Apple

In a significant change, Apple customers can now buy or rent titles directly in the Prime Video app

Posted by | Amazon, Apple, Apps, Media, Mobile, prime video, rentals, TC, Video | No Comments

A recent update from Amazon has made it easier for Apple customers to buy or rent movies from its Prime Video app. Before, customers using the Prime Video app from an iOS device or Apple TV would have to first purchase or rent the movie elsewhere — like through the Amazon website or a Prime Video app on another device, such as the Fire TV, Roku or an Android device. Now, Prime Video users can make the purchase directly through the app instead.

The changes weren’t formally announced, but quickly spotted once live.

Amazon declined to comment, but confirmed to TechCrunch the feature is live now for customers in the U.S., U.K. and Germany.

The change makes it possible for Prime Video users to rent or buy hundreds of thousands of titles from Amazon’s video catalog. This includes new release movies, TV shows, classic movies, award-winning series, Oscar-nominated films and more.

This is supported on a majority of Apple devices, including the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch running iOS/iPadOS 12.2 or higher, as well as Apple TV HD and Apple TV 4K.

Amazon for years has prevented users from directly purchasing movies and TV shows from the Prime Video app on Apple devices. That’s because Apple requires a 30% cut of all in-app purchases taking place on its platform. To avoid fees, many apps — including not only Amazon, but also Netflix, Tinder, Spotify and others — have bypassed the major app platforms’ fees at times by redirecting users to a website.

Since the news broke, many have questioned if Amazon had some sort of deal with Apple that was making the change possible — especially because it didn’t raise the cost of rentals or subscriptions to cover a 30% cut.

As it turns out, it sort of does.

Apple tells TechCrunch it offers a program aimed at supporting subscription video entertainment providers.

“Apple has an established program for premium subscription video entertainment providers to offer a variety of customer benefits — including integration with the Apple TV app, AirPlay 2 support, tvOS apps, universal search, Siri support and, where applicable, single or zero sign-on,” an Apple spokesperson said. “On qualifying premium video entertainment apps such as Prime Video, Altice One and Canal+, customers have the option to buy or rent movies and TV shows using the payment method tied to their existing video subscription,” the spokesperson noted.

It remains to be seen if Amazon will extend Apple the same courtesy on its Fire TV platform, by allowing Apple customers to rent or buy movies directly in the Apple TV app there.

Amazon’s adoption of this program is notable, as it comes at a time when Apple is under increased scrutiny for alleged anti-competitive behaviors — particularly those against companies with a rival product or service — like Prime Video is to Apple TV+, or Fire TV is to Apple TV, for example.

Amazon called attention to the new feature in its Prime Video app, which now alerts you upon first launch that “Movie night just got better” in a full-screen pop-up. It also advertises the easier option for direct purchases through a home screen banner.

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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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Apple releases iOS and iPadOS 13.4 with trackpad support

Posted by | Apple, Apps, Gadgets, iOS, iPados, macos, Mobile, tvos, watchOS | No Comments

Apple has released software updates for the iPhone, the iPad, the Apple Watch, the Apple TV and the Mac. The biggest changes are on the iPad. Starting today, you can pair a mouse or trackpad with your iPad and use it to move a cursor on the display.

Apple unveiled trackpad support for iPadOS when it announced the new iPad Pro last week. While the company plans to sell a new Magic Keyboard with a built-in trackpad, you don’t need to buy a new iPad or accessory to access the feature.

When you pair a trackpad and start using it, Apple displays a rounded cursor on the screen. The cursor changes depending on what you’re hovering over. The cursor disappears and highlights the button you’re about to activate. It looks a bit like moving from one icon to another on the Apple TV.

If you’re moving a text cursor for instance, it becomes a vertical bar. If you’re resizing a text zone in a Pages document, it becomes two arrows. If you’re using a trackpad, iPadOS supports gestures that let you switch between apps, open the app switcher and activate the Dock or Control Center.

In addition to trackpad support, iOS and iPadOS 13.4 add a handful of features. You can share an iCloud Drive folder with another iCloud user — it works pretty much like a shared Dropbox folder.

There are nine new Memoji stickers, such as smiling face with hearts, hands pressed together and party face. Apple has tweaked buttons to archive/delete, move, reply and compose and email in the Mail app.

