Fortnite had a $296 million April

Posted by | epic games, fortnite, Gaming | No Comments

Just how big is Fortnite? Very big. Very, very big. $296 million in April, big. That’s according to SuperData Research (via The Verge), a service that tracks digital game sales. The number, which includes sales from the console, mobile and PC versions of the game, is up $73 million from just last month.

The sandbox’s survival game’s April numbers are also more than double the $126 million it earned back in February. The title is currently atop Superdata’s console chart, and is number five on the PC, several slots ahead of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. According to the survey it “once again it broke the record for most additional content revenue in a single month by a console game.”

As for mobile, the title didn’t crack the top 10, but the smartphone has clearly been a driving force in recent growth. Fortnite arrive on iOS in the middle of March, and its upcoming jump to Android is likely to push the title’s success even further. And then, of course, there’s the prize pools.

Earlier this month, Epic added a competition that let players compete for large sums of its in-game currency, V-Bucks. And just this week, the company announced plans to spend $100 million real world dollars on Fornite eSports competitions for the next two years.

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Gravy’s new mobile game show is ‘Price is Right’ mixed with QVC

Posted by | Ads, advertising, Apps, Fundings & Exits, Gaming, iOS apps, Mobile, shopping, Startups | No Comments

Following the success of the live mobile game show HQ Trivia, a team of serial entrepreneurs have begun testing the market to see if another game show concept can work, too. Their new game show-inspired app, Gravy, is meant to be a riff on the “Price is Right” combined with a QVC-style shopping experience. That is, the “contestants” compete for discounts of 30 to 70 percent off the products advertised, with a portion of the proceeds going to charity. In addition, through a side game, users can guess when the product – whose quantities are unknown – will sell out and at what price. Those who guess closest win a cash prize.

The startup was created by Mark McGuire, Brian Wiegand, and Craig Andler – the founding team behind Jellyfish.com, an older social shopping network that was acquired by Microsoft back in 2007, to help create Bing Shopping. They’ve also paired up on other projects, including NameProtect (before Jellyfish), printable coupons resource Hopster, social network Nextt, and e-commerce subscription retail site, Alice.com. These have either exited or shut down or both.

The team’s efforts imply a clear passion for working with brands, but getting consumers to connect with brands in new ways is far more difficult, as their track record shows.

That’s why they’re now trying Gravy.

The hope is that the excitement around seeing the product unveiled nightly – and knowing you’ll get a big discount if you buy – will become an entirely new ad unit of sorts, while keeping players engaged in a game-show like experience.

“One of the challenges with millennials is their short attention spans, and they don’t respond well to interruptive advertising,” explains Wiegand, of why the team wanted to build this startup. “I don’t think anyone’s really mastered how to monetize live video. So we came up with this opportunity to create this new ad unit where brands could tell their story, and – for seven or eight or nine minutes – create a live shopping event where millennials can tune in and hear that story but in a fun, gamified kind of manner,” he says.

Here’s how Gravy works. Every night, at 8:30 PM ET in the Gravy iOS app, a live host will unveil the product users can buy. Currently, there’s a rotating selection of hosts who work on a per-show contract basis, usually local comedians – not brand reps.

Players are not told how many items are available, but it’s typically anywhere from two to twenty.

Then the price starts to drop. If you buy early, you’ll have a chance to snag it at a slight discount. But the longer you wait, the higher the percentage off will become. However, you don’t know who else could snatch it up first and when. If you wait too long, the product will sell out.

Meanwhile, if you’re not interested in the product itself, you can guess when you expect it to sell out (meaning, at which price.) Those ten or so closest will receive a small cash prize – a split of maybe $200 or $300, with first place receiving the largest chunk.

At least 20 percent of sales are given away to charity – a nod, I suppose, to millennials’ interest in do-gooder style companies. But ultimately, that decision that has more to do with the fact that Gravy doesn’t aim to be a retailer – it’s not another deal-of-the-day destination like Woot!, despite the similarities around generating product excitement.

