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UK’s competition regulator asks for views on breaking up Google

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Android, antitrust, Australia, CMA, competition, Competition and Markets Authority, Europe, european commission, european union, Facebook, Google, online advertising, online harms, online platforms, programmatic advertising, search advertising, search engines, Social, social media, UK government, United Kingdom | No Comments

The U.K.’s competition regulator has raised concerns about the market power of digital ad platform giants Google and Facebook in an interim report published today, opening up a consultation on a range of potential inventions — from breaking up platform giants to limiting their ability to set self-serving defaults and enforcing data sharing and/or feature interoperability to help rivals compete.

Breaking up Google by forcing it to separate its ad server arm from the rest of the business is one of a number of possible interventions it’s eyeing, along with enforcing choice screens for search engines and browsers that use non-monetary criteria to allocate slots — versus Google’s plan for a pay-to-play offering for EU Android users (which rivals argue does not offer relief for the antitrust abuse the European Commission sanctioned last year).

The U.K. regulator is also considering whether to require Facebook to interoperate specific features of its current network so they can be accessed by competitors — as a fix for what it describes as “strong network effects” which work against “new entrant and challenger social media platforms.”

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) launched the market study in July — a couple of weeks after the U.K.’s data watchdog published its own damning report setting out major privacy and other concerns around programmatic advertising.

It is due to issue a final report next summer — which will set out conclusions and recommendations for interventions — and is now consulting on suggestions in its interim report, inviting contributions before February 12.

Since beginning the study, the CMA says it has received several requests to open a full-blown market investigation, which means it has a statutory duty to consult on making such a reference.

Based on initial findings from the study, it says there are “reasonable grounds” for suspecting serious impediments to competition in the online platforms and digital advertising market.

The report specifically flags three areas where it suspects harm — namely:

  • the open display advertising market — with a focus on “the conflicts of interest Google faces at several parts of its vertically integrated chain of intermediaries”;
  • general search and search advertising — with a focus on “Google’s market power and the barriers to expansion faced by rival search engines”;
  • social media and display advertising — with a focus on “Facebook’s market power and the lack of interoperability between Facebook and rival services”;

Other concerns raised in the report include problems flowing from a lack of transparency in the digital advertising market; and the difficulty or lack of choice for consumers to opt out of behavioral advertising.

However, the regulator is not making a market investigation reference at this stage — a step which would open access to the order making powers which could be used to enforce the sorts of interventions discussed in the report. Instead, the CMA says it favors making recommendations to government to feed into a planned “comprehensive regulatory framework” to govern the behaviour of online platforms.

Earlier this year the U.K. government set out a wide-ranging proposal to regulate a range of online harms. Although it remains to be seen how much of that program prime minister Boris Johnson’s newly elected Conservative government will now push ahead with.

“Although it is a finely balanced judgement, we remain of the view that a comprehensive suite of recommendations to government is currently the best way forward and are therefore consulting on not making a market investigation reference at this stage,” the CMA writes, saying it feels it has further investigation work to do and also does not wish to “cut across” the government’s plans around regulating platforms.

“The concerns we have identified regarding online platforms such as Google and Facebook are a truly global antitrust challenge facing governments and regulators. Therefore, in relation to some of the potential interventions we may consider in a market investigation, and in particular any significant structural remedies such as those involving ownership separation, we need to be pragmatic about what changes could efficiently be pursued unilaterally by the UK,” it adds, saying it will “continue to work as closely as we can with our international counterparts to develop a coordinated position on these issues in the second half of the study.”

Antitrust regulators in a number of countries have been turning their attention to platform giants in recent years — including Australia and the U.S.

The new European Commission has also talked tough on platform power, suggesting it will further dial up scrutiny of tech giants and seek to accelerate its own interventions where it finds competitive harms.

Responding to the CMA report in a statement, Ronan Harris, VP, Google U.K. and Ireland, told us:

The digital advertising industry helps British businesses of all sizes find customers in the UK and across the world, and supports the websites that people know and love with revenue and reach. We’ve built easy-to-use controls that enable people to manage their data in Google’s services — such as the ability to turn off personalised advertising and to automatically delete their search history.  We’ll continue to work constructively with the CMA and the government on these important areas so that everyone can make the most of the web.

A Facebook spokesperson also sent us this statement:

We are fully committed to engaging in the consultation process around the CMA’s preliminary report, and continuing to deliver the benefits of technology and relevant advertising to the millions of people and small businesses in the UK who use our services.

