Android

Test and trace with Apple and Google

Posted by | alipay, america, Android, Apple, apple inc, Bluetooth, China, Companies, computing, cryptography, digital rights, encryption, Google, google play services, human rights, MIT, NHS, operating system, Opinion, privacy, Singapore, south korea, surveillance, TC, terms of service, United Kingdom, world health organization | No Comments

After the shutdown, the testing and tracing. “Trace, test and treat is the mantra … no lockdowns, no roadblocks and no restriction on movement” in South Korea. “To suppress and control the epidemic, countries must isolate, test, treat and trace,” say WHO.

But what does “tracing” look like exactly? In Singapore, they use a “TraceTogether” app, which uses Bluetooth to track nearby phones (without location tracking), keeps local logs of those contacts, and only uploads them to the Ministry of Health when the user chooses/consents, presumably after a diagnosis, so those contacts can be alerted. Singapore plans to open-source the app.

In South Korea, the government texts people to let them know if they were in the vicinity of a diagnosed individual. The information conveyed can include the person’s age, gender, and detailed location history. Subsequently, even more details may be made available:

The level of detail provided by @Seoul_gov for each and every COVID-19 case in the city is astonishing:

Last name (which I’ve obscured)
Sex
Birth year
District of residence
Profession
Travel history
Contact with known cases
Hospital where they’re being treated pic.twitter.com/GsI0QQPcVH

— Victoria Kim (@vicjkim) March 24, 2020

In China, as you might expect, the surveillance is even more pervasive and draconian. Here, the pervasive apps Alipay and WeChat now include health codes – green, yellow, or red – set by the Chinese government, using opaque criteria. This health status is then used in hundreds of cities (and soon nationwide) to determine whether people are allowed to e.g. ride the subway, take a train, enter a building, or even exit a highway.

What about us, in the rich democratic world? Are we OK with the Chinese model? Of course not. The South Korean model? …Probably not. The Singaporean model? …Maybe. (I suspect it would fly in my homeland of Canada, for instance.) But the need to install a separate app, with TraceTogether or the directionally similar MIT project Safe Paths, is a problem. It works in a city-state like Singapore but will be much more problematic in a huge, politically divided nation like America. This will lead to inferior data blinded by both noncompliance and selection bias.

More generally, at what point does the urgent need for better data collide with the need to protect individual privacy and avoid enabling the tools for an aspiring, or existing, police state? And let’s not kid ourselves; the pandemic increases, rather than diminishes, the authoritarian threat.

Maybe, like the UK’s NHS, creators of new pandemic data infrastructures will promise “Once the public health emergency situation has ended, data will either be destroyed or returned” — but not all organizations instill the required level of trust in their populace. This tension has provoked heated discussion around whether we should create new surveillance systems to help mitigate and control the pandemic.

This surprises me greatly. Wherever you may be on that spectrum, there is no sense whatsoever in creating a new surveillance system — seeing as how multiple options already exist. We don’t like to think about it, much, but the cold fact is that two groups of entities already collectively have essentially unfettered access to all our proximity (and location) data, as and when they choose to do so.

I refer of course to the major cell providers, and to Apple & Google . This was vividly illustrated by data company Tectonix in a viral visualization of the spread of Spring Break partygoers:

Want to see the true potential impact of ignoring social distancing? Through a partnership with @xmodesocial, we analyzed secondary locations of anonymized mobile devices that were active at a single Ft. Lauderdale beach during spring break. This is where they went across the US: pic.twitter.com/3A3ePn9Vin

— Tectonix GEO (@TectonixGEO) March 25, 2020

Needless to say, Apple and Google, purveyors of the OSes on all those phones, have essentially the same capability as and when they choose to exercise it. An open letter from “technologists, epidemiologists & medical professionals” calls on “Apple, Google, and other mobile operating system vendors” (the notion that any other vendors are remotely relevant is adorable) “to provide an opt-in, privacy preserving OS feature to support contact tracing.”

They’re right. Android and iOS could, and should, add and roll out privacy-preserving, interoperable, TraceTogether-like functionality at the OS level (or Google Play Services level, to split fine technical hairs.) Granted, this means relying on corporate surveillance, which makes all of us feel uneasy. But at least it doesn’t mean creating a whole new surveillance infrastructure. Furthermore, Apple and Google, especially compared to cellular providers, have a strong institutional history and focus on protecting privacy and limiting the remit of their surveillance.