Instead, it expects brands to donate products and pay a fee for the “advertising opportunity” Gravy offers.

Brands will like Gravy because they get millennials’ attention for seven minutes or more, Wiegand says. “They love the engagement. It’s a highly engaged audience…I have a chance to buy the products, so I’m heavily engaged in thinking about that product. The recall, memorability, and all of the subsequent buzz – tweeting and all the social media that gets created because of that – is great,” he adds.

However, none of this is proven out yet – Gravy is just a couple of weeks old.

So far, around 50 percent of the products it has featured have actually been donated by brands, including 23andMe, 3D Doodler, Tapplock, and others. The rest have been subsidized by Gravy, including the bigger draws – like a DJI drone, for example.

It’s not yet charging for the ad opportunity, either, as it’s hoping to grow the audience first.

The company says that’s already underway. After alerting friends and family to the app’s launch, the games are seeing 600+ players nightly, Wiegand claims, and is growing its audience 15 percent week-over-week. Around half of those who signed up to play are returning to watch around three shows per week, he says.

While the early numbers are promising if true, and it’s clear the team likes to work in the general space of connecting brands with consumers, Gravy still feels – like much of what the founders have created before – designed primarily with the needs of brands in mind, before that of consumers.

A “Price is Right”-style app would be a lot of fun, but this isn’t it – it’s, at the end of the day, an invitation to watch an ad and shop at a discount. That’s not something consumers may want to do every day, long-term – even if you try to woo them with a small cash prize won through a guessing game.

And like Trivia HQ , which has dropped from a top 20 app to the 140’s (by App Store overall rank, the shine may eventually wear off for Gravy, too. Especially because it’s not primarily a game – and millennials, as fickle and short attention-spanned as they may be (really? the generation that binges entire TV seasons in a few days?), will know it.

Wiegand isn’t concerned, though.

He says he gets bored with trivia apps in a few weeks, but Gravy is different.

“I always shop and I always like a deal. The deal industry and the shopping industry are so much larger than the trivia space,” Wiegand insists. “And the thrill of seeing a product that you like going down into the sixties and seventies percent off is unbelievably thrilling,” he enthuses. “We are able to feature things that have the best price on the planet of first-run products…it creates this heart-pounding, exhilarating and experience like, ‘Should I buy? Oh my God, look at this price. I can’t turn it down,’” he says.

The company raised $2.1 million in seed funding from a range of investors, including the founders at the turn of the year. Around eighty percent was outside capital, led by New Capital. The under-20 person team is based in both Madison and Minneapolis.

Gravy is on the App Store here.

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Mobility startups: Apply to exhibit for free as a TC Top Pick at Disrupt SF ‘18

Posted by | Disrupt, Disrupt SF ’18, events, Mobile, Startup Alley, Startup Battlefield, TC, TC Top Picks, TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco 2018 | No Comments

Mobility is one of the most rapidly advancing technologies going, and we’re searching for the rising stars of early-stage mobility startups to apply as a TC Top Pick for Disrupt San Francisco 2018 on September 5-7 at Moscone Center West. It’s a competitive application process, but if TechCrunch editors designate your company as a Top Pick, you get to exhibit for free in Startup Alley — the show floor and heartbeat of every Disrupt event. Besides, who doesn’t love free?

Mobile tech is on the cusp of a revolution, and we’re interested in startups focused on everything it entails — autonomous vehicles, sensors, drones, security — or something else altogether. Flying cars, anyone? Exhibiting in Startup Alley will expose your startup to more than 10,000 attendees, including potential investors, customers, partners and more than 400 media outlets.

Here’s how the TC Top Pick process works. First things first: apply now. Our expert team of editors will review each application and choose only five mobility startups as TC Top Picks. They also will select five startups for each of the following tech categories: AI, AR/VR, Blockchain, Biotech, Fintech, Gaming, Healthtech, Privacy/Security, Space, Retail or Robotics. A total 60 companies will exhibit in Startup Alley as a TC Top Pick.

