digital media

Is Europe closing in on an antitrust fix for surveillance technologists?

Posted by | Android, antitrust, competition law, data protection, data protection law, DCMS committee, digital media, EC, Europe, european commission, european union, Facebook, General Data Protection Regulation, Germany, Giovanni Buttarelli, Google, instagram, Margrethe Vestager, Messenger, photo sharing, privacy, Social, social media, social networks, surveillance capitalism, TC, terms of service, United Kingdom, United States | No Comments

The German Federal Cartel Office’s decision to order Facebook to change how it processes users’ personal data this week is a sign the antitrust tide could at last be turning against platform power.

One European Commission source we spoke to, who was commenting in a personal capacity, described it as “clearly pioneering” and “a big deal”, even without Facebook being fined a dime.

The FCO’s decision instead bans the social network from linking user data across different platforms it owns, unless it gains people’s consent (nor can it make use of its services contingent on such consent). Facebook is also prohibited from gathering and linking data on users from third party websites, such as via its tracking pixels and social plugins.

The order is not yet in force, and Facebook is appealing, but should it come into force the social network faces being de facto shrunk by having its platforms siloed at the data level.

To comply with the order Facebook would have to ask users to freely consent to being data-mined — which the company does not do at present.

Yes, Facebook could still manipulate the outcome it wants from users but doing so would open it to further challenge under EU data protection law, as its current approach to consent is already being challenged.

The EU’s updated privacy framework, GDPR, requires consent to be specific, informed and freely given. That standard supports challenges to Facebook’s (still fixed) entry ‘price’ to its social services. To play you still have to agree to hand over your personal data so it can sell your attention to advertisers. But legal experts contend that’s neither privacy by design nor default.

The only ‘alternative’ Facebook offers is to tell users they can delete their account. Not that doing so would stop the company from tracking you around the rest of the mainstream web anyway. Facebook’s tracking infrastructure is also embedded across the wider Internet so it profiles non-users too.

EU data protection regulators are still investigating a very large number of consent-related GDPR complaints.

But the German FCO, which said it liaised with privacy authorities during its investigation of Facebook’s data-gathering, has dubbed this type of behavior “exploitative abuse”, having also deemed the social service to hold a monopoly position in the German market.

So there are now two lines of legal attack — antitrust and privacy law — threatening Facebook (and indeed other adtech companies’) surveillance-based business model across Europe.

A year ago the German antitrust authority also announced a probe of the online advertising sector, responding to concerns about a lack of transparency in the market. Its work here is by no means done.

Data limits

The lack of a big flashy fine attached to the German FCO’s order against Facebook makes this week’s story less of a major headline than recent European Commission antitrust fines handed to Google — such as the record-breaking $5BN penalty issued last summer for anticompetitive behaviour linked to the Android mobile platform.

But the decision is arguably just as, if not more, significant, because of the structural remedies being ordered upon Facebook. These remedies have been likened to an internal break-up of the company — with enforced internal separation of its multiple platform products at the data level.

This of course runs counter to (ad) platform giants’ preferred trajectory, which has long been to tear modesty walls down; pool user data from multiple internal (and indeed external sources), in defiance of the notion of informed consent; and mine all that personal (and sensitive) stuff to build identity-linked profiles to train algorithms that predict (and, some contend, manipulate) individual behavior.

Because if you can predict what a person is going to do you can choose which advert to serve to increase the chance they’ll click. (Or as Mark Zuckerberg puts it: ‘Senator, we run ads.’)

This means that a regulatory intervention that interferes with an ad tech giant’s ability to pool and process personal data starts to look really interesting. Because a Facebook that can’t join data dots across its sprawling social empire — or indeed across the mainstream web — wouldn’t be such a massive giant in terms of data insights. And nor, therefore, surveillance oversight.

Each of its platforms would be forced to be a more discrete (and, well, discreet) kind of business.