Additionally, Apple added the ability to release a single app binary on all App Stores, including the iOS and Mac App Store. It means that developers can release a paid app on the Mac and the iPhone — and you only have to buy it once.

Also, macOS 10.15.4 adds Screen Time Communication Limits, a feature that already exists on iOS. It lets you set limits on Messages and FaceTime calls.

When it comes to watchOS, version 6.2 adds ECG support for users in Chile, New Zealand and Turkey. Apple now lets developers provide in-app purchases for Apple Watch apps, as well.

All updates include bug fixes and security patches. Head over to the Settings app on your devices to download and update your devices if you haven’t enabled automatic software updates.

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Apple now says its retail stores are closed ‘until further notice’

Posted by | Apple, apple inc, apple store, apple stores, China, coronavirus, COVID-19, eCommerce, Gadgets, iPhone, retail | No Comments

Apple appears to be expecting a longer disruption to shopping at its physical retail stores as a result of the public health crisis posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier this week, in a press release, the iPhone maker said it would be closing retail stores outside China until March 27. A note on its website now says the shutdown is open-ended. Apple writes that the bricks-and-mortar stores “are closed until further notice” — so at the very least it’s signalling to customers to expect ongoing disruption to its retail business as usual.

Those looking to buy Apple products are told to shop on the website. Service and support is also offered online or via telephone.

We’ve reached out to Apple to ask for confirmation on a policy change.

In its March 13 missive, the company wrote that it is committed to paying all its hourly workers as if the stores remained open, and also said it was expanding its leave policies to “accommodate personal or family health circumstances created by COVID-19.”

Late yesterday six Bay Area counties issued a “shelter in place” order to restrict the potential spread of the novel coronavirus. Additional measures seem likely in the coming days.

Multiple countries in the European Union have already ordered the closure of non-essential shops — instructing residents to stay at home unless they need to venture out to obtain essential supplies or are required to work and cannot work from home.

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This Week in Apps: WWDC goes online, coronavirus leads to more cancellations, sneaky spy apps exposed

Posted by | app stores, app-store, Apple, Apps, coronavirus, COVID-19, developers, Extra Crunch, Google, Mobile, this week in apps | 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 is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads in 2019 and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019, according to App Annie’s recently released “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 taking a look at several stories related to the coronavirus outbreak, including the cancellation of WWDC in San Jose, as well as other app industry events that are going online. We’re also discussing the iOS 14 leak, the exposure of Sensor Tower’s app network, a potential ban on TikTok for government workers and more.

Coronavirus Special Coverage

The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are continuing to play out on app stores and across the industry. This week, we’re leading with these stories followed by the other — and yes, still important — news.

Apple finally cancels its WWDC event in San Jose

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Apple could announce new MacBook models with scissor-switch keyboards soon

Posted by | Apple, Gadgets, hardware, Kuo, macbook, macbook pro, ming-chi kuo, rumor | No Comments

According to a new report from analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, Apple could unveil new MacBook Pro and MacBook Air models with scissor-switch keyboards. MacRumors first noticed the report; TechCrunch obtained the research note as well.

Apple updated the big MacBook Pro in November. The company slightly increased the size of the display from 15” to 16” without any meaningful changes in overall size. Apple also abandoned the controversial butterfly keyboards. The 16-inch MacBook Pro now relies on the more traditional scissor-switch keyboard.

But Kuo thinks Apple will ship updated MacBook models with a scissor-switch keyboard at some point during the second quarter of 2020. So you can expect a MacBook Air and small MacBook Pro update in the near future. Apple could use this opportunity to increase the size of the display of the 13-inch MacBook Pro model as well.

In addition to those minor but important updates, rumor has it that Apple is already planning bigger changes for the MacBook lineup. The first laptop with an Apple-designed ARM processor could ship in the last quarter of 2020 or the first quarter of 2021.

This change will have wide implications for developers as they’ll need to recompile their apps to run on ARM processors. Apple will likely lay out a roadmap so that third-party developers have enough time before releasing an ARM-based laptop.

There also could be a brand new laptop design in Q2 or Q3 of 2021. But Kuo is a bit vague on this front. Apple plans could still change.

