Royole returns with another foldable

I first spent time with the Royole Flexpai at a TechCrunch event in China back in 2018. The devices was exciting. It was the first commercially released foldable, after all, before Samsung and Huawei offered their respective takes on the form factor. But ultimately it felt like, at best, a proof of concept. It was a shot across the bow from a little known Shenzhen-based hardware maker and ultimately little else.

The last two years have been — let’s say “complicated” for the category. I don’t think anyone was anticipating that $2,000 foldable phones were going to disrupt the industry right out of the gate or anything — especially in a time where more people are spending less money on their mobile devices. But to say foldables got off to a rocky start is something of an understatement. Royole has announced a few more products here and there, but the the Flexpai continues to be the company’s most engaging from a consumer perspective.

At an event in Beijing this morning, the company announced the the Flexpai 2. The device in similar in design the the first model, which is to say it folds with the screen facing outward. The design makes sense from the stand point of offering up notifications while closed (there’s a reason the Galaxy Fold 2 got a larger front-facing screen), but now you’ve got two screens to scuff up when the big old device is in your pocket.

The device itself got a bit of screen time during the press conference, though not a ton. For now we mostly have press shots to rely on, which is going to continue to be one of the pain points of covering hardware in the COVID-19 era. Fittingly, the company spent a lot of time talking hinges here — that, after all, was a high profile point of failure for Samsung’s first-ten device.

Here’s how Royole describes it in the press material,

The structure of the hinge is stable and shockproof, providing the great protection for the screen. It has more than 200 precision components with 0.01 mm processing accuracy. The hinge technology holds around 200 patents and solved many issues seen in other foldable smartphones.

Image Credits: Royole

Having had limited time with the Flexpai, I’ll say that robustness didn’t seem like one of the primary issues with a product that had some other first-gen bugs. The thing was pretty massively thick, though — which Royole has address with a design here that’s around 40% thinner than the first gen. The display is a generous 7.8 inches — though no mention of whether there’s glass reinforcement, which could be an issue.

There’s 5G support, a healthy 4450mAh battery and a Snapdragon 865 processor. The company updated its waterOS, which is built on top of Android 10 to offer a more seamless foldable experience. It arrives in China this week priced at around $1,427, which is wildly expensive for a standard smartphone but actually pretty good for a foldable.

U.S. availability is, once again, a big question mark.

#flexpai, #foldable, #hardware, #mobile, #royole


Daily Crunch: This TikTok deal is pretty confusing

Companies send out conflicting messages about the TikTok deal, Microsoft acquires a gaming giant and the WeChat ban is temporarily blocked. This is your Daily Crunch for September 21, 2020.

The big story: This TikTok deal is pretty confusing

This keeps getting more confusing. Apparently TikTok’s parent company ByteDance has reached a deal with Walmart and Oracle that will allow the Chinese social media app to continue operating in the United States, and the deal has been approved by Donald Trump. But it’s hard to tell exactly what this agreement entails.

ByteDance said it would retain 80% control of TikTok, while selling 20% of the company to Walmart and Oracle as “commercial partner” and “trusted technology partner,” respectively. However, Oracle released a seemingly conflicting statement, claiming that Americans will have majority ownership and “ByteDance will have no ownership in TikTok Global.”

So what’s going on here? We’re trying to figure it out.

The tech giants

Microsoft set to acquire Bethesda parent ZeniMax for $7.5B — ZeniMax owns some of the biggest publishers in gaming, including Bethesda Game Studios, id Software, ZeniMax Online Studios, Arkane, MachineGames, Tango Gameworks, Alpha Dog and Roundhouse Studios.

Trump administration’s WeChat ban is blocked by US district court — More news about the Trump administration’s efforts to ban some high-profile Chinese apps: A district court judge in San Francisco has temporarily stayed the nationwide ban on WeChat.

Nikola’s chairman steps down, stock crashes following allegations of fraud — This comes in the wake of a report from a noted short-seller accusing the electric truck company of fraud.

Startups, funding and venture capital

With $100M in funding, Playco is already a mobile gaming unicorn — Playco is a new mobile gaming startup created by Game Closure co-founder Michael Carter and Zynga co-founder Justin Waldron.

Indian mobile gaming platform Mobile Premier League raises $90 million — Mobile Premier League operates a pure-play gaming platform that hosts a range of tournaments.

A meeting room of one’s own: Three VCs discuss breaking out of big firms to start their own gigs — We talked to Construct Capital’s Dayna Grayson, Renegade Partners’ Renata Quintini and Plexo Capital’s Lo Toney.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Edtech investors are panning for gold — At Disrupt, investors told us how they separate the gold from the dust.

Despite slowdowns, pandemic accelerates shifts in hardware manufacturing — China continues to be the dominant global force, but the price of labor and political uncertainty has led many companies to begin looking elsewhere.

The Peloton effect — Alex Wilhelm examines the latest VC activity in connected fitness.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Ireland’s data watchdog slammed for letting adtech carry on ‘biggest breach of all time’ — The Irish Council for Civil Liberties is putting more pressure on the country’s data watchdog to take enforcement action.

Pandemic accelerated cord cutting, making 2020 the worst-ever year for pay TV — According to new research from eMarketer, the cable, satellite and telecom TV industry is on track to lose the most subscribers ever.

Original Content podcast: ‘Wireless’ shows off Quibi’s Turnstyle technology — I interviewed the director of the new Quibi series.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

#apps, #bytedance, #daily-crunch, #mobile, #oracle, #social, #tiktok, #walmart


With $100M in funding, Playco is already a mobile gaming unicorn

Playco is a new mobile gaming startup created by Game Closure co-founder Michael Carter and Zynga co-founder Justin Waldron, as well as game producers Takeshi Otsuka and Teddy Cross.

Although the Tokyo-headquartered company is only announcing its existence today, it’s already a unicorn — it says it’s raised $100 million in Series A funding, at a valuation “just north of $1 billion.”

The round was led by Josh Buckley and Sequoia Capital, with participation from Sozo Ventures, Raymond Tonsing’s Caffeinated Capital, Keisuke Honda’s KSK Angel Fund, Taizo Son’s Mistletoe Singapore, Digital Garage, Will Smith’s Dreamers, Makers Fund and others.

Carter (Playco’s CEO) said the startup will be revealing its first games later this year. For now, he wants to talk about Playco’s vision: It’s trying to address the fact that “it’s very difficult to get two people into a single game in the App Store.” After all, downloading an app is a pretty big hurdle, especially compared to the early days of web and social gaming, when all you needed was a link.

“We’re going to bring that back,” Carter said — with Playco’s titles, sharing and playing a mobile game with your friend should be as simple as texting or calling them. “All it really takes is a hyperlink.”

He pointed to a number of technologies that can enable this “instant play” experience on mobile, including cloud gaming, HTML5 and platform-specific tools like Apple’s new App Clips. He claimed the team is “very good at this cutting edge technology” — and the company has created its own game engine — but he said technology is not the sole focus: “That’s just table stakes.”

Waldron (Playco’s president) argued that this represents the next big platform shift in gaming, and it will require “reinventing a lot of the most popular genres today” while also creating entirely new genres, in the same way that social gaming enabled new types of games.

“If you think about FarmVille, there were no farm games being advertised being in local console games store,” Waldron said. “They don’t market well; if you put up a poster for a farm game, no one wants to play.” But if your friends invite you by sending you some digital crops, then you absolutely want to play.

Carter added that enabling instant play also means that the games themselves have to be fairly straightforward, at least at first glance.

“Ultimately, as we build up the portfolio, we think about what makes the game accessible to anyone on the planet, any ethnicity, any language,” he said. “And the answer is: It has to be broadly appealing. That doesn’t mean we can’t build into it relatively interesting and deep features, but the initial impression has to be the right sort of experience that people can easily relate to.”

Carter also acknowledged that it’s unusual for a startup to raise so much money in its Series A (“It’s not your typical company, and it’s not your typical Series A”), but he said that being more ambitious with fundraising allowed Playco to quickly grow the team to 75 people.

“Bringing talented people together is the most important thing, and [thanks to the funding,] we haven’t had to make any really hard decisions,” he said.

As for how its games will make money, Waldron suggested that Playco will borrow from (but also potentially evolve) many of the existing business models in gaming.

“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “There’s going to be amazing things we can learn from my last company — we ended up inventing a lot of the ways these games are monetizing today … But these new technologies available today create new opportunities. The world has changed a lot since then, and I don’t think everything has caught up.”

#funding, #fundings-exits, #gaming, #josh-buckley, #justin-waldron, #michael-carter, #mobile, #playco, #sequoia-capital, #startups, #tc


Original Content podcast: ‘Wireless’ shows off Quibi’s Turnstyle technology

“Wireless” is probably the best showcase so far for Quibi’s Turnstyle technology.

That’s the technology that allows the streaming video app to switch seamlessly between landscape and portrait mode depending on the orientation of your phone. With other Quibi shows, you’re essentially getting two views of the same footage — but with “Wireless” (which is executive produced by Steven Soderbergh), you’re switching between traditional cinematic footage (in landscape) and a view of the protagonist’s phone (in portrait).

In this bonus episode of the Original Content podcast, director Zach Wechter told me that he and his co-writer Jack Seidman wrote the initial script — about a college student played by Tye Sheridan who gets trapped in the snow after a car crash, with only his iPhone to save him — before they decided on the phone-centric format. But when they heard about Turnstyle, “It just felt like a match made in heaven that would allow us to facilitate this idea.”

I wondered whether that required going back and adding a bunch of phone interactions to the story, but said Wechter said, “It was quite the opposite. One thing we found in testing was when the phone plot moved really fast, it would be hard, because there are these two perspectives happening at once.”

So that actually meant “reducing some fo the intriacy of the plot happening on the phone” to ensure that viewers didn’t get lost.

And if you’re wondering which mode to focus on as you watch, Wechter has some simple advice: “Go with your gut.” He said he had a “roadmap” for when he was hoping to nudge viewers to turn their phones — like when there’s a notification sound or Sheridan focuses on his phone — “but I think the most important part of the experience is that we’re not indicating when our viewers turn, that it becomes this sort of passive-but-active viewing experience.”

Wechter described making the show — essentially a feature length film divided into episodes of 10 minutes or less — as shooting “two films that had to dance together” in just 19 days. And he made things even more challenging by insisting that all the phone/FaceTime calls and even the text messages be filmed live, rather than just recording both ends separately.

“When I think about directing and my job, really the most fundamental part of it to me is making the actorss comfortable, and I think that having a scene partner is paramount,” he said. “It was a long conversation about why we couldn’t just have them act off of a recording and shoot it separately — because it took a lot of logistical effort and resources to do it — but it really makes the scenes feel very alive and realistic.”

You can listen to the full interview in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also follow us on Twitter or send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

#entertainment, #media, #mobile, #original-content-podcast, #podcasts, #quibi, #wireless


Unity Software has strong opening, gaining 31% after pricing above its raised range

Whoever said you can’t make money playing video games clearly hasn’t taken a look at Unity Software’s stock price.

