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Main article: Mobile

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Facebook’s latest experiment is a meme creation app, Whale

23:38 | 19 November

Facebook’s NPE Team, a division inside the social networking giant that will build experimental consumer-facing social apps, has now added a third app to its lineup with the launch of meme creation app Whale. Currently, the app allows users to decorate photos with text and stickers in order to create memes that can be shared to social media or texted to friends.

The app isn’t all that original, given the plethora of image-editing apps on the App Store today with similar feature sets. But it does have the advantage of being free to use without in-app purchases or subscriptions.

In Whale, users can take a photo, select a picture from their camera roll, or browse the app’s library of stock images in order to create a meme. Blank, 2-grid, 3-grid, and 4-grid canvas layouts are also available. To customize the images, users can add emojis, text, effects, and filters like laser eyes, vortex or bulge, for example.

In addition to making shareable memes, users can make their own image stickers using the crop and cut tools. And those with artistic capabilities can use the included freeform drawing tool, as well.

Like other NPE Team apps, Whale isn’t offered for download in the U.S. Instead, it’s only available in Canada for the time being — the home market for the first two NPE Team apps, Aux and Bump. The latter was also available in the Philippines, but neither have reached the U.S. Canada is likely being chosen as it’s a good proxy for the U.S., in terms of consumer demographics and user behavior, but has fewer users to contend with, in case an app takes off and has to quickly scale.

Facebook had announced its plans for the NPE Team back in July, explaining that its goal would be to rapidly experiment with new ideas, and shut down those projects that didn’t gain traction.

Its investment in creating new mobile social experiences comes at a time when Facebook’s suite of apps is facing serious competition from newer publishers, including most notably, Snapchat and TikTok. More broadly, the social networking app market is today filled with Snapchat platform apps, like Yolo or LMK, at the top of the charts, alongside newer video chat apps like Houseparty and Marco Polo.

App store intelligence firm Apptopia was first to spot Whale’s launch, which was reported by The Information. The app arrived on November 15, 2019, according to App Annie but it hasn’t yet ranked in any App Store category at this time.

Facebook says it’s not commenting on individual NPE Team apps, but had previously noted that the availability of the apps would depend on each app itself.

 

 


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Google Assistant introduces personalized playlists of audio news

21:10 | 19 November

Starting today, when you say “Hey Google, play me the news” to a Google Assistant-enabled phone or smart speaker, you’ll get a tailored playlist of the day’s big headlines and stories.

That’s probably what many of us are hoping for when we listen to a news radio station or a daily news podcast during the morning commute. But those come from a single broadcaster, and may require you to hop around to get all the news you’re looking for.

In contrast, the feature that Google is calling Your News Update draws stories from a variety of publisher partners, focusing on the ones that seem relevant to your interests and your location.

“Audio has always been great,” said Audio News Product Manager Liz Gannes (a former tech journalist herself.) “It’s a tremendously evocative medium that conveys an immense amount of information.”

But she suggested that “the distribution technology has been slower [t evolve] than things like text and video,” which is why Google has been experimenting in this area. For example, it’s already added news stories to Google Assistant, as well as responses to news-related questions like “What’s the latest news about Brexit?”

Gannes added that behind the scenes, the company has been developing “an open specification for single topic audio stories.” So rather than dealing with an unwieldy hourlong broadcast or podcast, Google Assistant is working clips focused on a specific piece of news.

Your News Update usually starts with a few brief, general interest clips — namely, the big headlines of the day. Then it starts playing longer stories that are selected based on what Google knows about you.

For example, when I tried it out this morning, my update began with a 30-second update on the impeachment from Fox News (not one of my regular news sources) and ran through other then major stories of the day, then switched to longer (two- to three-minute) entertainment stories from sources like The Hollywood Reporter.

Gannes noted that “there’s a big emphasis on local news in this product — that don’t just mean where you live, but also other locations you care about.” And she said the average update will be around an hour and a half — so it can keep you occupied during a long commute, no dial-fiddling required.