We agree with the CMA that people should have control over their data and transparency around how it is used. In fact, for every ad we show, we give people the option to find out why they are seeing that ad and an option to turn off ads from that advertiser entirely.  We also provide industry-leading tools to help people control their data, like “Off Facebook Activity”, and to transfer it to other services through our Data Transfer tools.  We look forward to further engagement with the CMA on these topics.

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Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 starts shipping

Posted by | augmented reality, Australia, barcelona, Canada, China, Computer Vision, computing, France, Gadgets, Germany, hardware, head-mounted displays, holography, hololens 2, ireland, Japan, machine learning, Microsoft, microsoft hardware, Microsoft HoloLens, Microsoft Ignite 2019, mixed reality, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Windows 10 | No Comments

Earlier this year, at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Microsoft announced the second generation of its HoloLens augmented reality visor. Today, the $3,500 HoloLens 2 is going on sale in the United States, Japan, China, Germany, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Australia and New Zealand, the same countries where it was previously available for pre-order.

Ahead of the launch, I got to spend some time with the latest model after a brief demo in Barcelona earlier this year. Users will immediately notice the larger field of view, which still doesn’t cover your full field of view, but offers a far better experience compared to the first version (where you often felt like you were looking at the virtual objects through a stamp-sized window).

The team also greatly enhanced the overall feel of wearing the device. It’s not light, at 1.3 pounds, but with the front visor that flips up and the new mounting system it is far more comfortable.

In regular use, existing users will also immediately notice the new gestures for opening the Start menu (this is Windows 10, after all). Instead of a “bloom” gesture, which often resulted in false positives, you now simply tap on the palm of your hand, where a Microsoft logo now appears when you look at it.

Eye tracking, too, has been greatly improved and works well, even over large distances, and the new machine learning model also does a far better job at tracking all of your fingers. All of this is powered by a lot of custom hardware, including Microsoft’s second-generation “holographic processing unit.”

Microsoft has also enhanced some of the cloud tools it built for HoloLens, including Azure Spatial Anchors, which allow for persistent holograms in a given space that anybody else who is using a holographic app can then see in the same spot.

Taken together, all of the changes result in a more comfortable and smarter device, with reduced latency when you look at the various objects around you and interact with them.

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US search market needs a ‘choice screen’ remedy now, says DuckDuckGo

Posted by | Android, antitrust, Apps, Australia, competition law, DuckDuckGo, Europe, european union, Google, google search, local search, Margrethe Vestager, Qwant, russia, Search, search engine, search engines, search results, United States, Yandex | No Comments

US regulators shouldn’t be sitting on their hands while the 50+ state, federal and congressional antitrust investigations of Google to grind along, search rival DuckDuckGo argues.

It’s put out a piece of research today that suggests choice screens which let smartphone users choose from a number of search engines to be their device default — aka “preference menus” as DuckDuckGo founder Gabriel Weinberg prefers to call them — offer an easy and quick win for regulators to reboot competition in the search space by rebalancing markets right now.

“If designed properly we think [preference menus] are a quick and effective key piece in the puzzle for a good remedy,” Weinberg tells TechCrunch. “And that’s because it finally enables people to change the search defaults across the entire device which has been difficult in the past… It’s at a point, during device set-up, where you can promote the users to take a moment to think about whether they want to try out an alternative search engine.”

Google is already offering such a choice (example below) to Android users in Europe, following an EU antitrust decision against Android last year.

Google search choice screen

 

DuckDuckGo is concerned US regulators aren’t thinking pro-actively enough about remedies for competition in the US search market — and is hoping to encourage more of a lean-in approach to support boosting diversity so that rivals aren’t left waiting years for the courts to issue judgements before any relief is possible.

In a survey of Internet users which it commissioned, polling more than 3,400 adults in the US, UK, Germany and Australia, people were asked to respond to a 4-choice screen design, based on an initial Google Android remedy proposal, as well as an 8-choice variant.

“We found that in each surveyed country, people select the Google alternatives at a rate that could increase their collective mobile market share by 300%-800%, with overall mobile search market share immediately changing by over 10%,” it writes [emphasis its].

Survey takers were also asked about factors that motivate them to switch search engines — with the number one reason given being a better quality of search results, and the next reason being if a search engine doesn’t track their searches or data.ChoiceScreenAndriod

Of course DuckDuckGo stands to gain from any pro-privacy switching, having built an alternative search business by offering non-tracked searches supported by contextual ads. Its model directly contrasts with Google’s, which relies on pervasive tracking of Internet users to determine which ads to serve.