(Don’t believe me? Apple’s commitment to privacy has long been a competitive advantage. Google offers a thorough set of tools to let you control your data and privacy settings. I ask you: where is your cell service provider’s equivalent? Ah. Do you expect it to ever create one? I see. Would you also be interested in this fine, very lightly used Brooklyn Bridge I have on sale?)

Apple and Google are also much better suited to the task of preserving privacy by “anonymizing” data sets (I know, I know, but see below), or, better yet, preserving privacy via some form(s) of differential privacy and/or homomorphic encryption — or even some kind of zero-knowledge cryptography, he handwaved wildly. And, on a practical level, they’re more able than a third-party app developer to ensure a background service like that stays active.

Obviously this should all be well and firmly regulated. But at the same time, we should remain cognizant of the fact that not every nation believes in such regulation. Building privacy deep into a contact-tracing system, to the maximum extent consonant with its efficacy, is especially important when we consider its potential usage in authoritarian nations who might demand the raw data. “Anonymized” location datasets admittedly tend to be something of an oxymoron, but authoritarians may still be technically stymied by the difficulty of deanonymization; and if individual privacy can be preserved even more securely than that via some elegant encryption scheme, so much the better.

Compared to the other alternatives — government surveillance; the phone companies; or some new app, with all the concomitant friction and barriers to usage — Apple and Google are by some distance the least objectionable option. What’s more, in the face of this global pandemic they could roll out their part of the test-and-trace solution to three billion users relatively quickly. If we need a pervasive pandemic surveillance system, then let’s use one which (though we don’t like to talk about it) already exists, in the least dangerous, most privacy-preserving way.

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Microsoft brings Teams to consumers and launches Microsoft 365 personal and family plans

Posted by | Android, artificial intelligence, blinkist, designer, editor, Experian, Getty-Images, Google, Headspace, Microsoft, Microsoft Teams, microsoft windows, Microsoft-Office, MSN, Office 365, office online, OneDrive, operating systems, outlook.com, Software, TC, teamsnap, United States, Windows 10, Yusuf Mehdi | No Comments

Microsoft today announced a slew of new products, but at the core of the release is a major change to how the company is marketing its tools and services to consumers.

Office 365, which has long been the brand for the company’s subscription service for its productivity tools like Word, Excel and Outlook, is going away. On April 21, it’ll be replaced by new Microsoft 365 plans, including new personal and family plans (for up to six people) at $6.99 and $9.99 respectively. That’s the same price as the existing Office 365 Personal and Home plans.

“We are basically evolving our subscription from — in our minds — a set of tools to solutions that help you manage across your work and life,” Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft’s CVP of Modern Life, Search and Devices, told me ahead of today’s announcement.

Microsoft is making similar branding changes to its business plans for Office 365. They are a bit more convoluted, with Office 365 Business Premium now called Microsoft 365 Business Standard and Microsoft 365 Business now becoming Microsoft 365 Business Premium, but for the most part, this is about branding while prices stay the same.

These new Microsoft 365 Personal and Family plans will include access to Outlook and the Office desktop apps for Windows and macOS, 1 terabyte of OneDrive storage per person (including unlimited access to the more secure OneDrive Personal Vault service) and 50 gigabytes of Outlook.com email storage, Skype call recording and 60 minutes of Skype landline and mobile phone calls.

And since this is now Microsoft 365 and not Office 365, you can also get Windows 10 technical support with the subscription, as well as additional security features to protect you from phishing and malware attacks.

More than 37 million people currently have personal Office 365 subscriptions and chances are these lower prices will bring more users to the platform in the long run. As Mehdi stressed, Microsoft’s free offerings aren’t going away.

But with today’s release, Microsoft isn’t just changing the branding and launching these new plans, it’s also highlighting quite a few new capabilities in its various applications that are either launching today or in the coming months.

Microsoft Teams gets a personal edition

The highlight of this launch, especially given the current situation around COVID-19, is likely the announcement of Teams for consumers. Teams is already one of Microsoft’s fastest growing products for businesses with 44 million people using it. But in its efforts to help people bridge their work and personal lives, it will now launch a new Teams edition for consumers, as well.