On its first official day of trading, the company rose more than 31%, opening at $75 per share before closing the day at $68.35. Unity’s share price gains came after last night’s pricing of the company’s stock at $52 per share, well above the range of $44 to $48 which was itself an upward revision of the company’s initial target.

Games like “Pokémon GO” and “Iron Man VR” rely on the company’s software, as do untold numbers of other mobile gaming applications that use the company’s toolkit for support. The company’s customers range from small gaming publishers to large gaming giants like Electronic Arts, Niantic, Ubisoft and Tencent.

Unity’s IPO comes on the heels of other well-received debuts, including Sumo Logic, Snowflake and JFrog .

TechCrunch caught up with Unity’s CFO, Kim Jabal, after-hours today to dig in a bit on the transaction.

According to Jabal, hosting her company’s roadshow over Zoom had some advantages, as her team didn’t have to focus on tackling a single geography per day, allowing Unity to “optimize” its time based on who the company wanted to meet, instead, of say, whomever was free in Boston or Chicago on a particular Tuesday morning.

Jabal’s comments aren’t the first that TechCrunch has heard regarding roadshows going well in a digital format instead of as an in-person presentation. If the old-school roadshow survives, we’ll be surprised, though private jet companies will miss the business.

Talking about the transaction itself, Jabal stressed the connection between her company’s employees, value  and their access to that same value. Unity’s IPO was unique in that existing and former employees were able to trade 15% of their vested holdings in the company on day one, excluding “current executive officers and directors,” per SEC filings.

That act does not seemed to have dampened enthusiasm for the company’s shares, and could have helped boost early float, allowing for the two sides of the supply and demand curves to more quickly meet close to the company’s real value, instead of a scarcity-driven, more artificial figure.

Regarding Unity’s IPO pricing, Jabal discussed what she called a “very data-driven process.” The result of that process was an IPO price that came in above its raised range, and still rose during its first day’s trading, but less than 50%. That’s about as good an outcome as you can hope for in an IPO.

One final thing for the SaaS nerds out there. Unity’s “dollar-based net expansion rate” went from very good to outstanding in 2020, or in the words of the S-1/A:

Our dollar-based net expansion rate, which measures expansion in existing customers’ revenue over a trailing 12-month period, grew from 124% as of December 31, 2018 to 133% as of December 31, 2019, and from 129% as of June 30, 2019 to 142% as of June 30, 2020, demonstrating the power of this strategy.

We had to ask. And the answer, per Jabal, was a combination of the company’s platform strength and how customers tend to use more of Unity’s services over time, which she described as growing with their customers. And the second key element was 2020’s unique dynamics that gave Unity a “tailwind” thanks to “increased usage, particularly in gaming.”

Looking at our own gaming levels in 2020 compared to 2019, that checks out.

This post closes the book on this week’s IPO class. Tired yet? Don’t be. Palantir is up next, and then Asana .

#asana, #fundings-exits, #jfrog, #mobile, #palantir, #startups, #tc, #unity-technologies


Daily Crunch: Partial US TikTok ban is imminent

The Trump administration moves forwards with plans to ban TikTok and WeChat (although TikTok gets a partial extension), Unity goes public and we announce the winner of this year’s Startup Battlefield. This is your Daily Crunch for September 18, 2020.

The big story: US TikTok ban is imminent

The U.S. Commerce Department has released details about how it will be implementing the Trump administration’s domestic ban of TikTok and WeChat. Both apps will no longer be available (and will not be able to distribute updates) in U.S. app stores starting this Sunday, September 20.

At the same time, TikTok will be able to continue operations in the country until November 12, leaving the door open for a deal with Oracle or another partner.

TikTok, WeChat and their users aren’t the only ones unhappy about this decision. Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri said a TikTok ban would be “bad for US tech companies which have benefited greatly from the ability to operate across borders,” while the ACLU said the order “violates the First Amendment rights of people in the United States.”

The tech giants

Salesforce announces 12,000 new jobs in the next year just weeks after laying off 1,000 — Salesforce CEO and co-founder Marc Benioff announced in a tweet that the company would be hiring 4,000 new employees in the next six months, and 12,000 in the next year.

It’s game on as Unity begins trading — Unity Software, which sells a game development toolkit primarily for mobile phone app developers, raised $1.3 billion in its initial public offering.

Apple will launch its online store in India on September 23 — Apple currently relies on third-party online and offline retailers to sell its products in India.

Startups, funding and venture capital

And the winner of Startup Battlefield at Disrupt 2020 is … Canix — After five days of fierce pitching in a wholly new virtual Startup Battlefield arena, we have a winner.

Amid layoffs and allegations of fraud, the FBI has arrested NS8’s CEO following its $100+ million summer financing — Adam Rogas, the co-founder and former executive at the Las Vegas-based fraud prevention company NS8 was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Outschool, newly profitable, raises a $45 million Series B for virtual small group classes — Outschool’s services, which range from engineering lessons through Lego challenges to Spanish teaching by Taylor Swift songs, are now high in demand.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Are high churn rates depressing earnings for app developers? — RevenueCat’s Jacob Eiting writes that for all the hype around Apple’s 85/15 split for subscription revenue, very few developers are going to see a meaningful increase.

The stages of traditional fundraising — What you think when you hear “seed funding” and “A rounds” might be different from what investors think.

3 VCs discuss the state of SaaS investing in 2020 — Commentary from Canaan’s Maha Ibrahim, Andreessen Horowitz’s David Ulevitch and Bessemer’s Mary D’Onofrio.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

How the NSA is disrupting foreign hackers targeting COVID-19 vaccine research — “The threat landscape has changed,” the NSA’s director of cybersecurity Anne Neuberger said at Disrupt 2020.

NASA to test precision automated landing system designed for the moon and Mars on upcoming Blue Origin mission — The “Safe and Precise Landing – Integrated Capabilities Evolution” (SPLICE) system is made up of a number of lasers, an optical camera and a computer.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

#apps, #daily-crunch, #mobile, #tiktok


Are high churn rates depressing earnings for app developers?

Ever since Apple opened up subscription monetization to more apps in 2016 — and enticed developers with an 85/15 split on revenue from customers that remain subscribed for more than a year — subscription monetization and retention has felt like the Holy Grail for app developers. So much so that Google quickly followed suit in what appeared to be an example of healthy competition for developers in the mobile OS duopoly.

But how does that split actually work out for most apps? Turns out, the 85/15 split — which Apple is keen to mention anytime developers complain about the App Store rev share — doesn’t have a meaningful impact for most developers. Because churn.

No matter how great an app is, subscribers are going to churn. Sometimes it’s because of a credit card expiring or some other billing issue. And sometimes it’s more of a pause, and the user comes back after a few months. But the majority of churn comes from subscribers who, for whatever reason, decide that the app just isn’t worth paying for anymore. If a subscriber churns before the one-year mark, the developer never sees that 85% split. And even if the user resubscribes, Apple and Google reset the clock if a subscription has lapsed for more than 60 days. Rather convenient… for Apple and Google.

Top mobile apps like Netflix and Spotify report churn rates in the low single digits, but they are the outliers. According to our data, the median churn rate for subscription apps is around 13% for monthly subscriptions and around 50% for annual. Monthly subscription churn is generally a bit higher in the first few months, then it tapers off. But an average churn of 13% leaves just 20% of subscribers crossing that magical 85/15 threshold.

In practice, what this means is that, for all the hype around the 85/15 split, very few developers are going to see a meaningful increase in revenue:

#android, #app-store, #apps, #column, #developer, #ios, #itunes, #mobile, #mobile-app, #startups, #tc


iOS 14 is now available to download

Apple has just released the final version of iOS 14, the next major version of the operating system for the iPhone. It is a free download and it works with the iPhone 6s or later, both generations of iPhone SE and the most recent iPod touch model. If your device runs iOS 13, it supports iOS 14. The update may or may not be immediately available, but keep checking because people are now receiving the update.

The company is also releasing major updates for the iPad, Apple Watch and Apple TV today. So you can expect some new features with iPadOS 14, tvOS 14 and watchOS 7 as well.

The release of those updates caught many developers by surprise. Apple announced yesterday that iOS 14 would be ready for prime time today. Usually, the company announces the release date a week or two in advance. This way, developers have enough time to fix the last remaining bugs and submit updates to the App Store.

If you update your iPhone today, don’t be surprised if you encounter a few bugs here and there from third-party apps. There are some major changes under the hood and nobody expected such a short turnaround.

The update is currently rolling out and is available both over-the-air in the Settings app, and by plugging your device into iTunes for a wired update. But first, back up your device. Make sure your iCloud backup is up to date by opening the Settings app on your iPhone or iPad and tapping on your account information at the top and then on your device name. Additionally, you can also plug your iOS device into your computer to do a manual backup in iTunes (or do both, really).

Don’t forget to encrypt your backup in iTunes. It is much safer if somebody hacks your computer. And encrypted backups include saved passwords and health data. This way, you don’t have to reconnect to all your online accounts.

Once this is done, you should go to the Settings app, then ‘General’ and then ‘Software Update.’ Then you should see ‘Update Requested…’ It will then automatically start downloading once the download is available.

The biggest change of iOS 14 is the introduction of widgets on the home screen, a new App Library to browse all your apps and the ability to run App Clips — those are mini apps that feature a small part of an app and that you can run without installing anything.

There are also many refinements across the board, such as new features for Messages, with a big focus on groups with @-mentions and replies, a new Translate app that works on your device, cycling directions in Apple Maps in some cities and various improvements in Notes, Reminders, Weather, Home and more.

If you want to learn more about iOS 14, I looked at some of the features in the new version earlier this summer:

#apple, #apps, #gadgets, #ios, #ios-14, #mobile


Apple burns developer goodwill with surprise release of iOS 14

Apple’s developer relations have hit another sour note. At the company’s hardware event on Tuesday, where it announced new Apple Watch devices and iPads, Apple surprised developers with the news that it would be releasing the updated versions of its major software platforms, iOS 14, iPad OS 14, watchOS 14, and tvOS 14 on September 16, giving them less than a day to prepare.

The unexpected and accelerated timeline left many developers scrambling to ready their apps for App Review and has complicated developers’ plans for the iOS 14 launch day.

Some, like popular podcast player, Overcast, simply informed its users that its planned iOS 14 features won’t be ready.

Others are less forgiving, noting that Apple’s decision to release iOS 14 without looping in the developer community has added, as developer Steve Troughton-Smith put it, “a whole lot of unnecessary stress on developers in an otherwise stressful year.”

In addition, Apple’s decision impacts those developers who choose to wait to support iOS 14.

Typically, developers will often leverage an iOS launch day to promote their apps’ new features via press releases, blog posts, and social media. News coverage from app review sites may even include round-ups of notable updates to favorite apps, or highlight those apps that have taken advantage of new iOS features in interesting ways.

This year, instead, the developer community can’t worry about chasing press and accolades, as they now have to get their app ready for the iOS 14 update ahead of schedule.