If your mobility startup makes the cut, you receive a free Startup Alley Exhibitor Package, which includes a one-day exhibit space in Startup Alley, three founder passes good for all three days of the show, use of CrunchMatch — our investor-to-startup matching platform — and access to the event press list.

In addition to all the other potential media opportunities, TC Top Picks also get a three-minute interview on the Showcase Stage with a writer — and we’ll share the heck out of that video across our social media platforms. That’s promotional gold right there, folks.

And who knows? As a Startup Alley exhibitor, your company might even get selected as the Startup Battlefield Wildcard — if they do, you get to compete in Startup Battlefield for a shot at the $100,000 prize.

Disrupt San Francisco 2018 takes place on September 5-7. Don’t miss your opportunity to exhibit in Startup Alley for free. The TC Top Pick deadline is June 29, and we have special offers for early applicants. Does your startup have what it takes to be one of the five mobility TC Top Picks? Apply today to find out.

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Snips announces an ICO and its own voice assistant device

Posted by | AI, AIR, artificial intelligence, cryptocurrency, Europe, Gadgets, ICO, Snips | No Comments

French startup Snips has been working on voice assistant technology that respects your privacy. And the company is going to use its own voice assistant for a set of consumer devices. As part of this consumer push, the company is also announcing an initial coin offering.

Yes, it sounds a bit like Snips is playing a game of buzzword bingo. Anyone can currently download the open source Snips SDK and play with it with a Raspberry Pi, a microphone and a speaker. It’s private by design, you can even make it work without any internet connection. Companies can partner with Snips to embed a voice assistant in their own devices too.

But Snips is adding a B2C element to its business. This time, the company is going to compete directly with Amazon Echo and Google Home speakers. You’ll be able to buy the Snips AIR Base and Snips AIR Satellites.

The base will be a good old smart speaker, while satellites will be tiny portable speakers that you can put in all your rooms. The company plans to launch those devices in 18 months.

By default, Snips devices will come with basic skills to control your smart home devices, get the weather, control music, timers, alarms, calendars and reminders. Unlike the Amazon Echo or Google Home, voice commands won’t be sent to Google’s or Amazon’s servers.

Developers will be able to create skills and publish them on a marketplace. That marketplace will run on a new blockchain — the AIR blockchain.

And that’s where the ICO comes along. The marketplace will accept AIR tokens to buy more skills. You’ll also be able to generate training data for voice commands using AIR tokens. To be honest, I’m not sure why good old credit card transactions weren’t enough. But I guess that’s a good way to raise money.

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Google’s Duo and Cisco’s Webex Teams among the VoIP apps pulled from the China App Store

Posted by | app-store, Apple, Apps, China, Government, Mobile, voip | No Comments

Earlier this week, it came to light that Apple had removed a number of VoIP-based calling apps from the App Store, at the request of the Chinese government. The apps had been using CallKit, Apple’s new developer toolset that provides the calling interface for VoIP apps, freeing up developers to handle the backend communications. China’s government asked developers, by way of Apple, to remove CallKit from their apps sold on the China App Store, or they can remove their apps entirely.

Notices Apple sent out to the developers were first spotted by 9to5Mac, who shared a snippet from of one of the emails.

The email states that the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) “requested that CallKit be deactivated in app apps available on the China App Store,” and informed the developer they would need to comply with this regulation in order to have their app approved.

The regulation only impacts apps distributed in the China App Store.

We understand that the apps can still use CallKit and be sold in other markets outside the region.

Apple is not publicly commenting on the matter.

The pushback against CallKit is another means of discouraging people from developing or using VoIP services in China, without having to go so far as to ban the apps directly. It wouldn’t be the first time China has cracked down in this area. In November, Microsoft’s Skype was also pulled from the Apple and Android app stores.

The government also last year ordered VPN apps, which help users route around the Great Firewall, to be pulled from app stores – another order with which Apple complied.

Other social media apps, like WhatsApp and Facebook, are also disrupted at times, and newspapers’ apps like those from The NYT and WSJ are blocked, too.

