Select FCC leaders announce support for T-Mobile, Sprint merger

Posted by | FCC, M&A, Mobile, Policy, sprint, T-Mobile | No Comments

It’s been more than a year since T-Mobile and Sprint formally announced a merger agreement. This morning, members of FCC leadership have issued statements voicing their support for the $26 billion proposal.

Ajit Pai was first out with a statement, suggesting that the pricey consolidation of two of the Unites States’ largest carriers would help accelerate his longstanding desire to provide more internet coverage to rural areas.

“Demonstrating that 5G will indeed benefit rural Americans,” Pai wrote, “T-Mobile and Sprint have promised that their network would cover at least two-thirds of our nation’s rural population with highs peed, mid-band 5G, which could improve the economy and quality of life in many small towns across the country.”

The FCC chairman went on to suggest that the merger “is in the public interest,” adding that he would recommend fellow members of the commission’s leadership approve it. Commissioner Brendan Carr followed soon after with his own statement of approval, suggesting that a merger would actually increase competition.

“I support the combination of T-Mobile and Sprint because Americans across the country will see more competition and an accelerated buildout of fast, 5G services,” the Commissioner writes. “The proposed transaction will strengthen competition in the U.S. wireless market and provide mobile and in-home broadband access to communities that demand better coverage and more choices.”

A number of ground rules have been laid out for approval. In a bid for approval, Sprint has promised to sell off prepaid brand Boost Mobile. “[W]e have committed to divest Sprint’s Boost pre-paid business to a third party following the closing of the merger,” T-Mobile CEO John Legere said in a blog post following the statements of support. “We’ll work to find a serious, credible, financially capable and independent buyer for all the assets needed to run – and grow – the business, and we’ll make sure that buyer has attractive wholesale arrangements.”

Powered by WPeMatico

Trump’s Huawei ban also causing tech shocks in Europe

Posted by | Android, China, Europe, european commission, finland, Google, Google Play, Government, huawei, Jolla, Mobile, Nokia, play store, Qwant, Sami Pienimäki, search engine, smartphone, smartphones, stmicroelectronics, Trade war, trump, United States | No Comments

The escalating U.S.-China trade war that’s seen Chinese tech giant Huawei slapped on a U.S. trade blacklist is causing ripples of shock across Europe too, as restrictions imposed on U.S. companies hit regional suppliers concerned they could face U.S. restrictions if they don’t ditch Huawei.

Reuters reports shares fell sharply today in three European chipmakers — Infineon Technologies, AMS and STMicroelectronics — after reports suggested some already had, or were about to, halt shipments to Huawei following the executive order barring U.S. firms from trading with the Chinese tech giant.

The interconnectedness of high-tech supply chains coupled with U.S. dominance of the sector and Huawei’s strong regional position as a supplier of cellular, IT and network kit in Europe suddenly makes political risk a fast-accelerating threat for EU technology companies, large and small.

On the small side is French startup Qwant, which competes with Google by offering a pro-privacy search engine. In recent months it has been hoping to leverage a European antitrust decision against Google  Android last year to get smartphones to market in Europe that preload its search engine, not Google’s.

Huawei was its intended first major partner for such devices. Though, prior to recent trade war developments, it was already facing difficulties related to price incentives Google included in reworked EU Android licensing terms.

Still, the U.S.-China trade war threatens to throw a far more existential spanner in European Commission efforts to reset the competitive planning field for smartphone services — certainly if Google’s response to Huawei’s blacklisting is to torch its supply of almost all Android-related services, per Reuters.

A key aim of the EU antitrust decision was intended to support the unbundling of popular Google services from Android so that device makers can try selling combinations that aren’t entirely Google-flavored — while still being able to offer enough “Google” to excite consumers (such as preloading the Play Store but with a different search and browser bundle instead of the usual Google + Chrome combo).

Yet if Google intends to limit Huawei’s access to such key services, there’s little chance of that.

