Mansour Wakim

Happy 10th anniversary, Android

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It’s been 10 years since Google took the wraps off the G1, the first Android phone. Since that time the OS has grown from buggy, nerdy iPhone alternative to arguably the most popular (or at least populous) computing platform in the world. But it sure as heck didn’t get there without hitting a few bumps along the road.

Join us for a brief retrospective on the last decade of Android devices: the good, the bad, and the Nexus Q.

HTC G1 (2008)

This is the one that started it all, and I have a soft spot in my heart for the old thing. Also known as the HTC Dream — this was back when we had an HTC, you see — the G1 was about as inauspicious a debut as you can imagine. Its full keyboard, trackball, slightly janky slide-up screen (crooked even in official photos), and considerable girth marked it from the outset as a phone only a real geek could love. Compared to the iPhone, it was like a poorly dressed whale.

But in time its half-baked software matured and its idiosyncrasies became apparent for the smart touches they were. To this day I occasionally long for a trackball or full keyboard, and while the G1 wasn’t pretty, it was tough as hell.

Moto Droid (2009)

Of course, most people didn’t give Android a second look until Moto came out with the Droid, a slicker, thinner device from the maker of the famed RAZR. In retrospect, the Droid wasn’t that much better or different than the G1, but it was thinner, had a better screen, and had the benefit of an enormous marketing push from Motorola and Verizon. (Disclosure: Verizon owns Oath, which owns TechCrunch, but this doesn’t affect our coverage in any way.)

For many, the Droid and its immediate descendants were the first Android phones they had — something new and interesting that blew the likes of Palm out of the water, but also happened to be a lot cheaper than an iPhone.

HTC/Google Nexus One (2010)

This was the fruit of the continued collaboration between Google and HTC, and the first phone Google branded and sold itself. The Nexus One was meant to be the slick, high-quality device that would finally compete toe-to-toe with the iPhone. It ditched the keyboard, got a cool new OLED screen, and had a lovely smooth design. Unfortunately it ran into two problems.

First, the Android ecosystem was beginning to get crowded. People had lots of choices and could pick up phones for cheap that would do the basics. Why lay the cash out for a fancy new one? And second, Apple would shortly release the iPhone 4, which — and I was an Android fanboy at the time — objectively blew the Nexus One and everything else out of the water. Apple had brought a gun to a knife fight.

HTC Evo 4G (2010)

Another HTC? Well, this was prime time for the now-defunct company. They were taking risks no one else would, and the Evo 4G was no exception. It was, for the time, huge: the iPhone had a 3.5-inch screen, and most Android devices weren’t much bigger, if they weren’t smaller.

The Evo 4G somehow survived our criticism (our alarm now seems extremely quaint, given the size of the average phone now) and was a reasonably popular phone, but ultimately is notable not for breaking sales records but breaking the seal on the idea that a phone could be big and still make sense. (Honorable mention goes to the Droid X.)

Samsung Galaxy S (2010)

Samsung’s big debut made a hell of a splash, with custom versions of the phone appearing in the stores of practically every carrier, each with their own name and design: the AT&T Captivate, T-Mobile Vibrant, Verizon Fascinate, and Sprint Epic 4G. As if the Android lineup wasn’t confusing enough already at the time!

Though the S was a solid phone, it wasn’t without its flaws, and the iPhone 4 made for very tough competition. But strong sales reinforced Samsung’s commitment to the platform, and the Galaxy series is still going strong today.

Motorola Xoom (2011)

This was an era in which Android devices were responding to Apple, and not vice versa as we find today. So it’s no surprise that hot on the heels of the original iPad we found Google pushing a tablet-focused version of Android with its partner Motorola, which volunteered to be the guinea pig with its short-lived Xoom tablet.

Although there are still Android tablets on sale today, the Xoom represented a dead end in development — an attempt to carve a piece out of a market Apple had essentially invented and soon dominated. Android tablets from Motorola, HTC, Samsung and others were rarely anything more than adequate, though they sold well enough for a while. This illustrated the impossibility of “leading from behind” and prompted device makers to specialize rather than participate in a commodity hardware melee.

Amazon Kindle Fire (2011)

And who better to illustrate than Amazon? Its contribution to the Android world was the Fire series of tablets, which differentiated themselves from the rest by being extremely cheap and directly focused on consuming digital media. Just $200 at launch and far less later, the Fire devices catered to the regular Amazon customer whose kids were pestering them about getting a tablet on which to play Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds, but who didn’t want to shell out for an iPad.

Turns out this was a wise strategy, and of course one Amazon was uniquely positioned to do with its huge presence in online retail and the ability to subsidize the price out of the reach of competition. Fire tablets were never particularly good, but they were good enough, and for the price you paid, that was kind of a miracle.