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Desperate to exit, a $10B price tag for Magic Leap is crazy

Posted by | Apple, augmented reality, Daqri, Facebook, Fundings & Exits, Gadgets, Google, hardware, johnson & johnson, Magic Leap, Microsoft, Microsoft HoloLens, Startups, Sundar Pichai, TC, Wearables | No Comments

Augmented reality headset maker Magic Leap has struggled with the laws of physics and failed to get to market. Now it’s seeking an acquirer, but talks with Facebook and medical goods giant Johnson & Johnson led nowhere according to a new report from Bloomberg’s Ed Hammond.

After raising over $2 billion and being valued between $6 billion and $8 billion back when it still had momentum, Hammond writes that “Magic Leap could fetch more than $10 billion if it pursues a sale” according to his sources. That price seems ridiculous. It’s the kind of number a prideful company might strategically leak in hopes of drumming up acquisition interest, even at a lower price.

Startups have been getting their valuations chopped when they go public. The whole economy is hurting due to coronavirus. Augmented Reality seems less interesting than virtual reality with people avoiding public places. Getting people to strap used AR hardware to their face for demos seems like a tough sell for the forseeable future.

No one has proven a killer consumer use case for augmented reality eyewear that warrants an expensive and awkward-to-wear gadget. Our phones can already deliver plenty of AR’s value while letting you take selfies and do video chat that headsets can’t. My experiences with Magic Leap at Sundance Film Festival last year were laughably disappointing, with its clunky hardware, ghostly projections, and narrow field of view.

Apple and Facebook are throwing the enduring profits of iPhones and the News Feed into building a better consumer headset. Snapchat has built intermediary glasses since CEO Evan Spiegel thinks it will be a decade before AR headsets see mainstream adoption. AR rivals like Microsoft have better enterprise experience, connections, and distribution. Enterprise AR startup Daqri crashed and burned.

Magic Leap’s CEO said he wanted to sell 1 million of its $2300 headset in its first year, then projected it would sell 100,000 headsets, but only moved 6,000 in the first six months, according to a daming report from The Information’s Alex Heath. Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai left Magic Leap’s board despite Google leading a $514 million funding round for the startup in 2014. Business Insider’s Steven Tweedie and Kevin Webb revealed CFO Scott Henry and SVP of creative strategy John Gaeta bailed in November. The company suffered dozens of layoffs. It lost a $500 million contract to Microsoft last year. The CEOs of Apple, Google, and Facebook visited Magic Leap headquarters in 2016 to explore an acquisition deal, but no offers emerged.

Is AR eyewear part of the future? Almost surely. And is this startup valuable? Certainly somewhat. But Magic Leap may prove to be too little too early for a company burning cash by the hundreds of millions in a market newly fixated on efficiency. A $10 billion price tag would require one of the world’s biggest corporations to believe Magic Leap has irreplicable talent and technology that will earn them a fortune in the somewhat distant future.

The fact that Facebook, which does not shy from tall acquisition prices, didn’t want to buy Magic Leap is telling. This isn’t a product with hundreds of millions of users or fast-ramping revenue. It’s a gamble on vision and timing that looks to be coming up snake eyes. It’s unclear when the startup would ever be able to deliver on its renderings of flying whales and living room dinosaurs in a form factor people actually want to wear.

 

One of Magic Leap’s early renderings of what it could supposedly do

With all their money and plenty of time before widespread demand for AR headsets materializes, potential acquirers could likely hire away the talent and make up the development time in cheaper ways than buying Magic Leap. If someone acquires them for too much, it feels like a write-off waiting to happen.

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All the startups threatened by iOS 14’s new features

Posted by | Apple, Apps, augmented reality, Blippar, Developer, eCommerce, Future, hardware, Health, iOS 14, Mobile, Snapchat, Startups, sweat, TC, tile, Vellum, Wearables | No Comments

Fitness, wallpaper, and lost item-finding startups could have a big new competitor baked into everyone’s iPhones. Leaks of the code from iOS 14 that Apple is expected to reveal in June signal several new features and devices are on the way. Startups could be at risk due to Apple’s ability to integrate these additions at the iOS level, instantly gain an enormous install base and offer them for free or cheap, as long as they boost sales of its main money maker, the iPhone.

