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Main article: Mobile

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The Pentagon pushes back on Huawei ban in bid for ‘balance’

01:10 | 25 January

Huawei may have just found itself an ally in the most unexpected of places. According to a new report out of The Wall Street Journal, both the Defense and Treasury Departments are pushing back on a Commerce Department-led ban on sales from the embattled Chinese hardware giant.

That move, in turn, has reportedly led Commerce Department officials to withdraw a proposal set to make it even more difficult for U.S.-based companies to work with Huawei.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper struck a fittingly pragmatic tone while speaking with the paper, noting, “We have to be conscious of sustaining those [technology] companies’ supply chains and those innovators. That’s the balance we have to strike.”

Huawei, already under fire for allegations of flouting sanctions with other countries, has become a centerpiece of a simmering trade war between the Trump White House and China. The smartphone maker has been barred from selling 5G networking equipment due to concerns over its close ties to the Chinese government.

Last year, meanwhile, the government barred Huawei from utilizing software and components from U.S.-based companies, including Google. Huawei is also expected to be a key talking point in upcoming White House discussions, as officials weigh actions against the repercussions they’ll ultimately have for U.S. partners.

The Commerce Department has yet to offer any official announcement related to the report.

 


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Uber’s Shin-pei Tsay is coming to TC Sessions: Mobility

00:26 | 24 January

Government and policy experts are among the most important people in the future of transportation. Any company pursuing the shared scooters and bikes business, ride-hailing, on-demand shuttles and eventually autonomous vehicles has to have someone, or a team of people, who can work with cities.

Enter Shin-pein Tsay, the director of policy, cities and transportation at Uber . TechCrunch is excited to announce that Tsay will join us on stage at TC Sessions: Mobility, a one-day conference dedicated to the future of mobility and transportation.

If there’s one person who is at the center of this universe, it’s Tsay. In her current role at Uber, she leads a team of issues experts focused on what Uber calls a “sustainable multi-modal urban future.”

Tsay is also founder. Prior to Uber, she founded a social impact analysis company called Make Public. She was also the deputy executive director of TransitCenter, a national foundation focused on improving urban transportation. She also founded and directed the cities and transportation program under the Energy and Climate Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

For the past four years, Shinpei has served as a commissioner for the City of New York Public Design Commission. She is on the board of the national non-profit In Our Backyard.

Stay tuned, we’ll have more speaker announcements in the coming weeks. In case you missed it, TechCrunch has already announced Ike co-founder and chief engineer Nancy Sun, Waymo’s head of trucking Boris Sofman and Trucks VC’s Reilly Brennan will be participating in TC Sessions: Mobility.

Don’t forget that $250 Early-Bird tickets are now on sale — save $100 on tickets before prices go up on April 9; book today.

Students, you can grab your tickets for just $50 here.

 


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NBC partners with Snapchat on four daily shows for 2020 Tokyo Olympics

21:02 | 23 January

Snapchat and NBC Olympics are again teaming up to produce customized Olympics content for users in the U.S. — this time, for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics this summer. The companies had previously worked together during the Rio 2016 and PyeongChang 2018 Olympics. The PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games in 2018 reached over 40 million U.S. users, up 25% from the 2016 Rio Olympics.

In addition, 95% of those users were under the age of 35.

This younger demographic is getting harder to reach in the cord-cutting era, as many people forgo pay-TV subscriptions and traditional broadcast networks in favor of on-demand streaming services, like Netflix. That limits the reach of advertisers, impacting NBC’s bottom line.

The Snap partnership helps to fix that, as it offers NBC Olympics a way to sell to advertisers who want to reach younger fans who don’t watch as much — or any — TV. Snapchat today reaches 90% of all 13 to 24 year-olds in the U.S., and 75% of all 13 to 34 year-olds. 210 million people now use Snapchat daily.

NBC Olympics says it’s the exclusive seller of all the new customized content associated with the Games, working in partnership with Snap.

This year, it’s also putting out more content than before.

The company plans to release more than 70 episodes across four daily Snapchat shows leading up to and during the Games. That’s triple the number of episodes it offered in 2018.

For the first time, it’s creating two daily Highlight Shows for Snapchat, which will be updated in near real-time. The shows will include the must-see moments from the day in Tokyo.

In addition, two unscripted shows will air during the Games, each with two episodes per day. One, “Chasing Gold,” which first debuted during PyeongChang 2018, will follow the journeys of Team USA athletes. The second show is new this year, and will be a daily recap of the most memorable moments curated especially for Snapchat users. Both are being produced by The NBCUniversal Digital Lab.

The deal will also see Snap curating daily Our Stories during the Games, as it has done in previous years. The stories will include photos and videos from fans as well as content from the NBC Olympics.