Xperia Play (2011)

Sony has always had a hard time with Android. Its Xperia line of phones for years were considered competent — I owned a few myself — and arguably industry-leading in the camera department. But no one bought them. And the one they bought the least of, or at least proportional to the hype it got, has to be the Xperia Play. This thing was supposed to be a mobile gaming platform, and the idea of a slide-out keyboard is great — but the whole thing basically cratered.

What Sony had illustrated was that you couldn’t just piggyback on the popularity and diversity of Android and launch whatever the hell you wanted. Phones didn’t sell themselves, and although the idea of playing Playstation games on your phone might have sounded cool to a few nerds, it was never going to be enough to make it a million-seller. And increasingly that’s what phones needed to be.

Samsung Galaxy Note (2012)

As a sort of natural climax to the swelling phone trend, Samsung went all out with the first true “phablet,” and despite groans of protest the phone not only sold well but became a staple of the Galaxy series. In fact, it wouldn’t be long before Apple would follow on and produce a Plus-sized phone of its own.

The Note also represented a step towards using a phone for serious productivity, not just everyday smartphone stuff. It wasn’t entirely successful — Android just wasn’t ready to be highly productive — but in retrospect it was forward thinking of Samsung to make a go at it and begin to establish productivity as a core competence of the Galaxy series.

Google Nexus Q (2012)

This abortive effort by Google to spread Android out into a platform was part of a number of ill-considered choices at the time. No one really knew, apparently at Google or anywhere elsewhere in the world, what this thing was supposed to do. I still don’t. As we wrote at the time:

Here’s the problem with the Nexus Q:  it’s a stunningly beautiful piece of hardware that’s being let down by the software that’s supposed to control it.

It was made, or rather nearly made in the USA, though, so it had that going for it.

HTC First — “The Facebook Phone” (2013)

The First got dealt a bad hand. The phone itself was a lovely piece of hardware with an understated design and bold colors that stuck out. But its default launcher, the doomed Facebook Home, was hopelessly bad.

How bad? Announced in April, discontinued in May. I remember visiting an AT&T store during that brief period and even then the staff had been instructed in how to disable Facebook’s launcher and reveal the perfectly good phone beneath. The good news was that there were so few of these phones sold new that the entire stock started selling for peanuts on Ebay and the like. I bought two and used them for my early experiments in ROMs. No regrets.

HTC One/M8 (2014)

This was the beginning of the end for HTC, but their last few years saw them update their design language to something that actually rivaled Apple. The One and its successors were good phones, though HTC oversold the “Ultrapixel” camera, which turned out to not be that good, let alone iPhone-beating.

As Samsung increasingly dominated, Sony plugged away, and LG and Chinese companies increasingly entered the fray, HTC was under assault and even a solid phone series like the One couldn’t compete. 2014 was a transition period with old manufacturers dying out and the dominant ones taking over, eventually leading to the market we have today.

Google/LG Nexus 5X and Huawei 6P (2015)

This was the line that brought Google into the hardware race in earnest. After the bungled Nexus Q launch, Google needed to come out swinging, and they did that by marrying their more pedestrian hardware with some software that truly zinged. Android 5 was a dream to use, Marshmallow had features that we loved … and the phones became objects that we adored.

We called the 6P “the crown jewel of Android devices”. This was when Google took its phones to the next level and never looked back.

Google Pixel (2016)

If the Nexus was, in earnest, the starting gun for Google’s entry into the hardware race, the Pixel line could be its victory lap. It’s an honest-to-god competitor to the Apple phone.

Gone are the days when Google is playing catch-up on features to Apple, instead, Google’s a contender in its own right. The phone’s camera is amazing. The software works relatively seamlessly (bring back guest mode!), and phone’s size and power are everything anyone could ask for. The sticker price, like Apple’s newest iPhones, is still a bit of a shock, but this phone is the teleological endpoint in the Android quest to rival its famous, fruitful, contender.

The rise and fall of the Essential phone

In 2017 Andy Rubin, the creator of Android, debuted the first fruits of his new hardware startup studio, Digital Playground, with the launch of Essential (and its first phone). The company had raised $300 million to bring the phone to market, and — as the first hardware device to come to market from Android’s creator — it was being heralded as the next new thing in hardware.

Here at TechCrunch, the phone received mixed reviews. Some on staff hailed the phone as the achievement of Essential’s stated vision — to create a “lovemark” for Android smartphones, while others on staff found the device… inessential.

Ultimately, the market seemed to agree. Four months ago plans for a second Essential phone were put on hold, while the company explored a sale and pursued other projects. There’s been little update since.

A Cambrian explosion in hardware

In the ten years since its launch, Android has become the most widely used operating system for hardware. Some version of its software can be found in roughly 2.3 billion devices around the world and its powering a technology revolution in countries like India and China — where mobile operating systems and access are the default. As it enters its second decade, there’s no sign that anything is going to slow its growth (or dominance) as the operating system for much of the world.

Let’s see what the next ten years bring.