John Ciancutti, Google’s director of engineering for search, added that the recommendations should get smarter over time: “If you want to skip a story … the more you listen, the better sense we get of your tastes and interests.” He also suggested that Your News Update could become more sensitive to context, offering different stories depending on whether (say) you’re in your car or in your kitchen.

“You can imagine in the future, you tune in and we know you’re in your car on Tuesday morning at 7:36, and we can predict based on other listening that you’ve got about a 28-minute commute,” Ciancutti said.

Your News Update is currently available in English in the United States, with plans for international expansion next year.

 


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Spotify confirms it’s testing real-time lyrics synced to music

01:12 | 15 November

With the launch of iOS 13, Apple

to its Apple Music app. Now Spotify may do the same. Several users in international markets are now seeing a similar synced lyrics feature in their Spotify mobile app, where lyrics scroll by in time with the music. The feature is powered by Musixmatch, according to the screenshots. Spotify confirmed to TechCrunch the feature is a test in a limited number of markets.

While Spotify didn’t confirm which regions have access, we’re seeing that users in Canada, Indonesia, and Mexico appear to be among the test markets.

The feature sits beneath the playback controls where today, other enhancements like Behind the Lyrics or Storyline, currently appear. And users say they can also view the lyrics in a full-screen experience.

We were not able to duplicate the same experience here in the U.S., which indicates it’s still limited by geography.

 

Spotify had lyrics support on the desktop several years ago, but that feature was later removed. Since then, users have repeatedly asked when it would return. On Spotify’s user feedback community, for example, a request asking the company to “bring back lyrics” was upvoted over 14,300 times. Spotify wouldn’t respond to user requests except to point users to its Genius integration, Behind the Lyrics.

Genius, however, doesn’t provide full lyrics. Instead, it’s a way to annotate tracks with a combination of lyrics and stories. While the feature can be both informative and entertaining, it’s not necessarily the experience people want when they’re trying to learn the words to a song.

Currently, neither Spotify’s desktop or mobile app has lyrics support, with the exception of Japan. It also regularly runs tests like this, so this is not a confirmation of a near-term launch.

Spotify’s decision to not make lyrics integration a priority has given Apple Music a competitive advantage in terms of its feature set. While it may not be a key selling point, per se — Spotify now has 113 million paying customers to Apple Music’s 60 million — it could help to retain users who don’t want to lose access by switching. Amazon has also capitalized on Spotify’s lack of lyrics with integrations of music and lyrics on Alexa devices.

Reached for comment, a Spotify spokesperson confirmed a synced lyrics experience is something it’s testing.

“We can confirm we are testing this feature in a small number of markets,” the spokesperson said. “At Spotify, we are always testing new products and experiences but have no further news to share at this time.”

 


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Google brings RCS support in its Android Messages app to the U.S.

20:00 | 14 November

Google today announced that it is now rolling out support for Rich Communication Services messages (you can think of it as the next generation of SMS) in the Android Messages app to all of its users in the U.S., after already testing it with a small set of users in recent months. For Google, this push for RCS is also a way for the company to more effectively compete with Apple’s iMessages (though it doesn’t feature end-to-end encryption) and since Google has mostly taken control of this rollout away from carriers, it gets to call the shots on when users get access to this, not the telcos. It already did this in the UK and France earlier this year, so the company already has some experience in managing this service.

It’s also no secret that Google’s messaging strategy, at least for consumers, remains messy, with Hangouts still being a widely used tool. At least on mobile, Google hopes that Messages, which until now was essentially the company’s SMS client, can take over that role. Like other messaging services, RCS support in Messages will allow you to talk to your friends over WiFi or mobile data and send photos and videos. You will also get read receipts, typing notifications and all the usual messaging features you’d expect.