Competing against data-siloed platforms with a common owner — instead of a single interlinked mega-surveillance-network — also starts to sound almost possible. It suggests a playing field that’s reset, if not entirely levelled.

(Whereas, in the case of Android, the European Commission did not order any specific remedies — allowing Google to come up with ‘fixes’ itself; and so to shape the most self-serving ‘fix’ it can think of.)

Meanwhile, just look at where Facebook is now aiming to get to: A technical unification of the backend of its different social products.

Such a merger would collapse even more walls and fully enmesh platforms that started life as entirely separate products before were folded into Facebook’s empire (also, let’s not forget, via surveillance-informed acquisitions).

Facebook’s plan to unify its products on a single backend platform looks very much like an attempt to throw up technical barriers to antitrust hammers. It’s at least harder to imagine breaking up a company if its multiple, separate products are merged onto one unified backend which functions to cross and combine data streams.

Set against Facebook’s sudden desire to technically unify its full-flush of dominant social networks (Facebook Messenger; Instagram; WhatsApp) is a rising drum-beat of calls for competition-based scrutiny of tech giants.

This has been building for years, as the market power — and even democracy-denting potential — of surveillance capitalism’s data giants has telescoped into view.

Calls to break up tech giants no longer carry a suggestive punch. Regulators are routinely asked whether it’s time. As the European Commission’s competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, was when she handed down Google’s latest massive antitrust fine last summer.

Her response then was that she wasn’t sure breaking Google up is the right answer — preferring to try remedies that might allow competitors to have a go, while also emphasizing the importance of legislating to ensure “transparency and fairness in the business to platform relationship”.

But it’s interesting that the idea of breaking up tech giants now plays so well as political theatre, suggesting that wildly successful consumer technology companies — which have long dined out on shiny convenience-based marketing claims, made ever so saccharine sweet via the lure of ‘free’ services — have lost a big chunk of their populist pull, dogged as they have been by so many scandals.

From terrorist content and hate speech, to election interference, child exploitation, bullying, abuse. There’s also the matter of how they arrange their tax affairs.

The public perception of tech giants has matured as the ‘costs’ of their ‘free’ services have scaled into view. The upstarts have also become the establishment. People see not a new generation of ‘cuddly capitalists’ but another bunch of multinationals; highly polished but remote money-making machines that take rather more than they give back to the societies they feed off.

Google’s trick of naming each Android iteration after a different sweet treat makes for an interesting parallel to the (also now shifting) public perceptions around sugar, following closer attention to health concerns. What does its sickly sweetness mask? And after the sugar tax, we now have politicians calling for a social media levy.

Just this week the deputy leader of the main opposition party in the UK called for setting up a standalone Internet regulatory with the power to break up tech monopolies.

Talking about breaking up well-oiled, wealth-concentration machines is being seen as a populist vote winner. And companies that political leaders used to flatter and seek out for PR opportunities find themselves treated as political punchbags; Called to attend awkward grilling by hard-grafting committees, or taken to vicious task verbally at the highest profile public podia. (Though some non-democratic heads of state are still keen to press tech giant flesh.)

In Europe, Facebook’s repeat snubs of the UK parliament’s requests last year for Zuckerberg to face policymakers’ questions certainly did not go unnoticed.

Zuckerberg’s empty chair at the DCMS committee has become both a symbol of the company’s failure to accept wider societal responsibility for its products, and an indication of market failure; the CEO so powerful he doesn’t feel answerable to anyone; neither his most vulnerable users nor their elected representatives. Hence UK politicians on both sides of the aisle making political capital by talking about cutting tech giants down to size.

The political fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal looks far from done.

Quite how a UK regulator could successfully swing a regulatory hammer to break up a global Internet giant such as Facebook which is headquartered in the U.S. is another matter. But policymakers have already crossed the rubicon of public opinion and are relishing talking up having a go.