Consumers may also be impacted by the surprise release, as well, as some app makers are warning users their apps may not work properly on the new OS until they’re updated for compatibility. One high-profile example is Nintendo, who tweeted that its Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp game won’t function following the update and is asking users to wait before moving to iOS 14.

iPhone owners, however, are quick to update their software to the latest release. Ahead of Apple’s developer conference this summer, Apple released new iOS figures that indicated its iOS 13 operating system, which debuted in September 2019, had since been installed on 91% of all iPhones released within the last 4 years, and on 81% of all compatible iPhones.

That means there’s little time for iOS developers to update their apps before a majority of the iOS user base has moved to the new version.

This latest gaffe follows months of heavy-handed App Store rejections on Apple’s part, which even lead to a huge blow-up between Apple and Basecamp over its modern email app, Hey, which was rejected over in-app purchase rules. Apple’s increased attention to potential in-app purchase losses also saw it rejecting the WordPress app at one point, forcing the company to issue a rare apology after being called out publicly.

Now, Apple is battling in court with Fortnite maker Epic Games over Apple’s right to commission Epic’s business when there’s no other means of addressing the iPhone market outside of Apple’s App Store. A company as large as Epic doesn’t need to rely on the services Apple provides, like distribution and Apple Pay, it argues, but is forced to by Apple’s terms.

Developers have also been taking note of how Apple describes its App Store business in its court filings, calling it something developers “reap the benefits from” — a turn of phrase that rubbed some developers the wrong way. After all, people buy iPhone for a number of reasons, but its ability to run apps is high among them.

Developers have watched, too, as Apple attempted to yank away Epic’s Apple Developer accounts, including those for its related game development platform, Unity, as well as Epic’s ability to support its users through “Sign in with Apple.” These hardball tactics on Apple’s part made it apparent to developers that Apple is ready and willing to leverage developers’ dependence on Apple’s tools to punish any developers who step out of line.

Then there’s the fact that Apple has been the focus of antitrust investigations into its App Store business which revealed how the company cut special deals, despite its claims that the App Store is “an even playing field.”

Recently, Apple updated its App Store rules to better spell out its terms around commissions and to find a path for new game streaming services to join the App Store. But the result is that its rules have now grown so complex, with so many carve-outs and exceptions, that some developers may be confused about what’s permitted.

In addition to this growing swell of developer resentment, Apple sprung the next-day release of iOS 14 on a developer community who, like everyone else, is trying to function during the coronavirus pandemic — a crisis that has completely upended people’s day-to-day lives. Many developers are now working remotely and homeschooling children. They may be directly impacted by COVID-19, too, perhaps with sick family member.

Apple hasn’t explained to either the public or developers the reason behind its decision for the surprise launch.


#app-stores, #apple, #apps, #developers, #ios, #mobile


Zwift, maker of a popular indoor training app, just landed a whopping $450 million in funding led by KKR

Zwift, a 350-person, Long Beach, Calif.-based online fitness platform that immerses cyclists and runners in 3D generated worlds, just raised a hefty $450 million in funding led by the investment firm KKR in exchange for a minority stake in its business.

Permira and Specialized Bicycle’s venture capital fund, Zone 5 Ventures, also joined the round alongside earlier backers True, Highland Europe, Novator and Causeway Media.

Zwift has now raised $620 million altogether and is valued at north of $1 billion.

Why such a big round? Right now, the company just makes an app, albeit a popular one.

Since its 2015 founding, 2.5 million people have signed up to enter a world that, as Outside magazine once described it, is “part social-media platform, part personal trainer, part computer game.” That particular combination makes Zwift’s app appealing to both recreational riders and pros looking to train no matter the conditions outside.

The company declined to share its active subscriber numbers with us — Zwift charges $15 per month for its service — but it seemingly has a loyal base of users. For example, 117,000 of them competed in a virtual version of the Tour de France that Zwift hosted in July after it was chosen by the official race organizer of the real tour as its partner on the event.

Which leads us back to this giant round and what it will be used for. Today, in order to use the app, Zwift’s biking adherents need to buy their own smart trainers, which can cost anywhere from $300 to $700 and are made by brands like Elite and Wahoo. Meanwhile, runners use Zwift’s app with their own treadmills.

Now, Zwift is jumping headfirst into the hardware business itself. Though a spokesman for the company said it can’t discuss any particulars — “It takes time to develop hardware properly, and COVID has placed increased pressure on production” — it is hoping to bring its first product to market “as soon as possible.”

He added that the hardware will make Zwift a “more immersive and seamless experience for users.”

Either way, the direction isn’t a surprising one for the company, and we don’t say that merely because Specialized participated in this round as a strategic backer. Cofounder and CEO Eric Min has told us in the past that the company hoped to produce its own trainers some day.

Given the runaway success of the in-home fitness company Peloton, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a treadmill follow, or even a different product entirely. Said the Zwift spokesman, “In the future, it’s possible that we could bring in other disciplines or a more gamified experience.” (It will have expert advice in this area if it does, given that Swift just brought aboard Ilkka Paananen, the co-founder and CEO of Finnish gaming company Supercell, as an investor and board member.)

In the meantime, the company tells us not to expect the kind of classes that have proven so successful for Peloton, tempting as it may be to draw parallels.

While Zwift prides itself on users’ ability to organize group rides and runs and workouts, classes, says its spokesman, are “not in the offing.”

#3d, #causeway-media, #cycling, #gaming, #hardware, #health, #highland-europe, #kkr, #mobile, #online-fitness, #permira, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc, #venture-capital, #zone-5-ventures, #zwift


Triller aims for TikTok with additions of influencers like Charli D’Amelio and Addison Rae

Triller had been poised to benefit from a potential TikTok ban in the U.S. Though that may not happen now, given the apparent Oracle deal, the chaos around TikTok has increased the attention given to alternative apps such as Triller. As TikTok users sought out a new home — or at least hedged their bets in the event of a full ban — Triller’s app shot up the app store charts. It even became the No. 1 across 80 different countries at some point, Triller CEO Mike Lu says. At Techcrunch Disrupt 2020, Lu today spoke of Triller’s growing potential and what makes its app unique. He also touched on Triller’s involvement in several high-profile additions, including influencers and public figures like TikTok star Charli D’Amelio and family, and even Trump himself.

Lu also noted another top TikToker, Addison Rae, will make her way to Triller this week, as well.

Though Triller has often positioned itself as a different sort of app than TikTok, the company has steadily worked to onboard the same set of influencers that made TikTok so popular. TikTok star Josh Richards recently joined Triller as both an investor and chief strategy officer, despite being only 18, for example. Other TikTok stars Noah Beck and Griffin Johnson also joined Triller earlier this summer.

And just this week, Triller snagged TikTok’s queen herself, Charli D’Amelio, whose current TikTok account has 87 million followers.

Though Triller often benefits from influencers setting up their own accounts, Lu confirmed Triller reached out to D’Amelio to establish the relationship and to learn how the company could help her create a different type of presence on the Triller app.

Deal terms were not disclosed but Lu said that, “up until a month ago, we had never paid anyone to make a video.”

TikTok stars aren’t the only notable new additions. Last month, Donald Trump launched his own official Triller account, as well, to promote his political campaign.

Lu said he welcomes all the new users, including Trump.

“We’re an open platform and what we really strive for is creativity. So, we welcome anyone — regardless of whether you’re on the left side or the right side of the fence — to express yourself on the Triller platform,” he said. “Seeing some of the world leaders and also some of the biggest influencers in the world join the platform is very exciting for Triller.”

Lu also explained how Triller differentiates itself from the broader social media app lineup, noting that much of the focus of older social networks had been on allowing users to post status updates, not creative content.

Triller’s identity, Lu added, “has always been around music, around content, and around creative discovery.”

“I think that we will always shine more than your traditional status updates — which I think that the world of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter has done really well” he said. But today’s users “really don’t post creative content to those old platforms anymore,” he continued. “They’re actually posting them on platforms like ourselves, where they’re looking for an expressive and creative outlet.”

Lu claimed Triller also benefitted from older social networks’ attempt to enter the short-form video space.

When Instagram launched its TikTok competitor, Reels, Triller saw a 20% spike in usage, Lu said.

“We realized that a lot of users who were waiting for Reels…they saw what it was. And they decided they’re sticking to Triller,” he said.

On the topic of business matters, Lu declined to speak about recent reports of its supposed billion dollar valuation, but did confirm Triller is in the process of raising new funding. He also declined to speak about the status of Triller’s reported $20 billion bid with Centricus for TikTok assets, but said the company believed it would have been a good home for TikTok creator content from an infrastructure perspective.

Not surprisingly, given Triller’s potential growth in the midst of TikTok concerns, Lu also supported the idea that TikTok could be a security threat to U.S. users.

“Given the sensitivity of the data [and] the amount of data that they collect, it does pose a national risk,” Lu said of TikTok. “This is a Chinese-owned  company. The data is sitting, probably, not here in the States…” he added, seemingly refuting TikTok’s claims that its U.S. data was on U.S. servers.

“We take that stuff very seriously. We are a U.S.- based company,” he said, noting how Triller was complaint with U.S. regulations, like COPPA. “Something we actually take very strong pride in is making sure that we uphold [Triller] to the right standards that we’re used to, and as well as the privacy of our users and our citizens,” Lu said.




#apps, #disrupt-2020, #media, #mobile, #social, #tiktok, #triller


Apple to release iOS 14, iPadOS 14, watchOS 14 and tvOS on September 16

Apple said its latest iOS 14 software will be released on September 16, ahead of the company’s release of the next-generation iPhones.

We saw our first glimpse at iOS 14 earlier this year at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference, which included home screen widgets and reply threading in Messages. It also comes with new Maps features, including adding cycling as a transportation option, and routing for electric vehicle owners so they can find charging points along the way.

iOS 14 also comes with an in-built translator, an improved and redesigned Siri, and better security and privacy features in the Safari browser.

But one privacy feature promised by Apple will be delayed. Apple said it would allow iPhone users to opt-out of in-app tracking, which the company said would not be immediately enforced when iOS 14 is released. It follows an uproar from ad giants — including Facebook — which lobbied against the proposal. Apple said it would give developers until next year to adjust to the changes.

iOS 14 will be supported on iPhone 6s and later, and lands as a free download.

Apple said it will also release its upcoming iPadOS 14, watchOS 14 and tvOS 14 on September 16.

#apple, #apple-hardware-event-2020, #apps, #hardware, #ios-14, #iphone, #mobile, #siri, #smartphones


Waze gets smarter with trip suggestions, lane guidance, traffic notifications and more

Google-owned navigation app Waze is gaining a number of new product features as well as a partnership with Amazon Music, the company announced at its first major virtual event, Waze On. Among the changes, Waze is gaining personalized recommendations based on a user’s trip history, as well as traffic notifications, ETA improvements, lane suggestions, expanded Google Assistant integration, and more.

Waze’s trip suggestions are one of the more notable new features, as they tap into the Waze user’s historical driving patterns to make inferences about where the user may be headed to next. The feature, which will roll out next month, will be based on trips the user took in the past as well as the locations they’ve recently driven to, Waze says. The suggestions will offer the driver a visual overview of their trip, including details like the time the trip will take and the expected traffic.