With Google taking control of the rollout, it’s also now responsible for keeping this network running and there are some legitimate concerns about the company owning this over the carriers. On the other hand, though, the carriers didn’t do them any favors by making their own RCS rollouts as messy as possible, up to the point where Google really didn’t have an option but to do this itself. For Android users, though, this is good news, even though they will still show up with a green bubble on iPhones — and will hence be judged by their iPhone-using friends.

 


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Apple Research app arrives on iPhone and Apple Watch with three opt-in health studies

17:37 | 14 November

Apple in September announced its plans for a research app that would allow U.S. consumers to participate in health studies from their Apple devices. Today, that app has gone live for both iPhone and Apple Watch for customers in the U.S. From the new app, Apple Research, users can currently opt to participate in three health studies, including a women’s health study, hearing study, and a heart and movement study.

Apple had teamed up with researchers and health organizations on previous studies, but those would require participants to install a dedicated app on their iOS device for each study alone. The new Research app instead offers a dedicated place for this opt-in activity and makes it simpler for people who want to join multiple studies at once.

The data collected from Apple devices (and their numerous sensors) offers researchers the ability to conduct large-scale health studies in a way that hasn’t been possible before. Before, these sorts of studies were expensive and time-consuming, Apple says, but now users can opt into sharing health-related information directly with researchers — like signals from their heart, motion level and activity, and sound exposure.

Apple’s privacy promises come into play here as well, as it puts data-sharing in users’ control, and offers commitments that data will be encrypted, won’t be sold, and that studies have to inform users how your data will support their research. Participants can also withdraw at any time.

Among the first three studies is a women’s health study in partnership with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. It aims to advance understanding of women’s menstrual cycles and their relationship to infertility, osteoporosis, menopause, and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). This will collect users’ cycle tracking logs from the Health app on the iPhone or the Cycle Tracking app on Apple Watch.

Another heart and movement study is in partnership with the American Heart Association and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and will use Apple Watch data collected during workouts, plus heart rate and activity data, along with short surveys. This data will be used to understand how certain mobility signals and details about heart rate and rhythm could serve as potential early warning signs of atrial fibrillation (AFib), heart disease or declining mobility, among other things.

The hearing study from the University of Michigan and the World Health Organization collects data about users’ sound exposure from the iPhone and Noise app on Apple Watch, along with surveys and hearing tests. The study will also test if Health app notifications will encourage users to modify their listening behavior, when loud sounds are detected.

“Today marks an important moment as we embark on research initiatives that may offer incredible learnings in areas long sought after by the medical community,” said Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer, in a statement about the app’s launch. “Participants on the Research app have the opportunity to make a tremendous impact that could lead to new discoveries and help millions lead healthier lives.”

The Research app is rolling out now to iPhone and Apple Watch in the U.S.

 


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Disney+ to launch in India, Southeast Asian markets next year

09:25 | 14 November

Disney plans to bring its on-demand video streaming service to India and some Southeast Asian markets as soon as the second half of next year, two sources familiar with the company’s plans told TechCrunch.

In India, the company plans to bring Disney+’s catalog to Hotstar, a popular video streaming service it owns, after the end of next year’s IPL cricket tournament in May, the people said.

Soon afterwards, the company plans to expand Hotstar with Disney+ catalog to Indonesia and Malaysia among other Southeast Asian nations, said those people on the condition of anonymity.

A spokesperson for Hotstar declined to comment.

Hotstar leads the Indian video streaming market. The service said it had more than 300 million monthly subscribers during the IPL cricket tournament and ICC World Cup earlier this year. More than 25 million users simultaneously streamed one of these matches, setting a new global record.

The international expansion of Hotstar isn’t a surprise as it has entered the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. in recent years. In an interview with TechCrunch earlier this year, Ipsita Dasgupta, president of Hotstar’s international operations, said so far the company’s international strategy has been to enter markets with “high density of Indians.”

In an earnings call for the quarter that ended in June this year, Disney CEO Robert Iger hinted that the company, which snagged Indian entertainment conglomerate Star India as part of its $71.3 billion deal with 21st Century Fox, would bring Star India-operated Hotstar to Southeast Asian markets, though he did not offer a timeline.