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Instagram denies it’s building Regramming. Here’s why it’d be a disaster

Posted by | Apps, Facebook, instagram, Instagram algorithm, Mobile, Opinion, Social, TC | No Comments

Instagram tells me Regramming, or the ability to instantly repost someone else’s feed post to your followers like a retweet, is “not happening”, not being built, and not being tested. And that’s good news for all Instagrammers. The denial comes after it initially issued a “no comment” to The Verge’s Casey Newton, who published that he’d seen screenshots of a native Instagram resharing sent to him by a source.

Regramming would be a fundamental shift in how Instagram works, not necessarily in terms of functionality, but in terms of the accepted norms of what and how to post. You could always screenshot, cite the original creator, and post. But Instagram has always been about sharing your window to the world — what you’ve lived and seen. Regramming would legitimize suddenly assuming someone else’s eyes.

The result would be that users couldn’t trust that when they follow someone, that’s whose vision would appear in their feed. Instagram would feel a lot more random and unpredictable. And it’d become more like its big brother Facebook whose News Feed has waned in popularity – susceptible to viral clickbait bullshit, vulnerable to foreign misinformation campaigns, and worst of all, impersonal.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Newton’s report suggested Instagram reposts would appear under the profile picture of the original sharer, and regrams could be regrammed once more in turn, showing a stack of both profile thumbnails of who previously shared it. That would at least prevent massive chains of reposts turning posts into all-consuming feed bombs.

Regramming could certainly widen what appears in your feed, which some might consider more interesting. It could spur growth by creating a much easier way for users to share in feed, especially if they don’t live a glamorous life themself. I can see a case for this being a feature for businesses only, which are already impersonal and act as curators. And Instagram’s algorithm could hide the least engaging regrams.

These benefits are why Instagram has internally considered building regramming for years. CEO Kevin Systrom told Wired last year “We debate the re-share thing a lot . . . But really that decision is about keeping your feed focused on the people you know rather than the people you know finding other stuff for you to see. And I think that is more of a testament of our focus on authenticity.”

See, right now, Instagram profiles are cohesive. You can easily get a feel for what someone posts and make an educated decision about whether to follow them from a quick glance at their grid. What they share reflects on them, so they’re cautious and deliberate. Everyone is putting on a show for Likes, so maybe it’s not quite ‘authentic’, but at least the content is personal. Regramming would make it impossible to tell what someone would post next, and put your feed at the mercy of their impulses without the requisite accountability. If they regram something lame, ugly, or annoying, it’s the original author who’d be blamed.

Instagram already offers a demand release valve in the form of re-sharing posts to your Story as stickers

Instagram already has a release valve for demand for regramming in the form of the ability to turn people’s public feed posts into Stickers you can paste into your Story. Launched in May, you can add your commentary, complimenting on dunking on the author. There, regrams are ephemeral, and your followers have to pull them out of their Stories tray rather than having them force fed via the feed. Effectively, you can reshare others’ content, but not make it a central facet of Instagram or emblem of your identity. And if you want to just make sure a few friends see something awesome you’ve discovered, you can send them people’s feed posts as Direct messages.

Making it much easier to repost to your feed instead of sharing something original could turn Instagram into an echo chamber. It’d turn Instagram even more into a popularity contest, with users jockeying for viral distribution and a chance to plug their SoundCloud mixtapes like on Twitter. Personal self-expression would be overshadowed even further by people playing to the peanut gallery. Businesses might get lazy rather than finding their own styles. If you want to discover something new and unexpected, there’s a whole Explore page full of it.

Newton is a great reporter, and I suspect the screenshots he saw were real, but I think Instagram should have given him the firm denial right away. My guess is that it wanted to give its standard no comment because if it always outright denies inaccurate rumors and speculation, that means journalists can assume they’re right when it does “no comment.”

But once Newton published his report, backlash quickly mounted about how regramming could ruin Instagram. Rather than leaving users worried, confused, and constantly asking when the feature would launch and how it would work, the company decided to issue firm denials after the fact. It became worth diverging from its PR playbook. Maybe it had already chosen to scrap its regramming prototype, maybe the screenshots were just of an early mock-up never meant to be seriously considered, or maybe it hadn’t actually finalized that decision to abort until the public weighed in against the feature yesterday.

In any case, introducing regramming would risk an unforced error. The elemental switch from chronological to the algorithmic feed, while criticized, was critical to Instagram being able to show the best of the massive influx of content. Instagram would eventually break without it. There’s no corresponding urgency to fix what ain’t broke when it comes to not allowing regramming.

Instagram is already growing like crazy. It just hit a billion monthly users. Stories now has 400 million daily users, and that feature is growing six times faster than Snapchat as a whole. The app is utterly dominant in the photo and short video sharing world. Regramming would be an unnecessary gamble.