But there’s plenty of evidence consumers hate being tracked. Not least the rise in use of tracker blockers.

“Using the original design puzzle [i.e. that Google devised] we saw a lot of people selecting alternative search engines and we think it would go up from there,” says Weinberg. “But even initially a 10% market share change is really significant.”

He points to regulatory efforts in Europe and also Russia which have resulted in antitrust decisions and enforcements against Google — and where choice screens are already in use promoting alternative search engine choices to Android users.

He also notes that regulators in Australia and the UK are pursuing choice screens — as actual or potential remedies for rebalancing the search market.

Russia has the lead here, with its regulator — the FAS — slapping Google with an order against bundling its services with Android all the way back in 2015, a few months after local search giant Yandex filed a complaint. A choice screen was implemented in 2017 and Russia’s homegrown Internet giant has increased its search market share on Android devices as a result. Google continues to do well in Russia. But the result is greater diversity in the local search market, as a direct result of implementing a choice screen mechanism.

“We think that all regulatory agencies that are now considering search market competition should really implement this remedy immediately,” says Weinberg. “They should do other things… as well but I don’t see any reason why one should wait on not implementing this because it would take a while to roll out and it’s a good start.”

Of course US regulators have yet to issue any antitrust findings against Google — despite there now being tens of investigations into “potential monopolistic behavior”. And Weinberg concedes that US regulators haven’t yet reached the stage of discussing remedies.

“It feels at a very investigatory stage,” he agrees. “But we would like to accelerate that… As well as bigger remedial changes — similar to privacy and how we’re pushing Do Not Track legislation — as something you can do right now as kind of low hanging fruit. I view this preference menu in the same way.”

“It’s a very high leverage thing that you can do immediately to move market share and increase search competition and so one should do it faster and then take the things that need to be slower slower,” he adds, referring to more radical possible competition interventions — such as breaking a business up.

There is certainly growing concern among policymakers around the world that the current modus operandi of enforcing competition law has failed to keep pace with increasingly powerful technology-driven businesses and platforms — hence ‘winner takes all’ skews which exist in certain markets and marketplaces, reducing choice for consumers and shrinking opportunities for startups to compete.

This concern was raised as a question for Europe’s competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, during her hearing in front of the EU parliament earlier this month. She pointed to the Commission’s use of interim measures in an ongoing case against chipmaker Broadcom as an example of how the EU is trying to speed up its regulatory response, noting it’s the first time such an application has been made for two decades.

In a press conference shortly afterwards, to confirm the application of EU interim measures against Broadcom, Vestager added: “Interim measures are one way to tackle the challenge of enforcing our competition rules in a fast and effective manner. This is why they are important. And especially that in fast moving markets. Whenever necessary I’m therefore committed to making the best possible use of this important tool.”

Weinberg is critical of Google’s latest proposals around search engine choice in Europe — after it released details of its idea to ‘evolve’ the search choice screen — by applying an auction model, starting early next year. Other rivals, such as French pro-privacy engine Qwant, have also blasted the proposal.

Clearly, how choice screens are implemented is key to their market impact.

“The way the current design is my read is smaller search engines, including us and including European search engines will not be on the screen long term the way it’s set up,” says Weinberg. “There will need to be additional changes to get the effects that we were seeing in our studies we made.

“There’s many reasons why us and others would not be those highest bidders,” he says of the proposed auction. “But needless to say the bigger companies can weigh outbid the smaller ones and so there are alternative ways to set this up.”

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Google brings its Jacquard wearables tech to Levi’s Trucker Jacket

Posted by | Android, Australia, Clothing, Fashion, France, Gadgets, Germany, Google, Google ATAP, hardware, Italy, jacket, Jacquard, Japan, noise cancelling, TC, United Kingdom, United States, Wearables | No Comments

Back in 2015, Google’s ATAP team demoed a new kind of wearable tech at Google I/O that used functional fabrics and conductive yarns to allow you to interact with your clothing and, by extension, the phone in your pocket. The company then released a jacket with Levi’s in 2017, but that was expensive, at $350, and never really quite caught on. Now, however, Jacquard is back. A few weeks ago, Saint Laurent launched a backpack with Jacquard support, but at $1,000, that was very much a luxury product. Today, however, Google and Levi’s are announcing their latest collaboration: Jacquard-enabled versions of Levi’s Trucker Jacket.

