong that the market, and ride-hailing more generally, remains competitive in Southeast Asia despite Uber’s exit.

“There’s still a lot of existing competition, we don’t foresee it ending ever.. and to be honest we don’t want it to because we continue to learn from them,” Tan said. “We continue to learn from alternative players who take alternative strategies [and] operational tactics.”

Go-Jek, the billion-dollar firm that dominates Indonesia and is plotting a regional expansion to fill Uber’s void, may be the most obvious rival, but Tan said that Grab is competing with more basic forces.

“From day one, our primary competitor has never been other ride-hailing apps, it’s actually been what [Grab CEO Anthony Tan] calls the hand — the hand that waves down a taxi on the side of the road,” Tan, who is not related to the Grab CEO, said. “That market is huge, [and it is something] we’re trying to provide an alternative service to because it isn’t exactly efficient as is.”

10 July 2018; Tan Hooi Ling, left, Co-Founder, Grab, and Kara Swisher, Executive Editor, Recode, on Centre Stage during day one of RISE 2018 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Hong Kong. Photo by Stephen McCarthy / RISE via Sportsfile

CCCS, the Singaporean watchdog, doesn’t agree, however. Last week it expressed concern that no other taxi apps rival Grab and that a prohibitive barrier of cost and network effects prevents new entrants from competing squarely. A lack of competition has already led to Grab raising prices, it argued, although Grab has denied doing so.

Tan didn’t comment directly on the regulator’s comments, but she did say at a subsequent press briefing that regulating ride-hailing is a tricky process.

“We’re all trying to figure out what’s the right way to balance the needs of the consumer and need to create an environment that’s supportive of innovation,” she said. “Together we’re trying to figure things out, we make mistakes together but are 100 percent combined in terms of our intent.”

An entity with which Grab is more unexpectedly combined with is Uber, and Tan’s comments certainly paint the relationship between the once-sworn enemies as a very pally one.

“The partnership makes a tonne of sense to us because we saw [Uber] as really true potential partners,” Tan said. “For example some of the things that they’ve been helping us a lot on… they have Uber Eats in Southeast Asia, which we didn’t have, and since we’ve helped take over their operations we’ve helped them expand it from two countries to six countries right now with a bunch more growth expansion plans.

“They’ve also had some of the best technology know-how, whether it’s mapping or just basic scaling infrastructure, those are some of the other things we’ve continued learned from them,” she added.

Tan said that Uber and Grab are educating each other on how their respective businesses are developing, and on that note Grab today went beyond ride-hailing with the launch of its “super app” that integrates third-party services. Uber has embraced scooters with its acquisition of Jump Bikes, but it will take some imagining for the ride-hailing giant to adopt non-transportation services like Grab’s push into payment and financial services.

But then that’s entirely the point of its Southeast Asia exit. It’s widely-believed that Uber left Southeast Asia’s loss-making market to clean its balance sheet ahead of a future IPO. Nonetheless, it got a solid 27.5 percent share in Grab in return and with the Singapore-based firm in the process of raising capital at a valuation of over $10 billion, Uber is already reaping the rewards on paper.

Grab raised $1 billion from Toyota last month and that is the first tranche of a larger fundraising effort to support the one-stop “super app” strategy in Southeast Asia’s post-Uber world.

Apple’s Shortcuts will flip the switch on Siri’s potential

Matthew Cassinelli
Contributor

Matthew Cassinelli is a former member of the Workflow team and works as an independent writer and consultant. He previously worked as a data analyst for VaynerMedia.

At WWDC, Apple pitched Shortcuts as a way to ”take advantage of the power of apps” and ”expose quick actions to Siri.” These will be suggested by the OS, can be given unique voice commands, and will even be customizable with a dedicated Shortcuts app.

But since this new feature won’t let Siri interpret everything, many have been lamenting that Siri didn’t get much better — and is still lacking compared to Google Assistant or Amazon Echo.

But to ignore Shortcuts would be missing out on the bigger picture. Apple’s strengths have always been the device ecosystem and the apps that run on them.

With Shortcuts, both play a major role in how Siri will prove to be a truly useful assistant and not just a digital voice to talk to.

Your Apple devices just got better

For many, voice assistants are a nice-to-have, but not a need-to-have.

It’s undeniably convenient to get facts by speaking to the air, turning on the lights without lifting a finger, or triggering a timer or text message – but so far, studies have shown people don’t use much more than these on a regular basis.

People don’t often do more than that because the assistants aren’t really ready for complex tasks yet, and when your assistant is limited to tasks inside your home or commands spoken inton your phone, the drawbacks prevent you from going deep.

If you prefer Alexa, you get more devices, better reliability, and a breadth of skills, but there’s not a great phone or tablet experience you can use alongside your Echo. If you prefer to have Google’s Assistant everywhere, you must be all in on the Android and Home ecosystem to get the full experience too.

Plus, with either option, there are privacy concerns baked into how both work on a fundamental level – over the web.

In Apple’s ecosystem, you have Siri on iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, AirPods, HomePod, CarPlay, and any Mac. Add in Shortcuts on each of those devices (except Mac, but they still have Automator) and suddenly you have a plethora of places to execute these all your commands entirely by voice.

Each accessory that Apple users own will get upgraded, giving Siri new ways to fulfill the 10 billion and counting requests people make each month (according to Craig Federighi’s statement on-stage at WWDC).

But even more important than all the places where you can use your assistant is how – with Shortcuts, Siri gets even better with each new app that people download. There’s the other key difference: the App Store.

Actions are the most important part of your apps

iOS has always had a vibrant community of developers who create powerful, top-notch applications that push the system to its limits and take advantage of the ever-increasing power these mobile devices have.

Shortcuts opens up those capabilities to Siri – every action you take in an app can be shared out with Siri, letting people interact right there inline or using only their voice, with the app running everything smoothly in the background.

Plus, the functional approach that Apple is taking with Siri creates new opportunities for developers provide utility to people instead of requiring their attention. The suggestions feature of Shortcuts rewards “acceleration”, showing the apps that provide the most time savings and use for the user more often.

This opens the door to more specialized types of apps that don’t necessarily have to grow a huge audience and serve them ads – if you can make something that helps people, Shortcuts can help them use your app more than ever before (and without as much effort). Developers can make a great experience for when people visit the app, but also focus on actually doing something useful too.

This isn’t a virtual assistant that lives in the cloud, but a digital helper that can pair up with the apps uniquely taking advantage of Apple’s hardware and software capabilities to truly improve your use of the device.

In the most groan-inducing way possible, “there’s an app for that” is back and more important than ever. Not only are apps the centerpiece of the Siri experience, but it’s their capabilities that extend Siri’s – the better the apps you have, the better Siri can be.

Control is at your fingertips

Importantly, Siri gets all of this Shortcuts power while keeping the control in each person’s hands.

All of the information provided to the system is securely passed along by individual apps – if something doesn’t look right, you can just delete the corresponding app and the information is gone.

Siri will make recommendations based on activities deemed relevant by the apps themselves as well, so over-active suggestions shouldn’t be common (unless you’re way too active in some apps, in which case they added Screen Time for you too).

Each of the voice commands is custom per user as well, so people can ignore their apps suggestions and set up the phrases to their own liking. This means nothing is already “taken” because somebody signed up for the skill first (unless you’ve already used it yourself, of course).

Also, Shortcuts don’t require the web to work – the voice triggers might not work, but the suggestions and Shortcuts app give you a place to use your assistant voicelessly. And importantly, Shortcuts can use the full power of the web when they need to.

This user-centric approach paired with the technical aspects of how Shortcuts works gives Apple’s assistant a leg up for any consumers who find privacy important. Essentially, Apple devices are only listening for “Hey Siri”, then the available Siri domains + your own custom trigger phrases.

Without exposing your information to the world or teaching a robot to understand everything, Apple gave Siri a slew of capabilities that in many ways can’t be matched. With Shortcuts, it’s the apps, the operating system, and the variety of hardware that will make Siri uniquely qualified come this fall.