“We know the audience on Snap loves the Olympic Games,” said Gary Zenkel, President, NBC Olympics, in a statement. “After two successful Olympics together, we’re excited to take the partnership to another level and produce even more content and coverage from the Tokyo Olympics tailored for Snapchatters, which also will directly benefit the many NBC Olympics advertisers who seek to engage further with this young and active demographic.”

Snapchat isn’t the only digital destination for Olympics content, however. NBC and Twitter teamed up to stream limited live event coverage, highlights and a daily Olympics show from the Tokyo Games. It was unclear at the time the deal was announced if NBC had opted for Twitter over Snapchat. Now we know that’s not the case — in fact, Snap’s deal with NBC is even bigger than before.

NBCU had said earlier, it expected to exceed $1.2 billion in ad sales for the 2020 Games, which are also presented on NBC, NBCSN, Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA, and NBC Sports’ digital platforms.

 


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Yo Facebook & Instagram, stop showing Stories reruns

03:55 | 23 January

If I watch a Story cross-posted from Instagram to Facebook on either of the apps, it should appear as “watched” at the back of the Stories row on the other app. Why waste my time showing me Stories I already saw?

It’s been over two years since Instagram Stories launched cross-posting to Stories. Countless hours of each feature’s 500 million daily users have been squandered viewing repeats. Facebook and Messenger already synchronized the watched/unwatched state of Stories. It’s long past time that this was expanded to encompass Instagram.

I asked Facebook and Instagram if it had plans for this. A company spokesperson told me that it built cross-posting to make sharing easier to people’s different audiences on Facebook and Instagram, and it’s continuing to explore ways to simplify and improve Stories. But they gave no indication that Facebook realizes how annoying this is or that a solution is in the works.

The end result if this gets fixed? Users would spend more time watching new content, more creators would feel seen, and Facebook’s choice to jam Stories in all its apps would fee less redundant and invasive. If I send a reply to a Story on one app, I’m not going to send it or something different when I see the same Story on the other app a few minutes or hours later. Repeated content leads to more passive viewing and less interactive communication with friends, despite Facebook and Instagram stressing that its this zombie consumption that’s unhealthy.

The only possible downside to changing this could be fewer Stories ad impressions if secondary viewings of peoples’ best friends’ Stories keep them watching more than new content. But prioritizing making money over the user experience is again what Mark Zuckerberg has emphasized is not Facebook’s strategy.

There’s no need to belabor the point any further. Give us back our time. Stop the reruns.

 


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Disney sells mobile game studio FoxNet Games to Scopely

21:43 | 22 January

Disney announced today it has sold the game studio FoxNet Games Los Angeles, the makers of “MARVEL Strike Force” and other titles, as well as Cold Iron Studios in San Jose, to the interactive entertainment and mobile game company, Scopely. The studios were acquired by Disney in 2019 as a part of its $71.3 billion deal for 21st Century Fox. Disney is not, however, divesting of Fox’s full gaming lineup. The company clarified that its separate portfolio of Fox IP licensed game titles were not a part of this deal and will continue to be a part of Disney’s licensed games business.

Aquisition terms were not disclosed.

FoxNet Games released its first title, “MARVEL Strike Force” in March 2018 and it brought in $150 million in its first year across iOS and Android. Another FoxNet title “Storyscape,” released in early 2019, offers choose-your-own-adventure tales taking place in the world of “The X-Files” or “Titanic.” More recently, the studio soft-launched “Avatar: Pandora Rising,” a massive real-time strategy and social game set in Pandora from the movie “Avatar.”

According to data from Sensor Tower “MARVEL Strike Force” has been downloaded over 26 million times to date. “Storyscape” has topped 1.7 million installs. The Avatar title isn’t broadly available, as it’s still in development. It only has 100,000 downloads at present.

FoxNet’s website also notes a game based on the movie franchise “Alien,” is coming soon. (This was acquired with FoxNet’s own deal for Cold Iron Studios back in 2018.)

“We have been hugely impressed with the incredible game the team at FoxNext Games has built with MARVEL Strike Force and can’t wait to see what more we can do together,” said Tim O’Brien, Chief Revenue Officer at Scopely, in a statement about the deal. “In addition to successfully growing our existing business, we have been bullish on further expanding our portfolio through M&A, and FoxNext Games’ player-first product approach aligns perfectly with our focus on delivering unforgettable game experiences. We are thrilled to combine forces with their world-class team and look forward to a big future together,” he added.

Scopely, which hit over a billion in lifetime revenue in summer 2019, had also acquired DIGIT Game Studios last year, home to the top-grossing MMO/strategy game “Star Trek Fleet Command” and strategy MMO “Kings of the Realm.”