According to data pulled by app store intelligence firm Sensor Tower, two dozen apps with CallKit had been removed during the week prior to the news reports.

That list, along with the date removed and publisher name, is below:

Sensor Tower notes it’s possible that there are other apps removed from additional stores, but doesn’t have that data.

In addition, this list only includes those apps that have been downloaded enough times to rank in the top 1,500 of an app category at some point – beyond that Sensor Tower wouldn’t pick it up. But an app that wasn’t ranked would have had so few downloads that the impact of its removal would be minimal.

Nevertheless, you can see list includes a few well-known names, including Cisco’s Webex Teams and Google’s Duo video calling app, among those from other operators and VoIP calling providers.

The full text of Apple’s email is below:

From Apple
5. Legal: Preamble
Guideline 5.0 – Legal

Recently, the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) requested that CallKit functionality be deactivated in all apps available on the China App Store. During our review, we found that your app currently includes CallKit functionality and has China listed as an available territory in iTunes Connect.

Next Steps

This app cannot be approved with CallKit functionality active in China. Please make the appropriate changes and resubmit this app for review. If you have already ensured that CallKit functionality is not active in China, you may reply to this message in Resolution Center to confirm. Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) call functionality continues to be allowed but can no longer take advantage of CallKit’s intuitive look and feel. CallKit can continue to be used in apps outside of China.

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Facebook, Google face first GDPR complaints over ‘forced consent’

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Android, data protection, Europe, european union, Facebook, General Data Protection Regulation, Google, instagram, lawsuit, Mark Zuckerberg, Max Schrems, privacy, Social, social network, social networking, terms of service, WhatsApp | No Comments

After two years coming down the pipe at tech giants, Europe’s new privacy framework, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), is now being applied — and long time Facebook privacy critic, Max Schrems, has wasted no time in filing four complaints relating to (certain) companies’ ‘take it or leave it’ stance when it comes to consent.

The complaints have been filed on behalf of (unnamed) individual users — with one filed against Facebook; one against Facebook-owned Instagram; one against Facebook-owned WhatsApp; and one against Google’s Android.

Schrems argues that the companies are using a strategy of “forced consent” to continue processing the individuals’ personal data — when in fact the law requires that users be given a free choice unless a consent is strictly necessary for provision of the service. (And, well, Facebook claims its core product is social networking — rather than farming people’s personal data for ad targeting.)

“It’s simple: Anything strictly necessary for a service does not need consent boxes anymore. For everything else users must have a real choice to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” Schrems writes in a statement.

“Facebook has even blocked accounts of users who have not given consent,” he adds. “In the end users only had the choice to delete the account or hit the “agree”-button — that’s not a free choice, it more reminds of a North Korean election process.”

We’ve reached out to all the companies involved for comment and will update this story with any response. Update: Facebook has now sent the following statement, attributed to its chief privacy officer, Erin Egan: “We have prepared for the past 18 months to ensure we meet the requirements of the GDPR. We have made our policies clearer, our privacy settings easier to find and introduced better tools for people to access, download, and delete their information. Our work to improve people’s privacy doesn’t stop on May 25th. For example, we’re building Clear History: a way for everyone to see the websites and apps that send us information when you use them, clear this information from your account, and turn off our ability to store it associated with your account going forward.”

Schrems most recently founded a not-for-profit digital rights organization to focus on strategic litigation around the bloc’s updated privacy framework, and the complaints have been filed via this crowdfunded NGO — which is called noyb (aka ‘none of your business’).

As we pointed out in our GDPR explainer, the provision in the regulation allowing for collective enforcement of individuals’ data rights is an important one, with the potential to strengthen the implementation of the law by enabling non-profit organizations such as noyb to file complaints on behalf of individuals — thereby helping to redress the power imbalance between corporate giants and consumer rights.

That said, the GDPR’s collective redress provision is a component that Member States can choose to derogate from, which helps explain why the first four complaints have been filed with data protection agencies in Austria, Belgium, France and Hamburg in Germany — regions that also have data protection agencies with a strong record of defending privacy rights.