Image Credits: Waze

Another new feature, traffic notifications, will alert users when traffic begins to build up or the driver risks being late on both favorite and frequent destinations, as well as one-time planned drives. These will also arrive next month, Waze noted.

Among the smarter improvements, is a new addition called Lane Guidance. As the name suggests, Waze will now be able to tell drivers what lane to be in when they’re merging or exiting a stretch of highway. This feature is rolling out now.

Image Credits: Waze

Waze also updated its ETA calculations in areas where there are fewer drivers — a reflection of the impact the pandemic has had on historical driving patterns. With some areas seeing fewer cars on the road due to companies’ embrace of remote work, Waze says it’s been harder to predict the changing flow of traffic. The update should help it take into account the reduction in traffic when making calculations in some areas.

In a much-needed update, users will now be able to save their itinerary for a planned drive directly to the Waze app from the Live Map feature on the web.

Image Credits: Waze

Waze has also expanded Google Assistant integration to French, Spanish and Portuguese-speaking Waze users.

The Waze Carpool service received a few updates, too. It now offers instant booking and auto approve features for drivers and riders. Drivers can also get real-time ride requests as they begin a drive, allowing them to pick up more riders along the way.

Image Credits: Waze

Amazon Music, meanwhile, joined the Waze Audio Player partner program, which allows Waze users to listen to third-party services from Waze’s audio player. Amazon Music users will be able to access the Waze app from the music app, as well. The audio program itself is not new. Waze already works with other music and audio partners, including Spotify, Pandora, TuneIn, YouTube Music, Deezer, TIDAL, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, NPR One, Scribd, and others.

Image Credits: Waze

Waze at the event said it now sees over 140 million users worldwide per month contributing to the community by driving over 36 billion kilometers and reporting over 70 million incidents in 185 countries.

#apps, #auto, #driving, #google, #mobile, #navigation, #tc, #waze


Europe’s top court says net neutrality rules bar ‘zero rating’

The European Union’s top court has handed down its first decision on the bloc’s net neutrality rules — interpreting the law as precluding the use of commercial ‘zero rating’ by Internet services providers.

‘Zero rating’ refers to the practice of ISPs offering certain apps/services ‘tariff free’ by excluding their data consumption. It’s controversial because it can have the effect of penalizing and/or blocking the use of non-zero-rated apps/services, which may be inaccessible while the zero rated apps/services are not — which in turn undermines the principal of net neutrality with its promise of fair competition via an equal and level playing field for all things digital.

The pan-EU net neutrality regulation came into force in 2016 amid much controversy over concerns it would undermine rather than bolster a level playing field online. So the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU)’s first ruling interpreting the regulation is an important moment for regional digital rights watchers.

Despite the existence of a net neutrality regulation, European carriers have continued offering packages that ‘zero rate’ certain apps, such as Facebook-owned WhatsApp, for example — raising questions over whether such offers comply with the rules. Today’s ruling suggests they do not.

In another example from Hungary, one of carrier Telenor’s 1GB data tariffs (screengrabbed below) touts unlimited domestic data consumption for a number of social apps, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Messenger, Instagram and Twitter — meaning all other apps/services are at a disadvantage as usage is throttled by the user’s 1GB allowance.

A Budapest court hearing two actions against Telenor, related to two of its ‘zero rating’ packages, made a reference to the CJEU for a preliminary ruling on how to interpret and apply Article 3(1) and (2) of the regulation — which safeguards a number of rights for end users of Internet access services and prohibits service providers from putting in place agreements or commercial practices limiting the exercise of those rights — and Article 3(3), which lays down a general obligation of “equal and non-discriminatory treatment of traffic”.

The court found that ‘zero rating’ agreements that combine a ‘zero tariff’ with measures blocking or slowing down traffic linked to the use of ‘non-zero tariff’ services and applications are indeed liable to limit the exercise of end users’ rights within the meaning of the regulation and on a significant part of the market.

“Such packages are liable to increase the use of the favoured applications and services and, accordingly, to reduce the use of the other applications and services available, having regard to the measures by which the provider of the internet access services makes that use technically more difficult, if not impossible. Furthermore, the greater the number of customers concluding such agreements, the more likely it is that, given its scale, the cumulative effect of those agreements will result in a significant limitation of the exercise of end users’ rights, or even undermine the very essence of those rights,” the court writes in a press release.

It also found that no assessment of the effect of measures blocking or slowing down traffic on the exercise of end users’ rights is required by the regulation, while measures applied for commercial (rather than technical) reasons must be regarded as automatically incompatible.

The full CJEU judgement is available here in French and Hungarian. (Update: And in English here.)

#cjeu, #eu, #europe, #lawsuit, #mobile, #net-neutrality, #telenor, #zero-rating


As low-code startups continue to attract VC interest, what’s driving customer demand?

Investor interest in no-code, low-code apps and services advanced another step this morning with Airtable raising an outsized round. The $185 million investment into the popular database-and-spreadsheet service comes as it adds “new low-code and automation features,” per our own reporting.

The round comes after we’ve seen several VCs describe no- and low-code startups as part of their core investing theses, and observed how the same investors appear to be accelerating their investing pace into upstart companies that follow the ethos.

The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. You can read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.

Undergirding much of the hype around apps that allow users to connect services, mix data sources and commit visual programming is the expectation that businesses will require more customized software than today’s developers will be able to supply. Low-code solutions could limit required developer inputs, while no-code services could obviate some need for developer time altogether. Both no- and low-code solutions could help alleviate the global developer shortage.

But underneath the view that there is a market mismatch between developer supply and demand is the anticipation that businesses will need more apps today than before, and even more in the future. This rising need for more business applications is key to today’s growing divergence between the availability and demand for software engineers.

The issue is something we explored talking with Appian, a public company that provides a low-code service that helps companies build apps.

Today we’re digging a little deeper into the topic, chatting with Mendix CEO Derek Roos. Mendix has reached nine-figure revenues with its low-code platform that helps other companies build apps, meaning that it has good perspective into what the market is actually demanding of itself and its low-code competition.

We want to learn a bit more about why business need so many apps, how COVID-19 has changed the low-code market and if Mendix is accelerating in 2020. If we can get all of that in hand, we’ll be better equipped to understand the growing no- and low-code startup realm.

A growing market

Mendix, based in Boston, raised around $38 million in known venture capital across a few rounds, including a $25 million Series B back in 2014. In 2018, Mendix partnered up with IBM to bring its service to their cloud, and later sold to Siemens for around $700 million the same year.

#appian, #apps, #covid-19, #fundings-exits, #mendix, #mobile, #no-code, #startups, #tc, #the-exchange


What to expect from Apple’s hardware event

If this was a normal year, we would be settling in for an iPhone event right about now. This is, however, very much not a normal year. And while we are, in fact, getting an Apple hardware event tomorrow at 10 a.m. PT/1 p.m. ET, it’s looking entirely possible — even likely — that we won’t be getting much face time with the iPhone 12.

If the handset even makes an appearance at all. After all, Apple’s been pretty upfront about the months or so delay of its long-awaited 5G handset (shareholders, you know), owing at least in part to some supply chain issues. It follows, then, that the company is planning another event in the not so distant future.

As we’ve seen from Samsung, the move toward virtual events during the pandemic seems to have made companies a bit bolder about holding more events, without the the obligation of travel. What we can expect this time, however, are some refreshes to a couple of other Apple tent-pole products — namely, the Apple Watch and an old iPad favorite. There are a handful of other possibilities, as well, including service bundles and some additions to the AirPods line.

Let’s start with the best bets.

Apple Watch

Apple Watch Series 5

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The “Time Flies” slogan is the clearest indication that we’re getting some Watch news. Again, in most years, we’d simply be able to look at the calendar. But this isn’t most years. A healthy combination of rumors, leaks and some of the new features from the latest version of watchOS give us a pretty healthy picture of what we’re in store for at tomorrow’s big event.

The Apple Watch Series 6 is likely to be the centerpiece of the show. One of the biggest pieces of news from the new model is actually a feature loss. The latest version of Apple’s ultra-popular wearable is expected to drop Force Touch, as support for the feature is out on watchOS 7. Such a move could help slim down the watch — or even more likely/hopefully leave room for more battery.

With the addition of sleep features in the new version of the OS, it behooves the company to find ways to make the device last longer on a charge, so users can wear it to bed. There are already some on-board power-saving features to track while the wearer sleeps, but a bigger battery would make a big difference — and help the company stay competitive on that front.

Otherwise, the device is set to continue Apple’s focus on health tracking improvements. That’s long been a key to the Watch’s success — and the success of wrist-worn devices, generally. Among the expected features is the addition of SpO2 tracking. The Apple Watch would be far from the first smartwatch to track blood oxygen levels, but the feature would come at a time when home tracking of health vitals feels all the more important.

Rumors also point to the addition of a low-cost model — specifically a new Watch designed to replace the Series 3, which has stuck around at $199. The product would answer the fair bit of demand for lower-priced smartwatches. That’s particularly the case during COVID-19, as users are looking for a reasonably priced entry into health tracking. That said, it seems likely that the lower-cost product won’t be nearly as sophisticated.


Image Credits: Apple

It seems likely there’s an iPad on the menu for tomorrow, too. The top candidate is the iPad Air, which saw its last refresh in March 2019. Rumors point to a significant reduction in bezels and a power button with Touch ID moved to the top of the device. Other features for the iPad Air 4 include a 10.8-inch display and Apple finally swapping the Lightning port for USB-C.


All of those operating systems announced back at WWDC (iOS, macOS, watchOS, TVOS) should be coming out of beta any week now. This could be the event — though, again, with the possible addition of an iPhone event, we can’t say for sure. The company is also rumored to be launching “Apple One,” an offering that would bundle in some of its key subscription services, including Apple TV+ and Music. Additional bundles could feature Arcade and News+, along with additional iCloud storage.

Some additional longstanding rumors include AirTags, the company’s Tile-like device tracker that plays nicely with its Find My application. The hardware offering would make it easier to locate lost objects in a fashion similar to Find My iPhone. New AirPods could be on the docket as well. AirPods 3, AirPods Pro 2 and the long-awaited over-ear AirPods Studio all seem like reasonable possibilities.

#apple, #apple-hardware-event-2020, #apple-watch, #events, #hardware, #ipad, #ipad-air, #mobile, #wearables


Facebook introduces a co-viewing experience in Messenger, ‘Watch Together’

Facebook today is rolling out a new feature that will allow friends and family to watch videos together over Messenger. The feature, called “Watch Together,” works with all Facebook Watch video content, including its original programs, user uploads, creator content, live streams, and soon, music videos. At launch, the co-watching experience can be used by up to 8 people in a Messenger video chat on mobile, or by up to 50 people in Messenger Rooms.

The COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged a number of streaming services — including Hulu, Plex and Amazon Video — adopt similar co-viewing features, or at the very least, unofficially permit third-party apps that enable co-watching, like Netflix Party.

However, Facebook didn’t just jump on this bandwagon. It actually announced its plans to develop a co-viewing experience for Messenger at its F8 developer conference two years ago. And the product has been in development ever since.