That represents a sea-change vs the neoliberal consensus that allowed competition regulators to sit on their hands for more than a decade as technology upstarts quietly hoovered up people’s data and bagged rivals, and basically went about transforming themselves from highly scalable startups into market-distorting giants with Internet-scale data-nets to snag users and buy or block competing ideas.

The political spirit looks willing to go there, and now the mechanism for breaking platforms’ distorting hold on markets may also be shaping up.

The traditional antitrust remedy of breaking a company along its business lines still looks unwieldy when faced with the blistering pace of digital technology. The problem is delivering such a fix fast enough that the business hasn’t already reconfigured to route around the reset. 

Commission antitrust decisions on the tech beat have stepped up impressively in pace on Vestager’s watch. Yet it still feels like watching paper pushers wading through treacle to try and catch a sprinter. (And Europe hasn’t gone so far as trying to impose a platform break up.) 

But the German FCO decision against Facebook hints at an alternative way forward for regulating the dominance of digital monopolies: Structural remedies that focus on controlling access to data which can be relatively swiftly configured and applied.

Vestager, whose term as EC competition chief may be coming to its end this year (even if other Commission roles remain in potential and tantalizing contention), has championed this idea herself.

In an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today program in December she poured cold water on the stock question about breaking tech giants up — saying instead the Commission could look at how larger firms got access to data and resources as a means of limiting their power. Which is exactly what the German FCO has done in its order to Facebook. 

At the same time, Europe’s updated data protection framework has gained the most attention for the size of the financial penalties that can be issued for major compliance breaches. But the regulation also gives data watchdogs the power to limit or ban processing. And that power could similarly be used to reshape a rights-eroding business model or snuff out such business entirely.

#GDPR allows imposing a permanent ban on data processing. This is the nuclear option. Much more severe than any fine you can imagine, in most cases. https://t.co/X772NvU51S

— Lukasz Olejnik (@lukOlejnik) January 28, 2019

The merging of privacy and antitrust concerns is really just a reflection of the complexity of the challenge regulators now face trying to rein in digital monopolies. But they’re tooling up to meet that challenge.

Speaking in an interview with TechCrunch last fall, Europe’s data protection supervisor, Giovanni Buttarelli, told us the bloc’s privacy regulators are moving towards more joint working with antitrust agencies to respond to platform power. “Europe would like to speak with one voice, not only within data protection but by approaching this issue of digital dividend, monopolies in a better way — not per sectors,” he said. “But first joint enforcement and better co-operation is key.”

The German FCO’s decision represents tangible evidence of the kind of regulatory co-operation that could — finally — crack down on tech giants.

Blogging in support of the decision this week, Buttarelli asserted: “It is not necessary for competition authorities to enforce other areas of law; rather they need simply to identity where the most powerful undertakings are setting a bad example and damaging the interests of consumers.  Data protection authorities are able to assist in this assessment.”

He also had a prediction of his own for surveillance technologists, warning: “This case is the tip of the iceberg — all companies in the digital information ecosystem that rely on tracking, profiling and targeting should be on notice.”

So perhaps, at long last, the regulators have figured out how to move fast and break things.

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JioSaavn becomes India’s answer to Spotify and Apple Music

Posted by | alibaba, Amazon, Android, apple music, Asia, China, computing, Dhingana, digital audio, digital media, executive, funding, Fundings & Exits, india, Internet, JioSaavn, Media, New York, Pandora, pandora radio, rdio, reliance jio, saavn, Software, Spotify, Tencent, tencent music, tiger global, Times Internet, Walmart | No Comments

India finally has its answer to Spotify after Reliance Jio merged its music service with Saavn, the startup it acquired earlier this year.

The deal itself isn’t new — it was announced back in March — but it has reached its logical conclusion after two apps were merged to create a single entity, JioSaavn, which is valued at $1 billion. For the first time, India has a credible rival to global names like Spotify and Apple Music through the combination of a venture capital-funded business, Saavn, and good old-fashioned telecom, JioMusic from Reliance’s disruptive Jio operator brand.