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Instagram may divide hashtags from captions to end overhashing

Posted by | Apps, instagram, Instagram Stickers, Instagram Stories, instagram video, Mobile, Social, TC | No Comments

Geofenced sharing, Quiz stickers, Stories Highlight stickers and a separate interface for adding hashtags to posts are amongst a slew of new features Instagram has prototyped or is now testing. The last one could finally #cure #the #hashtag #madness that’s infected many of Instagram’s 1 billion users, causing them desperately to fill up their captions with tagged words that make the feed tough to read in hopes of scoring a few extra views or followers. [Update: Instagram has also confirmed the launch of GIFs in Direct messaging. Details below.]

The pace of iteration at Instagram is staggering, and helping it to leave Snapchat in the dust. With Facebook’s deep pockets funding its product, design and engineering teams, Instagram is able to keep its app full of fresh toys to play with. Here’s a look at three prototypes, one test and one confirmed roll out from Instagram.

Hashtag selector

The feature isn’t released or even necessarily testing yet, and Instagram refused to comment on it. But frequent TechCrunch tipster and mobile researcher Jane Manchun Wong was able to dig the designated hashtag selector prototype out of the Instagram Android app’s code. It shows a dedicated “Add Hashtags” option underneath the caption composer and people tagger. Similar past discoveries by Wong have led to TechCrunch scoops about the eventual release of Instagram video calling, name tags, music stickers and more, though there’s always a chance Instagram scraps this feature before it ever launches.

Disambiguating hashtags from captions could make adding them to posts less invasive and distracting, and thereby get more users doing it. That could in turn help Instagram tune its feed algorithm to show you more posts with hashtags you seem to care about, get more users following hashtags and allow it to better sort the Explore page with its new topic channels like Sports, Beauty and Shopping. But perhaps most importantly, it could just make Instagram less annoying. Everyone has that friend that slaps on so many hashtags that their captions become an incoherent mess.

Geofenced posts

Wong also dug out a powerful new feature that could help social media managers, businesses and pro creators reach the right audience. Instagram has prototyped a “Choose Locations” option for posts that lets you select from a list of countries where you want your post to be visible. Instagram declined to comment.

The geofencing feature might enable Instagrammers to design different content and captions for different countries and languages. Facebook has offered geofencing for posts for many years, and Instagram already offers ad targeting down to the ZIP code or mile radius. But if this location chooser launches for everyone’s posts, it could let people and professional accounts express their prismatic identity differently across the globe.

Stories Highlight stickers

Instagram gave me a confirmation that this final find by Wong is officially in testing. It allows users to turn someone else’s Stories Highlight from their profile into a sticker to overlay on their own Story. It’s an extension of the Quote-tweet style feature Instagram started testing in March that lets you turn people’s public feed posts into Stories stickers so you can add your commentary — or dunk on someone dumb. Stories Highlight stickers could create a new path to virality for star creators who could convince their followers to re-share their Highlights and turn their friends into fellow fans.

Quiz stickers

This prototype discovered by WABetaInfo‘s Twitter account allows users to ask a question in their Story and designate a correct answer. The Quiz sticker functions similarly to Instagram’s recently added Poll and Question stickers, but instead of tallying the results or letting you re-post someone’s answer, they’ll immediately see whether they guessed the right answer to your test. This ties into Instagram’s strategy to crush Snapchat by making its own Stories more interactive and turning the connection between fans and followers into a two-way street.

Video tagging

Instagram did confirm the launch of one new feature, tagging people in videos. TechCrunch spotted this last week and Instagram said it was testing, but upon our inquiry told us that it’s now fully rolled out. Video tagging could generate extra visits for Instagram as few people have the willpower to ignore a notification that they were named in a new piece of content. The feature could also help Instagram figure out who to show the videos to by allowing it to place them high in the feed of the best friends of people tagged.

GIFs in Direct

Today Instagram also confirmed that GIFs are rolling out to Direct messaging on iOS and Android, allowing you to search through a GIPHY-powered archive of animated images, or swipe through a trending GIFs section. You can also tap the “random” button after entering some keywords to get a surprise GIF added to your conversation. And after previously obscuring who actually made those GIFs, users can now tap and hold on to them to see the creator and other GIFs they’ve made. Instagram first offered GIFs as Stories stickers in January, and Wong had previously spotted them in Direct in Instagram’s code back in July. Clearly the racist GIF fiasco that led Instagram to temporarily shut down the GIF stickers hasn’t deterred it from expanding its partnership with GIPHY.

Combined, this flurry of new and potential features proves Instagram isn’t allowing its dominance to diminish its shipping schedule. It also demonstrates that Instagram VP of product Kevin Weil’s move to Facebook’s blockchain team and his replacement by former News Feed VP Adam Mosseri hasn’t disrupted the app’s brisk pace of innovation.

The jury is still out about whether Instagram’s biggest new initiatives will take off. IGTV is off to a slow start, but will need time to build a long-form video archive to rival YouTube. And we’ll have to wait and see if users grow addicted to Instagram Explore’s new Shopping channel. But constantly updating the app takes pressure off of any one feature to carry the weight of a billion people’s eyes. Who wants to build a direct competitor to something evolving this fast?