Image Credits: Facebook

To roll out something like co-viewing across Messenger is a significant technical challenge. The service hooks into the Facebook Watch CDN (content distribution network), to pull the videos into Messenger. It also then developed a system that allows for tight synchronization between the various users’ streams of the same video. That, too, can be difficult, as someone in a rural area may have slower bandwidth speeds than someone in an urban metro, but the service has to make sure they’re seeing the same part of the video at the same time.

Image Credits: Facebook

To use the feature, users have to first be in a Messenger video call or a Messenger Room — it can’t be kicked off from the Facebook Watch tab or anywhere else. From Messenger, they’re able to start a co-watching session by selecting the new option from a drawer that pulls up from the bottom of the screen. Initially, this feature is only available on iOS and Android mobile devices, Facebook says.

From the interface that appears, users can then browse or search to find something to watch together. Facebook Watch content is organized into categories like “TV & Movies,” “Watched” (your recently watched content), “Uploaded” (your own videos), and “Suggested.”

While users can’t create playlists or queues, all participants can help choose videos. That is, there’s not one person directing the experience for others. Everyone can also stop, pause, jump forward or back in the videos, too.

Though many may use the feature for a sort of lean-back co-watching experience, it has other potential. For example, a group could get together to watch a fitness video and workout together.

Though official music videos recently became available on Facebook Watch, thanks to Facebook’s new deal with record labels, they’re not immediately available in this co-viewing experience. However, Facebook says that they’ll be added in the next few weeks, initially in the U.S., India and Thailand to start. Each market will also feature localized content under the “TV & Movies” section, too.

The feature will begin rolling out globally across iOS and Android, but Facebook intends to have web support ready in a matter of weeks, and other platforms, like desktop, will follow.


#apps, #media, #mobile, #social


Samsung is holding yet another Unpacked Event on September 23

One thing I’ll say for in-person events: they compelled companies to cram in a lot of news. After all, if you’re going to ask an auditorium full of people to travel from around the country — or world — you want to give them a lot of bang for their buck.

Samsung did manage that with its Galaxy Note event in early August. We got a new phone, new earbuds, new watch, new tablet and a preview of an upcoming foldable. A couple of weeks ago, the company devoted an entire second event to the new Fold. And now here we are, a couple of weeks later, staring down yet another event.

The September 23 event will likely focus on the Galaxy S20 Fan Edition that’s been floating around in leaks for a few months now, the way Samsung devices tend to. I’m not saying there won’t be a bunch of other news at the event as well, but the Fold event lowered my expectations a bit with regard to what the company deems worthy of a standalone event in 2020, versus, say, issuing a press release or something.

Anyway, the so-called “Fan Edition” finds the company picking up a long-abandoned trend of issuing lower-cost alternatives to flagship devices (notably, a refurbished version of the Note 7).

Here it seems to be a lower-priced take on Samsung’s primary flagship, the Galaxy S20. From the sound of it, the device is essentially a rebranding of its “Lite” line — the latest take on an already confusing approach to its budget flagship offerings.

We’ll find out more September 23 at 7 a.m. PT/10 a.m. ET.

#galaxy-s20, #hardware, #mobile, #samsung, #samsung-unpacked


This Week in Apps: The App Store’s new rules, Epic’s battle continues, TikTok’s time is up

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the TechCrunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. People are now spending three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

In this series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

Top Stories

App Store get new rules

app store icon 2

Image Credits: screenshot via TechCrunch

Apple on Friday released updated App Store Guidelines with the goal of clarifying how it will approach new technologies, like game streaming services, App Clips and widgets, in addition to better detailing its stance over how and when it will collect in-app purchases from certain categories of apps. The changes arrive at a time when Apple is battling in court with Epic over its requirements regarding the use of in-app purchases. The company is also seeing its App Store business scrutinized by regulators over monopolistic practices in the  U.S., E.U. and Australia, and elsewhere.

Among the most critical changes is the new rule that effectively permits game streaming services like Microsoft’s xCloud and Google Stadia. These services will now be allowed so long as each individual app that can be streamed has its own App Store listing offering a playable (even if a demo), experience. A separate “catalog” app can also be offered where users sign up and subscribe. Who wants to bet Facebook will soon use this new permission to its advantage with Facebook Gaming?

Other notable changes involve clarifications around in-app purchases, including exceptions for enterprise apps, app companions for some web apps and a rule that says one-to-one experiences (think: telehealth) aren’t required to use only IAP. Another rule says personal loan apps must spell out their terms more clearly and puts restrictions on the max APR.

Apple and Epic continue fight

The Apple vs. Epic battle continued to heat up this week. Epic tweeted on Wednesday that Apple will no longer allow Fortnite users to sign in using “Sign In with Apple” starting on September 11, 2020. That meant Apple was using its power to make sure that even those iOS users who already had Fortnite installed before the game’s ban from the App Store could no longer log in.

Less than a day later, Epic announced that Apple decided to provide an indefinite extension on blocking players from logging in. However, the company warned that players should prepare their accounts for the eventual removal of “Sign In with Apple” support.

The move, if true, is another example of how Apple can use its ecosystem power to harm businesses, and ultimately its own customers — in this case, Fortnite players — in the process. As a result, iOS developers are beginning to realize that all the technologies Apple pushes them to use could become ways to control them, as Apple can easily yank them away the minute they cross the line. This move on Apple’s part (if true and not an exaggeration by Epic), could impact developers’ desire to adopt future Apple technologies.

Apple has the legal right to enforce the App Store terms that Epic agreed to, but doing so in the middle of multiple antitrust investigations around the world is surprisingly bold.

Plus, the approach Apple has been taking also comes across as incredibly petty — to the point that it’s burning through its own developer community’s goodwill in the process.

Developers are tuning into this courtroom drama, which this week includes Apple also suing for damages on breach of contract, and noticing the callous language Apple is using in its legal documents. As former Tumblr CTO and developer Marco Arment pointed (see above), people buy iPhone for its ability to run apps.

Ultimately, Apple needs a thriving developer community to succeed, so it’s not clear why Apple — which already offered a discounted commission to Amazon — won’t negotiate with other large players of significance, like Epic.

That said, Epic doesn’t come off too great in this fight, either. It has leveraged its own user base as a weapon, for starters, knowing that Apple would likely act aggressively and ban its app and maybe even worse. Meanwhile, Epic acts as if it’s on some great crusade against developer abuse, when really this battle is about Epic’s desire to keep more money. If Apple cut it Epic deal, it’s not like Epic would hold out until all other developers were treated fairly, too.

Still, Epic’s response to Apple’s claims that it wants a “free ride” makes a good point.

Epic has paid out $257 million in commission fees in two years’ time over in-app purchases that Apple doesn’t help to generate, beyond being the platform where they occur and the way they’re processed. Epic could have generated that money itself, via alternative payment mechanisms, if allowed. Apple gets its cut because it ties IAP to the App Store. And you can’t distribute to iPhone without the App Store.

Even Mark Zuckerberg this week suggested the App Store is a monopoly (isn’t that rich?), because of its control over the App Store.

“Well I certainly think that they have the unilateral control of what gets on the phones in terms of apps,” Zuckerberg said. “So, I do think that there are questions that people should be looking into about that control of the App Store and whether that is enabling as robust of a competitive dynamic,” he said.

TikTok’s time is up

Trump says TikTok won’t get an extension. The Beijing-based social video app still has only until September 20 to sell off TikTok’s U.S. operations in order for its app to remain in the country. The app will be banned if TikTok isn’t able to reach an agreement with a potential buyer before the deadline passes. And from the latest reports, it seems China doesn’t even want that to happen.

TikTok had run into new complications in recent days that would make a sale to Microsoft, Oracle or any other buyer more challenging. China introduced restrictions on the export of AI technology, which forced TikTok owner ByteDance to re-evaluate how it could even proceed with a sale. In light of the news, ByteDance began discussing possible agreements with the U.S. government that would allow TikTok to avoid a full sale of its U.S. operations. It’s not clear those have had any success, as Trump has said the deadline stands.

As it stands now, ByteDance will likely miss the September 20th deadline. And according to Reuters, Beijing would rather see the app shut down in the U.S. than a forced sale.

Despite TikTok’s troubles, which also include a ban in India, demand for the app remains strong. The app was the most downloaded non-gaming app in August 2020, according to Sensor Tower data. The company also this week revealed more about how its algorithm works, claiming it wanted to be transparent about its use of machine learning techniques and other technologies.

Weekly News

Image Credits: Apple

  • Apple to host an event on September 15, where it’s expected to focus on iPad and Apple Watch.
  • Android 11 makes its debut. The new OS was in public preview and will now roll out to select devices, including Pixel phones, to start. The updated OS is not a major overhaul, but offers several new consumer-facing features around messaging, privacy and smart devices. Built-in screen recording and revamped media controls are also included. (Frederic Lardinois/TechCrunch)
  • Android Go 11, meanwhile, now works better on budget devices, up to 2GB of RAM, up from 1.5GB in Android Go 10. (Steve Dent/Engadget)
  • Apple confirms the “Apple One” subscription bundle in its own Apple Music app’s code. The subscription will bundle Apple Music and Apple TV+. In higher tiers, consumers can bundle in other Apple services like Apple News+, Apple Arcade and iCloud. (Kyle Bradshaw/9to5Google)
  • Apple releases iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 beta 8 to developers, followed by a release to public testers. We’re getting closer! (Apple)
  • U.S. homebuying app installs grew 21% year-over-year in August, setting 2020 record. (Stephanie Chan/Sensor Tower)
  • Google and Apple’s app stores are being investigated by Australia’s competition watchdog. (Josh Taylor/The Guardian)
  • Apple agrees to meet with advertising coalition over iOS 14 concerns. The news follows last week’s announcement that the changes to IDFA were to be delayed. (Stephen Warwick/iMore)
  • Apple announces enhancements to sandbox testing. Developers can now test upgrades, downgrades and cancellations for subscriptions, as well as reset the introductory offer eligibility for a test account from Settings on devices running iOS 14 or later, and more. (Apple)
  • U.S. holiday shopping season on mobile expected to be largest to date, topping 1B hours on Android. (Sarah Perez/TechCrunch)
  • AppsFlyer launches an ad spend tool designed to help app marketers better budget. (AppsFlyer)
  • Ahead of Apple’s expected launch of AirTags, Tiles launches a subscription that reimburses for lost items. (Nicole Lee/Engadget)
  • PUBG Mobile Generates $500 million in just over 2 months, passes $3.5 billion in lifetime revenue. (Craig Chapple/Sensor Tower)
  • Smart banners in iOS 14 beta now point users to open stories in the Apple News app, at least for Apple News+ partners, not third-party publisher apps. (Mike Peterson/AppleInsider)
  • Developers behind popular mobile game Alto’s Adventure have started a new studio, Land & Sea. The team describes the first, yet to be announced, game as “an accessible, coming-of-age folktale set against an ancient pastoral landscape.” (Andrew Webster/Verge)

Funding and M&A

  • Groww, an investment app for millennials in India, raises $30 million led by YC Continuity
  • Lokalise raises $6 million to make it easier to localize your product
  • Curio, a curated audio platform for journalism, raises $9 million Series A led by Earlybird


Image Credits:

If you mashup feel-good summer music, ridiculous 80s-inspired imagery and retro tech, you’ll get the lighthearted and fun web radio service The service was already available on the web and, recently, as a Mac app. With the iOS launch, the team created a new design that references old mobile devices, like the Nokia 3310, and doused it in pink. It’s the most fun you’ll have with an app all week. Check it out via

Google Maps returns to Apple Watch

Image Credits: 9to5Google (photo of Google Maps app)

But why? Google Maps first launched on Apple Watch in 2015 but was pulled two years later without explanation. Now it’s back, 9to5Google spotted this week. The new version doesn’t let you search for new locations from the Watch — you still have to use your phone. The app can then provide navigation instructions by car, bike, public transport or walking.