Plus, the Shortcuts app will provide a deeper experience for those who want to chain together actions and customize their own shortcuts.

There’s lots more under the hood to experiment with, but this will allow anyone to tweak & prod their Siri commands until they have a small army of custom assistant tasks at the ready.

Hey Siri, let’s get started

Siri doesn’t know all, Can’t perform any task you bestow upon it, and won’t make somewhat uncanny phone calls on your behalf.

But instead of spending time conversing with a somewhat faked “artificial intelligence”, Shortcuts will help people use Siri as an actual digital assistant – a computer to help them get things done better than they might’ve otherwise.

With Siri’s new skills extendeding to each of your Apple products (except for Apple TV and the Mac, but maybe one day?), every new device you get and every new app you download can reveal another way to take advantage of what this technology can offer.

This broadening of Siri may take some time to get used to – it will be about finding the right place for it in your life.

As you go about your apps, you’ll start seeing and using suggestions. You’ll set up a few voice commands, then you’ll do something like kick off a truly useful shortcut from your Apple Watch without your phone connected and you’ll realize the potential.

This is a real digital assistant, your apps know how to work with it, and it’s already on many of your Apple devices. Now, it’s time to actually make use of it.

MoviePass was down for hours, ruining everyone’s Friday night

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Frustrated moviegoers let out a collective scream Friday night when MoviePass stopped working. 

As customers from across the country tried to purchase tickets, they were left confused as the popular app that lets you pay a monthly subscription fee was down for several hours. The company announced on Twitter that it was aware of the issue around 7:45 p.m. ET — after social media users had complained prior —  and asked moviegoers to buy tickets at full price from the theater in exchange for a refund at a later date. The company resolved the issue around 9:30 p.m. ET and asked customers to wait to submit their refund requests until Saturday. Read more…

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Crypto visa card company Monaco just spent millions to buy Crypto.com

Highly-prized domain name Crypto.com has been sold!

Registered in 1993 by Matt Blaze, a professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania who sits on the board of directors of the Tor Project, the domain has attracted a vast amount of interest as you’d expect given the explosion of crypto in recent years. However, Blaze has turned down all offers.

In January, Blaze repeated that the domain was “not for sale” and that people shouldn’t both to contact him — as The Verge noted —  however fast forward to July and he has parted with it after Monaco, a crypto project best-known for developing a crypto debit card, bought the domain in an undisclosed deal.

Experts told The Verge that Crypto.com could have attracted as much as $10 million, however Monaco CEO Kris Marszalek declined to go into the specifics.

“If it was only about money he’d have sold it a long time ago,” he told TechCrunch in an interview.

Hong Kong-based Monaco’s ICO finished in June 2017 with the company raising what was then worth $25 million in crypto. Fast forward today and Marszalek said the firm has close to $200 million on its balance sheet thanks to a surge in the valuation of cryptocurrencies like Ether, but he suggested that, more than money, the sale was about finding the right home for the domain.

“This is a very powerful identity that we are taking on. It’s representative of the entire category so it comes with a huge responsibility on us to carry the torch. We don’t take it lightly and this is one of the things that I think we conveyed successfully, that, as a company, we do have a higher purpose,” he said.

“Fundamentally, blockchain and crypto will enable [the next generation] to control their money, to control their data and to control their identity, these are the three fundamental things that weave the fabric of society. For us this is the purpose, we want to acceleration the world’s adoption of cryptocurrency,” he added.

The splashy purchase of the domain is part of a rebrand for Monaco that will see the parent company become Crypto.com and its Monaco services — which the upcoming Visa card, peer-to-peer transfer and a wallet app — become MCO, the same name as the company’s cryptocurrency.

The Monaco card itself just entered testing for a small group of users, primarily the MCO team, and Marszalek said it will be available for all customers in Singapore and Europe this summer, with a rollout for those in the U.S. likely in Q4. That’s covering a backlog of over 70,000 waiting users, but the company has sweetened the appeal of a card for new people by adding a number of perks, most notably cashback on transactions and a concierge, which vary based on the level.

At around $7 per MCO token, the commitment for a card isn’t cheap. The top of the range ‘Obsidian Black,’ which has the highest rate of cashback and perks, requires a customer to hold around $350,000 in MCO tokens. However, there’s a selection to cater to different budgets.

MCO is well-known for its card project, which has been two years in the making and it captured the attention of early crypto enthusiasts, but Marszalek said the company is cooking up other services in a bid to offer a more rounded product line. (That also explains the rebrand.) Among things to expect, he said MCO is opening to introduce lending that uses crypto as collateral, a low-rate credit service, and a robo trading investment feature.

Note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

WhatsApp copies Telegram to add one-way ‘broadcast’ mode to group chats

“Good artists borrow great artists steal” is a phrase that Facebook seems acutely aware of.

It’s common to speak of Instagram, the Facebook-owned photo-app-now-social-network, borrowing from Snapchat, but now Facebook’s WhatsApp chat app is increasingly drawing its innovation from others such as Telegram.

This week, WhatsApp outed a new feature for its groups that is essentially a replica of Telegram’s channels — that is, a one-way broadcast communication stream.

Telegram channels are popular for setting up a broadcast news feed that allows people to sign up to get alerts from channel admins, who might be news agencies, companies, schools, public interest groups or more. Now WhatsApp is adding the feature to gives its message app new use cases.

Actually, as is often the case for WhatsApp, users have unofficially adopted channel-like behavior for some time. Last year, for example, there were reports of a rural journalist using the messaging app to report and broadcast local news. Doing that is suddenly a whole lot easier through this new ‘broadcast-only’ feature.

“One way people use groups is to receive important announcements and information, including parents and teachers at schools, community centers, and non-profit organizations. We’ve introduced this new setting so admins can have better tools for these use cases,” WhatsApp wrote in a short blog post.

Still, the fact that WhatsApp requires users to provide a phone number to join groups — anyone’s number can be looked up by any group member — is one issue when it comes to creating or joining public groups. Telegram has introduced usernames, which mitigate that issue, but still, the app doesn’t have anything like WhatsApp’s scale which is a crucial consideration when deciding which app to plump for.

WhatsApp has over 1.5 billion active users, more than 200 million of which are in India, whereas Telegram recently passed 200 million active users worldwide.

oBike is closing its dock-less bike-sharing service in Singapore

Singapore’s upcoming licensing for dock-less bike-sharing services has claimed its first scalp after oBike — a Singapore-based company run by Chinese founders — announced that it would cease its service in the country ahead of the implementation of regulations.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) is introducing measures to protect Singapore’s streets from a glut of bicycles left all over the place, as photo essays from China and beyond have cautioned can happen.

oBike launched its service at the beginning of 2017, and it claims over one million registered users but still it will end its service today, June 25. oBike said it will continue to run operations in other markets, although it hasn’t said if/when it will refund Singapore-based users with the deposits that they paid upon registration.

“oBike strongly believes and is committed to provide [sic] dock-less bicycle sharing service that would benefit users’ commuting and Singapore’s transportation system, however it is with regret that the new regulation measures do not favour this belief of ours,” the company said in a statement that posted to Facebook.

This move comes weeks after oBike exited Melbourne in Australia following issues with regulation.

oBike has directed its customers to the newly-launched bike service from ride-hailing giant Grab, which went live in March, although that service has temporarily paused new user sign-ups. Other alternatives in Singapore also include services from Chinese duo Ofo and Mobike.

Grab is actually an investor in oBike, as TechCrunch reported last year, after taking part in its $45 million Series B round that was announced in August 2017.

UK report warns DeepMind Health could gain ‘excessive monopoly power’

DeepMind’s foray into digital health services continues to raise concerns. The latest worries are voiced by a panel of external reviewers appointed by the Google-owned AI company to report on its operations after its initial data-sharing arrangements with the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS) ran into a major public controversy in 2016.