(In a statement responding to the Reuters report Google suggested it’s still deciding how to proceed, with a spokesperson writing: “We are complying with the order and reviewing the implications. For users of our services, Google Play and the security protections from Google Play Protect will continue to function on existing Huawei devices.”)

Going on Google’s initial response, Qwant co-founder and CEO Eric Léandri told us he thinks Google has overreacted — even as he dubbed the U.S.-China trade war “world war III — economical war but it’s a world war for sure.”

“I really need to see exactly what President Trump has said about Huawei and how to work with them. Because I think maybe Google has overreacted. Because I haven’t [interpreted it] that way so I’m very surprised,” he told TechCrunch.

“If Huawei can be [blacklisted] what about the others?,” he added. “Because I would say 60% of the cell phone sales in Europe today are coming from China. Huawei or ZTE, OnePlus and the others — they are all under the same kind of risk.

“Even some of our European brands who are very small like Nokia… all of them are made in China, usually with partnership with these big cell phone manufacturers. So that means several things but one thing that I’m sure is we should not rely on one OS. It would be difficult to explain how the Play Store is not as important as the search in Android.”

Léandri also questioned whether Google’s response to the blacklisting will include instructing Huawei not to even use its search engine — a move that could impact its share of the smartphone search market.

“At the end of the day there is just one thing I can say because I’m just a search engine and a European one — I haven’t seen Google asking to not be by default in Huawei as search engine. If they can be in the Huawei by default as a search engine so I presume that everyone else can be there.”

Léandri said Qwant will be watching to see what Huawei’s next steps will be — such as whether it will decide to try offering devices with its own store baked in in Europe.

And indeed how China will react.

“We have to understand the result politically, globally, the European consequences. The European attitude. It’s not only American and China — the rest of the world exists,” he said.

“I have plan b, plan c, plan d, plan f. To be clear we are a startup — so we can have tonnes of plans, The only thing is right now is it’s too enormous.

“I know that they are the two giants in the tech field… but the rest of the world have some words today and let’s see how the European Commission will react, my government will react and some of us will react because it’s not only a small commercial problem right now. It’s a real political power demonstration and it’s global so I will not be more — I am nobody in all this. I do my job and I do my job well and I will use the maximum opportunity that I can find on the market.”

We’ve reached out to the Commission to ask how it intends to respond to escalating risks for European tech firms as Trump’s trade war steps up.

Also today, Reuters reports that the German Economy Minister is examining the impact of U.S. sanctions against Huawei on local companies.

But while a startup like Qwant waits to see what the next few months will bring — and how the landscape of the smartphone market might radically reconfigure in the face of sharply spiking political risk, a different European startup is hoping to catch some uplift: Finland-based Jolla steers development of a made-in-Europe Android alternative, called Sailfish OS.

It’s a very tiny player in a Google-dominated smartphone world. Yet could be positioned to make gains amid U.S. and Chinese tech clashes — which in turn risk making major platform pieces feel a whole lot less stable.

A made-in-Europe non-Google-led OS might gain more ground among risk averse governments and enterprises — as a sensible hedge against Trump-fueled global uncertainty.

“Sailfish OS, as a non-American, open-source based, secure mobile OS platform, is naturally an interesting option for different players — currently the interest is stronger among corporate and governmental customers and partners, as our product offering is clearly focused on this segment,” says Jolla co-founder and CEO Sami Pienimäki .

“Overall, there definitely has been increased interest towards Sailfish OS as a mobile OS platform in different parts of the world, partly triggered by the on-going political activity in many locations. We have also had clearly more discussions with e.g. Chinese device manufacturers, and Jolla has also recently started new corporate and governmental customer projects in Europe.”

Powered by WPeMatico

Huawei responds to Android ban with service and security guarantees, but its future is unclear

Posted by | Android, Asia, Broadcom, Gadgets, Google, Google Play Store, Honor, huawei, Qualcomm, Security, Xilinx | No Comments

Huawei has finally gone on the record about a ban on its use of Android, but the company’s long-term strategy on mobile still remains unclear.