Disney+, currently available in the U.S, Canada, and the Netherlands, will expand to Australia and New Zealand next week, and the U.K., Germany, Italy, France and Spain on March 31, the company announced last week.

Price hike

Disney, which debut its video streaming service in the U.S. this week and has already amassed over 10 million subscribers, plans to raise the tariff of Hotstar in India, where the service currently costs $14 a year, one of the two aforementioned people said.

A screenshot of Hotstar’s homepage

The price hike will happen towards the end of the first quarter next year, just ahead of commencement of next IPL cricket tournament season, they said. The company has not decided exactly how much it intends to charge, but one of the people said that it could go as high as $30 a year.

In other Southeast Asian markets, the service is likely to cost above $30 a year as well, both of the sources said. The prices have yet to be finalized, however, they said. Even at those suggested price points, Disney would be able to undercut local rivals on price. Until recently, Netflix charged at least $7 a month in India and other Southeast Asian markets. But this year, the on-demand streaming pioneer introduced a $2.8 monthly tier in India and $4 in Malaysia.

Hotstar offers a large library of local movies and titles syndicated from Showtime, HBO, and ABC (also owned by Disney). In its current international markets, Hotstar’s catalog is limited to some local content and large library of Indian titles.

The arrival of more originals from Disney on Hotstar, which already offers a number of Disney-owned titles in India, could help the service sustain users after cricket seasons. The service’s monthly userbase plummets below 60 million in weeks following IPL tournament, according to people who have seen the internal analytics.

In recent quarters, Hotstar has also set up an office in Tsinghua Science Park in Beijing, China and hired over 60 engineers and researchers as it looks to expand its tech infrastructure to service more future users, according to job recruitment posts and other data sourced from LinkedIn.

 


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GitHub launches a mobile app, smarter notifications and improved code search

21:00 | 13 November

At its annual Universe conference today, Microsoft -owned GitHub announced a couple of new products, as well as the general availability of a number of tools that developers have been able to test for the last few months. The two announcements that developers will likely be most interested in are the launch of GitHub’s first native mobile app and an improved notifications experience. But in addition to that, it is also taking GitHub Actions, the company’s workflow automation and CI/CD solution, as well as GitHub Packages, out of beta. GitHub is also improving its code search, adding scheduled reminders and it’s launching a pre-release program that will allow users to try out new features before they are ready for a wider rollout.

GitHub is also extending its sponsor program, which until now allowed you to tip individual open source contributors for their work, to the project level. With GitHub Sponsors, anybody can help fund a project and the members of that project then get to choose how to use the money. These projects have to be open source and have a corporate or non-profit entity attached to it (and a bank account).

“Developers are what’s driving us and we’re building the tools and the experiences to help them come together to create the world’s most important technologies and to do it on an open platform and ecosystem,” GitHub SVP of Product Shanku Niyogi told me. Today’s announcements, he said, are driven by the company’s mission to improve the developer experience. Over the course of the last year, the company launched well over 150 new features and enhancements, Niyogi stressed. For its Universe show, the company decided to highlight the new mobile app and notification enhancements, though.

The new mobile app, which is now out in beta for iOS, with Android support coming soon, offers all of the basic features you’d want from a mobile app like this. The team decided to focus squarely on the kind of mobile use cases that would make the most sense for a developer on the go, so you’ll be able to share feedback on discussions, review a few lines of code and merge changes, but this isn’t meant to be a tool that replicated the full GitHub experience, though at least on the iPad, you do get a bit more screen real estate to work with.

“When you start to look at the tablet experience, that then extends out because you now got more space,” explained Niyogi. “You can look at the code, you can navigate some of that, we support some of the key same keyboard shortcuts that github.com does to be able to look at a larger amount of content and a larger amount of code. So, the idea is the experience scales with the mobile devices you have, and but it’s also designed for the things you’re likely to do when you’re not using your computer.”