The DeepMind Health Independent Reviewers’ 2018 report flags a series of risks and concerns, as they see it, including the potential for DeepMind Health to be able to “exert excessive monopoly power” as a result of the data access and streaming infrastructure that’s bundled with provision of the Streams app — and which, contractually, positions DeepMind as the access-controlling intermediary between the structured health data and any other third parties that might, in the future, want to offer their own digital assistance solutions to the Trust.

While the underlying FHIR (aka, fast healthcare interoperability resource) deployed by DeepMind for Streams uses an open API, the contract between the company and the Royal Free Trust funnels connections via DeepMind’s own servers, and prohibits connections to other FHIR servers. A commercial structure that seemingly works against the openness and interoperability DeepMind’s co-founder Mustafa Suleyman has claimed to support.

There are many examples in the IT arena where companies lock their customers into systems that are difficult to change or replace. Such arrangements are not in the interests of the public. And we do not want to see DeepMind Health putting itself in a position where clients, such as hospitals, find themselves forced to stay with DeepMind Health even if it is no longer financially or clinically sensible to do so; we want DeepMind Health to compete on quality and price, not by entrenching legacy position,” the reviewers write.

Though they point to DeepMind’s “stated commitment to interoperability of systems,” and “their adoption of the FHIR open API” as positive indications, writing: “This means that there is potential for many other SMEs to become involved, creating a diverse and innovative marketplace which works to the benefit of consumers, innovation and the economy.”

“We also note DeepMind Health’s intention to implement many of the features of Streams as modules which could be easily swapped, meaning that they will have to rely on being the best to stay in business,” they add. 

However, stated intentions and future potentials are clearly not the same as on-the-ground reality. And, as it stands, a technically interoperable app-delivery infrastructure is being encumbered by prohibitive clauses in a commercial contract — and by a lack of regulatory pushback against such behavior.

The reviewers also raise concerns about an ongoing lack of clarity around DeepMind Health’s business model — writing: “Given the current environment, and with no clarity about DeepMind Health’s business model, people are likely to suspect that there must be an undisclosed profit motive or a hidden agenda. We do not believe this to be the case, but would urge DeepMind Health to be transparent about their business model, and their ability to stick to that without being overridden by Alphabet. For once an idea of hidden agendas is fixed in people’s mind, it is hard to shift, no matter how much a company is motivated by the public good.”

We have had detailed conversations about DeepMind Health’s evolving thoughts in this area, and are aware that some of these questions have not yet been finalised. However, we would urge DeepMind Health to set out publicly what they are proposing,” they add. 

DeepMind has suggested it wants to build healthcare AIs that are capable of charging by results. But Streams does not involve any AI. The service is also being provided to NHS Trusts for free, at least for the first five years — raising the question of how exactly the Google-owned company intends to recoup its investment.

Google of course monetizes a large suite of free-at-the-point-of-use consumer products — such as the Android mobile operating system; its cloud email service Gmail; and the YouTube video sharing platform, to name three — by harvesting people’s personal data and using that information to inform its ad targeting platforms.

Hence the reviewers’ recommendation for DeepMind to set out its thinking on its business model to avoid its intentions vis-a-vis people’s medical data being viewed with suspicion.

The company’s historical modus operandi also underlines the potential monopoly risks if DeepMind is allowed to carve out a dominant platform position in digital healthcare provision — given how effectively its parent has been able to turn a free-for-OEMs mobile OS (Android) into global smartphone market OS dominance, for example.

So, while DeepMind only has a handful of contracts with NHS Trusts for the Streams app and delivery infrastructure at this stage, the reviewers’ concerns over the risk of the company gaining “excessive monopoly power” do not seem overblown.

They are also worried about DeepMind’s ongoing vagueness about how exactly it works with its parent Alphabet, and what data could ever be transferred to the ad giant — an inevitably queasy combination when stacked against DeepMind’s handling of people’s medical records.

“To what extent can DeepMind Health insulate itself against Alphabet instructing them in the future to do something which it has promised not to do today? Or, if DeepMind Health’s current management were to leave DeepMind Health, how much could a new CEO alter what has been agreed today?” they write.

“We appreciate that DeepMind Health would continue to be bound by the legal and regulatory framework, but much of our attention is on the steps that DeepMind Health have taken to take a more ethical stance than the law requires; could this all be ended? We encourage DeepMind Health to look at ways of entrenching its separation from Alphabet and DeepMind more robustly, so that it can have enduring force to the commitments it makes.”

Responding to the report’s publication on its website, DeepMind writes that it’s “developing our longer-term business model and roadmap.”

“Rather than charging for the early stages of our work, our first priority has been to prove that our technologies can help improve patient care and reduce costs. We believe that our business model should flow from the positive impact we create, and will continue to explore outcomes-based elements so that costs are at least in part related to the benefits we deliver,” it continues.

So it has nothing to say to defuse the reviewers’ concerns about making its intentions for monetizing health data plain — beyond deploying a few choice PR soundbites.

On its links with Alphabet, DeepMind also has little to say, writing only that: “We will explore further ways to ensure there is clarity about the binding legal frameworks that govern all our NHS partnerships.”

“Trusts remain in full control of the data at all times,” it adds. “We are legally and contractually bound to only using patient data under the instructions of our partners. We will continue to make our legal agreements with Trusts publicly available to allow scrutiny of this important point.”

“There is nothing in our legal agreements with our partners that prevents them from working with any other data processor, should they wish to seek the services of another provider,” it also claims in response to additional questions we put to it.

We hope that Streams can help unlock the next wave of innovation in the NHS. The infrastructure that powers Streams is built on state-of-the-art open and interoperable standards, known as FHIR. The FHIR standard is supported in the UK by NHS Digital, NHS England and the INTEROPen group. This should allow our partner trusts to work more easily with other developers, helping them bring many more new innovations to the clinical frontlines,” it adds in additional comments to us.

“Under our contractual agreements with relevant partner trusts, we have committed to building FHIR API infrastructure within the five year terms of the agreements.”

Asked about the progress it’s made on a technical audit infrastructure for verifying access to health data, which it announced last year, it reiterated the wording on its blog, saying: “We will remain vigilant about setting the highest possible standards of information governance. At the beginning of this year, we appointed a full time Information Governance Manager to oversee our use of data in all areas of our work. We are also continuing to build our Verifiable Data Audit and other tools to clearly show how we’re using data.”

So developments on that front look as slow as we expected.

The Google-owned U.K. AI company began its push into digital healthcare services in 2015, quietly signing an information-sharing arrangement with a London-based NHS Trust that gave it access to around 1.6 million people’s medical records for developing an alerts app for a condition called Acute Kidney Injury.

It also inked an MoU with the Trust where the pair set out their ambition to apply AI to NHS data sets. (They even went so far as to get ethical signs-off for an AI project — but have consistently claimed the Royal Free data was not fed to any AIs.)

However, the data-sharing collaboration ran into trouble in May 2016 when the scope of patient data being shared by the Royal Free with DeepMind was revealed (via investigative journalism, rather than by disclosures from the Trust or DeepMind).

None of the ~1.6 million people whose non-anonymized medical records had been passed to the Google-owned company had been informed or asked for their consent. And questions were raised about the legal basis for the data-sharing arrangement.

Last summer the U.K.’s privacy regulator concluded an investigation of the project — finding that the Royal Free NHS Trust had broken data protection rules during the app’s development.

Yet despite ethical questions and regulatory disquiet about the legality of the data sharing, the Streams project steamrollered on. And the Royal Free Trust went on to implement the app for use by clinicians in its hospitals, while DeepMind has also signed several additional contracts to deploy Streams to other NHS Trusts.

More recently, the law firm Linklaters completed an audit of the Royal Free Streams project, after being commissioned by the Trust as part of its settlement with the ICO. Though this audit only examined the current functioning of Streams. (There has been no historical audit of the lawfulness of people’s medical records being shared during the build and test phase of the project.)

Linklaters did recommend the Royal Free terminates its wider MoU with DeepMind — and the Trust has confirmed to us that it will be following the firm’s advice.

“The audit recommends we terminate the historic memorandum of understanding with DeepMind which was signed in January 2016. The MOU is no longer relevant to the partnership and we are in the process of terminating it,” a Royal Free spokesperson told us.