Just like you can switch between work and personal accounts in Outlook, you will soon be able to do the same in Teams. The personal teams view will look a little bit different, with shared calendars for the family, access to OneDrive vaults, photo sharing, etc., but it sits on the same codebase as the business version. You’ll also be able to do video calls and shared to-do lists.

Better writing through AI

About a year ago, Microsoft announced that Word Online would get a new AI-powered editor that would help you write better. You can think of it as a smarter grammar checker that can fix all of your standard grammar mistakes but can also help you avoid overly complex sentences and bias in your word choices.

This editor is now the Microsoft Editor, and the company is expanding it well beyond Word. The new AI-powered service is now available in 20 languages in Word and Outlook.com — and maybe most importantly, it’ll be available as a Microsoft Edge and Google Chrome plug-in, too.

Free users will get basic spelling and grammar features, while Microsoft 365 subscribers will get a number of more advanced features like the ability to ask the editor to suggest a rewrite of a mangled sentence, a plagiarism checker, style analysis to see if your writing is unclear or too formal and access to an inclusive language critique to help you avoid unintentional bias.

If you’ve used Grammarly in the past, then a lot of this will sound familiar. Both services now offer a similar set of capabilities, but Microsoft may have an edge with its ability to rewrite sentences.

Better presentations through technology

In a similar vein, Microsoft also launched a presentation coach for PowerPoint as a limited test last September. This AI-driven feature helps you avoid filler words and other presentation no-nos.

This feature first launched in the online version of PowerPoint, with a basic set of features. Now, Microsoft 365 subscribers will get two new advanced features, too, that can help you avoid a monotone pitch that puts your audience to sleep and avoid grammar mistakes in your spoken sentences.

Currently, these are still available as a free preview to all but will become Microsoft 365-only features soon.

PowerPoint is also getting an updated Designer to help you create better presentations. It can now easily turn text into a timeline, for example, and when you add an image, it can present you with a set of potential slide layouts.

Microsoft 365 subscribers now also get access to over 8,000 images and 175 looping videos from Getty Images, as well as 300 new fonts and 2,800 new icons.

Excel + Plaid

For you spreadsheet jockeys out there, Microsoft also has some good news, especially if you want to use Excel to manage your personal budgets.

In partnership with Plaid, you can now link your bank accounts to Excel and import all of your expenses into your spreadsheets. With that, you can then categorize your spend and build your own personal Mint. This feature, dubbed “Money in Excel,” will launch in the U.S. in the coming months.

In addition, Excel is getting a lot more cloud- and AI-driven data types that now cover over 100 topics, including nutrition, movies, places, chemistry and — because why not — Pokémon. Like some of the previous features, this is an extension of the work Microsoft did on Excel in the last few years, starting with the ability to pull in stock market and geographical data.

And just like with the previous set of features, you’ll need a Microsoft 365 subscription to get access to these additional data types. Otherwise, you’ll remain restricted to the stock market and geography data types, which will become available to Office Insiders in the spring and then Personal and Family subscribers in the U.S. in the coming months.

Outlook gets more personal

Even though you may want to forget about Outlook and ignore your inbox for a while, Microsoft doesn’t. In Outlook on the web, you can now link your personal and work calendars to ensure you don’t end up with a work meeting in the middle of a personal appointment, because Chris from marketing really needs another sync meeting during your gym time even though a short email would suffice.

Outlook for Android can now summarize and read your emails aloud for you, too. This feature will roll out in the coming months.

Family Safety

While most of the new features here focus on existing applications, Microsoft is also launching one completely new app: Microsoft Family Safety. This app is coming to Microsoft 365 subscribers on iOS and Android and will bring together a set of tools that can help families manage their online activities and track the location of family members.

The app lets families manage the screen time of their kids (and maybe parents, too) across Windows, Android and Xbox, for example. Parents can also set content filters that only allow kids to download age-appropriate apps. But it also allows parents to track their kids in the real world through location tracking and even driving reports. This, as Mehdi stressed, is a feature that kids can turn off, but they’ll probably have to explain themselves to their parents then. Indeed, he stressed that a lot of what the app does is give parents a chance to have a dialog with their kids. What makes the service unique is that it works across platforms, with iOS support coming in the future.

This app is launching as a limited preview now and will be available in the coming months (I think you can spot a trend here).