In an effort to appease its worried customer base, the embattled Chinese company said today that it will continue to provide security updates and after-sales support to its existing lineup of smartphones, but it’s what the company didn’t say that will spark concerns.

Huawei was unable to make guarantees about whether existing customers will continue to receive Android software updates, while its statement is bereft of any mention of whether future phones will ship with the current flavor of Android or something else.

The company, which is the world’s second largest smartphone vendor based on shipments, said it will continue to develop a safe software ecosystem for its customers across the globe. Huawei will also extend the support to Honor, a brand of smartphones it owns. Nearly 50 percent of all of Huawei’s sales comes from outside China, research firm Counterpoint told TechCrunch.

Here’s the statement in full:

Huawei has made substantial contributions to the development and growth of Android around the world. As one of Android’s key global partners, we have worked closely with their open-source platform to develop an ecosystem that has benefitted both users and the industry,

Huawei will continue to provide security updates and after sales services to all existing Huawei and Honor smartphone and tablet products covering those have been sold or still in stock globally. We will continue to build a safe and sustainable software ecosystem, in order to provide the best experience for all users globally.

In addition, the company said it plans to launch the Honor 20 as planned. The device is set to be unveiled at an event in London tomorrow. While Honor is a sub-brand, any sanctions levied on Huawei will likely be reflected in its business, too.

Huawei’s lukewarm response isn’t unexpected. Earlier, Google issued a similarly non-committal statement that indicated that owners of Huawei phones will continue to be able to access the Google Play Store and Google Play Protect, but — like the Chinese firm — it made no mention of the future, and that really is the key question.

Indeed, sources within both Google and Huawei have told TechCrunch that the immediate plan of action for what happens next remains unclear.

It could turn out that Huawei is forced to use the open source version of Android, AOSP, which comes stripped of Google Mobile Services, a suite for Google services such as Google Play Store, Gmail, and YouTube. That’s unless it doesn’t plump for its own homespun alternative, which media reports have claimed it has built in the case of an emergency situation.

Huawei’s response comes a day after Reuters reported that Google had suspended some of its businesses with the Chinese technology giant. The Android-maker is complying with a U.S. Commerce Department’s directive that placed Huawei and 70 of its affiliates on an “entity list” that requires any U.S. company to gain government approval before doing business with the Chinese tech company.

In the meantime, the troubles are mounting for Huawei. In addition to Android, the U.S. government’s move has seen Intel, Qualcomm, Xilinx, and Broadcom reportedly pause supplying chips to Huawei until a resolution has been reached.

Powered by WPeMatico

Google says its app store will continue to work for existing Huawei smartphone owners

Posted by | Android, Apps, Asia, China, Developer, Gadgets, Google, Google Play, Google Play Store, huawei, Security | No Comments

Google said today that existing users of Huawei Android devices can continue to use Google Play app store, offering some relief to tens of millions of users worldwide even as it remains unclear if the Chinese tech giant will be able to use the fully-functioning version of Android in its future phones.

Existing Huawei phone users will also be able to enjoy security protections delivered through Google Play Protect, the company said in a statement to TechCrunch. Google Play Protect is a built-in malware detector that uses machine learning to detect and weed out rogue apps. Google did not specify whether Huawei devices will receive future Android updates.

The statement comes after Reuters reported on Sunday that Google is suspending some businesses with Huawei, the world’s second largest smartphone maker that shipped over 200 million handsets last year. The report claimed, a point not addressed by Google, that future Android devices from Huawei will not run Google Mobile Services, a host of services offered by Google including Google Play Store, and email client Gmail. A Huawei spokesperson said the company is looking into the situation but has nothing to share beyond this.

For Huawei users’ questions regarding our steps to comply w/ the recent US government actions: We assure you while we are complying with all US gov’t requirements, services like Google Play & security from Google Play Protect will keep functioning on your existing Huawei device.