Others have built mobile apps for GitHub before, of course, and it turns out that the developers of GitHawk, which was launched by a group of engineers from Instagram, recently joined GitHub to help the company in its efforts to get this new app off the ground.

The second major new feature is the improved notifications experience. As every GitHub user on even a medium-sized team knows, GitHub’s current set of notifications can quickly become overwhelming. That’s something the GitHub team was also keenly aware of, so the company decided to build a vastly improved system that includes filters, as well as an inbox for all of your notifications right inside of GitHub.

“The experience for developers today can result in an inbox in Gmail or whatever email client you use with tons and tons of notifications — and it can end up being kind of hard to know what matters and what’s just noise,” Kelly Stirman, GitHub’ VP of Strategy and Product Management, said. “We’ve done a bunch of things over the last year to make notifications better, but what we’ve done is a big step. We’ve reimagined what notifications should be.”

Using filters and rules, developers can zero in on the notifications that matter to them, all without flooding your inbox with unnecessary noise. Developers can customize these filters to their hearts’ content. That’s also where the new mobile experience fits in well. “Many times, the notification will be sent to you when you’re not at your computer when you’re not at your desktop,” noted Stirman. “And that notification might be somebody asking for your help to unblock something. And so it’s natural we think that we need to extend the GitHub experience beyond the desktop to a mobile experience.”

Talking about notifications: GitHub also today announced a new feature in a limited preview that adds a few more notifications to your inbox. You can now set up scheduled reminders for pending code reviews.

Among the rest of today’s announcements, the improved code search stands out because that’s definitely an area where some improvements were necessary. This new code search is currently in limited beta, but should roll out to all users over the next few months. It’ll introduce a completely new search experience, the company says, that can match special characters and casing, among other things.

Also new are code review assignments, now in public beta, and a new way to navigate code on GitHub.

 


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Yahoo Japan and Line are reportedly going to merge

19:41 | 13 November

According to Nikkei, messaging app Line and Yahoo Japan are about to merge and form a single tech company. Despite the name, Yahoo Japan is currently 100% owned by Z Holdings, a company that is controlled by Japanese telecom company SoftBank (Yahoo Japan isn’t related with TechCrunch’s parent company Verizon Media). Line Corporation is owned by Naver Corporation, a South Korean internet giant.

The two companies are still discussing terms of the deal according to Nikkei. But you could imagine Z Holdings becoming a a 50-50 joint venture between SoftBank and Naver, with Z Holdings owning both Yahoo Japan and Line.

Line operates one of the most popular messaging apps in Japan. In addition to conversations, the company operates Line Pay, Line Taxi and other services. But competition has been fierce in the messaging space.

Yahoo Japan was originally formed by Yahoo and SoftBank in the later 1990s. When Verizon acquired Yahoo in 2017, Verizon didn’t acquire Yahoo’s stake in Alibaba and Yahoo Japan. Yahoo created a spin-out company called Altaba to hold those stakes.

Altaba first sold its stake in Yahoo Japan. In July 2018, SoftBank acquired part of Altaba’s stake in Yahoo Japan in order to increase its ownership of Yahoo Japan. Altaba later sold its remaining Yahoo Japan shares, its Alibaba shares and shut down. In 2019, SoftBank received additional shares to become Yahoo Japan’s parent company.

Yahoo Japan is a household name and a big internet conglomerate in Japan. It has an online advertising business, an e-commerce business, finance services and more. Yahoo Japan and Line probably hope to reach more users and boost engagement with the merger.

We’ve reached out to Line Corporation and Z Holdings and will update if we hear back.

 


0

Google to offer checking accounts in partnership with banks starting next year

15:21 | 13 November

Google is the latest big tech company to make a move into banking and personal financial services: The company is gearing up to offer checking accounts to consumers, as first reported by the Wall Street Journal, starting as early as next year. Google is calling the projected “Cache,” and it’ll partner with banks and credit unions to offer the checking accounts, with the banks handling all financial and compliance activities related to the accounts.