Partner benefits

Mehdi noted that Microsoft is also partnering with companies like Adobe, Bark, Blinkist, Creative Live, Experian, Headspace and TeamSnap to provide Microsoft 365 subscribers with additional benefits like limited-time access to their products and services. Subscribers will get three months of free access to Adobe’s Creative Cloud Photography plan, for example.

At the core of today’s updates, though, is a mission to bring a lot of the productivity tools that people know from their work life to their personal life, too, with the personal edition of Teams being the core example.

“We’re very much excited to bring this type of value — not increase the price of Office 365 — take a big step forward, and then move to this,” Mehdi said. “We think now more than ever, it is valuable for people to have the subscription service for their life that helps them make the most of their time, protects their family, lets them develop and grow. And our goal or aspiration is: Can we give you the most valuable subscription for your life? I know people value their video subscriptions and music subscriptions. Our aspiration is to provide the most valuable subscription for your life via Microsoft 365 Personal and Family.”

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Security lapse exposed Republican voter firm’s internal app code

Posted by | Android, arizona, Cambridge Analytica, computing, Facebook, founder, Georgia, montana, Ohio, operating systems, photo sharing, Security, social media, Software, TechCrunch, UpGuard | No Comments

A voter contact and canvassing company, used exclusively by Republican political campaigns, mistakenly left an unprotected copy of its app’s code on its website for anyone to find.

The company, Campaign Sidekick, helps Republican campaigns canvas its districts using iOS and Android apps, which pull in names and addresses from voter registration rolls. Campaign Sidekick says it has helped campaigns in Arizona, Montana, and Ohio and contributed to the Brian Kemp campaign, which saw him narrowly win against Democratic rival Stacey Abrams in the Georgia gubernatorial campaign in 2018.

For the past two decades, political campaigns have ramped up their use of data to identify swing voters. This growing political data business has opened up a whole economy of startups and tech companies using data to help campaigns better understand their electorate. But that has led to voter records spilling out of unprotected servers and other privacy-related controversies — like the case of Cambridge Analytica obtaining private data from social media sites.

Chris Vickery, director of cyber risk research at security firm UpGuard, said he found the cache of Campaign Sidekick’s code by chance.

In his review of the code, Vickery found several instances of credentials and other app-related secrets, he said in a blog post on Monday, which he shared exclusively with TechCrunch. These secrets, such as keys and tokens, can typically be used to gain access to systems or data without a username or password. But Vickery did not test the password as doing so would be unlawful. Vickery also found a sampling of personally identifiable information, he said, amounting to dozens of spreadsheets packed with voter names and addresses.

Fearing the exposed credentials could be abused if accessed by a malicious actor, Vickery informed the company of the issue in mid-February. Campaign Sidekick quickly pulled the exposed cache of code offline.

One of the Campaign Sidekick mockups, using dummy data, collates a voter’s data in one place. (Image: supplied)

One of the screenshots provided by Vickery showed a mockup of a voter profile compiled by the app, containing basic information about the voter and their past voting and donor history, which can be obtained from public and voter records. The mockup also lists the voter’s “friends.”

Vickery told TechCrunch he found “clear evidence” that the app’s code was designed to pull in data from its now-defunct Facebook app, which allowed users to sign-in and pull their list of friends — a feature that was supported by Facebook at the time until limits were put on third-party developers’ access to friends’ data.

“There is clear evidence that Campaign Sidekick and related entities had and have used access to Facebook user data and APIs to query that data,” Vickery said.

Drew Ryun, founder of Campaign Sidekick, told TechCrunch that its Facebook project was from eight years prior, that Facebook had since deprecated access to developers, and that the screenshot was a “digital artifact of a mockup.” (TechCrunch confirmed that the data in the mockup did not match public records.)

Ryun said after he learned of the exposed data the company “immediately changed sensitive credentials for our current systems,” but that the credentials in the exposed code could have been used to access its databases storing user and voter data.

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This Week in Apps: Apple launches a COVID-19 app, the outbreak’s impact on social and video apps and more

Posted by | Android, Apps, coronavirus, COVID-19, Extra Crunch, Gaming, Growth, iOS, monetization, smartphones, Social | No Comments

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

The app industry saw a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019, according to App Annie’s “State of Mobile” annual report. People are now spending 3 hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

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

This week, we’re continuing our special coverage of how the COVID-19 outbreak is impacting apps and the wider mobile app industry as more COVID-19 apps appear — including one from Apple built in partnership with the CDC, among others. We also take a look at the gains made by social and video apps in recent weeks as people struggle to stay connected while stuck at home in quarantine. In other headlines, we dig into Instagram’s co-watching feature, the Google for Games conference news, Apple’s latest releases and updates, Epic Games expansion into publishing and more.