— Android (@Android) May 20, 2019

 

It’s a major setback for Huawei, which unless resolved in the next few weeks, could significantly disrupt its phone business outside of China. The top Android phone vendor, which is already grappling with controversy over security concerns, will have to rethink its software strategy for future phones if there is no resolution. Dearth — or delay in delivery — of future Android updates would also hurt the company’s reputation among its customers around the globe.

“We are complying with the order and reviewing the implications,” a company spokesperson said in a statement.

The two tech companies find themselves in this awkward situation as a result of the latest development in the ongoing U.S-China trade war. Huawei and 70 of its affiliates have been put on an “entity list” by the U.S. Commerce Department over national security concerns, requiring local giants such as Google and Intel to take approval from the government before conducting business with the Chinese firm.

Huawei may have already foreseen this. A company executive revealed recently that Huawei had built its own Android-based operating system in case a future event prevented it from using existing systems. Per Reuters, Huawei can also continue to use AOSP, the open source Android operating system that ships stripped off Google Mobile Services. And on paper, it can also probably have an app store of its own. But convincing enough stakeholders to make their apps available on Huawei’s store and continually push updates could prove incredibly challenging.

Powered by WPeMatico

Google reportedly suspends select business with Huawei over U.S. ban

Posted by | Android, Apps, Google, huawei, Mobile | No Comments

The Trump administration Huawei ban is sure to have wide-ranging and long lasting effects for all parties. In the meantime, it seems, a number of those involved in the periphery are treading lightly in hope of not burning bridges on either side. Google has taken accidental center stage, in its role providing Android and a variety of apps for the embattled handset maker.

According to a new report from Reuters, the U.S. software giant has taken some steps toward disentangling itself. Word comes from unnamed sources, who say the company has suspended all businesses with Huawei, aside from those covered by open-source licenses. The list appears to include updates to Android and popular apps like Gmail.

From the sound of it, Google is still attempting to wrap its head around how to proceed with the matter. Huawei, too, is assessing its options. Given the complexity of smartphone hardware and software, handsets routinely utilize components source from a variety of different locations. This fact has complicated things as trade tensions have begun to rise, hitting ZTE particularly hard over accusations that the company had violated U.S.-Iran sanctions.

Huawei has called the ban bad for all parties, but has continued to be defiant, noting its plans to become “self-reliant.” The company has no doubt been preparing for the seeming inevitability of heightened trade tensions, but its determination has some industry observers unconvinced that it can carry on with without any input from Google or U.S. chipmakers like Qualcomm.

Powered by WPeMatico

Rivian debuts a pull-out kitchen for its electric pickup truck

Posted by | driver, electric vehicles, Gadgets, kitchen, range rover, Rivian, tent, the north face | No Comments

Sometimes you need scrambled eggs. And with that thought, today at the Overland Expo in Flagstaff, AZ, Rivian announced a major accessory for its electric pickup: A camp kitchen. The unit slides out from the Rivian R1T’s so-called gear tunnel that lives between the bed and cab. The kitchen includes storage and a stove that’s powered by the R1T’s 180kWh battery pack.

This kitchen unit is the first significant concept Rivian has unveiled for the pickup’s unusual gear tunnel. This space provides another locked storage compartment for the pickup — but why have it all, many asked when it was revealed? And now, with this kitchen unit, Rivian is responding to the questions. It seems Rivian wants to make its vehicles the center of an ecosystem of add-ons. The company already revealed racks, vehicle-mounted tents and even a flashlight that hides in the side of the driver’s door. Expect more camping and outdoor gear as Rivian cements its brand image around adventurers.

Rivian is positioning its products for a particular lifestyle. Think Patagonia-wearing, Range Rover-driving, outdoorsy types or at least those who aspire to have that image. It’s a smart play, and so far, Rivian has stayed true to this image. All of its advertisements, social media posts, and appearances make it clear that Rivian is carefully aligning its brand image.