Given that the Facebook companies involved in these complaints have their European headquarters in Ireland it’s likely the Irish data protection agency will get involved too. And it’s fair to say that, within Europe, Ireland does not have a strong reputation as a data protection rights champion.

But the GDPR allows for DPAs in different jurisdictions to work together in instances where they have joint concerns and where a service crosses borders — so noyb’s action looks intended to test this element of the new framework too.

Under the penalty structure of GDPR, major violations of the law can attract fines as large as 4% of a company’s global revenue which, in the case of Facebook or Google, implies they could be on the hook for more than a billion euros apiece — if they are deemed to have violated the law, as the complaints argue.

That said, given how freshly fixed in place the rules are, some EU regulators may well tread softly on the enforcement front — at least in the first instances, to give companies some benefit of the doubt and/or a chance to make amends to come into compliance if they are deemed to be falling short of the new standards.

However, in instances where companies themselves appear to be attempting to deform the law with a willfully self-serving interpretation of the rules, regulators may feel they need to act swiftly to nip any disingenuousness in the bud.

“We probably will not immediately have billions of penalty payments, but the corporations have intentionally violated the GDPR, so we expect a corresponding penalty under GDPR,” writes Schrems.

Only yesterday, for example, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg — speaking in an on stage interview at the VivaTech conference in Paris — claimed his company hasn’t had to make any radical changes to comply with GDPR, and further claimed that a “vast majority” of Facebook users are willingly opting in to targeted advertising via its new consent flow.

“We’ve been rolling out the GDPR flows for a number of weeks now in order to make sure that we were doing this in a good way and that we could take into account everyone’s feedback before the May 25 deadline. And one of the things that I’ve found interesting is that the vast majority of people choose to opt in to make it so that we can use the data from other apps and websites that they’re using to make ads better. Because the reality is if you’re willing to see ads in a service you want them to be relevant and good ads,” said Zuckerberg.

He did not mention that the dominant social network does not offer people a free choice on accepting or declining targeted advertising. The new consent flow Facebook revealed ahead of GDPR only offers the ‘choice’ of quitting Facebook entirely if a person does not want to accept targeting advertising. Which, well, isn’t much of a choice given how powerful the network is. (Additionally, it’s worth pointing out that Facebook continues tracking non-users — so even deleting a Facebook account does not guarantee that Facebook will stop processing your personal data.)

Asked about how Facebook’s business model will be affected by the new rules, Zuckerberg essentially claimed nothing significant will change — “because giving people control of how their data is used has been a core principle of Facebook since the beginning”.

“The GDPR adds some new controls and then there’s some areas that we need to comply with but overall it isn’t such a massive departure from how we’ve approached this in the past,” he claimed. “I mean I don’t want to downplay it — there are strong new rules that we’ve needed to put a bunch of work into making sure that we complied with — but as a whole the philosophy behind this is not completely different from how we’ve approached things.

“In order to be able to give people the tools to connect in all the ways they want and build community a lot of philosophy that is encoded in a regulation like GDPR is really how we’ve thought about all this stuff for a long time. So I don’t want to understate the areas where there are new rules that we’ve had to go and implement but I also don’t want to make it seem like this is a massive departure in how we’ve thought about this stuff.”

Zuckerberg faced a range of tough questions on these points from the EU parliament earlier this week. But he avoided answering them in any meaningful detail.

So EU regulators are essentially facing a first test of their mettle — i.e. whether they are willing to step up and defend the line of the law against big tech’s attempts to reshape it in their business model’s image.

Privacy laws are nothing new in Europe but robust enforcement of them would certainly be a breath of fresh air. And now at least, thanks to GDPR, there’s a penalties structure in place to provide incentives as well as teeth, and spin up a market around strategic litigation — with Schrems and noyb in the vanguard.

Schrems also makes the point that small startups and local companies are less likely to be able to use the kind of strong-arm ‘take it or leave it’ tactics on users that big tech is able to unilaterally apply and extract ‘consent’ as a consequence of the reach and power of their platforms — arguing there’s an underlying competition concern that GDPR could also help to redress.