It’s unclear if all of these fresh finds will actually get official unveiling in June versus further down the line. But here’s a breakdown of what the iOS 14 code obtained by 9To5Mac’s Chance Miller shows and which startups could be impacted by Apple barging into their businesses:

Fitness – Codename: Seymour

Apple appears to be preparing a workout guide app for iOS, WatchOS and Apple TV that would let users download instructional video clips for doing different exercises. The app could potentially be called Fit or Fitness, according to MacRumors‘ Juli Clover, and offer help with stretching, core training, strength training, running, cycling, rowing, outdoor walking, dance and yoga. The Apple Watch appears to help track your progress through the workout routines.

Icons for Apple’s fitness feature from the iOS 14 code

The iOS Health app is already a popular way to track steps and other fitness goals. By using Health to personalize or promote a new Fitness feature, Apple has an easy path to a huge user base. Many people are afraid of weight and strength training because there’s a lot to learn about having proper form to avoid injury or embarrassment. Visual guides with videos shot from multiple angles could make sure you’re doing those pushups or bicep curls correctly.

Apple’s entrance into fitness could endanger startups like Future, which offer customized workout routines with video clips demonstrating how to do each exercise. The $11.5 million-funded Future actually sends you an Apple Watch with its $150 per month service to track your progress while using visuals, sounds and vibrations to tell you when to switch exercises without having to look at your phone. By removing Future’s human personal trainers that text to nag you if you don’t work out, Apple could offer a simplified version of this startup’s app for free.

Apple Fitness could be even more trouble for less premium apps like Sweat and Sworkit that provide basic visual guidance for workouts, or Aaptiv that’s restricted to just audio cues. Hardware startups like Peloton, which offers off-bike Beyond the Ride workouts with live or on-demand class, and Tempo’s giant 3D-sensing in-home screen for weight lifting, could also find casual customers picked off by a free or cheap alternative from Apple.

There’s no code indicating a payment mechanism, so Apple Fitness could be free. But it’s also easy to imagine Apple layering on a premium feature like remote personal training assistance from human experts or a wider array of exercises for a fee, tying into its increasing focus on services revenue.

Wallpapers – access for third-parties

The iPhone’s current wallpaper selector

In iOS 14, it appears that Apple will offer new categorizations for wallpapers beyond the existing Dynamic (slowly shifting), Still and Live (move when touched) options. Apple’s always only offered a few native wallpapers plus the option to pull one from your camera roll. But the iOS 14 code suggests Apple may open this up to third-party providers.

A wallpaper “store” could be both a blessing and a curse for entrepreneurs in the space. It could endanger sites and apps like Vellum, Unsplash, Clarity, WLPPR and Walli that aggregate wallpapers for browsing, purchase or download. Instead, Apple could make itself the ultimate aggregator by being built directly into the wallpaper settings. But for creators of beautiful wallpaper images, iOS 14 could potentially offer a new distribution method where their collections could be available straight from where users install their phone backgrounds.

The big question will be whether Apple merely works with a few providers to add wallpaper packs for free, does financially backed deals to bring in providers or creates a full-blown marketplace for wallpapers where creators can sell their imagery like developers do apps. By turning this formerly free feature into a marketplace, Apple could also start earning a cut of sales to add to its services revenue.

AirTags – find your stuff

Apple appears to be getting closer to launching its long-awaited AirTags, based on iOS 14 code snippets. These small tracking tags could be attached to your wallet, keys, gadgets or other important or easily lost items, and then located using the iOS Find My app. AirTags may be powered by removable coin-shaped batteries, according to MacRumors.

Native integration with iOS could make AirTags super-easy to set up. They also could benefit from the ubiquity of Apple devices, as the company could let the crowd help find your stuff by allowing AirTags to piggyback on the connectivity of any of its phones, tablets or laptops to send you the missing item’s coordinates.

Most obviously, AirTags could become a powerful competitor to the vertical’s long-standing frontrunner, Tile. The $104 million-funded startup sells $20 to $35 tracking tags that locate devices from 150 to 400 feet away. It also sells a $30 per year subscription for free battery replacements and 30-day location history. Other players in the space include Chipolo, Orbit and MYNT.