Trucks and SUVs are generally marketed to workman and families. TV commercials feature dusty men hauling bails of hay and women unloading groceries and closing the rear tailgate with her foot. But not Rivian.

So far Rivian has shown its products in the backwoods, running trails and sitting next to campfires. The people in the commercials are on an adventure, wearing coats by The North Face and sleeping in REI tents. With the kitchen from today’s announcements, they can pull a kitchen out of their pickup and make some coffee.

Rivian tells TechCrunch this is just a concept, but the company intends to bring this unit to production. There are likely to be other units for the gear tunnel. I, for one, would love to have a slide-out dog washing and drying station because there’s nothing worse than putting a muddy dog in a truck.

Powered by WPeMatico

At this point, SoftBank Group is really just its Vision Fund

Posted by | ARM Holdings, Asia, Media, Mobile, SoftBank Group, Softbank Vision Fund, sprint, Tariffs, Venture Capital, yahoo japan | No Comments

Last week, SoftBank Group Corp. — Masayoshi Son’s holding company for his rapidly expanding collection of businesses — reported its fiscal year financials. There were some major headlines that came out of the news, including that the company’s Vision Fund appears to be doing quite well and that SoftBank intends to increase its stake in Yahoo Japan.

Now that the dust has settled a bit, I wanted to dive into all 80 pages of the full financial results to see what else we can learn about the conglomerate’s strategy and future.

The Vision Fund is just dominating the financials

We talk incessantly about the Vision Fund here at TechCrunch, mostly because the fund seems to be investing in every startup that generates revenue and walks up and down Sand Hill looking for capital. During the last fiscal year ending March 31st, the fund added 36 new investments and reached 69 active holdings. The total invested capital was a staggering $60.1 billion.

Powered by WPeMatico

Amazon now sells flight tickets in India

Posted by | Amazon, amazon pay, Android, Asia, Booking.com, Google, india, MakeMyTrip, payments, Paytm, Transportation, zomato | No Comments

Indians can already use Amazon to pay for their mobile bills and borrow money to purchase items, but now there’s more. This week, the e-commerce giant quietly introduced an additional feature to its shopping site: flight tickets.

Amazon has partnered with local travel service ClearTrip to add a flight-booking option to its payment service — Amazon Pay — in India, according to an FAQ posted on its website. The feature, first spotted by news outlet Skift, is available on its Indian website and app.

The addition of plane ticketing underscores Amazon’s growing interest in expanding its payment service in India, which is both one of its fastest-growing markets and a country it uses to test new ideas.

Since launching Amazon Pay in India in late 2016, the company has added myriad features to the service. Amazon Pay today allows Indians to top up their phones, purchase cable TV subscriptions and pay for electricity and water bills. Last month, Amazon announced support for peer-to-peer (P2P) money transfers for users of its Android app. Amazon also plans to soon let users order food from its website, local media reported last month.

The company has also inked deals with other top firms such as movie ticketing site BookMyShow, food delivery startup Swiggy and bus-ticketing startup Redbus to embed Amazon Pay into many popular Indian services. To spur its adoption, the company has offered cashback incentives to those who checkout using Amazon Pay.

The flight ticketing option is not much different. The company is promising a one-time cashback of up to Rs 2,000 ($28.20) for each first booking.

The push comes as many local companies in India and those that operate in the nation begin to mold their apps into so-called super apps. Top mobile wallet service Paytm has expanded to add a number of financial services, including as of this week a credit card, in recent years. India’s ride-hailing service Ola also entered the credit card business this week.

Truecaller, an app that lets users screen for spam calls, has added messaging and payment features in India. The bundling often seems big names work together. For example, Paytm recently partnered with Zomato to test a food-ordering option on the mobile wallet app, a source with knowledge of the partner told TechCrunch.