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Apple Watch fire face was made with actual fire

Posted by | Apple, Apple Watch, Gadgets | No Comments

With the Apple Watch Series 4, Apple introduced a new, larger display. It now has rounded edges and thinner bezels. And the company took advantage of that display to introduce new fire, water, liquid metal and vapor faces. Apple didn’t use CGI to create those faces — they shot those faces in a studio.

Many companies would have rendered those effects on a computer given the size of the display. But those are actual videos shot with a camera.

Cool Hunting shared a video of the actual process, and it’s insane:

As you can see, Apple used a flamethrower against a transparent surface, exploded a balloon at the top of a basin of water, made a color powder explosion in a cylinder and rotated a small puddle of metallic liquid.

It says a lot about Apple’s design culture — they don’t take shortcuts and they have a lot of money.

Here’s the introduction video for the new Apple Watch:

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Inside Facebook Dating, launching today first in Colombia

Posted by | Apps, dating, Facebook, Facebook Dating, Hinge, Mobile, Social, TC | No Comments

Does deeper data produce perfect matches? Facebook is finally ready to find out, starting today with a country-wide test in Colombia of its new Dating feature. It’s centered around an algorithm-powered homescreen of Suggested romantic matches based on everything Facebook knows about you that other apps don’t. There’s no swiping and it’s not trying to look cool, but Facebook Dating is familiar and non-threatening enough to feel accessible to Facebook’s broad array of single users.

Originally announced at F8 in May, Facebook has hammered out details like limiting users to expressing interest in a maximum of 100 people per day, spotlighting personal questions as well as photos, and defaulting to show you friends-of-friends as well as strangers unless you only want to see people with no mutual connections. If the test goes well, expect Facebook to roll Dating out to more countries shortly as the social network pushes its mission to create meaningful connections and the perception that it can be a force of good.

“The goal of the team is to make Facebook simply the best place to start a relationship online” Facebook Dating’s product manager Nathan Sharp told me during an expansive interview about the company’s strategy and how it chose to diverge from the top dating apps. For starters, it’s not trying to compete with Tinder for where you find hookups by swiping through infinite options, but instead beat eHarmony, Hinge, and OKCupid at finding you a life partner. And it’s all about privacy, from its opt-in nature to how it’s almost entirely siloed from Facebook though lives within the same app.

“We wanted to make a product that encouraged people to remember that there are people behind the profiles and the cards that they’re seeing. We wanted a system that emphasizes consideration over impulse. We want you to consider more than that person’s profile photo.”

Though Facebook could surely earn a ton off of Facebook Dating if it gets popular, for now there are no plans to monetize it with ads or premium subscriptions to bonus features. But as Facebook strives to stay relevant beyond the aging News Feed and combat its branding crisis, there are plenty of incentives for it to find us a significant other.

How Facebook Dating Works…

“Dating is something we’ve seen on the platform since the earliest days. We know there are 200 million people who list themselves as single” says Sharp. He’s married himself but says with a laugh that Facebook Dating “is definitely a young and single team.” Back in 2004, online dating still had a sleazy reputation. But now that over a third of U.S. marriages start online, and Facebook has had time to identify the pitfalls stumbled into by other dating apps, it’s ready to pucker up.

The basic flow is that users 18 and up (or the local ‘Adult’ equivalent) will see a notice atop their News Feed inviting them to try Facebook Dating when it comes to their country, and they’ll see a shortcut in their bookmarks menu. For now Facebook Dating is mobile-only, and will is bundled into the social network’s main iOS and Android apps.

They’ll opt in, verify their city using their phone’s location services, and decide whether to add details like a free-form bio, workplace, education, religion, height, and if they have children. Facebook offers non-binary genders and sexual orientations. To fill out their profile, they’ll choose up to a dozen photos they upload, are tagged in, previously posted to Facebook, or cross-posted from Instagram as well as answer up to 20 questions about their personality such as “What does your perfect day look like?” or “What song always makes you sing along? How loud?”

Users can select to filter their matches by distance (up to a maximum radius of 100 kilometers), if they have children, religion, height, and age. They may then browse through the homescreen’s Suggested matches list, or they can choose to ‘Unlock’ Events and Groups they’re part of to see people from those who’ve done the same. Anyone you’ve blocked on Facebook won’t show up, though unfriended exs might. To see the next person, they either have to say they’re not interested, or choose a photo or question from the person’s profile and send them a message related to it (or at least they’re supposed to), and afterwards the sender can’t see the recipient any more.

The text and emoji-only messages go through a special Facebook Dating chat section, not Messenger, and land in the recipient’s Interested tab with no read receipts. If they reply, the chat moves to both people’s Conversations tab. From there they can decide to connect elsewhere online or meet up in person.

Sharp admits that “The moment you try to control the system you may have some unexpected behaviors occur there”. Facebook thought ahead so you can’t message photos (dick pics), you’re supposed to tie your message to a piece of their content (fewer generic pick-up lines), and you can’t follow up with people who don’t respond to you (stalking). But the company plans to stay vigilant in case unexpected forms of abuse or privacy issues emerge. Overall, Facebook managed to pull off Dating without any glaring privacy snafus or other obvious missteps.