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Social video apps are exploding due to the COVID-19 pandemic

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News-reading app Flipboard expands local coverage, including coronavirus updates, to 12 more US metros

Posted by | Android, apple news, Apps, Atlanta, austin, baltimore, boston, charlotte, chicago, Cleveland, coronavirus, COVID-19, Dallas, denver, detroit, Facebook Paper, flipboard, journalism, Las Vegas, local news, Los Angeles, Media, miami, minneapolis, Nashville, New Orleans, new york city, News, news aggregation, news aggregator, news aggregators, news app, operating systems, Orlando, Philadelphia, pittsburgh, Portland, ProPublica, raleigh, real estate, sacramento, Salt Lake City, san diego, Seattle, St. Louis, tampa bay, toronto, United States, vancouver, washington, Washington D.C. | No Comments

Earlier this year, personalized news aggregation app Flipboard expanded into local news. The feature brought local news, sports, real estate, weather, transportation news and more to 23 cities across the U.S. Today, Flipboard is bringing local news to 12 more U.S. metros and is adding critical coronavirus local coverage to all of the 35 supported locales.

The 12 new metros include the following:  Baltimore, Charlotte, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis, Nashville, Pittsburgh, Orlando, Raleigh, Salt Lake City, St. Louis and Tampa Bay.

They join the 23 cities that were already supported: Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New Orleans, New York City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Portland, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, Toronto, Vancouver and Washington, D.C.

To offer local news in its app, Flipboard works with area partners, big and small, like The Plain Dealer’s Cleveland.com, the Detroit Free Press and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It has now added to the list of partners local news service Patch and ProPublica, including its Local Reporting Network partners and its collaborative journalism project Electionland.

Patch alone is putting out more than 200 local coronavirus stories per day. Meanwhile, the ProPublica Local Reporting Network funds and jointly publishes year-long investigative projects with 23 local news organizations across the U.S. The Electionland initiative reports on problems that disenfranchise eligible voters, like misinformation, changing voting laws and rules, voter harassment, equipment failures and long lines at the polls.

To determine if a user should be shown local news, based on a user’s IP address — not a precise location — the app may recommend stories relevant to local audiences. It will also offer the Local sections inside the Explore tab in the Flipboard app. Once added, users can then browse their local news alongside other content they’re interested in, across a variety of topics.

At present, there are two main areas of interest to news readers — the COVID-19 outbreak and the 2020 Election, both of which are now offered in the local sections. In addition to understanding the current state of the pandemic on a global and national level, Flipboard readers in the supported areas will be able to track how the COVID-19 outbreak is impacting where they live. This could include coverage of things like local ordinances, school closings, shelter-in-place laws, number of cases and deaths, testing resources and more.

“Understanding the decisions state and local governments make and their impact on the community is not only important, but gives people a greater connection to their local leaders and the media,” said Marci McCue, VP of Content and Communications at Flipboard. “For instance, as a local resident you may want coverage from national newspapers about the coronavirus outbreak, but even more importantly is a local source that tells you where you can get tested and measures local leaders are taking that impact your daily life,” she noted.

The addition of coronavirus special coverage at a local level, aggregated from across publishers, means readers will be able to track stories without having to hop around different sites or apps from area newspapers or broadcasters.

For Flipboard’s business, adding local news allows advertisers to target against user interests, which may now include a city’s metro region as one of those interests.

Flipboard’s mobile app today reaches 145 million users per month. Local news is available in the supported metros across both iOS and Android .

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India’s MX Player expands to US, UK and other markets in international push

Posted by | Android, Apps, Asia, Hotstar, Media, Mobile, mx player, Times Internet | No Comments

MX Player, the on-demand video streaming service owned by India’s conglomerate Times Internet, is expanding to more than half a dozen new international markets including the U.S. and the U.K. to supply more entertainment content to millions of people trapped in their homes.

The Singapore-headquartered on-demand video streaming service, which raised $111 million in a round led by Tencent last year, said it has expanded to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Bangladesh and Nepal in addition to the U.S. and the UK.