But as we saw with the launch of AirPods, Apple’s design expertise and native iOS integrations can allow its products to leapfrog what’s in the market. If AirTags get proprietary access to the iPhone’s Bluetooth and other connectivity hardware, and if they’re quicker to set up, Apple fans might jump from startups to these new devices. Apple also could develop a similar premium subscription for battery or full AirTag replacements, as well as bonus tracking features.

Augmented reality scanning – Codename: Gobi

iOS 14 includes code for a new augmented reality feature that lets users scan places or potentially items in the real world to pull up helpful information. The code indicates Apple is testing the feature, codenamed Gobi, at Apple Stores and Starbucks to let users see product, pricing and comparison info, according to 9To5Mac’s Benjamin Mayo. Gobi can recognize QR-style codes for specific locations like a certain shop, triggering a companion augmented reality experience.

It appears that an SDK would allow partners to build their own AR offerings and generate the QR codes that initiate them. Eventually, these capabilities could be extended from Apple’s mobile devices to the AR headset it’s working on so you’d instantly get a heads-up display of information when you entered the right place.

Apple moving to power lighter-weight AR experiences rather than just offering the AR Kit infrastructure for developers to build full-fledged apps could create competition for a range of startups and other tech giants. The whole point of augmented reality is that it’s convenient to explore hidden experiences in the real world, which is defeated if users have to know to download and then wait to install a different app for every place or product. Creating a central AR app for simpler experiences that load instantly could speed up adoption.

Snapchat’s Scan AR platform

Startups like Blippar have been working on AR scanning for years in hopes of making consumer packaged goods or retail locations come alive. But again, the need to download a separate app and remember to use it has kept these experiences out of the mainstream. Snapchat’s Scan platform can similarly trigger AR effects based on specific items from a more popular app. And teasers of Facebook and Google’s eventual augmented reality hardware and software hinge on adding utility to every day life.

If Apple can build this technology into everyone’s iPhone cameras, it could surmount one of AR’s biggest distribution challenges. That might help it build out a developer ecosystem and train customers to seek out AR so they’re all ready when its AR glasses finally arrive.

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Your VPN or ad-blocker app could be collecting your data

Posted by | app analytics, App Annie, app stores, Apple, Apps, Google, Mobile, privacy, sensor tower | No Comments

The underpinnings of how app store analytics platforms operate were exposed this week by BuzzFeed, which uncovered the network of mobile apps used by popular analytics firm Sensor Tower to amass app data. The company had operated at least 20 apps, including VPNs and ad blockers, whose main purpose was to collect app usage data from end users in order to make estimations about app trends and revenues. Unfortunately, these sorts of data collection apps are not new — nor unique to Sensor Tower’s operation.

Sensor Tower was found to operate apps such as Luna VPN, for example, as well as Free and Unlimited VPN, Mobile Data and Adblock Focus, among others. After BuzzFeed reached out, Apple removed Adblock Focus and Google removed Mobile Data. Others are still being investigated, the report said.

Apps’ collection of usage data has been an ongoing issue across the app stores.

Facebook and Google have both operated such apps, not always transparently, and Sensor Tower’s key rival App Annie continues to do the same today.

Facebook

For Facebook, its 2013 acquisition of VPN app maker Onavo for years served as a competitive advantage. The traffic through the app gave Facebook insight into which other social applications were growing in popularity — so Facebook could either clone their features or acquire them outright. When Apple finally booted Onavo from the App Store half a decade later, Facebook simply brought back the same code in a new wrapper — then called the Facebook Research app. This time, it was a bit more transparent about its data collection, as the Research app was actually paying for the data.

But Apple kicked out that app, too. So Facebook last year launched Study and Viewpoints to further its market research and data collection efforts. These apps are still live today.

Google

Google was also caught doing something similar by way of its Screenwise Meter app, which invited users 18 and up (or 13 if part of a family group) to download the app and participate in the panel. The app’s users allowed Google to collect their app and web usage in exchange for gift cards. But like Facebook, Google’s app used Apple’s Enterprise Certificate program to work — a violation of Apple policy that saw the app removed, again following media coverage. Screenwise Meter returned to the App Store last year and continues to track app usage, among other things, with panelists’ consent.