Other Scopely top game titles include “Looney Tunes World of Mayhem,” “The Walking Dead: Road to Survival,” “Wheel of Fortune: Free Play,” “WWE Champions 2019,” “Yahtzee with Buddies Dice Game,” “Dice with ellen,” “Scrabble Go,” and many more.

With its latest acquisition, Scopely adds another top-grossing game to its lineup, expands its in-development pipeline, and gains the expertise of FoxNet team. When the transaction completes, FoxNet Games President Aaron Loeb will join Scopely in a newly created executive role and FoxNet Games SVP & GM Amir Rahimi will lead the FoxNext Games Los Angeles studio within Scopely as President, Games.

 


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Octi launches a social network built around augmented reality

17:07 | 22 January

Octi has created a new social network that uses augmented reality to connect the act of seeing your friends in real life with viewing digital content like their favorite YouTube videos and Spotify songs.

When I wrote about the startup in 2018, it was building AR technology that could do a better job of recognizing the human body and movement. Last week, co-founder and CEO Justin Fuisz (pictured above) told me that this was “a really cool feature,” but that Octi’s investors pushed him “to do more, go deeper.”

Speaking of those investors, the startup says it’s now raised $12 million in funding (including a previously announced seed round of $7.5 million) from Live Nation, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Peter Diamandis’ Bold Capital Partners, Human Ventures, I2BF, Tom Conrad, Scott Belsky and Josh Kushner.

Last week, Fuisz demonstrated what he now sees as Octi’s “mic drop” moment — opening the new app and pointing his iPhone camera at a colleague. The app quickly recognized her, allowing Fuisz to send her a friend request. And once the request was accepted, could Fuisz look at her through the camera again, where she was surrounded by a floating “belt” of virtual items that she’d created with videos, songs and photos.

Octi app

Octi also allows you to include fun effects and stickers. Your friends can change your profile too, making you wear a funny hat or giving you a rousing theme song for the day.

To create a facial recognition experience that’s fast and simple, Fuisz said that Octi’s powered by a “neural network on the edge,” allowing the app to process images on the device (rather than uploading them to the cloud) in a privacy-friendly way.

He said the company has taken other steps to optimize the process, like prioritizing friends-of-friends rather than searching through the faces of everyone in the network, resulting in an app that can identify a friend in as little as 20 milliseconds.

While Octi allows you to view friends’ profiles remotely, it’s worth emphasizing that the core experience is meant to be in-person. In fact, the company provided a statement from analyst Rich Greenfield in which he described the app as “an impressive technology that gives teens a compelling reason to be present and communicate with their phones, while gathered with their closest friends.”

Octi app

I wondered whether a new social dynamic also provides new opportunities for harassment and bullying, but Fuisz noted that for now, Octi profiles and belts are only visible to friends that you’ve approved. So if one of your connections is doing something you don’t like, “You just say goodbye. That’s it. That’s a simple way of dealing with it.”

Fuisz added that this initial version provides a foundation for many more experiences: “There’s endless opportunity for games and other fun things you can do.”

Ultimately, he’s hoping to turn this into a WeChat-style platform for outside developers to build social tools and content. And since Octi works on iPhone 7 and above (with plans for an Android version later this year), it can potentially reach an enormous audience out of the gate, rather than facing the scale issues of a more specialized AR or VR hardware platform.

 


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2020 will be a moment of truth for foldable devices

22:12 | 21 January

Phones were not the centerpiece at the recently wrapped Consumer Electronics Show; I’ll probably repeat this point a few more times over the course of this piece, just so we’re clear. This is due, in no small part, to the fact that Mobile World Congress has mostly usurped that role.

There are always a smattering of announcements at CES, however. Some companies like to get out ahead of the MWC rush or just generally use the opportunity to better spread out news over the course of the year. As with other categories, CES’s timing positions the show nicely as a kind of sneak preview for the year’s biggest trends.

A cursory glance at the biggest smartphone news from the show points to the continuation of a couple of key trends. The first is affordability. Samsung leads the pack here with the introduction of two “Lite” versions of its flagship devices, the Galaxy S10 and Note 10. The addition of the line lent some confusion to Samsung’s strategy amongst a handful of tech analysts around where precisely such devices would slot in the company’s portfolio.

 


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Huawei’s answer to life after Google Maps? TomTom

21:33 | 21 January

Losing access to Google software and services understandably threw Huawei for a loop. The Chinese hardware giant has clearly been working on a contingency plan to deal with the loss of access to things like Android and the Play Store, but Google’s offering formed so much of the devices’ software core — as they do so many of its competitors.

Huawei just lined up a pretty big name in its attempts to rebuild a competitive software suite. Dutch mapping giant TomTom has agreed to provide access to its navigation, mapping and traffic information. The two companies finalized a deal this week, per Reuters, letting Huawei use that information to build its own proprietary apps.