Image Credit: NewNew

Former Drake personal assistant Courtne Smith launches NewNew, a social network based on the video its users like and share. The app, a combination of TikTok and Facebook, allows users to create networks based on the videos, memes and images they’re sharing.

#app-stores, #apple, #apps, #developers, #google, #mobile, #this-week-in-apps


Daily Crunch: Apple revises App Store rules

Apple’s making App Store changes, China might stop TikTok’s acquisition and we talk to Polish venture capitalists about the startup scene. This is your Daily Crunch for September 11, 2020.

The big story: Apple revises App Store rules

Apple announced a bunch of changes to its App Store guidelines today, with details about how it will support new iOS features like App Clips and much more.

For one thing, it sounds like the App Store will now support game-streaming services like Microsoft’s xCloud and Google’s Stadia. The main caveat is that games available through these services must have their own listings in the App Store and be available as a separate download.

In addition, Apple is also offering more flexibility to “reader” apps like Netflix, and said it’s supporting a new category called “free stand-alone” apps, which could include email apps like the disputed Hey.

The tech giants

Facebook launches poll worker recruitment push in the News Feed — With the election looming and a pandemic still raging through the U.S., a shortage of poll workers is one of many threats to voting this November.

Elon Musk says Tesla will ‘one day’ produce ‘super efficient home HVAC’ with HEPA filtering — While primarily an automaker, Tesla is also already in the business of home energy and power generation, thanks to its acquisition of SolarCity.

Startups, funding and venture capital

China may kill TikTok’s U.S. operations rather than see them sold — According to reporting by Reuters, the Chinese government may prefer if TikTok simply shutters its U.S. operations instead of allowing it to be sold to an American company.

Santander spins out its $400M fintech venture capital arm, now called Mouro Capital — Santander, the Spanish multinational banking giant, is announcing that its fintech venture arm is to be spun out and will be managed more autonomously going forward.

Toucan raises $3 million to teach you new languages as you browse the web — The startup has developed a Chrome browser extension designed for anyone who wants to learn a new language but hasn’t found the motivation or the time.

Advice and analysis From Extra Crunch

10 Poland-based investors discuss trends, opportunities and the road ahead — The first in a two-part survey series about the nation’s startup ecosystem.

VCs pour funding into edtech startups as COVID-19 shakes up the market — 2020 should crush 2018’s edtech fundraising record.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

England’s long-delayed COVID-19 contact-tracing app to launch on September 24 — Scotland and Northern Ireland already have their own COVID-19 contact-tracing apps.

TechCrunch still brings the fun to Disrupt 2020 — Disrupt may be virtual this year, but we’re still making time for levity, swag and kick-ass entertainment.

The 2019 TechCrunch Include Report — TechCrunch is reporting our 2019 events and staff diversity numbers, the fourth report since we started tracking.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

#apple, #apps, #mobile


Daily Crunch: Facebook launches a college-only network

Facebook returns to its college roots, Alexa gets a printing feature and we take a deep dive into Unity’s business. This is your Daily Crunch for September 10, 2020.

The big story: Facebook launches a college-only network

If you’re old and decrepit like me, you remember when Facebook was only for college students and required a college email address to join. Well, it seems everything old is new again, because the company is piloting a new feature called Facebook Campus … which is only for college students and requires a college email address to join.

Facebook’s Charmaine Hung argued that the product is particularly relevant now: “With COVID-19, we see that many students aren’t returning to campus in the fall. Now, classes are being held online and students are trying to react to this new normal of what it’s like to connect to clubs and organizations that you care about, when you’re not together.”

Of course, this could also be a way for Facebook to try to stay relevant to a younger demographic, before they move on to other apps.

The tech giants

Amazon launches Alexa Print, a way to print lists, recipes, games and educational content using your voice — The feature works with any second-generation Echo device or newer, as well as a range of printers.

Google says it’s eliminating Autocomplete suggestions that target candidates or voting — The company says that it will now remove any Autocomplete predictions that seem to endorse or oppose a candidate or a political party, or that make a claim about voting or the electoral process.

Microsoft Surface Duo review — Brian Heater calls it a beautiful, expensive work in progress.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Orchard real estate platform raises $69 million Series C led by Revolution Growth — Orchard (formerly Perch) launched in 2017 with a mission to digitize the entire experience of buying and selling a home.

How Unity built a gaming engine for the future — Eric Peckham offers an in-depth look at the company’s financials as it prepares to go public.

India’s Zomato raises $100M from Tiger Global, says it is planning to file for IPO next year — In an email to employees, CEO Deepinder Goyal said the food delivery startup has about $250 million cash in the bank, with several more “big name” investors preparing to join the current round.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Use ‘productive paranoia’ to build cybersecurity culture at your startup — We asked Casey Ellis, founder, chairman and chief technology officer at Bugcrowd, to share his ideas for how startups can improve their security posture.

What’s driving API-powered startups forward in 2020? — It’s not hard to find startups with API-based delivery models that are doing well this year.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Announcing the Startup Battlefield companies at TechCrunch Disrupt 2020 — This is our most competitive batch to date.

$3 million Breakthrough Prize goes to scientist designing molecules to fight COVID-19 — David Baker’s work over the last 20 years has helped validate the idea that computers can help us understand and create complex molecules like proteins.

Recorded music revenue is up on streaming growth, as physical sales plummet — With vastly more people stuck inside seeking novel methods of entertainment, paid subscriptions are up 24% year-over-year.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

#daily-crunch, #facebook, #mobile, #social


Retro-inspired music player brings its summery fun to iPhone

If you mashup feel-good summer music, ridiculous 80’s-inspired imagery and retro tech, you’ll get the lighthearted and fun web radio service, the so-called “sunniest place on the internet.” The website where you can stream beachy, chill or disco tracks in a classic MacOS-like space relaunched last year to bring a little joy back to the internet. More recently, the team delivered a Mac app that somehow successfully mixes together the Mac aesthetic with touches early Windows. Today, the iOS app has arrived, this time taking inspiration from old Nokia 3310 mobile devices.

The project actually began back in 2014, when founder and serial entrepreneur Marty Bell was in search of some sort of virtual getaway. Bell lives in the Highlands of Scotland, where it’s often gray and rainy, he says. And that can be depressing. As an escape, Bell began listening to a certain type of uplifting, happy music via SoundCloud. He decided it would be fun to his favorite those tunes in a playful environment that also reminded him of his other “happy place” — “80’s beach movies on VHS, where it’s like the American summer dream,” Bell explains.

He then teamed up with developer Grant MacLennan to launch the initial version of the website, then called Poolside Radio, in 2014. It received a handful of accolades and briefly went viral on Twitter, developing a small cult following.

The site initially ran on a rudimentary CMS (content management system) where Bell could submit SoundCloud tracks and YouTube videos which would then be played at random for visitors.

Image Credits:

Over the years, Bell continued to work on his other business endeavours, which ranged from a DJ business with a clothing line to a sunglasses company, and later, a finance company called Nude, which helps young people save up for their first home. Though he continued to update’s Instagram, the website for the radio service wasn’t updated for years. Despite the inattention, it continued to see thousands and, sometimes, tens of thousands of visitors per month.

Bell more recently returned to the project with the idea to reinvent the website with an operating system-like look-and-feel, and even paid people to do three different versions of the site until he found the right team. Unbelievably, the team working on the project now do so on a volunteer basis in their free time because they find it to be a positive experience. (And perhaps because they see long-term potential in the brand.)

Visitors who go to can switch through various “stations,” each with their own vibe. The default,, features the upbeat music that prompted the project in the first place. But there’s also an indie channel, Indie Summer, a chill channel, Hangover Club, and fast-tempo disco, Tokyo Disco.

Since last summer’s relaunch, the updated website has seen 1.5 million listening sessions from over 900,000 individuals, with much of the listening taking place across the U.S. (32%), Japan (15%), UK (8%), Germany (4%), Canada (4%). Meanwhile, the recently launched Mac app has already been installed 30,000 times across the past 3 weeks and was featured by Apple in the “Apps We Love” section of the Mac App Store.

Today,’s retro cool and somewhat goofy 80’s/90’s aesthetic arrives on the iPhone.

But instead of copying the user interface from the web, the team created something new.

The iOS app, built by developer Josh McMillan, references older cellular devices — like the Nokia 3310, which once featured a grainy, pixel-y image of hands coming together and shaking. On’s app start screen, however, a similar set of hands now drop a cherry in a martini glass.

Image Credits:

The app’s main interface, meanwhile, recalls old cellular devices with its use of outdated fonts, pixel-y shading, and grainy imagery. Low-bit “video clips” play in the background, helping deliver the retro vibe. You’ll see women with big 80’s hair, terrible 80’s dancing, classic cars, beach parties, and more.

But the app isn’t the classic gray-and-green color scheme of old phones. It’s a bright and cheery pink. You also can opt for other jewel-toned shades in a theme picker, if you prefer.

The app includes’s full channel lineup, which you can play, pause, skip or go back, and favorite, if signed in. And despite its old-school feel, is a modern app with support for things like background play, AirPlay, and the ability to work with your AirPods.

Image Credits:

The team is now six people, founder Marty Bell, designer Niek Dekker, lead developer Lewis King, iOS developer Josh McMillan, Mac developer Will Chilcutt, and backend developer Nick Haddad. They’ve done some side jobs here and there for cash, we’re told, but the cost of running is surprisingly low, Bell tells us.

“The bills are like, I don’t know, Ii would say for both Firebase and the hosting, the whole thing is probably under $100 per month,” he guesses. That’s because the video and audio come from YouTube and SoundCloud, which handle the bandwidth load. The actual service itself is very light.

Though Bell says investors have been sliding into his Twitter DM’s, the team isn’t looking to immediately monetize their project. It’s funny, he adds, how the one business (of so many that he started) that wasn’t designed to be a success — the one with no business plan, in fact — has ended up attracting the most attention.

“I think that’s what makes the difference. When you’re just channeling pure passion into something, with a bunch of other people that are working on it because it’s fun — not because they’re being paid — the kind of product that comes out of that is unlike anything that’s going to come out of a product that’s working towards KPIs and metrics for investors,” explains Bell. “In that environment, you can’t build something like, where it’s six people who are all working on it in their spare time, for free, because it’s their happy place and it’s fun to work on. You can’t get that energy in a business environment very easily,” he says.