So DeepMind, probably the world’s most famous AI company, is in the curious position of being involved in providing digital healthcare services to U.K. hospitals that don’t actually involve any AI at all. (Though it does have some ongoing AI research projects with NHS Trusts too.)

In mid 2016, at the height of the Royal Free DeepMind data scandal — and in a bid to foster greater public trust — the company appointed the panel of external reviewers who have now produced their second report looking at how the division is operating.

And it’s fair to say that much has happened in the tech industry since the panel was appointed to further undermine public trust in tech platforms and algorithmic promises — including the ICO’s finding that the initial data-sharing arrangement between the Royal Free and DeepMind broke U.K. privacy laws.

The eight members of the panel for the 2018 report are: Martin Bromiley OBE; Elisabeth Buggins CBE; Eileen Burbidge MBE; Richard Horton; Dr. Julian Huppert; Professor Donal O’Donoghue; Matthew Taylor; and Professor Sir John Tooke.

In their latest report the external reviewers warn that the public’s view of tech giants has “shifted substantially” versus where it was even a year ago — asserting that “issues of privacy in a digital age are if anything, of greater concern.”

At the same time politicians are also gazing rather more critically on the works and social impacts of tech giants.

Although the U.K. government has also been keen to position itself as a supporter of AI, providing public funds for the sector and, in its Industrial Strategy white paper, identifying AI and data as one of four so-called “Grand Challenges” where it believes the U.K. can “lead the world for years to come” — including specifically name-checking DeepMind as one of a handful of leading-edge homegrown AI businesses for the country to be proud of.

Still, questions over how to manage and regulate public sector data and AI deployments — especially in highly sensitive areas such as healthcare — remain to be clearly addressed by the government.

Meanwhile, the encroaching ingress of digital technologies into the healthcare space — even when the techs don’t even involve any AI — are already presenting major challenges by putting pressure on existing information governance rules and structures, and raising the specter of monopolistic risk.

Asked whether it offers any guidance to NHS Trusts around digital assistance for clinicians, including specifically whether it requires multiple options be offered by different providers, the NHS’ digital services provider, NHS Digital, referred our question on to the Department of Health (DoH), saying it’s a matter of health policy.

The DoH in turn referred the question to NHS England, the executive non-departmental body which commissions contracts and sets priorities and directions for the health service in England.

And at the time of writing, we’re still waiting for a response from the steering body.

Ultimately it looks like it will be up to the health service to put in place a clear and robust structure for AI and digital decision services that fosters competition by design by baking in a requirement for Trusts to support multiple independent options when procuring apps and services.

Without that important check and balance, the risk is that platform dynamics will quickly dominate and control the emergent digital health assistance space — just as big tech has dominated consumer tech.

But publicly funded healthcare decisions and data sets should not simply be handed to the single market-dominating entity that’s willing and able to burn the most resource to own the space.

Nor should government stand by and do nothing when there’s a clear risk that a vital area of digital innovation is at risk of being closed down by a tech giant muscling in and positioning itself as a gatekeeper before others have had a chance to show what their ideas are made of, and before even a market has had the chance to form. 

Google brings its ARCore technology to China in partnership with Xiaomi

Google is ramping up its efforts to return to China. Earlier this year, the search giant detailed plans to bring its ARCore technology — which enables augmented reality and virtual reality — to phones in China and this week that effort went live with its first partner, Xiaomi.

Initially the technology will be available for Xiaomi’s Mix 2S devices via an app in the Xiaomi App Store, but Google has plans to add more partners in Mainland China over time. Huawei and Samsung are two confirmed names that have signed up to distribute ARCore apps on Chinese soil, Google said previously.

Starting today, #ARCore apps are available on Mix 2S devices from the Xiaomi App Store in China. More partners coming soon → https://t.co/16QoOTgqve pic.twitter.com/lT4TYXrzwF

— Google AR & VR (@GoogleARVR) May 28, 2018

Google’s core services remain blocked in China but ARCore apps are able to work there because the technology itself works on device without the cloud, which means that once apps are downloaded to a phone there’s nothing that China’s internet censors can do to disrupt them.

Rather than software, the main challenge is distribution. The Google Play Store is restricted in China, and in its place China has a fragmented landscape that consists of more than a dozen major third-party Android app stores. That explains why Google has struck deals with the likes of Xiaomi and Huawei, which operate their own app stores which — pre-loaded on their devices — can help Google reach consumers.

ARCore in action

The ARCore strategy for China, while subtle, is part of a sustained push to grow Google’s presence in China. While that hasn’t meant reviving the Google Play Store — despite plenty of speculation in the media — Google has ramped up in other areas.

In recent months, the company has struck a partnership with Tencent, agreed to invest in a number of China-based startups — including biotech-focused XtalPi and live-streaming service Chushou — and announced an AI lab in Beijing. Added to that, Google gained a large tech presence in Taiwan via the completion of its acquisition of a chunk of HTC, and it opened a presence in Shenzhen, the Chinese city known as ‘the Silicon Valley of hardware.’

Finally, it is also hosting its first ‘Demo Day’ program for startups in Asia with an event planned for Shanghai, China, this coming September. Applications to take part in the initiative opened last week.

The new AI-powered Google News app is now available for iOS

Google teased a new version of its News app with AI smarts at its I/O event last week, and today that revamped app landed for iOS and Android devices in 127 countries. The redesigned app replaces the previous Google Play Newsstand app.

The idea is to make finding and consuming news easier than ever, whilst providing an experience that’s customized to each reader and supportive of media publications. The AI element is designed to learn from what you read to help serve you a better selection of content over time, while the app is presented with a clear and clean layout.

Opening the app brings up the tailored ‘For You’ tab which acts as a quick briefing, serving up the top five stories “of the moment” and a tailored selection of opinion articles and longer reads below it.

The next section — ‘Headlines’ — dives more deeply into the latest news, covering global, U.S., business, technology, entertainment, sports, science and health segments. Clicking a story pulls up ‘Full Coverage’ mode, which surfaces a range of content around a topic including editorial and opinion pieces, tweets, videos and a timeline of events.

 

Favorites is a tab that allows customization set by the user — without AI. It works as you’d imagine, letting you mark out preferred topics, news sources and locations to filter your reads. There’s also an option for saved searches and stories which can be quickly summoned.

The final section is ‘Newsstand’ which, as the name suggests aggregates media. Google said last week that it plans to offer over 1,0000 magazine titles you can follow by tapping a star icon or subscribing to. It currently looks a little sparse without specific magazine titles, but we expect that’ll come soon.

As part of that, another feature coming soon is “Subscribe with Google, which lets publications offer subscription-based content. The process of subscribing will use a user’s Google account, and the payment information they already have on file. Then, the paid content becomes available across Google platforms, including Google News, Google Search and publishers’ own websites.

Twitter is testing secret, encrypted direct messaging

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With the proliferation of secure messaging apps out there, Twitter is set to join in on the action.

The company is seemingly testing end-to-end encrypted direct messaging in the Android version of its app, as spotted by computer science student Jane Manchun Wong on Twitter.

The feature, dubbed “Secret conversation,” will apparently be available in the conversation info section of the app, when direct messaging. Users can also view encryption keys of themselves and a recipient.

End-to-end encryption ensures that messages can only be read between the sender and the recipient, and not by the company whose platform you’re using, or anyone who may try and intercept the message. Read more…

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You’ll look ridiculous playing Snapchat’s new AR games, and maybe that’s OK

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When the iPad first came out, people looked kinda ridiculous using it out and about. 

That doesn’t quite compare to Snapchat’s new AR games feature, “Snappables,” which consists of games that let you control what’s happening using your face.

As witnessed in the Snappables trailer, you can fight aliens in an Space Invaders-style game by moving your head around, or pump iron at the gym with your eyebrows. You can also invite friends on Snapchat to play along in multiplayer games.

