Apple

ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, plans to launch a free music streaming app

Posted by | Apple, Apps, Asia, bytedance, China, india, Media, Mobile, musical.ly, Snap, Spotify, tiktok | No Comments

Does the overcrowded and cut-throat music streaming business have room for an additional player? The world’s most valuable startup certainly thinks so.

Chinese conglomerate ByteDance, valued at more than $75 billion, is working on a music streaming service, two sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch. The company, which operates popular app TikTok, has held discussions with music labels in recent months to launch the app as soon as the end of this quarter, one of the sources said.

The app will offer both a premium and an ad-supported free tier, one of the sources said. Bloomberg, which first wrote about the premium app, reported that ByteDance is targeting emerging markets with its new music app. A ByteDance spokesperson declined to comment.

For ByteDance, interest in a music app does not come as a surprise. Snippets of pop songs from movies and albums intertwined with videos shot by its humongous user base is part of the service’s charm. The company already works with music labels worldwide to licence usage of their tracks on its platform. In China, where ByteDance claims to have tie-ups with more than 800 labels, it has been aggressively expanding efforts to find music talents and urge them to make their own tracks.

Besides, ByteDance has been expanding its app portfolio in recent months. Earlier this year, the company released Duoshan, a video chat app that appears to be a mix of TikTok and Snap. This week, it launched Feiliao, another chat app that is largely focused on text-driven conversations. At some point, the company may have realized the need for a standalone music consumption app.

When asked about TikTok’s partnership with music labels last month, Todd Schefflin, TikTok’s head of global music business development, told WSJ that music is part of the app’s “creative DNA” but it is “ultimately for short video creation and viewing, not a product for music consumption.”

The private Chinese company is likely eyeing India as a key market for its music app. The company has been in discussion with local music labels T Series and Times Music for rights. Moreover, its apps are estimated to have more than 300 million monthly active users in the nation, though there could be significant overlaps among them.

India may have also inspired ByteDance to consider a free, ad-supported version of its music app. Even as more than 150 million users in India listen to music online, only a tiny portion of this user base is willing to pay for it.

This has made India a unique battleground for local and international music giants, most of which offer an ad-supported, free version of their apps in the market. Even premium offerings from Apple and Spotify cost less than $1.2 a month. India is the only market where Spotify offers a free version of its app that has access to the entire catalog on demand.

The launch of the app could put the spotlight again on ByteDance in India, where its TikTok app recently landed in hot water. An Indian court banned the app for roughly a week after expressing concerns over questionable content on the platform. Ever since the nation lifted the ban on TikTok, the company has become visibly cautious about its movement.

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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.”

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Apple & Google celebrate Global Accessibility Awareness Day with featured apps, new shortcuts

Posted by | accessibility, Android, Apple, Apps, Google, iOS, Mobile | No Comments

With last fall’s release of iOS 12, Apple introduced Siri Shortcuts — a new app that allows iPhone users to create their own voice commands to take actions on their phone and in apps. Today, Apple is celebrating Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) by rolling out a practical, accessibility focused collection of new Siri Shortcuts, alongside accessibility focused App Store features and collections.

Google is doing something similar for Android users on Google Play.

For starters, Apple’s new Siri shortcuts are available today in a featured collection at the top of the Shortcuts app. The collection includes a variety of shortcuts aimed at helping users more quickly perform everyday tasks.

For example, there’s a new “Help Message” shortcut that will send your location to an emergency contact, a “Meeting Someone New” shortcut designed to speed up non-verbal introductions and communication, a mood journal for recording thoughts and feelings, a pain report that helps to communicate to others the location and intensity of your pain and several others.

Some are designed to make communication more efficient — like one that puts a favorite contact on the user’s home screen, so they can quickly call, text or FaceTime the contact with just a tap.

Others are designed to be used with QR codes. For example, “QR Your Shortcuts” lets you create a QR code for any shortcut you regularly use, then print it out and place it where it’s needed for quick access — like the “Speak Brush Teeth Routine” shortcut that speaks step-by-step instructions for teeth brushing, which would be placed in the bathroom.

In addition to the launch of the new shortcuts, Apple added a collection of accessibility focused apps to the App Store which highlights a ton of accessibility focused apps, including Microsoft’s new talking camera for the blind called Seeing AI, plus other utilities like text-to-speech readers, audio games, sign language apps, AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) solutions, eye-controlled browsers, smart home apps, fine motor skill trainers and much more.

The App Store is also today featuring several interviews with developers, athletes, musicians and a comedian who talk about how they use accessible technology.