That said, Bell does have a few ideas about where the project could go in the future.

The team already sold a little merchandise, like hats and tees. (He’s still packing up’s motel-style keychains from his house, he says.) Bell could see the team running projects from a separate company, as “ presents X,” for example.

Post-COVID, these could include experiential events. But Bell is also talking to podcast studios about doing a fiction podcast series, and the team is thinking about selling more physical products — like pool accessories, naturally.

Of course, we had to ask if Bell finally now has a pool of his own, after all these years. But he hasn’t taken that victory lap just yet.

“I definitely do not have a pool in the Highlands of Scotland. I’m looking out onto a field full of sheep right now,” he laughs. is a free download for iOS.







#apps, #ios-apps, #mobile, #music, #poolside-fm, #radio, #streaming-music


Facebook returns to its roots with Campus, a college student-only social network

Facebook is getting back to its roots as a college-focused social network. The company announced today the launch of a new social networking platform, Facebook Campus, which offers college students a private place to connect with classmates, join groups, discover upcoming campus events, get updates from their school’s administration and chat with other students from their dorm, clubs or any other campus group.

The new platform requires a school email address ( to join and will live within a dedicated section of the Facebook app. It will be accessible from a tab at the bottom of the screen or from the “More” menu alongside sections like Watch, Dating, Gaming, News, Marketplace and others.

“We wanted to create a product where it was easy for classmates to meet each other, foster new relationships and also easily start conversations,” explains Facebook Campus Product Manager Charmaine Hung. “And we really think that Campus is more relevant than ever right now. With COVID-19, we see that many students aren’t returning to campus in the fall. Now, classes are being held online and students are trying to react to this new normal of what it’s like to connect to clubs and organizations that you care about, when you’re not together,” she added.

More broadly, Facebook likely wanted to address its “teen problem,” and Facebook Campus is its solution.

Image Credits: Facebook

Facebook, according to reports, has been losing its grip on the younger demographic, as they’ve shifted their attention to other social apps, like YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram. According to a 2018 study from the Pew Research Center, only 51% of U.S. users ages 13 through 17 said they used Facebook, down from 71% who said the same in 2015. Meanwhile, a 2019 survey by Edison Research indicated that Facebook had lost 15 million users since 2017, with the biggest drop coming from the 12 to 34-year-old group.

Facebook Campus is built to bring these users back by offering a more exclusive place for private networking within Facebook. It’s similar, in some ways, to Facebook’s effort to address the needs of corporate users with Facebook Workplace. Instead of being new ideas for social networking, these platforms leverage Facebook’s existing technology, like News Feed and Groups, to deliver solutions for particular demographics.

At launch, Facebook Campus is only available at around 30 colleges and universities across the U.S. (see full list below), but the company plans to expand over time.

Some of the colleges have a deeper partnership with Facebook and have signed up to publish updates and news to their students’ Facebook Campus feed, as well. In these cases, the college or university may encourage various student leaders to join the network, too.

Image Credits: Facebook

Facebook will market the new app both within its app and offline. Students may be prompted to join Campus through a prompt in News Feed if Facebook has enough data to indicate they’re likely a student at a supported college. For example, if a Facebook user regularly visited a supported university’s Facebook Page, Facebook may display the Facebook Campus sign-up prompt. There are also student-led incentive programs where students who increase enrollment are rewarded with Facebook Campus swag, like t-shirts and towels.

In addition to requiring a .edu email address, Facebook Campus requires a graduation year — and it will need to be no more than five years out from the present.

After signing up, students create their Facebook Campus profile. While this is linked on the back end to the student’s main Facebook profile, it lets them add college-specific details that won’t automatically appear anywhere else on Facebook. Here, Campus users can add their graduation year, dorm, major and minor, classes they’re taking, hometown, Instagram profile and more.

Image Credits: Facebook

This information can only be viewed by other Facebook Campus users who attend the same school. It also helps power Campus’ student directory, where Facebook Campus users can search students by name, year, major or class, or browse to find classmates to add as friends, including those who are in their same dorm or clubs.

Image Credits: Facebook

Within Facebook Campus, students can also discover and join Groups and Events for their school. These can be those associated with official student clubs or Greek organizations, those associated with a particular dorm or even those just focused on a particular interest, like photography, cooking, writing, hiking, etc. Students can create buy/sell groups or roommate search groups, too, or anything else not in violation of Facebook’s terms.

These groups and events essentially function like those on Facebook itself, with the exception being that they can only be viewed, joined and accessed by students.

Image Credits: Facebook

Facebook Campus also has its own private Chat section, which is kept separate from Facebook and Messenger. These group chats work a little differently, as users don’t actually have to find and invite members. Instead, students in a particular group can opt to join its associated chat, if they choose.

All updates from your groups, clubs and events are in the Facebook Campus News Feed. But unlike on Facebook proper, students can’t post to their personal profile within Campus. They can only post to groups, events or chats.

Image Credits: Facebook

Facebook says this decision helps cut down on spam and allows users to focus their energy on engaging with smaller communities they’re involved with.

A small handful of universities have already partnered with Facebook to distribute announcements to their Facebook Campus channel for their students to see. However, any school can choose to opt-in to this feature at launch.

At launch, the following universities and colleges will support Facebook Campus:

Benedict College; Brown University; California Institute of Technology; College of William & Mary; Duke University; Florida International University; Georgia Southern University; Georgia State University; Johns Hopkins University; Lane College; Lincoln University (Pennsylvania); Middlebury College; New Jersey Institute of Technology; Northwestern University; Rice University; Sarah Lawrence College; Scripps College; Smith College; Spelman College; Stephen F. Austin State University; Tufts University; University at Albany – State University of New York; University of Hartford; University of Louisville; University of Pennsylvania; University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire; Vassar College; Virginia Tech; Wellesley College; and Wesleyan University.

While Facebook’s early days saw it targeting Ivy League schools, the company says these first Facebook Campus schools were selected for diversity’s sake. That is, diversity of the student population, diversity of geography and diversity of school specialties (like liberal arts). They also represent a mix of public and private schools.

Image Credits: Facebook

Facebook Campus, notably, won’t include advertising in its Feed. But it will support Facebook’s advertising business. Advertisers won’t be able to specifically target Facebook Campus users, but they can target users by interest — even if the only place the user indicated they had that interest was within Campus. For example, a user who joined a cooking club in Facebook Campus could be targeted by an advertiser looking to reach users interested in cooking.

Hung said Facebook hasn’t tested Facebook Campus before today, even with small groups. Instead, this launch is considered a pilot for the new experience. The company did spend time conducting roundtables with universities and with student groups to gain product insight and feedback, however.


#apps, #facebook, #mobile, #social, #social-media, #tc, #teens


Microsoft Surface Duo review

In the early days, Microsoft had misgivings about calling the Surface Duo a phone. Asked to define it as such, the company has had the tendency to deflect with comments like, “Surface Duo does much more than make phone calls.” Which, to be fair, it does. And to also be fair, so do most phones. Heck, maybe the company is worried that the idea of a Microsoft Phone still leaves a bitter taste in some mouths.

The Duo is an ambitious device that is very much about Microsoft’s own ambitions with the Surface line. The company doesn’t simply want to be a hardware manufacturer — there are plenty of those in the world. It wants to be at the vanguard of how we use our devices, going forward. It’s a worthy pursuit in some respects.

After all, for all of the innovations we’ve seen in mobile in the past decade, the category feels static. Sure there’s 5G. Next-gen wireless was supposed to give the industry a temporary kick in the pants. That it hasn’t yet has more to do with external forces (the pandemic caught practically everyone off guard), but even so, it hardly represents some radical departure for mobile hardware.

What many manufacturers do seem to agree on is that the next breakthrough in mobile devices will be the ability to fit more screen real estate into one’s pocket. Mobile devices are currently brushing up against the upper threshold of hardware footprint, in terms of what we’re capable of holding in our hands and willing to carrying around in our pockets. Breakthroughs in recent years also appear to have gotten us close to a saturation point in terms of screen-to-body ratio.

Foldable screens are a compelling way forward. After years of promise, the technology finally arrived as screens appeared to be hitting an upper limit. Of course, Samsung’s Galaxy Fold stumbled out of the gate, leaving other devices like the Huawei Mate X scrambling. That product finally launched in China, but seemed to disappear from the conversation in the process. Motorola’s first foldable, meanwhile, was a flat-out dud.

Announced at a Surface event last year, the Duo takes an entirely different approach to the screen problem — one that has strengths and weaknesses when pitted against the current crop of foldables. The solution is a more robust one. The true pain point of foldables has always been the screen itself. Microsoft sidesteps this by simply connecting two screens. That introduces other problems, however, including a sizable gap and bezel combination that puts a decided damper on watching full-screen video.

Microsoft is far from the first company to take a dual-screen approach, of course. ZTE’s Axon M springs to mind. In that case — as with others — the device very much felt like two smartphones stuck together. Launched at the height of ZTE’s experimental phase, it felt like, at best, a shot in the dark. Microsoft, on the other hand, immediately sets its efforts apart with some really solid design. It’s clear that, unlike the ZTE product, the Duo was created from the ground up.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The last time I wrote about the Duo, it was a “hands-on” that only focused on the device’s hardware. That was due, in part, to the fact that the software wasn’t quite ready at the time of writing. Microsoft was, however, excited to show off the hardware — and for good reason. This really looks and feels nice. Aesthetically, at least, this thing is terrific. It’s no wonder that this is the first device I’ve seen in a while that legitimately had the TechCrunch staff excited.

While the Surface Duo is, indeed, a phone, it’s one that represents exciting potential for the category. And equally importantly, it demonstrates that there is a way to do so without backing into the trappings of the first generation of foldables. In early briefings with the device, Surface lead Panos Panay devoted a LOT of time to breaking down the intricacies of the design decisions made here. To be fair, that’s partially because that’s pretty much his main deal, but I do honestly believe that the company had to engineer some breakthroughs here in order to get hardware that works exactly right, down to a fluid and solid hinge that maintains wired connections between the two displays.

There are, of course, trade-offs. The aforementioned gap between screens is probably the largest. This is primarily a problem when opening a single app across displays (a trick accomplished by dragging and dropping a window onto both screens in a single, fluid movement). This is likely part of the reason the company is positioning this is as far more of a productivity app than an entertainment one — in addition to all of the obvious trappings of a piece of Microsoft hardware.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The company took great pains to ensure that two separate apps can open on each of the screens. And honestly, the gap is actually kind of a plus when multitasking with two apps open, creating a clear delineation between the two sides. And certain productivity apps make good use of the dual screens when spanning both. Take Gmail, which offers a full inbox on one side and the open selected message on the other. Ditto for using the Amazon app to read a book. Like the abandoned Courier project before it, this is really the perfect form factor for e-book reading — albeit still a bit small for more weary eyes.

There are other pragmatic considerations with the design choices here. The book design means there’s no screen on the exterior. The glass and mirror Windows logo looks lovely, but there’s no easy way to preview notifications. Keep in mind the new Galaxy Fold and Motorola Razr invested a fair amount in the front screen experience on their second-generation devices. Some will no doubt prefer to have a device that’s offline while closed, and I suppose you could always just keep the screens facing outward, if you so chose.