There are very few of us with the confidence to play Snappables in public, but at least Snap is encouraging you to try. Read more…

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Facebook has a new job posting calling for chip designers

Facebook has posted a job opening looking for an expert in ASIC and FPGA, two custom silicon designs that companies can gear toward specific use cases — particularly in machine learning and artificial intelligence.

There’s been a lot of speculation in the valley as to what Facebook’s interpretation of custom silicon might be, especially as it looks to optimize its machine learning tools — something that CEO Mark Zuckerberg referred to as a potential solution for identifying misinformation on Facebook using AI. The whispers of Facebook’s customized hardware range depending on who you talk to, but generally center around operating on the massive graph Facebook possesses around personal data. Most in the industry speculate that it’s being optimized for Caffe2, an AI infrastructure deployed at Facebook, that would help it tackle those kinds of complex problems.

FPGA is designed to be a more flexible and modular design, which is being championed by Intel as a way to offer the ability to adapt to a changing machine learning-driven landscape. The downside that’s commonly cited when referring to FPGA is that it is a niche piece of hardware that is complex to calibrate and modify, as well as expensive, making it less of a cover-all solution for machine learning projects. ASIC is similarly a customized piece of silicon that a company can gear toward something specific, like mining cryptocurrency.

Facebook’s director of AI research tweeted about the job posting this morning, noting that he previously worked in chip design:

Interested in designing ASIC & FPGA for AI?
Design engineer positions are available at Facebook in Menlo Park.

I used to be a chip designer many moons ago: my engineering diploma was in Electrical… https://t.co/D4l9kLpIlV

Yann LeCun (@ylecun) April 18, 2018

While the whispers grow louder and louder about Facebook’s potential hardware efforts, this does seem to serve as at least another partial data point that the company is looking to dive deep into custom hardware to deal with its AI problems. That would mostly exist on the server side, though Facebook is looking into other devices like a smart speaker. Given the immense amount of data Facebook has, it would make sense that the company would look into customized hardware rather than use off-the-shelf components like those from Nvidia.

(The wildest rumor we’ve heard about Facebook’s approach is that it’s a diurnal system, flipping between machine training and inference depending on the time of day and whether people are, well, asleep in that region.)

Most of the other large players have found themselves looking into their own customized hardware. Google has its TPU for its own operations, while Amazon is also reportedly working on chips for both training and inference. Apple, too, is reportedly working on its own silicon, which could potentially rip Intel out of its line of computers. Microsoft is also diving into FPGA as a potential approach for machine learning problems.

Still, that it’s looking into ASIC and FPGA does seem to be just that — dipping toes into the water for FPGA and ASIC. Nvidia has a lot of control over the AI space with its GPU technology, which it can optimize for popular AI frameworks like TensorFlow. And there are also a large number of very well-funded startups exploring customized AI hardware, including Cerebras Systems, SambaNova Systems, Mythic, and Graphcore (and that isn’t even getting into the large amount of activity coming out of China). So there are, to be sure, a lot of different interpretations as to what this looks like.

One significant problem Facebook may face is that this job opening may just sit up in perpetuity. Another common criticism of FPGA as a solution is that it is hard to find developers that specialize in FPGA. While these kinds of problems are becoming much more interesting, it’s not clear if this is more of an experiment than Facebook’s full all-in on custom hardware for its operations.

But nonetheless, this seems like more confirmation of Facebook’s custom hardware ambitions, and another piece of validation that Facebook’s data set is becoming so increasingly large that if it hopes to tackle complex AI problems like misinformation, it’s going to have to figure out how to create some kind of specialized hardware to actually deal with it.

A representative from Facebook did not yet return a request for comment.

Russia’s Telegram ban that knocked out 15M Google, Amazon IP addresses had a precedent in Zello

Russia blocking access to Telegram after the messaging app refused to give it access to encrypted messages has picked up an unintended casualty: we’re now up to over 15 million IP addresses from Amazon and Google getting shut down by the regulators in the process, taking various other (non-Telegram) services down with it.

Telegram’s CEO Pavel Durov earlier today said that its reach in the country has yet to see an impact from the ban 24 hours on, with VPNs, proxies and third-party cloud services stepping in to pick up the slack for its roughly 14 million users in the country, and third parties refusing to buckle under requests from Roskomnadzor, the regulator, to remove the app from its stores and servers.

“Thank you for your support and loyalty, Russian users of Telegram. Thank you, Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft — for not taking part in political censorship,” Durov noted.

But Telegram’s Russia crisis is not the first time that an app banned by the Russian government has had to rely on third-party support to navigate its position with users. A recent precedent involving a much smaller communications app sheds some light on how all of this works. And ironically, its own run-in may have been the reason for why the government moved so quickly to block so many IP addresses around Telegram’s, affecting more than just the app itself.

A little over a year ago, the walkie-talkie app Zello received a notice from the Russian regulator Roskomnadzor. Zello was informed that it would be banned unless it started to host records of the conversations that were taking place on the app on Russian servers — in compliance with a hosting requirement that Russia put in place for ISPs back in 2014 as part of its efforts to tighten its control of digital information in the name of national security.

You might remember the name Zello from its bump of attention when a wave of people hit by Hurricane Harvey in Texas used it to communicate with each other when voice services went down or became too clumsy to use, but mobile internet connections stayed up. “Voice is how we most naturally communicate, and push-to-talk and radio-style communication is instant, no dialling or waiting,” said Zello CEO Bill Moore. “It can be with one person or large groups and build relationships and to solve problems.”

The startup itself is based out of Austin, Texas and has around 120 million registered users, with around four million monthly active users.

Moore — who had in the past also founded and run another Texas startup, TuneIn — said in an interview this week that Zello’s run-in with Russia started about a year ago, when the regulator started to block the application in Spring 2017, after Zello refused to cooperate with the hosting requirement, both on grounds of cost and principle.

(Cost: because it’s a small startup. And principle: because Zello is built in a way where messages are stored locally, both for direct messages and those sent in more widely-distributed channels, the feature that Moore believes might have been “why Zello annoyed Russia,” because protestors used these channels to coordinate activities.”)

Instead of buckling and leaving Russia, Zello decided to use to some software it had written years before, when the app had been issued with a block in Venezuela after it ran afoul of the government there — software “that let us change IP addresses for our service,” as Moore describes it. The change in IP addresses essentially meant that as Zello was shut down in one place, it was able to hop to another, using services from either AWS or Google Cloud.

Moore said that Zello — which originally hosted its service on IBM’s cloud before the ban — used its IP hopping tactic for nearly a year, moving first across IP addresses on Amazon and then hopping to Google Cloud when Amazon got too hot. By the time Zello started using Google Cloud, the government was well on to Zello’s ways, and it took only about 10 days before Google asked Zello to stop, Zello’s CTO and founder Alexey Gavrilov added.

“About a month ago, the press in Russia began to report that Roskomnadzor was threatening to block millions of addresses if that’s what it took to get Zello [to retreat]. That was when Amazon said, ‘you need to stop changing IP addresses,’” Gavrilov said. “We tried to get Amazon to reconsider, making the case that by asking us to stop, it is are really acting the same way that ISPs do that are controlled by Russia. Zello is not damaging, but Russia is by blocking. It’s not wise to go along with that threat.”

His argument echoes what Durov has been saying in defense of Telegram, although it didn’t appear to wash for the smaller app. “We lost that debate,” Gavrilov said.

Moore and Gavrilov say they believe Telegram may be using a similar kind of approach to move around Amazon- and Google-based IP addresses (I’ve tried to contact Durov to ask about this but have not had a reply; Google and Amazon also have not replied to my emails). However, now, with the Russian authorities well aware of the tactic, it simply decided to block large swathes of IPs to act more quickly, rather than negotiate with cloud companies to pick out which IP addresses were actually being used.

Partly because of the size of the service in question, and partly because of the blanket blocking, the difference between the IP addresses being blocked varied from just over 2,000 for Zello to more than 15 million by the time Telegram attempted its own IP hops.

Zello still believes that it was not in the wrong in its own encounters with the Russian government, although its appeals to Amazon and Google, and eventually Apple and others who host the app on their stores, ultimately didn’t wash.