This merger deal comes days after reports suggested that Spotify is preparing to (finally) enter the Indian market, a move that has been in the planning for more than a year as we have reported.

That would set up an interesting battle between global names Spotify and Apple and local players JioSaavn and Gaana, a project from media firm Times Internet, which is also backed by China’s Tencent.

It isn’t uncommon to see international firms compete in Asia — Walmart and Amazon are the two major e-commerce players, while Chinese firms Alibaba and Tencent have busily snapped up stakes in promising internet companies for the past couple of years — but that competition has finally come to the streaming space.

There have certainly been misses over the years.

Early India-based pioneer Dhingana was scooped by Rdio back in 2014, having initial shut down its service due to financial issues. Ultimately, though, Rdio itself went bankrupt and was sold to Pandora, leaving both Rdio and Dhingana in the startup graveyard.

Saavn, the early competitor to Dhingana, seemed destined to a similar fate, at least from the outside. But it hit the big time in 2015 when it raised $100 million from Tiger Global, the New York hedge fund that made ambitious bets on a number of India’s most promising internet firms. That gave it the fuel to reach this merger deal with JioMusic.

Unlike Dhingana’s fire sale, Saavn’s executive team continues on under the JioSaavn banner.

The coming-together is certainly a far more solid outcome than the Rdio deal. JioSaavn has some 45 million songs — including a slate of originals started by Saavn — and access to the Jio network, which claims more than 250 million subscribers.

JioSaavn is available across iOS, Android, web and Reliance Jio’s own app store

The JioMusic service will be freemium, but Jio subscribers will get a 90-day trial of the ad-free “Pro” service. The company maintains five offices — including outposts in Mountain View and New York — with more than 200 employees, while Reliance has committed to pumping $100 million into the business for “growth and expansion of the platform.”

While it is linked to Reliance and Jio, JioMusic is a private business that counts Reliance as a stakeholder. You’d imagine that remaining private is a major carrot that has kept Saavn founders — Rishi Malhotra, Paramdeep Singh and Vinodh Bhat — part of the business post-merger.

The window certainly seems open for streaming IPOs — Spotify went public this past April through an unconventional listing that valued its business around $30 billion, while China’s Tencent Music is in the process of a listing that could raise $1.2 billion and value it around that $30 billion mark, too. JioSaavn might be the next streamer to test the public markets.

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Happy 10th anniversary, Android

Posted by | Amazon, Android, andy rubin, Angry Birds, Apple, artificial intelligence, AT&T, China, computing, consumer electronics, digital media, Facebook, Gadgets, Google, google nexus, hardware, HTC, HTC Dream, HTC EVO 4G smartphone, huawei, india, iPad, iPhone, Kindle, LG, lists, Mobile, Motorola, motorola droid, motorola xoom, Nexus One, oled, operating system, operating systems, phablet, Samsung, smartphone, smartphones, Sony, sprint, T-Mobile, TC, TechCrunch, United States, Verizon, xperia | No Comments

It’s been 10 years since Google took the wraps off the G1, the first Android phone. Since that time the OS has grown from buggy, nerdy iPhone alternative to arguably the most popular (or at least populous) computing platform in the world. But it sure as heck didn’t get there without hitting a few bumps along the road.

Join us for a brief retrospective on the last decade of Android devices: the good, the bad, and the Nexus Q.

HTC G1 (2008)

This is the one that started it all, and I have a soft spot in my heart for the old thing. Also known as the HTC Dream — this was back when we had an HTC, you see — the G1 was about as inauspicious a debut as you can imagine. Its full keyboard, trackball, slightly janky slide-up screen (crooked even in official photos), and considerable girth marked it from the outset as a phone only a real geek could love. Compared to the iPhone, it was like a poorly dressed whale.