“The fight against forced consent ensures that the corporations cannot force users to consent,” he writes. “This is especially important so that monopolies have no advantage over small businesses.”

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Jury finds Samsung owes Apple $539M in patent case stretching back to 2011

Posted by | Apple, Gadgets, lawsuit, Mobile, patents, Samsung | No Comments

A patent case that began back in 2011 has reached a conclusion, with Samsung ordered to pay about $539 million to Apple over infringements of the latter’s patents in devices that are now long gone. The case has dragged on for years as both sides argued about the finer points of how much was owed per device, what could be deducted and so on. It’s been eye-wateringly boring, but at least it’s over now. Maybe.

The patents in question are some things we take for granted now, UI cues like “rubber-banding” at the bottom of a list or using two fingers to zoom in and out. But they were all part of the “boy have we patented it” multi-touch gestures of which Steve Jobs was so proud. In addition there were the defining characteristics of the first iPhone, now familiar (black round rectangle with a big screen, etc.). At any rate, Apple sued the dickens out of Samsung over them.

The case was actually decided long ago — in 2012, when the court found that Samsung had clearly and willfully infringed on the patents in question and initial damages were set at a staggering $1 billion. We wrote it up then, when it was of course big news:

Since then it’s all been about the damages, and Samsung won a big victory in the Supreme court that said it only had to pay out based on the profit from the infringing component.

Unfortunately for Samsung, the “infringing component” for the design patents seems to have been considered by the jury as being the entire phone. The result is that a great deal of Samsung’s profits from selling the infringing devices ended up composing the damages. It sets a major precedent in the patent litigation world, although not necessarily a logical one. People started arguing about the validity and value of design patents a long time ago and they haven’t stopped yet.

CNET has a good rundown for anyone curious about the specifics. Notably, Samsung said in a statement that “We will consider all options to obtain an outcome that does not hinder creativity and fair competition for all companies and consumers.” Does that mean they’re going to take it as high as the Supreme Court (again) and drag the case out for another couple of years? Or will they cut their losses and just be happy to stop paying the legal fees that probably rivaled the damages assigned? Hopefully the latter.

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Snapchat launches less creepy Send and Request Location features

Posted by | Apps, location sharing, Mobile, snap inc, Snap Map, Snapchat, Social, TC | No Comments

Snapchat is taking another shot at location after its always-on coordinate-broadcasting Snap Map proved a bit invasive for some users. Snapchat now lets you send your ongoing real-time location to a friend, or request theirs, which show up on the Snap Map and within your message thread.

Essentially, this is location sharing built for the intimacy people love about Snapchat, rather than the foreign and a little freaky idea of giving a wide swath of your contacts access to your whereabouts through Snap Map. As Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp ruthlessly exploit their clones of Stories, it’s the more private, close friends features like this and ephemeral messaging that are Snapchat’s best shot at staying relevant.

TechCrunch was tipped off to the location feature by our reader Chand Sethi (thanks!) and now Snapchat confirms it’s been slowly rolling out to iOS and Android users over the past few weeks. Snap Map, which launched last June, has always offered the option to only share with specific friends instead of all of them. Still, the whole idea of location broadcasting might have scared some users into staying in only-me Ghost Mode. This new feature is Snap’s chance to get them on board, one friend at a time.

Now when you long-press on a friend’s name or hit the three-line hamburger button on a chat thread, you’ll get the option to Send Location or Request Location. It only works with bi-directional friends, so you can’t ask for the spot of your favorite Snap star if they don’t follow you back, and you can turn off getting requests in your settings if people are spamming you.

Location shared through this feature will only update live for eight hours after you last open the app. You can cancel someone’s access at any time through the Snap Map. And if you’ve never enabled it, you’ll go through the location consent flow first.

