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Main article: Apps

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Facebook’s Libra code chugs along ignoring regulatory deadlock

00:50 | 16 November

“5 months and growing strong” the Libra Association announced today in an post about its technical infrastructure that completely omits the fierce regulatory backlash to its cryptocurrency.

40 wallets, tools, and block explorers plus 1,700 Github commits have how now been built on its blockchain testnet that’s seen 51,000 mock transactions in the past two months. Libra nodes that process transactions are now being run by Coinbase, Uber, BisonTrails, Iliad, Xapo, Anchorage, and Facebook’s Calibra. Six more nodes are being established, plus there are 8 more getting set up from members who lack technical teams, meaning all 21 members have nodes running or in the works.

But the update on the Libra backend doesn’t explain how the association plans to get all the way to its goal of 100 members and nodes by next year when it originally projected a launch. And it gives no nod to the fact that even if Libra is technically ready to deploy its mainnet in 2020, government regulators in the US and around the world still won’t necessarily let it launch.

Last month’s congressional testimony from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was less contentious than Libra board member David Marcus’ appearances on Capitol Hill in July. Yet few of lawmakers’ core concerns about how Libra could facilitate money laundering, endanger users’ assets, and give Facebook even more power amidst ongoing anti-trust investigations were assuaged.

This set of announcements from the Libra Core summit of technical members was an opportunity for the project to show how it was focused on addressing fraud, security, and decentralization of power. Instead, the Libra Association took the easy route of focusing on what the Facebook-led development team knows best: writing code, not fixing policy. TechCrunch provided questions to the Libra Association and some members but the promised answers were not returned before press time.

For those organizations without a technical team to implement a node, the Libra Association is working on a strategy to support deployment in 2020, when the Libra Core feature set is complete” the Association’s Michael Engle writes. “The Libra Association intends to deploy 100 nodes on the mainnet, representing a mix of on-premises and cloud-hosted infrastructure.” It feels a bit like Libra is plugging its ears.

Having proper documentation, setting up CLAs to ease GitHub contributions, standardizing the Move code language, a Bug Bounty program, and a public technical roadmap are a good start. But until the Association can answers Congress’ questions directly, they’re likely to refuse Libra approval which Zuckerberg said the project won’t launch without.

 


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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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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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Messaging app Wire confirms $8.2M raise, responds to privacy concerns after moving holding company to the US

04:13 | 14 November

Big changes are afoot for Wire, an enterprise-focused end-to-end encrypted messaging app and service that advertises itself as “the most secure collaboration platform”. In February, Wire quietly raised $8.2 million from Morpheus Ventures and others, we’ve confirmed — the first funding amount it has ever disclosed — and alongside that external financing, it moved its holding company in the same month to the US from Luxembourg, a switch that Wire’s CEO Morten Brogger described in an interview as “simple and pragmatic.”

He also said that Wire is planning to introduce a freemium tier to its existing consumer service — which itself has half a million users — while working on a larger round of funding to fuel more growth of its enterprise business — a key reason for moving to the US, he added: There is more money to be raised there.

“We knew we needed this funding and additional to support continued growth. We made the decision that at some point in time it will be easier to get funding in North America, where there’s six times the amount of venture capital,” he said.

While Wire has moved its holding company to the US, it is keeping the rest of its operations as is. Customers are licensed and serviced from Wire Switzerland; the software development team is in Berlin, Germany; and hosting remains in Europe.

The news of Wire’s US move and the basics of its February funding — sans value, date or backers — came out this week via a blog post that raises questions about whether a company that trades on the idea of data privacy should itself be more transparent about its activities.

The changes to Wire’s financing and legal structure had not been communicated to users until news started to leak out, which brings up questions not just about transparency, but about how secure Wire’s privacy policy will play out, given the company’s ownership now being on US soil.

It was an issue picked up and amplified by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden . Via

, he described the move to the US as “not appropriate for a company claiming to provide a secure messenger — claims a large number of human rights defenders relied on.”

The key question is whether Wire’s shift to the US puts users’ data at risk — a question that Brogger claims is straightforward to answer: “We are in Switzerland, which has the best privacy laws in the world” — it’s subject to Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation framework (GDPR) on top of its own local laws — “and Wire now belongs to a new group holding, but there no change in control.” 

In its blog post published in the wake of blowback from privacy advocates, Wire also claims it “stands by its mission to best protect communication data with state-of-the-art technology and practice” — listing several items in its defence:

  • All source code has been and will be available for inspection on GitHub (github.com/wireapp).
  • All communication through Wire is secured with end-to-end encryption — messages, conference calls, files. The decryption keys are only stored on user devices, not on our servers. It also gives companies the option to deploy their own instances of Wire in their own data centers.
  • Wire has started working on a federated protocol to connect on-premise installations and make messaging and collaboration more ubiquitous.
  • Wire believes that data protection is best achieved through state-of-the-art encryption and continues to innovate in that space with Messaging Layer Security (MLS).