Amazon’s interest in a flight-ticketing option in India should also help its partner ClearTrip gain a larger foothold in the nation. The company competes with giant MakeMyTrip, Booking.com and Paytm . Google also offers flights in India, though, at the moment, that is limited to search. When it comes to transactions, users are directed to ticketing websites to complete their purchase.

Powered by WPeMatico

The state of the smartphone

Posted by | Apple, hardware, Mobile, Samsung, smartphone | No Comments

Earlier this month, Canalys used the word “freefall” to describe its latest reporting. Global shipments fell 6.8% year over year. At 313.9 million, they were at their lowest level in nearly half a decade.

Of the major players, Apple was easily the hardest hit, falling 23.2% year over year. The firm says that’s the “largest single-quarter decline in the history of the iPhone.” And it’s not an anomaly, either. It’s part of a continued slide for the company, seen most recently in its Q1 earnings, which found the handset once again missing Wall Street expectations. That came on the tail of a quarter in which Apple announced it would no longer be reporting sales figures.

Tim Cook has placed much of the iPhone’s slide at the feet of a disappointing Chinese market. It’s been a tough nut for the company to crack, in part due to a slowing national economy. But there’s more to it than that. Trade tensions and increasing tariffs have certainly played a role — and things look like they’ll be getting worse before they get better on that front, with a recent bump from a 10 to 25% tariff bump on $60 billion in U.S. goods.

It’s important to keep in mind here that many handsets, regardless of country of origin, contain both Chinese and American components. On the U.S. side of the equation, that includes nearly ubiquitous elements like Qualcomm processors and a Google-designed operating system. But the causes of a stagnating (and now declining) smartphone market date back well before the current administration began sowing the seeds of a trade war with China.

Image via Miguel Candela/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The underlying factors are many. For one thing, smartphones simply may be too good. It’s an odd notion, but an intense battle between premium phone manufacturers may have resulted in handsets that are simply too good to warrant the long-standing two-year upgrade cycle. NPD Executive Director Brad Akyuz tells TechCrunch that the average smartphone flagship user tends to hold onto their phones for around 30 months — or exactly two-and-a-half years.

That’s a pretty dramatic change from the days when smartphone purchases were driven almost exclusively by contracts. Smartphone upgrades here in the States were driven by the standard 24-month contract cycle. When one lapsed, it seemed all but a given that the customer would purchase the latest version of the heavily subsidized contract.

But as smartphone build quality has increased, so too have prices, as manufacturers have raised margins in order to offset declining sales volume. “All of a sudden, these devices became more expensive, and you can see that average selling price trend going through the roof,” says Akyuz. “It’s been crazy, especially on the high end.”

Powered by WPeMatico

Minecraft Earth makes the whole real world your very own blocky realm

Posted by | Apps, augmented reality, Gadgets, Gaming, Microsoft, Minecraft, Mobile, niantic, TC | No Comments

When your game tops 100 million players, your thoughts naturally turn to doubling that number. That’s the case with the creators, or rather stewards, of Minecraft at Microsoft, where the game has become a product category unto itself. And now it is making its biggest leap yet — to a real-world augmented reality game in the vein of Pokémon GO, called Minecraft Earth.

Announced today but not playable until summer (on iOS and Android) or later, MCE (as I’ll call it) is full-on Minecraft, reimagined to be mobile and AR-first. So what is it? As executive producer Jesse Merriam put it succinctly: “Everywhere you go, you see Minecraft. And everywhere you go, you can play Minecraft.”

Yes, yes — but what is it? Less succinctly put, MCE is like other real-world-based AR games in that it lets you travel around a virtual version of your area, collecting items and participating in mini-games. Where it’s unlike other such games is that it’s built on top of Minecraft: Bedrock Edition, meaning it’s not some offshoot or mobile cash-in; this is straight-up Minecraft, with all the blocks, monsters and redstone switches you desire, but in AR format. You collect stuff so you can build with it and share your tiny, blocky worlds with friends.