By letting users dip their toes in, Snapchat could get more users active on Snap Map. After its June 2017 launch, it hit 35 million daily viewers, but that number was at 19 million and sinking by November, according to leaked data. In February, when it launched on web, Snapchat said it had 100 million monthly users — but as Snap never shares monthly user numbers and instead relies on daily counts, the fact that it had to go with a monthly stat here showed some insecurity about its popularity.

Along with Discover, Snap Map represent one of the app’s best differentiators. Investing in improvements here is wise. After all, it might only be a matter of time before we see an Insta Map.

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Andy Rubin’s Essential is reportedly up for sale and has cancelled work on its next smartphone

Posted by | andy rubin, essential, Mobile, smartphones, TC | No Comments

Essential, the smartphone company helmed by Android co-creator Andy Rubin, is trying to sell itself and has cancelled development of its next phone, Bloomberg reports.

The report states that Essential has hired Credit Suisse Group AG to advise them on potentially selling itself. The company raised $330 million from investors, including Rubin’s own Playground Global, Tencent Holdings and the Amazon Alexa Fund. The news of a potential sale accompanies news that the company has ended development on its next smartphone, a major blow for a company aimed to challenge companies like Apple and Samsung with a device that it hoped would hold its own.

“We always have multiple products in development at the same time and we embrace canceling some in favor of the ones we think will be bigger hits,” an Essential spokesperson told TechCrunch. “We are putting all of our efforts towards our future, game-changing products, which include mobile and home products.”

The Essential phone went on sale in August for $699 with a bold, reduced bezel design that was soon present on a variety of smartphones. A report from IDC suggested that the company only sold 88,000 phones in 2017. Sluggish sales prompted the company to slash $200 off the price of the phone just months later, earning it a price that one of my colleagues called the “best deal in smartphones.”

Though Essential’s smartphone is still on sale, without a clear plan to continue their smartphone line, it’s pretty dubious how they’ll continue their dream of a unified experience centered around the company’s ambient OS. The company has already detailed some of their work on Essential Home, a home assistant hub that would include a circular display that could also deliver visual notifications.

Essential was always setting itself up for a David/Goliath battle, but it seems that nine months after showing off their flagship smartphone they’ve realized they weren’t quite ready to go up against the giants.

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Some low-cost Android phones shipped with malware built in

Posted by | Android, Apps, Archos, computing, Google, http, malware, Mobile, operating system, Software, supply chain, TC, xml | No Comments

Avast has found that many low-cost, non-Google-certifed Android phones shipped with a strain of malware built in that could send users to download apps they didn’t intend to access. The malware, called called Cosiloon, overlays advertisements over the operating system in order to promote apps or even trick users into downloading apps. Devices effected shipped from ZTE, Archos and myPhone.

The app consists of a dropper and a payload. “The dropper is a small application with no obfuscation, located on the /system partition of affected devices. The app is completely passive, only visible to the user in the list of system applications under ‘settings.’ We have seen the dropper with two different names, ‘CrashService’ and ‘ImeMess,’” wrote Avast. The dropper then connects with a website to grab the payloads that the hackers wish to install on the phone. “The XML manifest contains information about what to download, which services to start and contains a whitelist programmed to potentially exclude specific countries and devices from infection. However, we’ve never seen the country whitelist used, and just a few devices were whitelisted in early versions. Currently, no countries or devices are whitelisted. The entire Cosiloon URL is hardcoded in the APK.”

The dropper is part of the system’s firmware and is not easily removed.

To summarize:

The dropper can install application packages defined by the manifest downloaded via an unencrypted HTTP connection without the user’s consent or knowledge.
The dropper is preinstalled somewhere in the supply chain, by the manufacturer, OEM or carrier.
The user cannot remove the dropper, because it is a system application, part of the device’s firmware.

Avast can detect and remove the payloads and they recommend following these instructions to disable the dropper. If the dropper spots antivirus software on your phone it will actually stop notifications but it will still recommend downloads as you browse in your default browser, a gateway to grabbing more (and worse) malware. Engadget notes that this vector is similar to the Lenovo “Superfish” exploit that shipped thousands of computers with malware built in.

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