…And Why

Starting today, users in Colombia will be able to create a Facebook Dating profile, but the company won’t start serving matches until there are enough sign ups. Sharp tells me “we don’t expect it to take months.” But why Colombia? He says it’s because much of South America has culturally accepted online dating, it has a sizeable population of 30 million monthly active Facebook users, and the social network can track data out of a few discrete metropolitan areas.

It also likely limits the prying eyes of journalists hunting for Facebook policy or privacy screw-ups, and eliminates the risk of disrupting its advertising in more lucrative markets like the U.S. It’s hard to forget that Facebook screwed up news consumption in Sri Lanka, Bolivia, Slovakia, Serbia, Guatemala and Cambodia last year by banishing all news publishers to a separate feed — effectively depriving the populations of important information. There are consequences to its experiments.

There are a lot of other ‘whys’ to how Facebook Dating was built. Sharp ran me through the decision making process his team undertook to turn Facebook Dating from a concept into a concrete product. Here I’ll run through its rules and features while explaining the philosophy behind them:

  1. Meaningful relationships not one-night-stands, because “meaningful” is Facebook’s new watchword as it enters the ‘Time Well Spent’ era, and the company has the deep biographical and interest data to find you matches you’ll want to wake up next to each day, not just go to bed with.
  2. Opt-in not automatic enrollment, because “not everyone who’s single wants to date, not everyone who wants to date wants to date online, and not everyone who dates online wants to date on Facebook” says Sharp in a moment of humility.
  3. Within Facebook not a new app, because it lowers the barrier to behavior that’s already hard enough for some people, and it can only achieve its mission if people actually use it.
  4. Friends-of-friends and strangers not friends, because many people’s biggest fear is “are my friends and family going to see this?” says Sharp. People who are already friends don’t need help meeting and may already know if they want to date each other.
  5. A new profile not your same one, because some people might want to share a different side of themselves or might not publicly disclose their true sexual orientation. The only info ported into Facebook Dating is your first name and age.
  6. Message and response not both people swiped right, because since Facebook wants you to be deliberate about who you show interest in, you have to send one message and hope to hear back. There’s no infinite right-swiping and then waiting to get matched or messaged. “It puts the power in the responder” Sharp says.
  7. Profiles and chat are separate not part of Facebook, because it doesn’t want to scare users about privacy slip-ups, and doesn’t want people to pollute the main Facebook experience soliciting dates
  8. Real age and location not self-described, because Facebook wants to prevent catfishing as well as users contacting matches in distant cities who they’ll never meet.
  9. Matches through Events and Groups not randos, because a photo isn’t enough for choosing a life partner, interest overlaps are key to compatability, and they give people ready-made happenings to use as dates.

A prototype of Facebook Dating’s onboarding flow

The end result is an online dating product that maximizes convenience, both in where it’s available and how much hunting you have to do by yourself. It’s distinctly one-size-fits-all to the point that it risks being seen as universally embarassing. Luckily only other Dating users can tell if you’re on it and there’s no way to search for someone specific, but there’s still the threat of humilating screenshots surfacing. It will be fascinating to see how Facebook Dating’s marketing strategy and style develops.

Facebook’s real advantage in this market will be its near-bottomless trove of personal data about all of us. It could analyze trends in characteristics of people who list themselves in a relationship together or what kinds of people respond to what kinds of people’s friend requests or messages. For matching, it could pair people who check in to similar locations or whose GPS paths cross, singles who Like similar bands or restaurants, or those who watch the same kinds of viral videos or share links from the same news outlet. Apps like Tinder can only scratch the surface with partnerships like its one with Foursquare to power its new Places matches. Turning all this info into insights about who’d like who will be a massive challenge for Facebook’s data scientists.

The big question remains how far Facebook will go to making Dating a hit. The feature could live or die by whether Facebook is willing to constantly nag its single users to sign-up. Without the gamification of swiping for fun, Facebook Dating will have to rely on its utility. The company is in a precarious time for its brand, and may have trouble getting people to trust it with an even more sensitive part of their lives.

“As all the events of the past year have unfolded, it’s only underscored the importance of privacy” Sharp concludes. No one wants their dating profile ending up Cambridge Analytica’d. But if analyzing your every Like and link gives Facebook uncanny matching accuracy, word could travel fast if it’s how people find their soul-mates.

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‘Jackrabbot 2’ takes to the sidewalks to learn how humans navigate politely

Posted by | artificial intelligence, Gadgets, robotics, science, TC | No Comments

Autonomous vehicles and robots have to know how to get from A to B without hitting obstacles or pedestrians — but how can they do so politely and without disturbing nearby humans? That’s what Stanford’s Jackrabbot project aims to learn, and now a redesigned robot will be cruising campus learning the subtleties of humans negotiating one another’s personal space.