That introduces some fun opportunities and a few non-trivial limitations. Let’s run down what MCE looks like — verbally, at least, as Microsoft is being exceedingly stingy with real in-game assets.

There’s a map, of course

Because it’s Minecraft Earth, you’ll inhabit a special Minecraftified version of the real world, just as Pokémon GO and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite put a layer atop existing streets and landmarks.

The look is blocky to be sure, but not so far off the normal look that you won’t recognize it. It uses OpenStreetMaps data, including annotated and inferred information about districts, private property, safe and unsafe places and so on — which will be important later.

The fantasy map is filled with things to tap on, unsurprisingly called tappables. These can be a number of things: resources in the form of treasure chests, mobs and adventures.

Chests are filled with blocks, naturally, adding to your reserves of cobblestone, brick and so on, all the different varieties appearing with appropriate rarity.

A pig from Minecraft showing in the real world via augmented reality.Mobs are animals like those you might normally run across in the Minecraft wilderness: pigs, chickens, squid and so on. You snag them like items, and they too have rarities, and not just cosmetic ones. The team highlighted a favorite of theirs, the muddy pig, which when placed down will stop at nothing to get to mud and never wants to leave, or a cave chicken that lays mushrooms instead of eggs. Yes, you can breed them.

Last are adventures, which are tiny AR instances that let you collect a resource, fight some monsters and so on. For example you might find a crack in the ground that, when mined, vomits forth a volume of lava you’ll have to get away from, and then inside the resulting cave are some skeletons guarding a treasure chest. The team said they’re designing a huge number of these encounters.

Importantly, all these things — chests, mobs and encounters — are shared between friends. If I see a chest, you see a chest — and the chest will have the same items. And in an AR encounter, all nearby players are brought in, and can contribute and collect the reward in shared fashion.

And it’s in these AR experiences and the “build plates” you’re doing it all for that the game really shines.

The AR part

“If you want to play Minecraft Earth without AR, you have to turn it off,” said Torfi Olafsson, the game’s director. This is not AR-optional, as with Niantic’s games. This is AR-native, and for good and ill the only way you can really play is by using your phone as a window into another world. Fortunately it works really well.

First, though, let me explain the whole build plate thing. You may have been wondering how these collectibles and mini-games amount to Minecraft. They don’t — they’re just the raw materials for it.

Whenever you feel like it, you can bring out what the team calls a build plate, which is a special item, a flat square that you virtually put down somewhere in the real world — on a surface like the table or floor, for instance — and it transforms into a small, but totally functional, Minecraft world.

In this little world you can build whatever you want, or dig into the ground, build an inverted palace for your cave chickens or create a paradise for your mud-loving pigs — whatever you want. Like Minecraft itself, each build plate is completely open-ended. Well, perhaps that’s the wrong phrase — they’re actually quite closely bounded, as the world only exists out to the edge of the plate. But they’re certainly yours to play with however you want.

Notably all the usual Minecraft rules are present — this isn’t Minecraft Lite, just a small game world. Water and lava flow how they should, blocks have all the qualities they should and mobs all act as they normally would.

The magic part comes when you find that you can instantly convert your build plate from miniature to life-size. Now the castle you’ve been building on the table is three stories tall in the park. Your pigs regard you silently as you walk through the halls and admire the care and attention to detail with which you no doubt assembled them. It really is a trip.

It doesn’t really look like this but, you get the idea

In the demo, I played with a few other members of the press; we got to experience a couple of build plates and adventures at life-size (technically actually 3/4 life size — the 1 block to 1 meter scale turned out to be a little daunting in testing). It was absolute chaos, really, everyone placing blocks and destroying them and flooding the area and putting down chickens. But it totally worked.

The system uses Microsoft’s new Azure Spatial Anchor system, which quickly and continuously fixed our locations in virtual space. It updated remarkably quickly, with no lag, showing the location and orientation of the other players in real time. Meanwhile the game world itself was rock-solid in space, smooth to enter and explore, and rarely bugging out (and that only in understandable circumstances). That’s great news considering how heavily the game leans on the multiplayer experience.