“We believe that Zello doesn’t violate Russian law because originally the hosting requirement was written for ISPs, and Zello is not an ISP,” Moore said. “We cooperate with law enforcement on a consistent basis and do what we can under the law.” But like Telegram, Zello takes the view that the medium should not be attacked because of how it is used. “Terrorists drink water, but I don’t think we should outlaw water, either,” is how Moore describes his stance.

Since about two weeks ago, the only way that people in Russia can use Zello is by way of VPN proxies. Zello has a fairly even distribution of its several millon monthly active users across several countries, including the U.S., Mexico, Brazil, and Hong Kong. Russia had been one of its top markets until this happened, but the cost to Zello has been about half of its active users in the country, which now stand at 200,000.

“We don’t like to think about how we’ve lost half our users there,” Gavrilov said. “We like to think about how many we’ve managed to keep.”

Zello has always been ad-free and free to use by regular consumers. Moore said that the company is profitable, making its revenues through a premium tier for businesses to have their own private channels. So far, Zello is completely bootstrapped, although Moore said that it is likely it will want to raise money eventually to grow its consumer business.

Neither CTO nor CEO think that Russian bans impact the company’s wider business.

“In my opinion, incidents like these only help companies like Telegram and Zello on the global market,” Gavrilov (a native of Russia) said. “Realistically, Russia is a small share of the Telegram user base, and standing up to the demands in Russia just communicates to everyone else that you can trust these people. That only makes it more valuable.”

Tribe combines arcade games with group video chat

Sick of chatting but want to stay connected? Tribe‘s app lets you play clones of Space Invaders, Flappy Bird, Fruit Ninja, Name That Tune and more while video chatting with up to seven friends or strangers. Originally a video messaging app, Tribe failed to gain traction in the face of Snapchat and Facebook Messenger. But thanks to a $3 million funding round led by Kleiner Perkins in June, Tribe had the runway to pivot into video chat gaming that could prove popular, even if not in its app.

“As we all know, Messaging is a super-crowded area,” says Tribe co-founder Cyril Paglino. “If you look closely, very few communication products have been blowing up in the past three years.” Now, he says “we’re building a ‘Social Game Boy.’”

A former breakdancer, Paglino formed his team in France before renting a “hacker house” and moving to San Francisco. They saw traction in late 2016, hitting 500,000 downloads. Tribe’s most innovative feature was speech recognition that could turn a mention of “coffee” into a pre-made calendar request, a celebrity’s name into a link to their social media accounts, locations into maps and even offer Spotify links to songs playing in the background.

The promise of being the next hit teen app secured Tribe a $500,000 pre-seed from Kima and Ludlow Ventures in 2015, a $2.5 million seed in 2016 led by prestigious fund Sequoia Capital and then the June 2017 $3 million bridge from KPCB and others. But that $6 million couldn’t change the fact that people didn’t want to sign up for a new chat app when their friends were already established on others.

Luckily, Tribe saw a new trend emerging. Between HQ Trivia’s rise, the Apple App Store adding a Gaming tab, celebrities like Drake streaming their gameplay and Snapchat acquiring 3D gaming engine PlayCanvas, the Tribe team believed there was demand for a new way to play.

Tribe’s rebuilt iOS and Android apps let you rally a crew of friends or join in with strangers to play one of its old-school games. You’ll hear their voices and see their faces in the corner of the screen as everyone in your squad vies for first place. It’s like Houseparty’s group video chat, but with something to do. Facebook Messenger has its own gaming platform, but the games are largely asynchronous. That means you play separately and merely compare scores. That’s a lot less fun than laughing it up together as one of your buddies runs their race car off the road or gets attacked by an alien.

The only problem is that since your friends probably aren’t on Tribe already, the app is vulnerable to cloning by its bigger competitors. Paglino cited technical challenges his team has overcome, its young demographic and lessons learned from 18 months of iterations as what could keep Tribe from being easily co-opted. But as even public companies like Snapchat have learned, it can be tough to stay ahead of tech giants like Facebook with huge development teams, plenty of cash and apps that are already popular.
Tribe’s games are legitimately fun, and the video chat makes them feel a lot more like hanging out with friends and less like a waste of time. Even if Tribe isn’t the one to make mobile group video chat gaming ubiquitous, it could see its idea entertain millions… just in someone else’s app.

Highlights and audio from Zuckerberg’s emotional Q&A on scandals

“This is going to be a never-ending battle” said Mark Zuckerberg . He just gave the most candid look yet into his thoughts about Cambridge Analytica, data privacy, and Facebook’s sweeping developer platform changes today during a conference call with reporters. Sounding alternately vulnerable about his past negligence and confident about Facebook’s strategy going forward, Zuckerberg took nearly an hour of tough questions.

You can read a transcript here and listen to a recording of the call below:



The CEO started the call by giving his condolences to those affected by the shooting at YouTube yesterday. He then delivered this mea culpa on privacy:

We’re an idealistic and optimistic company . . . but it’s clear now that we didn’t do enough. We didn’t focus enough on preventing abuse and thinking through how people could use these tools to do harm as well . . . We didn’t take a broad enough view of what our responsibility is and that was a huge mistake. That was my mistake.

It’s not enough to just connect people. We have to make sure those connections are positive and that they’re bringing people together.  It’s not enough just to give people a voice, we have to make sure that people are not using that voice to hurt people or spread misinformation. And it’s not enough to give people tools to sign into apps, we have to make sure that all those developers protect people’s information too.

It’s not enough to have rules requiring that they protect the information. It’s not enough to believe them when they’re telling us they’re protecting information. We actually have to ensure that everyone in our ecosystem protects people’s information.”

This is Zuckerberg’s strongest statement yet about his and Facebook’s failure to anticipate worst-case scenarios, which has led to a string of scandals that are now decimating the company’s morale. Spelling out how policy means nothing without enforcement, and pairing that with a massive reduction in how much data app developers can request from users makes it seem like Facebook is ready to turn over a new leaf.

Here are the highlights from the rest of the call:

On Zuckerberg calling fake news’ influence “crazy”: “I clearly made a mistake by just dismissing fake news as crazy — as having an impact . . . it was too flippant. I never should have referred to it as crazy.

On deleting Russian trolls: Not only did Facebook delete 135 Facebook and Instagram accounts belonging to Russian government-connected election interference troll farm the Internet Research Agency, as Facebook announced yesterday. Zuckerberg said Facebook removed “a Russian news organization that we determined was controlled and operated by the IRA”.

On the 87 million number: Regarding today’s disclosure that up to 87 million people had their data improperly access by Cambridge Analytica, “it very well could be less but we wanted to put out the maximum that we felt it could be as soon as we had that analysis.” Zuckerberg also referred to The New York Times’ report, noting that “We never put out the 50 million number, that was other parties.”

On users having their public info scraped: Facebook announced this morning that “we believe most people on Facebook could have had their public profile scraped” via its search by phone number or email address feature and account recovery system. Scammers abused these to punch in one piece of info and then pair it to someone’s name and photo . Zuckerberg said search features are useful in languages where it’s hard to type or a lot of people have the same names. But “the methods of react limiting this weren’t able to prevent malicious actors who cycled through hundreds of thousands of IP addresses and did a relatively small number of queries for each one, so given that and what we know to day it just makes sense to shut that down.”

On when Facebook learned about the scraping and why it didn’t inform the public sooner: This was my question, and Zuckerberg dodged, merely saying “We looked into this and understood it more over the last few days as part of the audit of our overall system”, while declining to specify when Facebook first identified the issue.

On implementing GDPR worldwide: Zuckerberg refuted a Reuters story from yesterday saying that Facebook wouldn’t bring GDPR privacy protections to the U.S. and elsewhere. Instead he says, “we’re going to make all the same controls and settings available everywhere, not just in Europe.”

On if board has discussed him stepping down as chairman: “Not that I’m aware of” Zuckerberg said happily.