These jackets, which will come in different styles, including the Classic Trucker and the Sherpa Trucker, and in men’s and women’s versions, will retail for $198 for the Classic Trucker and $248 for the Sherpa Trucker. In addition to the U.S., it’ll be available in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the U.K.

The idea here is simple and hasn’t changed since the original launch: a dongle in your jacket’s cuff connects to conductive yarns in your jacket. You can then swipe over your cuff, tap it or hold your hand over it to issue commands to your phone. You use the Jacquard phone app for iOS or Android to set up what each gesture does, with commands ranging from saving your location to bringing up the Google Assistant in your headphones, from skipping to the next song to controlling your camera for selfies or simply counting things during the day, like the coffees you drink on the go. If you have Bose noise-canceling headphones, the app also lets you set a gesture to turn your noise cancellation on or off. In total, there are currently 19 abilities available, and the dongle also includes a vibration motor for notifications.

2019 09 30 0946 1

What’s maybe most important, though, is that this (re-)launch sets up Jacquard as a more modular technology that Google and its partners hope will take it from a bit of a gimmick to something you’ll see in more places over the next few months and years.

“Since we launched the first product with Levi’s at the end of 2017, we were focused on trying to understand and working really hard on how we can take the technology from a single product […] to create a real technology platform that can be used by multiple brands and by multiple collaborators,” Ivan Poupyrev, the head of Jacquard by Google told me. He noted that the idea behind projects like Jacquard is to take things we use every day, like backpacks, jackets and shoes, and make them better with technology. He argued that, for the most part, technology hasn’t really been added to these things that we use every day. He wants to work with companies like Levi’s to “give people the opportunity to create new digital touchpoints to their digital life through things they already have and own and use every day.”

What’s also important about Jacquard 2.0 is that you can take the dongle from garment to garment. For the original jacket, the dongle only worked with this one specific type of jacket; now, you’ll be able to take it with you and use it in other wearables as well. The dongle, too, is significantly smaller and more powerful. It also now has more memory to support multiple products. Yet, in my own testing, its battery still lasts for a few days of occasional use, with plenty of standby time.

jacquard dongle

Poupyrev also noted that the team focused on reducing cost, “in order to bring the technology into a price range where it’s more attractive to consumers.” The team also made lots of changes to the software that runs on the device and, more importantly, in the cloud to allow it to configure itself for every product it’s being used in and to make it easier for the team to add new functionality over time (when was the last time your jacket got a software upgrade?).

He actually hopes that over time, people will forget that Google was involved in this. He wants the technology to fade into the background. Levi’s, on the other hand, obviously hopes that this technology will enable it to reach a new market. The 2017 version only included the Levi’s Commuter Trucker Jacket. Now, the company is going broader with different styles.

“We had gone out with a really sharp focus on trying to adapt the technology to meet the needs of our commuter customer, which a collection of Levi’s focused on urban cyclists,” Paul Dillinger, the VP of Global Product Innovation at Levi’s, told me when I asked him about the company’s original efforts around Jacquard. But there was a lot of interest beyond that community, he said, yet the built-in features were very much meant to serve the needs of this specific audience and not necessarily relevant to the lifestyles of other users. The jackets, of course, were also pretty expensive. “There was an appetite for the technology to do more and be more accessible,” he said — and the results of that work are these new jackets.

IMG 20190930 102524

Dillinger also noted that this changes the relationship his company has with the consumer, because Levi’s can now upgrade the technology in your jacket after you bought it. “This is a really new experience,” he said. “And it’s a completely different approach to fashion. The normal fashion promise from other companies really is that we promise that in six months, we’re going to try to sell you something else. Levi’s prides itself on creating enduring, lasting value in style and we are able to actually improve the value of the garment that was already in the consumer’s closet.”

I spent about a week with the Sherpa jacket before today’s launch. It does exactly what it promises to do. Pairing my phone and jacket took less than a minute and the connection between the two has been perfectly stable. The gesture recognition worked very well — maybe better than I expected. What it can do, it does well, and I appreciate that the team kept the functionality pretty narrow.