But where data privacy and US law are concerned, it’s complicated. Snowden famously leaked scores of classified documents disclosing the extent of US government mass surveillance programs in 2013, including how data-harvesting was embedded in US-based messaging and technology platforms.

Six years on, the political and legal ramifications of that disclosure are still playing out — with a key judgement pending from Europe’s top court which could yet unseat the current data transfer arrangement between the EU and the US.

Privacy versus security

Wire launched at a time when interest in messaging apps was at a high watermark. The company made its debut in the middle of February 2014, and it was only one week later that Facebook acquired WhatsApp for the princely sum of $19 billion. We described Wire’s primary selling point at the time as a “reimagining of how a communications tool like Skype should operate had it been built today” rather than in in 2003.

That meant encryption and privacy protection, but also better audio tools and file compression and more. It was  a pitch that seemed especially compelling considering the background of the company. Skype co-founder Janus Friis and funds connected to him were the startup’s first backers (and they remain the largest shareholders); Wire was co-founded in by Skype alums Jonathan Christensen and Alan Duric (no longer with the company); and even new investor Morpheus has Skype roots.

Even with the Skype pedigree, the strategy faced a big challenge.

“The consumer messaging market is lost to the Facebooks of the world, which dominate it,” Brogger said today. “However, we made a clear insight, which is the core strength of Wire: security and privacy.”

That, combined with trend around the consumerization of IT that’s brought new tools to business users, is what led Wire to the enterprise market in 2017.

But fast forward to today, and it seems that even as security and privacy are two sides of the same coin, it may not be so simple when deciding what to optimise in terms of features and future development, which is part of the question now and what critics are concerned with.

“Wire was always for profit and planned to follow the typical venture backed route of raising rounds to accelerate growth,” one source familiar with the company told us. “However, it took time to find its niche (B2B, enterprise secure comms).

“It needed money to keep the operations going and growing. [But] the new CEO, who joined late 2017, didn’t really care about the free users, and the way I read it now, the transformation is complete: ‘If Wire works for you, fine, but we don’t really care about what you think about our ownership or funding structure as our corporate clients care about security, not about privacy.'”

And that is the message you get from Brogger, too, who describes individual consumers as “not part of our strategy”, but also not entirely removed from it, either, as the focus shifts to enterprises and their security needs.

Brogger said there are still half a million individuals on the platform, and they will come up with ways to continue to serve them under the same privacy policies and with the same kind of service as the enterprise users. “We want to give them all the same features with no limits,” he added. “We are looking to switch it into a freemium model.”

On the other side, “We are having a lot of inbound requests on how Wire can replace Skype for Business,” he said. “We are the only one who can do that with our level of security. It’s become a very interesting journey and we are super excited.”

Part of the company’s push into enterprise has also seen it make a number of hires. This has included bringing in two former Huddle C-suite execs, Brogger as CEO and Rasmus Holst as chief revenue officer — a bench that Wire expanded this week with three new hires from three other B2B businesses: a VP of EMEA sales from New Relic, a VP of finance from Contentful; and a VP of Americas sales from Xeebi.

Such growth comes with a price-tag attached to it, clearly. Which is why Wire is opening itself to more funding and more exposure in the US, but also more scrutiny and questions from those who counted on its services before the change.

Brogger said inbound interest has been strong and he expects the startup’s next round to close in the next two to three months.

 


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New NASA app puts you in the pilot’s seat of Boeing’s Starliner or SpaceX’s Crew Dragon

23:58 | 13 November

NASA has a new app (or web-based game, if you’re on desktop) that provides a simplified simulation of what it’s like to plan and run a commercial crew mission – meaning one of the planned varieties of mission that will actually take place aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing Starliner once they begin flying crews next year.

The app takes you through each part of the process, from spacecraft choice, to mission type, to crew selection and then to the actual launch and docking process. It’s mostly about providing some education aoudad each part of the process, rather than offering up an exhaustively realistic flight simulator – but the docking process with the International Space Station can be handled either on full automatic, or on manual mode – and manual mode is fairly challenging and fun.

[gallery ids="1911680,1911681,1911682,1911683,1911684"]

NASA has included plenty of great info on both the Crew Dragon and the Starliner, and the respective rockets they will launch atop. It also included great bios for 10 actual astronauts you can select from to staff your mission. The launch assembly stage was a bit buggy when I gave it a try on my iPhone, but still workable, and it also provides key info about each element of the launch spacecraft, from boosters to crew capsules and everything in between.

The ‘Rocket Science: Ride 2 Station’ app is a free download, out now on iOS, and also available on the web.