Apple is not the only company rolling out special GAAD-themed collections today. Google also unveiled its own editorial collection of accessible apps and games on Google Play. In addition to several utilities, the collection features Live Transcribe, Google’s brand-new accessibility service for the deaf and hard of hearing that debuted earlier this month at its annual Google I/O developer conference.

Though the app’s status is “Unreleased,” users can install the early version, which listens to conversations around you, then instantly transcribes them.

Other selections include home screen replacement Nova Launcher, blind assistant app Be My Eyes, head control for the device Open Sesame, communication aid Card Talk and more.

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OpenFin raises $17 million for its OS for finance

Posted by | Android, app-store, Apple, Apps, bain capital ventures, Banking, Barclays, bloomberg terminal, Cloud, Developer, Enterprise, Finance, financial services, funding, Fundings & Exits, J.P. Morgan, nyca partners, OpenFin, operating systems, Private Equity, Recent Funding, Startups, truphone, Uber, Wells Fargo | No Comments

OpenFin, the company looking to provide the operating system for the financial services industry, has raised $17 million in funding through a Series C round led by Wells Fargo, with participation from Barclays and existing investors including Bain Capital Ventures, J.P. Morgan and Pivot Investment Partners. Previous investors in OpenFin also include DRW Venture Capital, Euclid Opportunities and NYCA Partners.

Likening itself to “the OS of finance,” OpenFin seeks to be the operating layer on which applications used by financial services companies are built and launched, akin to iOS or Android for your smartphone.

OpenFin’s operating system provides three key solutions which, while present on your mobile phone, has previously been absent in the financial services industry: easier deployment of apps to end users, fast security assurances for applications and interoperability.

Traders, analysts and other financial service employees often find themselves using several separate platforms simultaneously, as they try to source information and quickly execute multiple transactions. Yet historically, the desktop applications used by financial services firms — like trading platforms, data solutions or risk analytics — haven’t communicated with one another, with functions performed in one application not recognized or reflected in external applications.

“On my phone, I can be in my calendar app and tap an address, which opens up Google Maps. From Google Maps, maybe I book an Uber . From Uber, I’ll share my real-time location on messages with my friends. That’s four different apps working together on my phone,” OpenFin CEO and co-founder Mazy Dar explained to TechCrunch. That cross-functionality has long been missing in financial services.

As a result, employees can find themselves losing precious time — which in the world of financial services can often mean losing money — as they juggle multiple screens and perform repetitive processes across different applications.

Additionally, major banks, institutional investors and other financial firms have traditionally deployed natively installed applications in lengthy processes that can often take months, going through long vendor packaging and security reviews that ultimately don’t prevent the software from actually accessing the local system.

OpenFin CEO and co-founder Mazy Dar (Image via OpenFin)

As former analysts and traders at major financial institutions, Dar and his co-founder Chuck Doerr (now president & COO of OpenFin) recognized these major pain points and decided to build a common platform that would enable cross-functionality and instant deployment. And since apps on OpenFin are unable to access local file systems, banks can better ensure security and avoid prolonged yet ineffective security review processes.

And the value proposition offered by OpenFin seems to be quite compelling. OpenFin boasts an impressive roster of customers using its platform, including more than 1,500 major financial firms, almost 40 leading vendors and 15 of the world’s 20 largest banks.

More than 1,000 applications have been built on the OS, with OpenFin now deployed on more than 200,000 desktops — a noteworthy milestone given that the ever-popular Bloomberg Terminal, which is ubiquitously used across financial institutions and investment firms, is deployed on roughly 300,000 desktops.

Since raising their Series B in February 2017, OpenFin’s deployments have more than doubled. The company’s headcount has also doubled and its European presence has tripled. Earlier this year, OpenFin also launched it’s OpenFin Cloud Services platform, which allows financial firms to launch their own private local app stores for employees and customers without writing a single line of code.

To date, OpenFin has raised a total of $40 million in venture funding and plans to use the capital from its latest round for additional hiring and to expand its footprint onto more desktops around the world. In the long run, OpenFin hopes to become the vital operating infrastructure upon which all developers of financial applications are innovating.

Apple and Google’s mobile operating systems and app stores have enabled more than a million apps that have fundamentally changed how we live,” said Dar. “OpenFin OS and our new app store services enable the next generation of desktop apps that are transforming how we work in financial services.”

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Smartphone shipments hit a five-year low in North America

Posted by | Apple, canalys, hardware, Mobile, Samsung, smartphones | No Comments

More dismal news from the smartphone number crunchers. New figures out of Canalys put the North American smartphone market at five-year low for the first quarter of 2019. That’s…bad. But also, pretty inline with what we’ve been seeing globally. The market has stagnated, and while manufacturers aren’t in full-on panic mode, there’s certainly cause for concern.