On if he still thinks he’s the best person to run Facebook: “Yes. Life is about learning from the mistakes and figuring out what you need to do to move forward . . . I think what people should evaluate us on is learning from our mistakes . . .and if we’re building things people like and that make their lives better . . . there are billions of people who love the products we’re building.”

On the Boz memo and prioritizing business over safety: “The things that makes our product challenging to manage and operate are not the tradeoffs between people and the business. I actually think those are quite easy because over the long-term, the business will be better if you serve people. I think it would be near-sighted to focus on short-term revenue over people, and I don’t think we’re that short-sighted. All the hard decisions we have to make are tradeoffs between people. Different people who use Facebook have different needs. Some people want to share political speech that they think is valid, and other people feel like it’s hate speech . . . we don’t always get them right.”

On whether Facebook can audit all app developers: “We’re not going to be able to go out and necessarily find every bad use of data” Zuckerberg said, but confidently said “I actually do think we’re going to be be able to cover a large amount of that activity.

On whether Facebook will sue Cambridge Analytica: “We have stood down temporarily to let the [UK government] do their investigation and their audit. Once that’s done we’ll resume ours … and ultimately to make sure none of the data persists or is being used improperly. And at that point if it makes sense we will take legal action if we need to do that to get people’s information.”

On how Facebook will measure its impact on fixing privacy: Zuckerberg wants to be able to measure “the prevalence of different categories of bad content like fake news, hate speech, bullying, terrorism. . . That’s going to end up being the way we should be held accountable and measured by the public . . .  My hope is that over time the playbook and scorecard we put out will also be followed by other internet platforms so that way there can be a standard measure across the industry.”

On whether Facebook should try to earn less money by using less data for targeting “People tell us if they’re going to see ads they want the ads to be good . . . that the ads are actually relevant to what they care about . . On the one hand people want relevant experiences, and on the other hand I do think there’s some discomfort with how data is used in systems like ads. But I think the feedback is overwhelmingly on the side of wanting a better experience. Maybe it’s 95-5.”

On whether #DeleteFacebook has had an impact on usage or ad revenue: “I don’t think there’s been any meaningful impact that we’ve observed…but it’s not good.”

On the timeline for fixing data privacy: “This is going to be a never-ending battle. You never fully solve security. It’s an arms race” Zuckerberg said early in the call. Then to close Q&A, he said “I think this is a multi-year effort. My hope is that by the end of this year we’ll have turned the corner on a lot of these issues and that people will see that things are getting a lot better.”

Overall, this was the moment of humility, candor, and contrition Facebook desperately needed. Users, developers, regulators, and the company’s own employees have felt in the dark this last month, but Zuckerberg did his best to lay out a clear path forward for Facebook. His willingness to endure this question was admirable, even if he deserved the grilling.

The company’s problems won’t disappear, and its past transgressions can’t be apologized away. But Facebook and its leader have finally matured past the incredulous dismissals and paralysis that characterized its response to past scandals. It’s ready to get to work.

Facebook plans crackdown on ad targeting by email without consent

Facebook is scrambling to add safeguards against abuse of user data as it reels from backlash over the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Now TechCrunch has learned Facebook will launch a certification tool that demands that marketers guarantee email addresses used for ad targeting were rightfully attained. This new Custom Audiences certification tool was described by Facebook representatives to their marketing clients, according to two sources. Facebook will also prevent the sharing of Custom Audience data across Business accounts.

This snippet of a message sent by a Facebook rep to a client notes that “for any Custom Audiences data imported into Facebook, Advertisers will be required to represent and warrant that proper user content has been obtained.”

Once shown the message, Facebook spokesperson Elisabeth Diana told TechCrunch “I can confirm there is a permissions tool that we’re building.” It will require that advertisers and the agencies representing them pledge that “I certify that I have permission to use this data”, she said.

Diana noted that “We’ve always had terms in place to ensure that advertisers have consent for data they use but we’re going to make that much more prominent and educate advertisers on the way they can use the data.” The change isn’t in response to a specific incident, but Facebook does plan to re-review the way it works with third-party data measurement firms to ensure everything is responsibly used. This is a way to safeguard data” Diana concluded.The company declined to specify whether it’s ever blocked usage of a Custom Audience because it suspected the owner didn’t have user consent. ”

The social network is hoping to prevent further misuse of ill-gotten data after Dr. Aleksandr Kogan’s app that pulled data on 50 million Facebook users was passed to Cambridge Analytica in violation of Facebook policy. That sordid data is suspected to have been used by Cambridge Analytica to support the Trump and Brexit campaigns, which employed Custom Audiences to reach voters.

Facebook launched Custom Audiences back in 2012 to let businesses upload hashed lists of their customers email addresses or phone numbers, allowing advertisers to target specific people instead of broad demographics. Custom Audiences quickly became one of Facebook’s most powerful advertising options because businesses could easily reach existing customers to drive repeat sales. The Custom Audiences terms of service require that businesses have “provided appropriate notice to and secured any necessary consent from the data subjects” to attain and use these people’s contact info.

But just like Facebook’s policy told app developers like Kogan not to sell, share, or misuse data they collected from Facebook users, the company didn’t go further to enforce this rule. It essentially trusted that the fear of legal repercussions or suspension on Facebook would deter violations of both its app data privacy and Custom Audiences consent policies. With clear financial incentives to bend or break those rules and limited effort spent investigating to ensure compliance, Facebook left itself and its users open to exploitation.

Last week Facebook banned the use of third-party data brokers like Experian and Acxiom for ad targeting, closing a marketing featured called Partner Categories. Facebook is believed to have been trying to prevent any ill-gotten data from being laundered through these data brokers and then directly imported to Facebook to target users. But that left open the option for businesses to compile illicit data sets or pull them from data brokers, then upload them to Facebook as Custom Audiences by themselves.

The Custom Audiences certification tool could close that loophole. It’s still being built, so Facebook wouldn’t say exactly how it will work. I asked if Facebook would scan uploaded user lists and try to match them against a database of suspicious data, but for now it sounds more like Facebook will merely require a written promise.

Meanwhile, barring the sharing of Custom Audiences between Business Accounts might prevent those with access to email lists from using them to promote companies unrelated to the one to which users gave their email address. Facebook declined to comment on how the new ban on Custom Audience sharing would work.

Now Facebook must find ways to thwart misuse of its targeting tools and audit anyone it suspects may have already violated its policies. Otherwise it may receive the ire of privacy-conscious users and critics, and strengthen the case for substantial regulation of its ads (though regulation could end up protecting Facebook from competitors who can’t afford compliance). Still the question remains why it took such a massive data privacy scandal for Facebook to take a tougher stance on requiring user consent for ad targeting. And given that written promises didn’t stop Kogan or Cambridge Analytica from misusing data, why would they stop advertisers bent on boosting profits?

For more on Facebook’s recent scandals, check out TechCrunch’s coverage:

 

nuqneH? yIjatlh! You can now learn Klingon with Duolingo

If you’re a real Star Wars Star Trek fan, chances are you’ve always dreamt of learning Klingon. It’s one of the most lovely and melodic tongues in the pantheon of fake languages, after all. Well, here is your chance: Duolingo today announced the launch of the official Klingon course on its service.

“Many Star Trek fans become curious about the Klingon language at some point, but learning a language takes time, energy and regular practice, especially when you’re just starting out,” lead course creator and Star Trek fan Felix Malmenbeck, who started working on this project back in 2015, told us. “Therefore, if the language isn’t one of your primary interests, chances are you’ll end up investing that energy elsewhere, whether it’s cosplay, fan fiction, reading novels or any of the multitude of forms that fandom can take.”

Like all Duolingo courses, the Klingon course, too, is available free of charge. Unlike regular languages courses, though, Duolingo probably had to get its legal department involved in launching this one, and the course is actually under licence by CBS Consumer Products.

Klingon joins the other 30 languages that are currently available on the Duolingo platform, which currently has about 200 million users.