Whether Jacquard is for you may depend on your lifestyle, though. I think the ideal user is somebody who is out and about a lot, wearing headphones, given that music controls are one of the main features here. But you don’t have to be wearing headphones to get value out of Jacquard. I almost never wear headphones in public, but I used it to quickly tag where I parked my car, for example, and when I used it with headphones, I found using my jacket’s cuffs easier to forward to the next song than doing the same on my headphones. Your mileage may vary, of course, and while I like the idea of using this kind of tech so you need to take out your phone less often, I wonder if that ship hasn’t sailed at this point — and whether the controls on your headphones can’t do most of the things Jacquard can. Google surely wants Jacquard to be more than a gimmick, but at this stage, it kind of still is.

IMG 20190930 104137IMG 20190930 104137

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Disney+ comes to Canada and the Netherlands on Nov. 12, will support nearly all major platforms at launch

Posted by | Android, Apple, apple inc, apple tv, Australia, Canada, chromecast, computing, Disney, e-commerce, espn, Google, Hulu, iOS, iPad, iPhone, Media, Netflix, Netherlands, New Zealand, operating system, playstation, TC, United States | No Comments

Disney+ will have an international launch that begins at the same time as its rollout in the U.S., Disney revealed. The company will be launching its digital streaming service on November 12 in Canada and The Netherlands on November 12, and will be available in Australia and New Zealand the following week. The streaming service will also support virtually every device and operating system from day one.

Disney+ will be available on iOS, Apple TV, Google Chromecast, Android, Android TV, PlayStation 4, Roku and Xbox One at launch, which is pretty much an exhaustive list of everywhere someone might want to watch it, leaving aside some smaller proprietary smart TV systems. That, combined with the day-and-date global markets, should be a clear indicator that Disney wants its service to be available to as many customers as possible, as quickly as possible.

Through Apple’s iPhone, iPad and Apple TV devices, customers will be able to subscribe via in-app purchase. Disney+ will also be fully integrated with Apple’s TV app, which is getting an update in iOS 13 in hopes of becoming even more useful as a central hub for all a user’s video content. The one notable exception on the list of supported devices and platforms is Amazon’s Fire TV, which could change closer to launch depending on negotiations.

In terms of pricing, the service will run $8.99 per month or $89.99 per year in Canada, and €6.99 per month (or €69.99 per year) in the Netherlands. In Australia, it’ll be $8.99 per month or $89.99 per year, and in New Zealand, it’ll be $9.99 and $99.99 per year. All prices are in local currency.

That compares pretty well with the $6.99 per month (or $69.99 yearly) asking price in the U.S., and undercuts the Netflix pricing in those markets, too. This is just the Disney+ service on its own, however, not the combined bundle that includes ESPN Plus and Hulu for $12.99 per month, which is probably more comparable to Netflix in terms of breadth of content offering.

 

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No technical reason to exclude Huawei as 5G supplier, says UK committee

Posted by | 5g, Asia, Australia, China, cyber security, Ericsson, Europe, huawei, human rights, Ian Levy, Internet of Things, jeremy wright, Mobile, National Cyber Security Centre, national security, Nokia, privacy, Security, TC, telecommunications, United Kingdom, United States, zte | No Comments

A UK parliamentary committee has concluded there are no technical grounds for excluding Chinese network kit vendor Huawei from the country’s 5G networks.

In a letter from the chair of the Science & Technology Committee to the UK’s digital minister Jeremy Wright, the committee says: “We have found no evidence from our work to suggest that the complete exclusion of Huawei from the UK’s telecommunications networks would, from a technical point of view, constitute a proportionate response to the potential security threat posed by foreign suppliers.”

Though the committee does go on to recommend the government mandate the exclusion of Huawei from the core of 5G networks, noting that UK mobile network operators have “mostly” done so already — but on a voluntary basis.

If it places a formal requirement on operators not to use Huawei for core supply the committee urges the government to provide “clear criteria” for the exclusion so that it could be applied to other suppliers in future.

Reached for a response to the recommendations, a government spokesperson told us: “The security and resilience of the UK’s telecoms networks is of paramount importance. We have robust procedures in place to manage risks to national security and are committed to the highest possible security standards.”

The spokesperson for the Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport added: “The Telecoms Supply Chain Review will be announced in due course. We have been clear throughout the process that all network operators will need to comply with the Government’s decision.”

In recent years the US administration has been putting pressure on allies around the world to entirely exclude Huawei from 5G networks — claiming the Chinese company poses a national security risk.

Australia announced it was banning Huawei and another Chinese vendor ZTE from providing kit for its 5G networks last year. Though in Europe there has not been a rush to follow the US lead and slam the door on Chinese tech giants.