Shipments dropped from 44.4 million down to 36.4 million, marking an 18% drop year over year for the first quarter. Canalys says it’s the steepest drop it’s recorded for the category, chalking up some of the issues to “a lackluster performance by Apple and the absence of ZTE.”

Apple is still the top of the heap, commanding 40% of the North American market with help from the sale of older discounted units. But Samsung managed to tighten the gap on the back of a successful Galaxy S10 launch. The company grew by 3% for the year, up to 29.3% of the market.

LG, Lenovo and TCL rounded out the top five, with the latter two making pretty solid market-share strides. The remainder of the market took a massive hit, however, with a 65% drop in shipments. Analysts seem confident that 5G’s imminent arrival will help give the market a boost in coming quarters, but it’s going to be hard for manufacturers to maintain that momentum.

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Where top VCs are investing in media, entertainment & gaming

Posted by | Apple, BetaWorks, charles hudson, Electronic Arts, Entertainment, epic games, Eric Hippeau, esports, Facebook, fortnite, founders fund, funding, Fundings & Exits, Gaming, Google, GV, HQ Trivia, instagram, interactive media, lerer hippeau ventures, lightspeed venture partners, Luminary Media, matt hartman, Media, mg siegler, Netflix, new media, precursor ventures, Roblox, scooter braun, sequoia capital, Sports, Spotify, starbucks, Startups, sweet capital, TC, Twitch, Venture Capital, Video, Virtual reality | No Comments

Most of the strategy discussions and news coverage in the media and entertainment industry is concerned with the unfolding corporate mega-mergers and the political implications of social media platforms.

These are important conversations, but they’re largely a story of twentieth-century media (and broader society) finally responding to the dominance Web 2.0 companies have achieved.

To entrepreneurs and VCs, the more pressing focus is on what the next generation of companies to transform entertainment will look like. Like other sectors, the underlying force is advances in artificial intelligence and computing power.

In this context, that results in a merging of gaming and linear storytelling into new interactive media. To highlight the opportunities here, I asked nine top VCs to share where they are putting their money.

Here are the media investment theses of: Cyan Banister (Founders Fund), Alex Taussig (Lightspeed), Matt Hartman (betaworks), Stephanie Zhan (Sequoia), Jordan Fudge (Sinai), Christian Dorffer (Sweet Capital), Charles Hudson (Precursor), MG Siegler (GV), and Eric Hippeau (Lerer Hippeau).

Cyan Banister, Partner at Founders Fund

In 2018 I was obsessed with the idea of how you can bring AI and entertainment together. Having made early investments in Brud, A.I. Foundation, Artie and Fable, it became clear that the missing piece behind most AR experiences was a lack of memory.

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Google refreshes Android Auto with new features and a darker look

Posted by | Android, Android Auto, Apple, automotive, CarPlay, Google, Google I/O 2019, linux, Polestar, smartphones, Transportation | No Comments

Android Auto — the in-car platform that brings the look and functions of a smartphone to the vehicle’s central screen — is getting a new look and improved navigation and communication features that will roll out this summer.

The improvements and new look were revealed Monday during Google I/O 2019, the annual developer conference.

The most noticeable change might be the overall look of Android Auto. It now has a dark theme, new fonts and color accents designed to make it easier for drivers to quickly and more easily see the content on the car’s central screen.

The new version of Android Auto has also improved its notifications. Drivers can choose to view, listen and respond to messages and calls more easily.

Engineers have updated the software to make it more seamless. The system, if properly enabled, would pop up on the car’s screen once the vehicle was turned on. However, the user would still have to restart their media or navigation option. Now, Android Auto will continue playing the media and navigation app of the driver’s choice. Drivers can tap on a suggested location or say “Hey Google” to navigate to a new place.

The navigation bar on Android Auto has changed, as well. Drivers will be able to see their turn-by-turn directions and control apps and phone on the same screen.

Finally, the platform has been adjusted so it will fit various sized-screens. Android Auto now maximizes the in-car display to show more information, like next-turn directions, playback controls and ongoing calls.

Android Auto is not an operating system. It’s a secondary interface — or HMI layer — that sits on top of an operating system. Google released Android Auto in 2015. Rival Apple introduced its own in-car platform, Apple CarPlay, that same year.

Automakers that wanted to give consumers a better in-car experience without giving Google or Apple total access quickly adopted the platform. Even some holdouts, such as Toyota, have come around. Today, Android Auto is available in more than 500 car models from 50 different brands, according to Android Auto product manager Rod Lopez.