You’ll probably also want to keep the screens facing out if you’re someone who needs your device at the ready to snap a quick photo. Picture taking is really one of the biggest pain points here. There’s no rear camera. Instead, I’m convinced that the company sees most picture taking on the device as secondary to webcam functionality for things like teleconferencing. I do like that experience of having the device standing up and being able to speak into it handsfree (assuming your able to get it to appropriate eye level).

But when it came to walking around, snapping shots to test the camera, I really found myself fumbling around a lot here. You always feels like you’re between three and five steps away from taking a quick shot. And the fact of the matter is the shots aren’t great. The on-board camera also isn’t really up to the standards of a $1,400 device. Honestly, the whole thing feels like an afterthought. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled after using the Note 20’s camera for the last several weeks, but hopefully Microsoft will prioritize the camera a bit more the next go-round.

Another hardware disappointment for me is the size of the bezels. Microsoft says they’re essentially the minimal viable size so as to not make people accidentally trigger the touchscreen. Which, fair enough. But while it’s not a huge deal aesthetically, it makes the promise of two-hand typing when the device is in laptop mode close to impossible.

That was honestly one of the things I was excited for here. Instead, you’re stuck thumb-typing as you would on any standard smartphone. I have to admit, the Duo was significantly smaller in person than I imagined it would be, for better and worse. Those seeking a fuller typing experience will have to wait for the Neo.

The decision not to include 5G is a curious one. This seems to have been made, in part, over concerns around thinness and form factor. And while 5G isn’t exactly mainstream at this point in 2020, it’s important to attempt to future proof a $1,400 device as much as possible. This isn’t the kind of upgrade most of us make every year or so. By the time the cycle comes back around, LTE is going to feel pretty dated.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Battery life is pretty solid, owing to the inclusion of two separate batteries, each located beneath a screen. I was able to get about a day and a half of life — that’s also one of the advantages of not having 5G on board, I suppose. Performance also seemed solid for the most part, while working with multiple apps front and center. For whatever reason, however, the Bluetooth connection was lacking. I had all sorts of issues keeping both the Surface Buds and Pixel Buds connected, which can get extremely annoying when attempting to listen to a podcast.

These are the sorts of questions a second-generation device will seek to answer. Ditto for some of the experiential software stuff. There was some bugginess with some of the apps early on. A software update has gone a ways toward addressing much of that, but work needs to be done to offer a seamless dual-screen experience. Some apps like Spotify don’t do a great job spanning screens. Spacing gets weird, things require a bit of finessing on the part of the user. If the Duo proves a more popular form factor, third party developers will hopefully be more eager to fine tune things.

There were other issues, including the occasional blacked out screen on opening, though generally be resolved by closing and reopening the device. Also, Microsoft has opted to only allow one screen to be active at a time when they’re both positioned outward so as to avoid accidentally triggering the back of the touch screen. Switching between displays requires doubling tapping the inactive one.

But Microsoft has added a number of neat tricks like App Groups, which are a quick shortcut to fire up two apps at once. As for why Microsoft went with Android, rather than their own Windows 10, which is designed to be adaptable to a number of different form factors, the answer is refreshingly pragmatic and straightforward. Windows 10 just doesn’t have enough mobile apps. Microsoft clearly wants the Duo to serve as a proof of concept for this new form factor, though one questions whether the company will be able to sufficiently monetize the copycats.

For now, however, that means a lot more selection for the end user, including a ton of Google productivity apps. That’s an important plus given how few of us are tied exclusively to Microsoft productivity apps these days.

As with other experimental form factors, the first generation involves a fair bit of trial and error. Sure, Microsoft no doubt dogfooded the product in-house for a while, but you won’t get a really good idea of how most consumers interact with this manner of device — or precisely what they’re looking for. Six months from now, Microsoft will have a much better picture, and all of those ideas will go into refining the next generation product.

That said, the hardware does feels quite good for a first generation device — even if certain key sacrifices were made in the process. The software will almost certainly continue to be refined over the course of the next year as well. I’d wait a bit on picking it up for that reason alone. The question, ultimately becomes what the cost of early adoption is.

In the grand scheme of foldable devices, maybe $1,400 isn’t that much, perhaps. But compared to the vast majority of smartphone and tablet flagships out there, it’s a lot. Especially for something that still feels like a first generation work in progress. For now, it feels like a significant chunk of the price is invested in novelty and being an early adopter for a promising device.

#hardware, #microsoft, #mobile, #reviews, #surface-duo, #tc


Kinspire’s new app helps parents find screen-free activities for kids

A new startup called Kinspire wants to make it easier for parents to find activities to help keep kids occupied — away from a screen. The app, which launches with hundreds of activities vetted by parents and teachers alike, arrives at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has many families continuing to engage in social distancing, cutting kids off from regular playdates and other activities. Meanwhile, millions of schoolchildren are now spending long hours online, engaged in distance learning activities.

For parents, this rapid and dramatic increase in screen time has many looking for alternative ways to keep kids occupied and entertained, preferably offline.

Image Credits: Kinspire

“We needed Kinspire in our lives as parents, so we built it,” explains Rob Seigel, PhD, a father of two and Kinspire’s CEO and co-founder. “Before Kinspire, I found it stressful having to search for an activity on websites and social media, then pitch it to my kids. Inevitably after all that work, they’d say no. Kinspire is the one-stop shop where kids can choose what they want to do, not what looks fun to dad,” he says.

He also wanted the app to offer the convenience of having the instructions and the materials together in one place. When quarantine started in the U.S., Seigel put a team together and built it.

At launch, Kinspire features over 350 screen-free activities, including project-based STEAM activities from Tinkerclass, via NPR’s “Wow in the World” — a kids’ podcast designed to encourage kids to think and “tinker” with ordinary household items. None of this content, at present, is paid, we’re told.

The Kinspire community will source the activities going forward by using the app’s “add activity” feature, after first creating their profile. Seigel says the team moderates the content through a combination of an A.I. moderation service and human review.

When you first open the Kinspire app, you’ll see a vertical feed of images, similar to Instagram. But instead of artsy photos or memes, kids and parents can scroll through the activity suggestions to find something fun to do. Each activity card will feature a photo taken by the Kinspire community, which includes teachers, activity creators, as well as parents and caregivers.

Some of the initial creators participating in Kinspire include Nicole Roccaro of @naturallycuriouschildren, Kari McManamon of @entertainmytoddler, Viviana Maldonado of @makethingsbox_, and Kira Silvera of @totsonlock.

Parents can also filter the suggested activities by age, whether it’s designed for indoors or outdoors, prep time, how much parental involvement is needed, activity type, materials needed, and even the mess level involved. (Now that sounds like a parent built this!)

Image Credits: Kinspire

You can also save favorite activities you may want to try later.

As kids complete the activities in Kinspire, they earn in-app rewards as they accomplish things like doing a creative or scientific project, a nature exploration, engaging in pretend play, practicing cooking, math, music, mindfulness and more. Some of the in-app rewards turn into digital character badges for profiles. Rewards also deliver printable instructions to help kids build origami characters with paper from home.

The app could help homeschoolers, remote learners, and any other families who are struggling to come up with new ideas for kids after exhausting so many during the early days of the pandemic.

The company plans to generate revenue by adding a premium subscription that will allow parents to subscribe to individual content creators to receive exclusive, additional content within Kinspire. This also lets Kinspire’s creative content partners monetize, as they share in that revenue.

Kinspire is also working on shoppable activities, a top user request during testing. This lets parents easily purchase all the necessary materials for an activity directly in the Kinspire app, instead of having to go to Amazon or another store. Kinspire would take a commission on those purchases.

Denver and New York-based Kinspire was founded in May 2020, during the pandemic, by a team with backgrounds in tech and children’s play experiences.

Sara Berliner was on the founding team and is an advisor at YC-backed Hellosaurus, a new interactive video platform and creator tool. Before Kinspire, she co-founded children’s IP studio Star Farm (2002-2008), started and built the Kids & Family group at ScrollMotion, now Ingage (2008-2012), and was Chief Strategy Officer at Night & Day Studios, home of Peekaboo Barn, from 2012-2018. She’s also a mother of two.

Kinspire’s current co-founders Rob Seigel, Dave Tarasi, and Nate Ruiz, meanwhile, have a combined twenty years of experience at startups like HeadsUp, Nodin, SolidFire, and NetApp. CEO Seigel was previously co-Founder and CEO of HeadsUp, CTO at Nodin, and a software engineer at SolidFire/NetApp, in addition to being a father of two boys.

The startup is currently bootstrapped and raising a seed round.

The Kinspire app is a free download on iOS and Android in the U.S. and Canada.

#android-apps, #apps, #children, #crafts, #education, #family, #ios-apps, #kids, #mobile, #parents, #startups


Motorola gives its foldable Razr another go with the addition of a 5G model

Last year’s Motorola Razr reboot should have been a slam-dunk. An iconic name attached to a cutting edge form factor — what could possible go wrong? A lot, turns out, especially in the world of foldables where nothing seems to go according to plan. Some questionable design choices gave rise to a poorly reviewed device that continued the trend of foldable stumbles.

This week, however, the reboot is back. And this time, it’s, well, refined. In a blogpost announcing the launch of the “New Razr With 5G,” the Lenovo-owned brand is quick to note that, “We’ve heard from consumers that they feel tethered to their devices and want a way to stay connected while still living in the moment.” To put a finer point on it, here’s a quote offered to TechCrunch from a spokesperson,

We’re confident in our foldable system, which is why we retained much of the same technology from the first iteration of Razr. While evolving razr’s design to include 5G, we focused on areas to make mechanical refinements, based on direct consumer feedback.

In other words, the new Razr is the device that consumer feedback built. Now with 5G. It’s in keeping with the new version of the Galaxy Fold that Samsung recently launched. As many in the industry anticipated, the initial round of foldable devices would bump up against many of the issues commonly attributed to first generation devices. Here that means an update to things like the hinge, which drew some heat from reviews the first time around.

There’s also an improved camera — another issue with the original. This time out, it’s a quad pixel 48-megapixel sensor with improved low light shots and falser autofocus. There’s also a 20-megapixel one inside the device. The battery — another pain point on the original — has been upgraded slightly, from 2,510mAh to 2,800mAh. The company says it’s an “all day” battery, though the demands of 5G might have something to say about that. I suspect the demands of thinness really presented a brick wall when it comes to maxing out battery capacity.

The 5G comes courtesy of the Snapdragon 765G processor. That maintains the original’s inclusion of a mid-range processor (710 last time out), but this time Qualcomm has included next-gen wireless in an attempt to speed up adoption. At $1,400, it’s $100 less expensive than the original, but it’s certainly still pricey enough to make a middling processor a definite head scratcher. It’s true you’re paying for the foldable screen here, of course, but at that price, everything really ought to be the latest and greatest.

The new New Razr will be available in the fall.

#5g, #foldable, #hardware, #mobile, #motorola, #razr