 


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Google Maps adds a new translation feature that speaks place names out loud

20:50 | 13 November

Google Maps is adding a feature that will make it easier for people traveling in foreign countries where they don’t speak the local language: built-in translation with text-to-speech support. The feature will allow users to tap on a new speaker button next to a place name or address, to have Google Maps say the name out loud — a particularly useful addition for anyone who has needed to communicate about directions when traveling.

Most people who have ventured outside of their home country, at some point, needed to ask for directions or tell a taxi driver their destination. And when you don’t speak the language, that can be difficult to do — even with the aid of translation apps or language dictionaries, as they’re often more focused on everyday vocabulary, not necessarily on the proper names of places.

Now, instead of struggling with pronunciation and having awkward conversations or even handing over your phone to a cab driver, you can tap a button.

In addition, Google Maps will also now link you to the Google Translate app if you need to continue the conversation further.

The new feature works by detecting what language your phone is currently using, then determining when to show you the translate option. For example, an English speaker who was browsing a map of Tokyo may see the speaker icon, but may not see the icon if looking at places in the U.S.

It’s somewhat surprising this sort of text-to-speech functionality wasn’t already included in Google Maps, given its use for travel purposes. But Google has more recently been waking up to the power of integrating Google Translate into other experiences outside the app itself, including in Google Home, Google Assistant, Google Lens, and more. And in the end, this translation support makes Google’s products more powerful and competitive — and for consumers, more useful.

Translate for Google Maps is rolling out this month on iOS and Android with initial support for 50 languages. More languages will arrive in the future, Google says.

 


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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.

 

 


0

Facebook pilloried over iPhone ‘secret camera access’ bug

20:48 | 12 November

Facebook has faced a barrage of concern over an apparent bug that resulted in the social media giant’s iPhone app exposing the camera as users scroll through their feed.

A tweet over the weekend blew up after Joshua Maddux

a screen recording of the Facebook app on his iPhone. He noticed that the camera would appear behind the Facebook app as he scrolled through his social media feed.

Several users had already spotted the bug earlier in the month. One person

“a little worrying”.

Some immediately assumed the worst — as you might expect given the long history of security vulnerabilities, data breaches and inadvertent exposures at Facebook over the past year. Just last week, the company confirmed that some developers had improperly retained access to some Facebook user data for more than a year.

Will Strafach, chief executive at Guardian Firewall, said it looked like a “harmless but creepy looking bug.”

The bug appears to only affect iPhone users running the latest iOS 13 software, and those who have already granted the app access to the camera and microphone. It’s believed the bug relates to the “story” view in the app, which opens the camera for users to take photos.

One workaround is to simply revoke camera and microphone access to the Facebook app in their iOS settings.

Despite the apparent widespread concern from users on social media, Facebook did not respond to repeated requests for comment from TechCrunch. That said, Facebook vice president of integrity Guy Rosen

this morning that it “sounds like a bug” and the company was investigating.

“I guess it does say something when Facebook trust has eroded so badly that it will not get the benefit of the doubt when people see such a bug,” said Strafach.

 


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S’More is a new dating app that looks to suspend physical attraction for something more

18:00 | 12 November

According to former Chappy Managing Director Adam Cohen Aslatei, “something more” is one of the most common pieces of feedback that dating apps get from their users. That’s where S’More comes in.

S’More was founded by Aslatei to provide a dating app to users that goes beyond superficial looks.

Here’s how it works:

Rather than scrolling through a feed and swiping left and right, users are served five suggested profiles each day. Unlike other dating apps, user profiles on S’More consist of icons, rather than pictures and text, which reveal characteristics about the profile’s owner. For example, a user might put that they’re seeking romance, interested in hiking, and got an education from this or that university, all in the form of little tile icons.

When a user interacts with those icons — S’More calls this a ‘wink’ — more visual pieces of the profile start to unblur and unlock, revealing a profile photo and unlocking the person’s social media feeds, etc.

These interactions also unlock the ability to have a conversation, if they’re reciprocated, which creates a match.

As users continue to interact with others on the platform, S’More learns about what they’re looking for in a relationship and optimizes for those factors when suggesting other profiles.

“The greatest challenge is resetting expectations for consumers,” said Cohen Aslatei. “We know that the swiping mechanism largely doesn’t work, but we’re providing another option which is, if you truly want to get to know someone, suspend physical judgement before you decide if you like them.”

The company plans to generate revenue through a freemium model, charging users extra to access a Discover page on the app, allowing them to interact with and save more profiles than the allotted five per day.

Moreover, S’More asks all users to rank one another, not as prospective mates but as users of the platform. The hope is that the public-facing user rating promotes a healthy, safe environment for all users to meet and connect without the abuse that’s so common on dating apps. Ratings are also determined by a user’s activity on the platform and how complete their profile is.

The company also requires that users who register take a selfie for ID verification right at the point of signing up.

S’More is launching in beta to Boston and the D.C. area with plans to launch in New York soon.

 


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