Google has since developed an operating system called Android Automotive OS that’s modeled after its open-source mobile operating system that runs on Linux. Instead of running smartphones and tablets, Google modified it so it could be used in cars. Polestar, Volvo’s standalone performance electric car brand, is going to produce a new vehicle, the Polestar 2, that has an infotainment system powered by Android Automotive OS.

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The EU will reportedly investigate Apple following anti-competition complaint from Spotify

Posted by | Android, app-store, Apple, apple inc, apple music, belgium, Brussels, ceo, computing, daniel ek, EC, Europe, european commission, european union, Facebook, Google, Google Play Store, iPhone, lawsuit, Margrethe Vestager, Media, online marketplaces, Online Music Stores, operating systems, Search, smartphones, social network, Software, Spotify, United States | No Comments

The spat between Spotify and Apple is going to be the focus on a new investigation from the EU, according to a report from the FT.

The paper reported today that the European Commission (EC), the EU’s regulatory body, plans to launch a competition inquiry around Spotify’s claim that the iPhone-maker uses its position as the gatekeeper of the App Store to “deliberately disadvantage other app developers.”

In a complaint filed to the EC in March, Spotify said Apple has “tilted the playing field” by operating iOS, the platform, and the App Store for distribution, as well as its own Spotify rival, Apple Music.

In particular, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek has said that Apple “locks” developers and their platform, which includes a 30 percent cut of in-app spending. Ek also claimed Apple Music has unfair advantages over rivals like Spotify, while he expressed concern that Apple controls communication between users and app publishers, “including placing unfair restrictions on marketing and promotions that benefit consumers.”

Spotify’s announcement was unprecedented — Ek claimed many other developers feel the same way, but do not want to upset Apple by speaking up. The EU is sure to tap into that silent base if the investigation does indeed go ahead as the FT claims.

Apple bit back at Spotify’s claims, but its response was more a rebuttal — or alternative angle — on those complaints. Apple did not directly address any of the demands that Spotify put forward, and those include alternative payment options (as offered in the Google Play store) and equal treatment for Apple apps and those from third-parties like Spotify.

The EU is gaining a reputation as a tough opponent that’s reining in U.S. tech giants.

Aside from its GDPR initiative, it has a history of taking action on apparent monopolies in tech.

Google fined €1.49 billion ($1.67 billion) in March of this year over antitrust violations in search ad brokering, for example. Google was fined a record $5 billion last year over Android abuses and there have been calls to look into breaking the search company up. Inevitably, Facebook has come under the spotlight for a series of privacy concerns, particularly around elections.

Pressure from the EU has already led to the social network introduce clear terms and conditions around its use of data for advertising, while it may also change its rules limiting overseas ad spending around EU elections following concern from Brussels.

Despite what some in the U.S. may think, the EU’s competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, has said publicly that she is against breaking companies up. Instead, Vestager has pledged to regulate data access.

“To break up a company, to break up private property would be very far-reaching and you would need to have a very strong case that it would produce better results for consumers in the marketplace than what you could do with more mainstream tools. We’re dealing with private property. Businesses that are built and invested in and become successful because of their innovation,” she said in an interview at SXSW earlier this year.

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Google Fit comes to iOS

Posted by | Android, Apple, Apps, Google, Google Fit, google now, Health, iOS, iPhone, Mobile, mobile software, operating systems, smartphones, TC, wear os | No Comments

Google today announced that Google Fit, the company’s fitness tracking app that launched on Android back in 2014, is now available on iOS.

It definitely took Google a while to bring the app to iOS. Until today, the only way to get your Fit data on your iPhone was in a special section of the Wear OS app on the iPhone. Without a Wear OS device, though, that section would’ve been empty.

If you’ve seen the Fit app on Android, then the iOS version will look very familiar. It features the same focus on Move Minutes and Heart Point, as well as the ability to pick up different activities based on your movement. You can also connect the app with apps connected to Apple Health like Sleep Cycle, Nike Run Club or Headspace can also sync with Google Fit.

Indeed, as a Google spokesperson told me, all of the movement data in the app also comes from Apple’s Health app — or from a Wear OS smartwatch, though few iOS users have opted to cross streams and use a Wear OS watch with their iPhones.

Since Apple Health already tracks your movement data, I’m not sure all that many iOS users will make the switch to Google Fit. It’s still good to see Google bring its service to this competing platform for those who maybe use multiple devices

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Tim Cook wants you to put down your iPhone

Posted by | app developers, app stores, Apple, Apps, iOS, iOS App Store, iOS apps, iPhone, iTunes, Mobile, mobile apps, Opinion, push notifications, screen time, smartphones, Tim Cook | No Comments

Tim Cook thinks people should get off their iPhones and decrease their engagement with apps. The Apple CEO, speaking at the TIME 100 Summit today, was discussing the addictive nature of our mobile devices and Apple’s role in the matter when he made these comments. He said the company hadn’t intended for people to be constantly using their iPhones, and noted he himself has silenced his push notifications in recent months.