In April leaked information from a UK Cabinet meeting suggested the government had settled on a policy of granting Huawei access as a supplier for some non-core parts of domestic 5G networks, while requiring they be excluded from supplying components for use in network cores.

On this somewhat fuzzy issue of delineating core vs non-core elements of 5G networks, the committee writes that it “heard unanimously and clearly” from witnesses that there will still be a distinction between the two in the next-gen networks.

It also cites testimony by the technical director of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), Dr Ian Levy, who told it “geography matters in 5G”, and pointed out Australia and the UK have very different “laydowns” — meaning “we may have exactly the same technical understanding, but come to very different conclusions”.

In a response statement to the committee’s letter, Huawei SVP Victor Zhang welcomed the committee’s “key conclusion” before going on to take a thinly veiled swiped at the US — writing: “We are reassured that the UK, unlike others, is taking an evidence based approach to network security. Huawei complies with the laws and regulations in all the markets where we operate.”

The committee’s assessment is not all comfortable reading for Huawei, though, with the letter also flagging the damning conclusions of the most recent Huawei Oversight Board report which found “serious and systematic defects” in its software engineering and cyber security competence — and urging the government to monitor Huawei’s response to the raised security concerns, and to “be prepared to act to restrict the use of Huawei equipment if progress is unsatisfactory”.

Huawei has previously pledged to spend $2BN addressing security shortcomings related to its UK business — a figure it was forced to qualify as an “initial budget” after that same Oversight Board report.

“It is clear that Huawei must improve the standard of its cybersecurity,” the committee warns.

It also suggests the government consults on whether telecoms regulator Ofcom needs stronger powers to be able to force network suppliers to clean up their security act, writing that: “While it is reassuring to hear that network operators share this point of view and are ready to use commercial pressure to encourage this, there is currently limited regulatory power to enforce this.”

Another committee recommendation is for the NCSC to be consulted on whether similar security evaluation mechanisms should be established for other 5G vendors — such as Ericsson and Nokia: Two European based kit vendors which, unlike Huawei, are expected to be supplying core 5G.

“It is worth noting that an assurance system comparable to the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre does not exist for other vendors. The shortcomings in Huawei’s cyber security reported by the Centre cannot therefore be directly compared to the cyber security of other vendors,” it notes.

On the issue of 5G security generally the committee dubs this “critical”, adding that “all steps must be taken to ensure that the risks are as low as reasonably possible”.

Where “essential services” that make use of 5G networks are concerned, the committee says witnesses were clear such services must be able to continue to operate safely even if the network connection is disrupted. Government must ensure measures are put in place to safeguard operation in the event of cyber attacks, floods, power cuts and other comparable events, it adds. 

While the committee concludes there is no technical reason to limit Huawei’s access to UK 5G, the letter does make a point of highlighting other considerations, most notably human rights abuses, emphasizing its conclusion does not factor them in at all — and pointing out: “There may well be geopolitical or ethical grounds… to enact a ban on Huawei’s equipment”.

It adds that Huawei’s global cyber security and privacy officer, John Suffolk, confirmed that a third party had supplied Huawei services to Xinjiang’s Public Security Bureau, despite Huawei forbidding its own employees from misusing IT and comms tech to carry out surveillance of users.

The committee suggests Huawei technology may therefore be being used to “permit the appalling treatment of Muslims in Western China”.

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Spotify’s leanback instant listening app Stations hits iOS

Posted by | Apps, Australia, iOS apps, Media, Mobile, Music, radio, Spotify, streaming, streaming music | No Comments

Spotify has launched its instant listening app Stations on iOS, but only in Australia for the time being. The release comes nearly a year and a half after the Stations app first arrived on the market, initially for Android users in Australia. Dubbed an “experiment,” the app allows users to jump right into streaming instead of having to curate their own playlists or stations, or save favorite music to their library.

Unlike Spotify’s flagship application, the Stations app presents users with a minimalist interface where available playlists are displayed with an oversized font. You can scroll up and down between the playlists to select one, instead of typing in a search box or searching through voice commands.

When launching Stations, music begins playing automatically — a feature that had some calling it a “Pandora copycat” at the time of launch, given that instant music playback is something that Spotify’s rival Pandora already supports.

Stations was largely designed for those who want a more radio-like experience that involves less manual input. Free users will hear ads, be able to thumbs up and down songs, but can’t skip tracks. Premium users who download Stations get unlimited skips and ad-free listening.