“There are many behaviors that we humans subconsciously follow – when I’m walking through crowds, I maintain personal distance or, if I’m talking with you, someone wouldn’t go between us and interrupt,” said grad student Ashwini Pokle in a Stanford News release. “We’re working on these deep learning algorithms so that the robot can adapt these behaviors and be more polite to people.”

Of course there are practical applications pertaining to last mile problems and robotic delivery as well. What do you do if someone stops in front of you? What if there’s a group running up behind? Experience is the best teacher, as usual.

The first robot was put to work in 2016, and has been hard at work building a model of how humans (well, mostly undergrads) walk around safely, avoiding one another while taking efficient paths, and signal what they’re doing the whole time. But technology has advanced so quickly that a new iteration was called for.

The JackRabbot project team with JackRabbot 2 (from left to right): Patrick Goebel, Noriaki Hirose, Tin Tin Wisniewski, Amir Sadeghian, Alan Federman, Silivo Savarese, Roberto Martín-Martín, Pin Pin Tea-mangkornpan and Ashwini Pokle

The new robot has a vastly improved sensor suite compared to its predecessor: two Velodyne lidar units giving 360 degree coverage, plus a set of stereo cameras making up its neck that give it another depth-sensing 360 degree view. The cameras and sensors on its head can also be pointed wherever needed, of course, just like ours. All this imagery is collated by a pair of new GPUs in its base/body.

Amir Sadeghian, one of the researchers, said this makes Jackrabbot 2 “one of the most powerful robots of its size that has ever been built.”

This will allow the robot to sense human motion with a much greater degree of precision than before, and also operate more safely. It will also give the researchers a chance to see how the movement models created by the previous robot integrate with this new imagery.

The other major addition is a totally normal-looking arm that Jackrabbot 2 can use to gesture to others. After all, we do it, right? When it’s unclear who should enter a door first or what side of a path they should take, a wave of the hand is all it takes to clear things up. Usually. Hopefully this kinked little gripper accomplishes the same thing.

Jackrabbot 2 can zoom around for several hours at a time, Sadeghian said. “At this stage of the project for safety we have a human with a safety switch accompanying the robot, but the robot is able to navigate in a fully autonomous way.”

Having working knowledge of how people use the space around them and how to predict their movements will be useful to startups like Kiwi, Starship, and Marble. The first time a delivery robot smacks into someone’s legs is the last time they consider ordering something via one.

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Password bypass flaw in Western Digital My Cloud drives puts data at risk

Posted by | cloud computing, computer security, computing, exploit, firmware, Gadgets, hacking, hardware, Security, software testing, spokesperson, Twitter, vulnerability, Western Digital | No Comments

A security researcher has published details of a vulnerability in a popular cloud storage drive after the company failed to issue security patches for over a year.

Remco Vermeulen found a privilege escalation bug in Western Digital’s My Cloud devices, which he said allows an attacker to bypass the admin password on the drive, gaining “complete control” over the user’s data.

The exploit works because drive’s web-based dashboard doesn’t properly check a user’s credentials before giving a possible attacker access to tools that should require higher levels of access.

The bug was “easy” to exploit, Vermeulen told TechCrunch in an email, and was remotely exploitable if a My Cloud device allows remote access over the internet — which thousands of devices do. He posted a proof-of-concept video on Twitter.

Details of the bug were also independently found by another security team, which released its own exploit code.

Vermeulen reported the bug over a year ago, in April 2017, but said the company stopped responding. Normally, security researchers give 90 days for a company to respond, in line with industry-accepted responsible disclosure guidelines.

After he found that WD updated the My Cloud firmware in the meanwhile without fixing the vulnerability he found, he decided to post his findings.

A year later, WD still hasn’t released a patch.

The company confirmed that it knows of the vulnerability but did not say why it took more than a year to issue a fix. “We are in the process of finalizing a scheduled firmware update that will resolve the reported issue,” a spokesperson said, which will arrive “within a few weeks.”

WD said that several of its My Cloud products are vulnerable — including the EX2, EX4 and Mirror, but not My Cloud Home.

In the meantime, Vermeulen said that there’s no fix and that users have to “just disconnect” the drive altogether if they want to keep their data safe.

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Ghostery revamps its privacy-focused mobile browsers

Posted by | Apps, ghostery, Mobile, Startups | No Comments

Ghostery is launching new versions of its browsers for iOS and Android. In fact, Director of Product Jeremy Tillman said this is the first big update to Ghostery’s mobile browsers in several years.

It’s not that mobile wasn’t a priority for the team before this, but Tillman said, “In our previous company, we didn’t have a ton of resources — we always had to choose which thing to work on.” Apparently that changed last year with Ghostery’s acquisition by German browser company Cliqz.

The first big launch after the acquisition was Ghostery 8, the latest version of the team’s privacy-focused extension for desktop browsers. Next up: Bringing those features over to mobile.