“Apple never wanted to maximize user time. We’ve never been about that,” Cook explained.

It’s certainly an interesting claim, given that Apple designed a platform that allowed app developers to constantly ping their users with the most inane notifications — from getting a new follower on a social app to a sale in a shopping app to a new level added to a game and so much more.

The very idea behind the notification platform, opt-in as it may be, is that developers should actively — and in real time — try to capture users’ attention and redirect them back to their apps.

This is not how such an alert mechanism had to be designed.

An app notification platform could have instead been crafted to allow app developers to notify users in batches, at designed intervals within users’ control. For example, users could have specified that every day at noon they’d like to check in on the latest from their apps.

Or, in building out the iOS App Store, Apple could have implemented a “news feed” of sorts — a dedicated channel wherein users could opt to check in on all the latest news from their installed apps.

Or perhaps Apple could have structured a notification platform that would have allowed users to pick between different classes of notifications. Urgent messages — like alerts about a security breach — could have been a top-level tier; while general information could have been sent as a different type of notification. Users could have selected which types of alerts they wanted, depending on how important the app was to them.

These are just a few of many possible iterations. A company like Apple could have easily come up with even more ideas.

But the fact of the matter is that Apple’s notification platform was built with the idea of increasing engagement in mind. It’s disingenuous to say it was not.

At the very least, Apple could admit that it was a different era back then, and didn’t realize the potential damage to our collective psyche that a continually buzzing iPhone would cause. It could point out how it’s now working to fix this problem by putting users back in control, and how it plans to do more in the future.

Instead, it created a situation where users had to turn to the only defense left to them: switching off push notifications entirely. Today, when users install new apps they often say “No” to push notifications. And with Apple’s new tools to control notifications, users are now actively triaging which apps can get in touch.

In fact, that’s what Tim Cook says he did, too.

“If you guys aren’t doing this — if you have an iPhone and you’re not doing it, I would encourage you to really do this — monitor these [push notifications],” the CEO suggested to the audience.

“What it has done for me personally is I’ve gone in and gutted the number of notifications,” Cook said. “Because I asked myself: ‘Do I really need to be getting thousands of notifications a day?’ It’s not something that is adding value to my life, or is making me a better person. And so I went in and chopped that.”

Yep. Even Apple’s CEO is done with all the spam and noise from iPhone apps.

The comment, of course, was supposed to be a veiled reference to the addictive nature of some apps — social media apps in particular, and especially Facebook. Today, Apple throws barbs at Facebook any time it can, now that the company has fallen out of public favor due to its ongoing data privacy violations and constant scandals.

But a more truthful telling of the iPhone’s past would recall that Facebook’s app — and all its many notifications — was originally a big selling point for Apple’s mobile device.

When the App Store first launched in 2008, Facebook proudly sat in the top row in a featured position. It was heavily promoted to users because it was a prime example of the iPhone’s utility: here was this popular social network you could now get to right from your phone. Amazing! 

The fact that Facebook — and every other app — later leveraged the iOS push notification platform to better its own business without regard to how that would impact users isn’t entirely app developers’ collective fault. The notification platform itself had left the door wide open for that sort of psychological abuse to occur, simply because of its lack of user-configured, user-friendly controls.

Above: The App Store at launch, via The NYT

A decade after the App Store launched, Apple finally started to dial back on the free-for-all on user attention.

It announced its suite of digital wellness tools at WWDC 2018, which included Screen Time (a dashboard for tracking and limiting usage); increased parental controls; and finally a way to silence the barrage of notifications, without having to dig around in iOS Settings.

Now Tim Cook wants to have us believe that Apple had never wanted to cause any of this addiction and distraction — despite having created the very platform that made it all possible in the first place, which in turn, helped sell devices.

Isn’t it telling that the exec has had to silence his own iPhone using these new tools? Isn’t that something of an admission of culpability here?

“Every time you pick up your phone, it means you’re taking your eyes off whoever you’re dealing with, are talking with, right?,” Cook continued. “And if you’re looking at your phone more than you’re looking at somebody else’s eyes, you’re doing the wrong thing,” he said. “We want to educate people on what they’re doing. This thing will improve through time, just like everything else that we do. We’ll innovate there as we do in other areas.”

“But basically, we don’t want people using their phones all the time. This has never been an objective for us,” said Cook.

Except, of course, for those 10 years when it was.

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