The Stations app today features a range of playlists by genre, decade, activity and more, but also becomes personalized to the end-user over time. You can also opt to create your own stations by selecting from favorite artists in an experience that’s reminiscent of the customization offered today by YouTube Music — right down to the rounded artist profile photos you tap on.

As you listen to music on Stations, you can thumbs up and down songs in order to have it create custom stations personalized to you — including a Discover Weekly playlist, Release Radar and a Favorites playlist.

Not much had been heard about Stations since its January 2018 debut. And its limited release — it never hit the U.S., for example — could have indicated it was an experiment that didn’t quite pan out.

But it now seems that’s not the case, given the new expansion to iOS.

By offering the app to more users, Spotify has the chance to learn and collect data from a larger and more representative group of people. Whether or not it takes any ideas from Stations to its main app remains to be seen.

The company declined to comment on its plans, when asked.

“At Spotify, we routinely conduct a number of tests in an effort to improve our user experience,” a spokesperson said. “Some of those tests end up paving the path for our broader user experience and others serve only as an important learning. We aren’t going to comment on specific tests at this time,” they added.

Stations is live now on iOS in Australia. More information on the app is on the (newly updated) Help site here.

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The Google Assistant can now tell you a story on your phone

Posted by | Android, Assistant, Australia, Canada, computing, Disney, Google, india, operating systems, TC, United Kingdom, United States | No Comments

For the last year or so, you could ask the Google Assistant on your Google Home device to read your kids a story. Today, just in time for National Tell a Story Day, Google is bringing this feature to Android and iOS phones, too. It’ll be available in English in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and India.

When you asked the Assistant on your phone to tell you a story before, you’d get a short inspirational quote or maybe a bad joke. Having two different experiences for the same command never really made much sense, so it’s good to see Google consolidate this.

The available stories range from tales about Blaze and the Monster Machines to more classic bedtime stories like “Sleeping Beauty” and “Little Red Riding Hood.”

That’s in addition to other story features like “read along,” which automatically plays sound effects as you read from a number of Disney Little Golden Books. That’s obviously the cooler feature overall, but the selection of supported books remains limited. For longer stories, there’s obviously audiobook support.

Or you could just sit down with your kids and read them a book. That’s also an option.

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Google Home’s Philips Hue integration can now wake you up gently

Posted by | Australia, Canada, Companies, consumer electronics, Gadgets, Google, google home, hardware, home appliances, Home Automation, india, lighting, Philips, philips hue, Singapore, United Kingdom, United States | No Comments

Maybe you love the sound of your alarm clock blaring in the morning, heralding a new day full of joy and adventure. More likely, though, you don’t. If you prefer a more gentle wake-up (and have invested in some smart home technology), here’s some good news: Google Home now lets you use your Philips Hue lights to wake you up by slowly changing the light in your room.

Philips first announced this integration at CES earlier this year, with a planned rollout in March. Looks like that took a little while longer, as Google and Philips gently brought this feature to life.

Just like you can use your Home to turn on “Gentle Wake,” which starts changing your lights 30 minutes before your wake-up time to mimic a sunrise, you also can go the opposite way and have the lights mimic sunset as you get ready to go to bed. You can either trigger these light changes through an alarm or with a command that starts them immediately.

While the price of white Hue bulbs has come down in recent years, colored hue lights remain rather pricey, with single bulbs going for around $40. If that doesn’t hold you back, though, the Gentle Sleep and Wake features are now available in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, Singapore and India in English only.

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Snap is channeling Asia’s messaging giants with its move into gaming

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Snap is taking a leaf out of the Asian messaging app playbook as its social messaging service enters a new era.

The company unveiled a series of new strategies that are aimed at breathing fresh life into the service that has been ruthlessly cloned by Facebook across Instagram, WhatsApp and even its primary social network. The result? Snap has consistently lost users since going public in 2017. It managed to stop the rot with a flat Q4, but resting on its laurels isn’t going to bring back the good times.

Snap has taken a three-pronged approach: extending its stories feature (and ads) into third-party apps and building out its camera play with an AR platform, but it is the launch of social games that is the most intriguing. The other moves are logical, and they fall in line with existing Snap strategies, but games is an entirely new category for the company.

It isn’t hard to see where Snap found inspiration for social games — Asian messaging companies have long twinned games and chat — but the U.S. company is applying its own twist to the genre.

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