Like in India, MX Player will offer its catalog at no charge to users in the international markets and monetize through ads, Karan Bedi, chief executive of the service, told TechCrunch in an interview.

The streaming service, which has amassed over 175 million monthly active users in India, is offering locally relevant titles in each market, he said. This is notably different from Disney’s Hotstar expansion into select international markets, where it has largely aimed to cater to the Indian diaspora.

MX Player is not currently offering any originally produced titles in any international market — instead offering movies and shows it has licensed from global and local studios — but the streamer plans to change that in the coming months, said Bedi.

Even as the expansion comes at a time when the world is grappling with containing and fighting the coronavirus outbreak, Bedi said MX Player had already been testing the service in several markets for a few months.

“We believe in meeting this rapidly rising demand from discerning entertainment lovers with stories that strike a chord. To that end, we have collaborated with some of the best talent and content partners globally who will help bring us a step closer to becoming the go-to destination for entertainment across the world,” said Nakul Kapur, Business Head for International markets at MX Player, in a statement.

Times Internet acquired MX Player, an app popular for efficiently playing a plethora of locally-stored media files on entry-level Android smartphones, in 2018 for about $140 million. In the years since, Times Internet has introduced video streaming service to it, and then live TV channels in India.

MX Player has also bundled free music streaming (through Gaana, another property owned by Times Internet) and has introduced in-app casual games for users in the country.

Bedi said the company is working on bringing these additional services to international markets, and also looking to enter additional regions including the Middle East and South Asia.

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Volvo’s Polestar begins production of the all-electric Polestar 2 in China

Posted by | Android, automotive, cars, China, coronavirus, COVID-19, electric vehicles, Europe, Ford, Geely, GM, Google Assistant, Google Play Store, Google-Maps, linux, Los Angeles, Lucid Motors, north america, operating system, Oslo, Polestar, Rivian, shanghai, smartphones, TC, Tesla, volkswagen, Volvo Cars | No Comments

Polestar has started production of its all-electric Polestar 2 vehicle at a plant in China amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has upended the automotive industry and triggered a wave of factory closures throughout the world.

The start of Polestar 2 production is a milestone for Volvo Car Group’s standalone electric performance brand  — and not just because it began in the midst of global upheaval caused by COVID-19, a disease that stems from the coronavirus. It’s also the first all-electric car under a brand that was relaunched just three years ago with a new mission.

Polestar was once a high-performance brand under Volvo Cars. In 2017, the company was recast as an electric performance brand aimed at producing exciting and fun-to-drive electric vehicles — a niche that Tesla was the first to fill and has dominated ever since. Polestar is jointly owned by Volvo Car Group and Zhejiang Geely Holding of China. Volvo was acquired by Geely in 2010.

COVID-19 has affected how Polestar and its parent company operate. Factory closures began in China, where the disease first swept through the population. Now Chinese factories are reopening as the epicenter of COVID-19 moves to Europe and North America. Most automakers have suspended production in Europe and North America.

Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath said the company started production under these challenging circumstances with a strong focus on the health and safety of its workers. He added that the Luqiao, China factory is an example of how Polestar has leveraged the expertise of its parent companies.

Extra precautions have been taken because of the outbreak, including frequent disinfecting of work spaces and requiring workers to wear masks and undergo regular temperature screenings, according to the company. Polestar has said that none of its workers in China tested positive for COVID-19 as a result of its efforts.

COVID-19 has also affected Polestar’s timeline. Polestar will only sell its vehicles online and will offer customers subscriptions to the vehicle. It previously revealed plans to open “Polestar Spaces,” a showroom where customers can interact with the product and schedule test drives. These spaces will be standalone facilities and not within existing Volvo retailer showrooms. Polestar had planned to have 60 of these spaces open by 2020, including in Oslo, Los Angeles and Shanghai.

COVID-19 has delayed the opening of the showrooms. The company will have some pop-up stores opening as soon as that situation improves, so people can go see the cars and learn more while the permanent showrooms are still under construction, TechCrunch has learned.

It’s not clear just how many Polestar 2 vehicles will be produced; Polestar has told TechCrunch that it is in the “tens of thousands” of cars per calendar year. Those numbers will also depend on demand for the Polestar 2 and other models that are built in the same factory.