App Annie

App Annie, a firm that directly competes with Sensor Tower, has acquired mobile data companies and now operates its own set of apps to track app usage under those brands.

In 2014, App Annie bought Distimo, and as of 2016 has run Phone Guardian, a “secure Wi-Fi and VPN” app, under the Distimo brand.

The app discloses its relationship with App Annie in its App Store description, but remains vague about its true purpose:

“Trusted by more than 1 million users, App Annie is the leading global provider of mobile performance estimates. In short, we help app developers build better apps. We build our mobile performance estimates by learning how people use their devices. We do this with the help of this app.”

In 2015, App Annie acquired Mobidia. Since 2017, it has operated real-time data usage monitor My Data Manager under that brand, as well. The App Store description only offers the same vague disclosure, which means users aren’t likely aware of what they’re agreeing to.

Disclosure?

The problem with apps like App Annie’s and Sensor Tower’s is that they’re marketed as offering a particular function, when their real purpose for existing is entirely another.

The app companies’ defense is that they do disclose and require consent during onboarding. For example, Sensor Tower apps explicitly tell users what is collected and what is not:

App Annie’s app offers a similar disclosure, and takes the extra step of identifying the parent company by name:

App Annie also says its apps can continue to be used even if data sharing is turned off.

Despite these opt-ins, end users may still not understand that their VPN app is actually tied to a much larger data collection operation, however anonymized that data may be. After all, App Annie and Sensor Tower aren’t household names (unless you’re an app publisher or marketer.)

Apple and Google’s responsibility 

Apple and Google, let’s be fair, are also culpable here.

Of course, Google is more pro-data collection because of the nature of its own business as an advertising-powered company. (It even tracks users in the real world via the Google Maps app.)

Apple, meanwhile, markets itself as a privacy-focused company, so is deserving of increased scrutiny.

It seems unfathomable that, following the Onavo scandal, Apple wouldn’t have taken a closer look into the VPN app category to ensure its apps were compliant with its rules and transparent about the nature of their businesses. In particular, it seems Apple would have paid close attention to apps operated by companies in the app store intelligence business, like App Annie and its subsidiaries.

Apple is surely aware of how these companies acquire data — it’s common industry knowledge. Plus, App Annie’s acquisitions were publicly disclosed.

oh wait! pic.twitter.com/ktVc6E9t1f

— Will Strafach (@chronic) March 10, 2020

But Apple is conflicted. It wants to protect app usage and user data (and be known for protecting such data) by not providing any broader app store metrics of its own. However, it also knows that app publishers need such data to operate competitively on the App Store. So instead of being proactive about sweeping the App Store for data collection utilities, it remains reactive by pulling select apps when the media puts them on blast, as BuzzFeed’s report has since done. That allows Apple to maintain a veil of innocence.

But pulling user data directly covertly is only one way to operate. As Facebook and Google have since realized, it’s easier to run these sorts of operations on the App Store if the apps just say, basically, “this is a data collection app,” and/or offer payment for participation — as do many marketing research panels. This is a more transparent relationship from a consumer’s perspective too, as they know they’re agreeing to sell their data.

Meanwhile, Sensor Tower and App Annie competitor Apptopia says it tested then scrapped its own ad blocker app around six years ago, but claims it never collected data with it. It now favors getting its data directly from its app developer customers.

“We can confidently state that 100% of the proprietary data we collect is from shared App Analytics Accounts where app developers proactively and explicitly share their data with us, and give us the right to use it for modeling,” stated Apptopia co-founder and COO, Jonathan Kay. “We do not collect any data from mobile panels, third-party apps or even at the user/device level.”

This system (which is used by the others as well) isn’t necessarily a solution for end users concerned about data collection, as it further obscures the collection and sharing process. Generally, consumers don’t know which app developers are sharing this data, what data is being shared, or how it’s being utilized. App data of this nature isn’t on the user level (meaning it’s not personal data), but it’s still about reporting back to the developer things like installs, daily and monthly users, and revenue, among other things. (Fortunately, Apple allows users to disable the sharing of some diagnostic and usage data from within iOS Settings.)