The team said they’d tested up to 10 players at once in an AR instance, and while there’s technically no limit, there’s sort of a physical limit in how many people can fit in the small space allocated to an adventure or around a tabletop. Don’t expect any giant 64-player raids, but do expect to take down hordes of spiders with three or four friends.

Pick(ax)ing their battles

In choosing to make the game the way they’ve made it, the team naturally created certain limitations and risks. You Wouldn’t want, for example, an adventure icon to pop up in the middle of the highway.

For exactly that reason the team spent a lot of work making the map metadata extremely robust. Adventures won’t spawn in areas like private residences or yards, though of course simple collectibles might. But because you’re able to reach things up to 70 meters away, it’s unlikely you’ll have to knock on someone’s door and say there’s a cave chicken in their pool and you’d like to touch it, please.

Furthermore adventures will not spawn in areas like streets or difficult to reach areas. The team said they worked very hard making it possible for the engine to recognize places that are not only publicly accessible, but safe and easy to access. Think sidewalks and parks.

Another limitation is that, as an AR game, you move around the real world. But in Minecraft, verticality is an important part of the gameplay. Unfortunately, the simple truth is that in the real world you can’t climb virtual stairs or descend into a virtual cave. You as a player exist on a 2D plane, and can interact with but not visit places above and below that plane. (An exception of course is on a build plate, where in miniature you can fly around it freely by moving your phone.)

That’s a shame for people who can’t move around easily, though you can pick up and rotate the build plate to access different sides. Weapons and tools also have infinite range, eliminating a potential barrier to fun and accessibility.

What will keep people playing?

In Pokémon GO, there’s the drive to catch ’em all. In Wizards Unite, you’ll want to advance the story and your skills. What’s the draw with Minecraft Earth? Well, what’s the draw in Minecraft? You can build stuff. And now you can build stuff in AR on your phone.

The game isn’t narrative-driven, and although there is some (unspecified) character progression, for the most part the focus is on just having fun doing and making stuff in Minecraft. Like a set of LEGO blocks, a build plate and your persistent inventory simply make for a lively sandbox.

Admittedly that doesn’t sound like it carries the same addictive draw of Pokémon, but the truth is Minecraft kind of breaks the rules like that. Millions of people play this game all the time just to make stuff and show that stuff to other people. Although you’ll be limited in how you can share to start, there will surely be ways to explore popular builds in the future.

And how will it make money? The team basically punted on that question — they’re fortunately in a position where they don’t have to worry about that yet. Minecraft is one of the biggest games of all time and a big money-maker — it’s probably worth the cost just to keep people engaged with the world and community.

MCE seems to me like a delightful thing, but one that must be appreciated on its own merits. A lack of screenshots and gameplay video isn’t doing a lot to help you here, I admit. Trust me when I say it looks great, plays well and seems fundamentally like a good time for all ages.

A few other stray facts I picked up:

  • Regions will roll out gradually, but it will be available in all the same languages as Vanilla at launch
  • Yes, there will be skins (and they’ll carry over from your existing account)
  • There will be different sizes and types of build plates
  • There’s crafting, but no 3×3 crafting grid (?!)
  • You can report griefers and so on, but the way the game is structured it shouldn’t be an issue
  • The AR engine creates and uses a point cloud but doesn’t, like, take pictures of your bedroom
  • Content is added to the map dynamically, and there will be hot spots but emptier areas will fill up if you’re there
  • It leverages AR Core and AR Kit, naturally
  • The HoloLens version of Minecraft we saw a while back is a predecessor “more spiritually than technically”
  • Adventures that could be scary to kids have a special sign
  • “Friends” can steal blocks from your build plate if you’re playing together (or donate them)

Sound fun? Sign up for the beta here.

Powered by WPeMatico