Tillman said the goal was to create “a browser that can go toe-to-toe with Chrome” while also incorporating Ghostery’s privacy protection capabilities. Those capabilities include the ability to block different kinds of ad tracking by category (tracking for advertising, adult advertising and site analytics are turned on by default).

There’s also a built-in ad blocker, and Ghost Search, a privacy-focused search engine based on Cliqz technology that does not store any personally identifiable information. (If you’re not satisfied with the Ghost Search results, you can also see results from other search engines.) The presentation is different from a standard search engine, with three “dynamic result cards” that surface content as soon as you start entering search terms. And there’s Ghostery Tab, a home screen that highlights your favorite or most visited sites, as well as the latest news stories.

The Android version includes additional features, including AI-powered anti-tracking and “smart blocking” that’s supposed to improve page performance.

Tillman described the result as “a cleaner, faster, safer mobile browsing experience.” He also said that moving forward, Ghostery will be working to provide “an ecosystem of products” that “protect our users wherever they’re interacting with the Internet.”

The launch comes as the big Internet platforms face growing scrutiny over how they handle user data. Tillman argued that by simply giving consumers a more privacy-friendly alternative, “We’re sort of collectively negotiating a better Internet for them” — and he’s hoping Ghostery can be more involved as publishers try to find alternatives to advertising.

“Our goal isn’t to, say, topple Google and Facebook, but to provide that alternative to those that want it — both for content creators but also for users themselves,” he said.

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iOS 12.1 beta hints at new iPad Pro

Posted by | Apple, Gadgets, iPad, iPad Pro, rumor | No Comments

iOS 12 is still brand new, but Apple is already testing iOS 12.1 with a developer beta version. Steve Troughton-Smith and Guilherme Rambo found references to a brand new iPad that would support Face ID.

First, there are changes to Face ID. You can find references to landscape orientation in the iOS 12.1 beta. Face ID on the iPhone is limited to portrait orientation. Chances are you didn’t even notice this limitation because there’s only one orientation for the lock screen and home screen.

But the iPad is a different story as people tend to use it in landscape. And even when you hold it in landscape, some people will have the home button on the left while others will have the home button on the right.

In other words, in order to bring Face ID to the iPad, it needs to support multiple orientations. This beta indicates that iOS 12.1 could be the version of iOS that ships with the next iPad.

If that wasn’t enough, there’s a new device codename in the setup reference files. This device is called iPad2018Fall, which clearly means that a new iPad is right around the corner.

Analyst Ming-Chi Kuo previously indicated that the iPad Pro could switch from Lightning to USB-C. This would open up a ton of possibilities when it comes to accessories. For instance, you could plug an external monitor without any dongle and send a video feed to this external monitor.

As for iPhone users, in addition to bug fixes, iOS 12.1 brings back Group FaceTime, a feature that was removed at the last minute before the release of iOS 12. If it’s still too buggy, Apple could still choose to remove the feature once again. Memojis could support iCloud syncing across your devices, which would be useful for an iPad Pro with Face ID.

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Google Home Mini was the best-selling smart speaker in Q2

Posted by | Amazon, Apple, echo, echo dot, Gadgets, Google, Google Home Mini, HomePod, smart speakers | No Comments

Amazon’s Echo Dot may have been a bestseller on Prime Day, but Google’s Home Mini device is now the top-selling smart speaker worldwide, according to a new report out this morning from Strategy Analytics. The analyst firm says Google’s small speaker accounted for 1 in 5 smart speaker shipments in Q2 2018, edging out the Echo Dot with its 2.3 million global shipments compared to Echo Dot’s 2.2 million.

Combined, these two entry-level smart speakers – the Echo Dot and Home Mini – accounted for 38% of global shipments, the firm found.

In total, 11.7 million smart speaker devices were shipped during Q2, with 4 out of the top 5 devices coming from either Amazon or Google.

Following the Dot, was Amazon’s flagship Echo device with 1.4 million shipments, then Alibaba’s Tmail Genie (0.8m), and Google Home (0.8m).

Apple’s HomePod wasn’t ranked in the top five, but took a 6% share of the shipments in Q2.

However, HomePod’s premium focus and higher price tag allowed it to take a sizable chunk of smart speaker revenue during this period.

While the Home Mini and Echo Dot combined accounted for 17% of smart speaker revenues, Apple’s HomePod alone took a 16% share of wholesale revenues. And in terms of devices above the $200 price point, the HomePod had a 70% revenue share.

Strategy Analytics’s report also indicated this growing market is still in flux, thanks to expected new arrivals which could impact the shares held today by existing players.

“The number of smart speaker models available worldwide has grown significantly over the last twelve months as vendors look to capitalize on the explosive market growth,” said David Mercer, Vice President at Strategy Analytics, in a statement. “Heavyweight brands such as Samsung and Bose are in the process of launching their first models, adding further credibility to the segment and giving consumers more options at the premium-end of the marker,” he added.

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