Polestar 2 EV

Image Credits: Screenshot/Polestar

Polestar also isn’t providing the exact number of reservations until it begins deliveries, which are supposed to start this summer in Europe, followed by China and North America. It was confirmed to TechCrunch that reservations are in the “five digits.”

The Polestar 2, which was first revealed in February 2019, has been positioned by the company to go up against Tesla Model 3. (The company’s first vehicle, the Polestar 1, is a plug-in hybrid with two electrical motors powered by three 34-kilowatt-hour battery packs and a turbo and supercharged gas inline 4 up front.)

But it will likely face off against other competitors launching new EVs in 2020 and 2021, including Volkswagen, GM, Ford and startups Lucid Motors and even adventure-focused Rivian.

Polestar is hoping customers are attracted to the tech and the performance of the fastback, which produces 408 horsepower, 487 pound feet of torque and has a 78 kWh battery pack that delivers an estimated range of 292 miles under Europe’s WLTP.

The Polestar 2’s infotainment system will be powered by Android OS and, as a result, bring into the car embedded Google services such as Google Assistant, Google Maps and the Google Play Store. This shouldn’t be confused with Android Auto, which is a secondary interface that lies on top of an operating system. Android OS is modeled after its open-source mobile operating system that runs on Linux. But instead of running smartphones and tablets, Google modified it so it could be used in cars.

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The New York Times Company acquires Audm, an app that turns longform journalism into audio

Posted by | Android, app-store, apple inc, apple news, audm, bernie sanders, Buzzfeed, columbia, Esquire, Hack VC, instapaper, New York, precursor ventures, ProPublica, software development, Switch Ventures, TC, texas, The New York Times, The New Yorker, tom hanks, vanity fair, Y Combinator | No Comments

Audm, a startup that turns longform journalism into audio content, has been acquired by The New York Times Company, it announced this morning. While there are other services that turn news articles into audio, including read-it-later apps like Instapaper and Pocket, Audm differentiates itself by using professional voice actors to narrate the content, not automated voice technology.

That makes the content more enjoyable to listen to — more like listening to a podcast, for example.

The startup was founded by Ryan Wegner and Christian Brink, both 2007 Columbia grads with backgrounds in psychology and software development, respectively. The two didn’t know each other during college, but eventually met up in 2014 when their idea for an audio news app began to come together. Initially, the founders experimented with crowdsourced narration, but later landed on using professional voice talent to make their app stand out from others.

The company participated in Y Combinator’s startup accelerator in 2017 to further develop Audm’s business. At the time, Audm was working with a range of publishing partners, including Wired, The Atlantic, Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, The New York Review of Books, ProPublica, London Review of Books and several others. According to its website today, it also works with The Atlantic, Outside, BuzzFeed News, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, New York, Rolling Stone and Texas Monthly.

Of course, The New York Times had also worked with Audm, but on a more limited basis. Currently, Audm only has a couple of NYT stories available, and both are from 2019. That will soon change, given the new acquisition.

The company says it had already begun plans for read-aloud Times articles every Sunday on “The Daily,” to help provide escape and relief from the COVID-19 pandemic. This began with Taffy Akner’s profile of Tom Hanks and Sue Dominus’s story of the Colombian twin brothers.

Other audio stories from The New York Times Magazine are also being produced, which will run in the Audm app. These include features on The Wing, black theater, Bernie Sanders, and others. In addition, The NYT is also experimenting with other forms of distribution, including on mobile pages, it says, and will expand from the Magazine to other desks in time.

The Audm app today allows users to subscribe to its service for $8.99 per month or $59.99 per year, after a 3-day free trial. The Times Company hasn’t yet offered any detail as to if or how its business model will evolve or if Audm’s service will be further integrated with its own NYT app.

On the App Store, Audm was well-ranked as No. 20 in the Magazines & Newspapers category, according to its App Store profile. The app is also available on Android but is not well-ranked there.

According to The New York Times’ announcement, Audm will continue to introduce hours of new stories every week, including from The New York Times and other publishers.

Wegner, the director of spoken-word audio production, and Brink, director of product for Audm, as well as the rest of the team, are joining the Times Company as a result of the deal.

Audm had raised early-stage funding from Y Combinator, Hack VC, Precursor Ventures and Switch Ventures, per Pitchbook’s data.