TomTom confirmed the deal, but declined to offer additional information. The move comes as the mapping company has taken a step back from hardware offerings, in favor of monetizing its software services. Given Huawei’s pretty massive footprint in the global smartphone market, this presents a pretty big deal for TomTom, which had previously provided info for AppleMaps.

Huawei was left reeling from U.S. sanctions that cut off access to U.S.-produced software and components. The company has been working to build its own Android competitor behind the scenes, though what we’ve seen of HarmonyOS has thus far been fairly muted. Rumors have also swirled around Huawei developing its own Maps competitor, so it’s hard to say how much it views this new deal as a stopgap. 

 


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AppsFlyer raises $210M for ad attribution and more

16:16 | 21 January

AppsFlyer has raised a massive Series C of $210 million led by General Atlantic.

Founded in 2011, the company is best known for mobile ad attribution — allowing advertisers to see which campaigns are driving results. At the same time, AppsFlyer has expanded into other areas like fraud prevention.

And in the funding announcement, General Atlantic Manager Director Alex Crisses suggested that there’s a broader opportunity here.

“Attribution is becoming the core of the marketing tech stack, and AppsFlyer has established itself as a leader in this fast-growing category,” Crisses said. “AppsFlyer’s commitment to being independent, unbiased, and representing the marketer’s interests has garnered the trust of many of the world’s leading brands, and we see significant potential to capture additional opportunity in the market.”

Crisses and General Atlantic’s co-president and global head of technology Anton Levy are both joining AppsFlyer’s board of directors. Previous investors Qumra Capital, Goldman Sachs Growth, DTCP (Deutsche Telekom Capital Partners), Pitango Venture Capital and Magma Venture Partners also participated in the round, which brings the company’s total funding to $294 million.

AppsFlyer said it works with more than 12,000 customers including eBay, HBO, Tencent, NBC Universal, Minecraft, US Bank, Macy’s and Nike. It also says it saw more than $150 million in annual recurring revenue in 2019, up 5x from its Series C in 2017.

Co-founder and CEO Oren Kaniel said that as attribution becomes more important, marketers need a partner they can trust. And with AppsFlyer driving $28 billion in ad spend last year, he argued, “There’s a lot of trust there.”

Kaniel added, “It doesn’t really matter how sophisticated your marketing stack is, or whether you have AI or machine learning — if the data feed is wrong … everything else will be wrong. I think companies realize how sensitive and critical this data platform is for them. I think that in the past couple of years, they’re investing more in selecting the right platform.”

In order to ensure that trust, he said that AppsFlyer has avoided any conflicts of interest in its business model — a position that extends to fundraising, where Kaniel made sure not to raise money from any of the big players in digital advertising.

And moving forward, he said, “We will never go into media business, never go into media services. We want to maintain our independence, we want to maintain our previous unbiased positions.”

Kaniel also argued that while he doesn’t see regulations like Europe GDPR and California’s CCPA hindering ad attribution directly, the regulatory environment has justified AppsFlyer’s investment in privacy and security.

“Even more than just being in compliance, [with AppsFlyer], marketers all of a sudden have full control of their data,” he said. “Let’s say on the web, probably your website is sending data and information to partners who don’t need to have access to this ifnormation. The reason is, there’s no logic, there’s a lot of pixels going everywhere, the publishers don’t have control. If you use our platform, you have full control, you can configure the exact data points that you’d like to share.”

 


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Samsung invests $500M to set up a smartphone display plant in India

02:00 | 20 January

Samsung, which once led India’s smartphone market, is investing $500 million in its India operations to set up a manufacturing plant at the outskirts of New Delhi to produce displays.

The company disclosed the investment and its plan in a filing to the local regulator earlier this month. The South Korean giant said the plant would produce displays for smartphones as well as a wide-range of other electronics devices.

In the filing, the company disclosed that it would be using some land for the new plant from its existing factory in Noida.

In 2018, Samsung opened a factory in Noida that it claimed was the world’s largest mobile manufacturing plant. For that factory, the company had committed to spend about $700 million.

The new plant should help Samsung further increase its capacity to produce smartphone components locally and access a range of tax benefits that New Delhi offers.

Those benefits would come in handy to the company as it faces off Xiaomi, the Chinese smartphone vendor that put an end to Samsung’s lead in India.

Samsung is now the second largest smartphone player in India, which is the world’s second largest market with nearly 500 million smartphone users. The company in recent months has also lost market share to Chinese brand Realme, which is poised to take over the company in the quarter that ended in December last year, according to some analysts.

TechCrunch has reached out to Samsung for comment.

 


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