India-based music streaming service Gaana raises $115M led by Tencent

 Chinese internet giant Tencent is continuing to put its money in India and in music streaming services after it agreed to lead a $115 million investment in India’s Gaana. Gaana is a music streaming service that was started by Times Media, the company behind the Times of India newspaper and tech incubator Times Internet among other things, seven years ago. Gaana didn’t reveal its… Read More

Telegram has raised an initial $850M for its billion-dollar ICO

 It looks like Telegram’s billion-dollar ICO has reached its first milestone after the chat app company raised an initial $850 million, according to a filing. A document submitted to the SEC earlier this week states that the money was raised “for the development of the TON Blockchain, the development and maintenance of Telegram Messenger and the other purposes.” The security… Read More

Chat app Kakao’s games business lands $130M from Tencent and others ahead of IPO

 Korea’s dominant messaging firm Kakao is back raising funds after its games business, a standalone unit that is headed for an IPO, pulled in $130 million (140 billion KRW) from Tencent and a range of other strategic investors. The company, which owns Korea’s top mobile messaging app and one of the country’s largest internet portals, operates a sprawl of business that… Read More

Toyota invests $69M in Japanese Uber rival backed by the taxi industry

 This week isn’t turning out to be great one for Uber in Japan. Two of its investors — Didi and SoftBank — are teaming up to launch a rival service, while one of its existing competitors has just landed a big cash infusion and highly influential backer after Toyota backed JapanTaxi. The auto giant said it will invest 7.5 billion JPY ($69 billion) into JapanTaxi, an… Read More

Nintendo is bringing Mario Kart to mobile

 In news that will excite every Nintendo fan on the planet, the Japanese gaming giant just announced that it will bring its hugely popular Mario Kart series to mobile. Nintendo teased the upcoming development of ‘Mario Kart Tour’ which it said will be released sometime before March 2019. A long wait, indeed, and for now we have no additional details. But, for most enthusiasts,… Read More

Spotify is testing a new playlist-based music app that’s a lot like Pandora

 Spotify is testing an app that sees it move firmly into Pandora’s territory.
‘Stations’ is a new Android-only app that is being piloted by the company in Australia — it was first noticed by app analytics firm Sensor Tower on Tuesday.
This app offers a ‘lean-back’ option to listen to music based on genres and managed playlists. In the description, Spotify… Read More

China’s Kunlun completes full buyout of Grindr

 Nearly two years to the day of its majority investment in Grindr, China-based tech firm Kunlun Group has fully acquired the gay dating app. Grindr is among the, if not the, world’s most popular LBQT dating app with a claimed 3.3 million daily users. Kunlun, which is best known for games but is part of a consortium that acquired Opera’s browser business, bought 60 percent of the… Read More

Crunch Report | GoPro Cuts 200-300 Jobs

App revenue reached $60 billion in 2017, Travis Kalanick is selling 29 percent of his Uber shares and GoPro cuts 200-300 jobs. All this on Crunch Report. Read More

What were your best nine Instagram photos from 2017?

 You might have noticed a new end-of-year trend on Instagram the past few days. If so, you can thank 2017bestnine.com, a website that lets you automatically collect and collage your most-liked photos of 2017. Best Nine has been around for a while, so many of you may be familiar with the tool already. But for those of you who are new to that Best Nine game, here’s how it works. First of… Read More

These apps will help you keep your New Year’s resolutions

 Almost half of Americans make New Year’s resolutions. Far fewer stick to them.
“Losing weight” and “exercising more” are among the most popular goals. A sizeable percentage of Americans also aim to “be a better person.”
TechCrunch reviewed apps that are designed to help people stay on track with these plans. Here are a few that will help you remain… Read More

Crunch Report | Apple Apologizes for Slowing Down iPhones

Apple apologizes for slowing down iPhones, humans spent $200 million on apps this Christmas and Google retires the Pixel C tablet. All this on Crunch Report. Read More

Coinbase hits top spot on Apple’s US App Store despite struggling to handle bitcoin demand

 Ignoring recent price rises for a second, if you can — there’s no greater sign of bitcoin fever than an app that lets you buy the cryptocurrency becoming the most downloaded app in the App Store. That’s exactly what happened on Thursday when Coinbase, the $1.6-billion-valued company behind what is arguably the world’s best-known exchange for converting fiat into… Read More

Periscope expands virtual tipping via Super Hearts beyond the U.S.

 Twitter’s big push to draw in more live video stars to its Periscope streaming service is now expanding beyond the U.S. The company announced today the Periscope Super Broadcaster program, which allows video stars to earn revenue from their streams through a virtual tipping mechanism, is now available in Canada, Ireland, and the U.K. Other countries will be added to the program soon,… Read More

Grab, the Uber rival in Southeast Asia, is now officially also a digital payments company

 Grab is best known for rivaling Uber in Southeast Asia, but today the company took a major step into becoming a fintech player, too.
That’s because the ride-sharing firm, which recently raised $2 billion from SoftBank and China’s Didi Chuxing, rolled out support for its GrabPay service among third-party merchants for the first time today.
Grab is present in seven markets across… Read More

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This AR app lets you ‘try before you buy’ plants for your home

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Having more plants in your home can absorb airborne pollutants and improve your air quality, which can in turn affect your general wellbeingNASA knows it, we all know it. But what’ll work in your space, aesthetically?

New Australian app Plant Life Balance uses AR to help you “try before you buy,” and create a tangible shopping list of plants to take to your local nursery.

You can assess your current “plant-life balance” (how many rooms you have, how many plants), then use AR to drop in over 90 plant recommendations, and get an analysis of their benefits. Read more…

More about Apps, App, Plant, Plants, and Augmented Reality

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Kudos wants to be a gentle introduction to social media sharing for kids

 Just as pre-teens in the 1990s were warned away from dialing 1-900 numbers, kids now need to learn how to navigate social media responsibly. Kudos, an app for kids aged eight to 13 with around-the-clock moderation, positions itself as a safe introduction to social media that also teaches its young users, some of whom were born before the first iPhone was released, how to be “good… Read More

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Watch Google unveil the Pixel 2 live right here

 Google’s big event is today. And this time, it’s all about new devices — the company should unveil a handful of new hardware products. The event will start at 9 AM in San Francisco, 12 PM in New York, 5 PM in London, 6 PM in Paris. And we already know what to expect. The big elephant in the room is Google’s new flagship Android phone, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. It… Read More

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‪Instagram now autoplays video sound once turned on until you close the app

Autoplay audio can be annoying or convenient depending on the situation. Luckily Instagram has found a happy medium between defaulting autoplay video sound on or off. This weekend TechCrunch spotted that some Instagram videos in the feed were autoplaying with audio. Now Instagram has confirmed to us “this new update rolled out recently” and here’s how it works for all… Read More

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Chatbot startup founder sees Southeast Asia potential despite slow start worldwide

 Chatbots may have underwhelmed thus far, but the impact of the technology still has bags of potential in international markets where mobile messaging has been mainstream for years. That’s the view of one startup that’s working to bring the benefit of bots to the mainstream in Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country and the largest economy in the growing region… Read More

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Acasa is building a platform for ‘Generation Rent’ to manage their homes

 London-based startup Acasa has come a long way since late 2015. The company, then called Splittable, offered a way to manage and share household expenses with multiple house members. However, the bigger vision was to build a platform for ‘Generation Rent’ that makes moving from one houseshare to another as easy as logging in and out of the Acasa app. Read More

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Travis Kalanick reportedly sought to reassert control at Uber after ouster

 Just under two months after resigning from Uber, former CEO Travis Kalanick has reportedly asked some former colleagues if they would support him in a potential shareholder battle, according to a new report by The Information. You’ll periodically find these kinds of proxy fights happening at public companies, but after his ouster, it appears that Kalanick still may want to try to gain… Read More

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Half of businesses on Instagram use Stories as it turns 1

 Instagram Stories has blossomed from a Snapchat clone into an integral part of the world’s largest dedicated visual communication app in the first year since its launch. Half of the businesses on Instagram produced a story in the last month, and its boosted the app’s average usage to 32 minutes per day for those under 25, and 24 minutes per day for those 25 and up. If… Read More

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