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WhatsApp tests new feature to fight misinformation: Search the web

Posted by | Android, Apps, coronavirus, Covid, COVID-19, Covid19, Facebook, instagram, WhatsApp | No Comments

WhatsApp, one of the most popular instant messaging platforms on the planet, is testing a feature that could make it simpler for its 2 billion users to tell whether the assertion made in messages they have received is true.

In the recent most beta version of its Android app, the Facebook-owned service has given users the ability to quickly comb through the web with the text or video they have received for more context.

WhatsApp has been testing this feature in some capacity for several quarters now (last year, it allowed some users to look up an image on the web), but a spokesperson has now told TechCrunch that the platform plans to roll out this feature in the near future.

“We are working on new features to help empower users to find out more information about the messages they receive that have been forwarded many times. This feature is currently in testing, and we look forward to rolling it out in the near future,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

Images credit: @shrinivassg

The timely test of this feature comes at a time when WhatsApp and other messaging platforms are being used more often than ever before as people stay in touch with their friends, families, and colleagues in the face of a global pandemic.

And as it has happened in the past, several platforms including WhatsApp are grappling with spread of misinformation — this time about the coronavirus.

But WhatsApp has moved to take action much swiftly this time. It began reaching out to dozens of governments last month to assist in their efforts to provide accurate information to the general public, it said today.

Earlier today, India announced a WhatsApp bot to help its citizens be better informed about coronavirus. Earlier this week, the World Health Organization also announced a WhatsApp bot for people globally to bust myths about the coronavirus and answer some of the most frequently asked questions about the disease.

“The WHO Health Alert is the latest official NGO or government helpline to become available on WhatsApp, joining the Singapore Government, The Israel Ministry of Health, the South Africa Department of Health, and KOMINFO Indonesia. We are actively working to launch local services with other countries as well,” WhatsApp said in a statement.

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Y Combinator-backed Kosh is a neobank for blue-collar workers in India

Posted by | Android, Asia, funding, Online lending, Y Combinator | No Comments

Dozens of startups have stepped up in India in recent quarters to improve banking experience for millions of users and businesses in the country. As a result, tens of thousands of people who could not get a loan or a credit card from a bank can now secure both from fintech startups.

But this push to bring financial inclusion to everyone still has many areas to cover. Blue-collar workers, for instance, are still facing challenges in availing some basic banking services.

Kosh, a Y Combinator-backed startup (W20), is beginning to tackle this challenge. It groups three or as many as ten blue-collar workers and gives them a loan.

“When a user logs into our Android app, they are able to apply for a loan. But before they do that, they need to add some of their colleagues and friends who are also looking for a loan,” explained Aayush Goel, co-founder of Kosh, in an interview with TechCrunch.

This way of banding together people allows Kosh to charge a lower rate of interest on the loan, said Goel.

“We have borrowed this from the world of microfinance. Essentially, we have a joint liability model. Let us say there were three people who were looking for a loan. We band them together and instead of giving each of them a separate loan, we give the group one loan” he said.

Aayush Goel (pictured above), and Sahil Bansal co-founded Kosh in March last year

In each group, at least one member is credit-worthy in the traditional sense, he explained. The startup also uses alternative data such as information gleaned from text messages to determine a person’s eligibility.

Such an arrangement has traditionally seen fewer people default (or fall behind paying their debt) because of social pressure from their colleagues and friends, as all of them are liable.

Kosh started to disburse loans in December. It currently offers loans up to twice the salary of an individual and over a tenure of up to 10 months, said Goel. The startup has disbursed close to 150 loans worth $35,000. It works with a Noida-based non-banking financial company to fund these loans.

The startup said it plans to broaden its neobanking offering this year by creating bank accounts for its customers. “There is a general lack of discipline in how these people spend their money. Having access to a bank account that works for them could prove very useful,” said Goel.

In recent years, a handful of startups such as Bangalore-based Open and NiYO Solutions have developed neobanks or alternative banks to serve businesses and individuals. In January, two former Google Pay executives announced their own neobank startup that aims to serve millennials.

GIGI Benefits, another Y Combinator-backed startup (W20), offers insurance and savings — perks that only full-time employees typically have — to gig-economy workers and freelancers.

“We help each worker set aside part of a paycheque to cover their costs of insurance, short-term expenses, and plan for their retirement,” said Sowmya Rao, founder and chief executive of GIGI Benefits, in a post.

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