Google’s Caesar Sengupta spoke to the WSJ about the new initiative, and Sengupta made clear that Google will be seeking to put its financial institution partners much more front-and-center for its customers than other tech companies have perhaps done with their financial products. Apple works with Goldman Sachs on its Apple Card credit product, for instance, but the credit card is definitely pretend primarily as an Apple product.

So why even bother getting into this game if it’s leaving a lot of the actual banking to traditional financial institutions? Well, Google obviously stands to gain a lot of valuable information and insight on customer behavior with access to their checking account, which for many is a good picture of overall day-to-day financial life. Google says it’s also intending to offer product advantages for both consumers and banks, including things like loyalty programs, on top of the basic financial services. It’s also still considering whether or not it’ll charge service fees, per Segupta – not doing so would definitely be and advantage over most existing checking accounts available.

Google already offers Google Pay, and its Google Wallet product has hosted some features beyond simple payments tracking, including the ability to send money between individuals. Meanwhile, rivals including Apple have also introducing payment products, and Apple of course recently expanded into the credit market with Apple Card. Facebook also introduced its own digital payment product earlier this week, and earlier this year announced its intent to build its own digital currency called ‘Libra’ along with partners.

The initial financial partners that Google is working with include Citigroup and Stanford Federal Credit Union, and their motivation per the WSJ piece appears to be seeking out and attracting younger and more digital-savvy customers who are increasingly looking to handle more of their lives through online tools. Per Sengupta’s comments, they’ll also benefit from Google’s ability to work with large sets of data and turn those into value-add products, but the Google exec also said the tech company doesn’t sue Google Pay data for advertising, nor does it share that data with advertisers. Still, convincing people to give Google access to this potentially sensitive area of their lives might be an uphill battle, especially given the current political and social climate around big tech.

 


0

Minecraft Earth is live, so get tapping

01:51 | 13 November

Microsoft’s big experiment in real-world augmented reality gaming, Minecraft Earth, is live now for players in North America, the U.K., and a number of other areas. The pocket-size AR game lets you collect blocks and critters wherever you go, undertake little adventures with friends, and of course build sweet castles.

I played an early version of Minecraft Earth earlier this year, and found it entertaining and the AR aspect surprisingly seamless. The gameplay many were first introduced to in Pokemon GO is adapted here in a more creative and collaborative way.

You still walk around your neighborhood, rendered in this case charmingly like a Minecraft world, and tap little icons that pop up around your character. These may be blocks you can use to build, animals you can collect, or events like combat encounters that you can do alone or with friends for rewards.

Ultimately all this is in service of building stuff, which you do on “build plates” of various sizes. These you place in AR mode on a flat surface, which they lock onto, letting you move around freely to edit and play with them. This sounded like it could be fussy or buggy when I first heard about it, but actually doing it was smooth and easy. It’s easy to “zoom in” to edit a structure by just moving your phone closer, and multiple people can play with the same blocks and plate at the same time.

Once you’ve put together something fun, you can take it to an outdoors location and have it represented at essentially “real” size, so you can walk around the interior of your castle or dungeon. Of course you can’t climb steps, since they’re not real, but the other aspects work as expected: you can manipulate doors and other items, breed cave chickens, and generally enjoy yourself.

The game is definitely more open-ended than the collection-focused Pokemon GO and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. Whether that proves to be to its benefit or detriment when it comes to appeal and lasting power remains to be seen — but one thing is for sure: People love Minecraft and they’re going to want to at least try this out.

And now they can, if they’re in one of the following countries — with others coming throughout the holiday season.

 

  • United States
  • United Kingdom
  • Canada
  • South Korea
  • Philippines
  • Sweden
  • Mexico
  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • Iceland

You can download Minecraft Earth for iOS here and for Android here.

 

 


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