Data collection done by app analytics firms is only one of many, many ways that apps leak data, however.

In fact, many apps collect personal data — including data that’s far more sensitive than anonymized app usage trends — by way of their included SDKs (software development kits). These tools allow apps to share data with numerous technology companies, including ad networks, data brokers and aggregators, both large and small. It’s not illegal, and mainstream users probably don’t know about this either.

Instead, user awareness seems to crop up through conspiracy theories, like “Facebook is listening through the microphone,” without realizing that Facebook collects so much data it doesn’t really need to do so. (Well, except when it does).

In the wake of BuzzFeed’s reporting, Sensor Tower says it’s “taking immediate steps to make Sensor Tower’s connection to our apps perfectly clear, and adding even more visibility around the data their users share with us.”

Google isn’t providing an official comment. Apple didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Sensor Tower’s full statement is below:

Our business model is predicated on high-level, macro app trends. As such, we do not collect or store any personally identifiable information (PII) about users on our servers or elsewhere. In fact, based on the way our apps are designed, such data is separated before we could possibly view or interact with it, and all we see are ad creatives being served to users. What we do store is extremely high level, aggregated advertising data that may demonstrate trends that we share with customers.

Our privacy policy follows best practices and makes our data use clear. We want to reiterate that our apps do not collect any PII, and therefore it cannot be shared with any other entity, Sensor Tower or otherwise. We’ve made this very clear in our privacy policy, which users actively opt into during the apps’ onboarding processes after being shown an unambiguous disclaimer detailing what data is shared with us. As a routine matter, and as our business evolves, we’ll always take a privacy-centric approach to new features to help ensure that any PII remains uncollected and is fully safeguarded.

Based on the feedback we’ve received, we’re taking immediate steps to make Sensor Tower’s connection to our apps perfectly clear, and adding even more visibility around the data their users share with us.

App Annie shared the below statement, referencing the root certificate installations mentioned in the BuzzFeed article. (On iOS devices, VPN certificates don’t get full root access, however):

App Annie does not use root certificates at any point in its data collection process.

App Annie discloses that when users opt into data collection (and data sharing is not mandatory to use our apps), data will be shared with App Annie for the purposes of creating market research. We only collect data after users expressly consent to this collection within our apps. We are very transparent, both on the app stores and in the apps themselves and clearly connect App Annie to our mobile apps.

 

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Wait, you all haven’t been wiping down your smartphones this whole time?

Posted by | Apple, coronavirus, COVID-19, hardware, Health, iPhone, Mobile | No Comments

A small consolation in the growing COVID-19 crisis is that some of our moderate germophobia has begun to feel like a minor super power. As I got settled for a cross-country flight last week, I took out my hand wipes and did a whole number on the screen, tray table and arm rests, and this time no one looked at me funny.

I go to a lot of conferences and trade shows and have to shake a lot of hands (though I’ve taken to the elbow bash in recent weeks) before handling my phone. Years ago, I switched from Purell bottles to hand wipes for two reasons:

  1. Hand sanitizer feels like lacquering the dirt on. This is probably another weird quirk, so do with that what you will.
  2. I touch my phone — and computer — a lot. I almost never leave the house without a product like Wet Ones in my bag. Hell, I included them in a travel gift guide last year. Merry Christmas, Billy, here’s the packet of antibacterial wipes you wanted but were too afraid to ask.

For those concerned about damage to your devices, fear not. Apple, which has never been prone to recklessness for such things, just gave disinfecting wipes a green light on its “How to clean your Apple products” that covers Mac, iPad, iPhone and iPod, among others.

Using a 70 percent isopropyl alcohol wipe or Clorox Disinfecting Wipes, you may gently wipe the hard, nonporous surfaces of your Apple product, such as the display, keyboard, or other exterior surfaces. Don’t use bleach. Avoid getting moisture in any opening, and don’t submerge your Apple product in any cleaning agents. Don’t use on fabric or leather surfaces.

iPhones these days sport IP67 or IP68 ratings. If it detects moisture in the Lightning port, it will throw up a “Charging not Available” warning. It’s best to avoid getting the port wet if you can, but that’s a nice fall back.

So, wipe, wipe away. Assuming, of course, you can still find them.

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