But in time its half-baked software matured and its idiosyncrasies became apparent for the smart touches they were. To this day I occasionally long for a trackball or full keyboard, and while the G1 wasn’t pretty, it was tough as hell.

Moto Droid (2009)

Of course, most people didn’t give Android a second look until Moto came out with the Droid, a slicker, thinner device from the maker of the famed RAZR. In retrospect, the Droid wasn’t that much better or different than the G1, but it was thinner, had a better screen, and had the benefit of an enormous marketing push from Motorola and Verizon. (Disclosure: Verizon owns Oath, which owns TechCrunch, but this doesn’t affect our coverage in any way.)

For many, the Droid and its immediate descendants were the first Android phones they had — something new and interesting that blew the likes of Palm out of the water, but also happened to be a lot cheaper than an iPhone.

HTC/Google Nexus One (2010)

This was the fruit of the continued collaboration between Google and HTC, and the first phone Google branded and sold itself. The Nexus One was meant to be the slick, high-quality device that would finally compete toe-to-toe with the iPhone. It ditched the keyboard, got a cool new OLED screen, and had a lovely smooth design. Unfortunately it ran into two problems.

First, the Android ecosystem was beginning to get crowded. People had lots of choices and could pick up phones for cheap that would do the basics. Why lay the cash out for a fancy new one? And second, Apple would shortly release the iPhone 4, which — and I was an Android fanboy at the time — objectively blew the Nexus One and everything else out of the water. Apple had brought a gun to a knife fight.

HTC Evo 4G (2010)

Another HTC? Well, this was prime time for the now-defunct company. They were taking risks no one else would, and the Evo 4G was no exception. It was, for the time, huge: the iPhone had a 3.5-inch screen, and most Android devices weren’t much bigger, if they weren’t smaller.

The Evo 4G somehow survived our criticism (our alarm now seems extremely quaint, given the size of the average phone now) and was a reasonably popular phone, but ultimately is notable not for breaking sales records but breaking the seal on the idea that a phone could be big and still make sense. (Honorable mention goes to the Droid X.)

Samsung Galaxy S (2010)

Samsung’s big debut made a hell of a splash, with custom versions of the phone appearing in the stores of practically every carrier, each with their own name and design: the AT&T Captivate, T-Mobile Vibrant, Verizon Fascinate, and Sprint Epic 4G. As if the Android lineup wasn’t confusing enough already at the time!

Though the S was a solid phone, it wasn’t without its flaws, and the iPhone 4 made for very tough competition. But strong sales reinforced Samsung’s commitment to the platform, and the Galaxy series is still going strong today.

Motorola Xoom (2011)

This was an era in which Android devices were responding to Apple, and not vice versa as we find today. So it’s no surprise that hot on the heels of the original iPad we found Google pushing a tablet-focused version of Android with its partner Motorola, which volunteered to be the guinea pig with its short-lived Xoom tablet.

Although there are still Android tablets on sale today, the Xoom represented a dead end in development — an attempt to carve a piece out of a market Apple had essentially invented and soon dominated. Android tablets from Motorola, HTC, Samsung and others were rarely anything more than adequate, though they sold well enough for a while. This illustrated the impossibility of “leading from behind” and prompted device makers to specialize rather than participate in a commodity hardware melee.

Amazon Kindle Fire (2011)

And who better to illustrate than Amazon? Its contribution to the Android world was the Fire series of tablets, which differentiated themselves from the rest by being extremely cheap and directly focused on consuming digital media. Just $200 at launch and far less later, the Fire devices catered to the regular Amazon customer whose kids were pestering them about getting a tablet on which to play Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds, but who didn’t want to shell out for an iPad.

Turns out this was a wise strategy, and of course one Amazon was uniquely positioned to do with its huge presence in online retail and the ability to subsidize the price out of the reach of competition. Fire tablets were never particularly good, but they were good enough, and for the price you paid, that was kind of a miracle.

Xperia Play (2011)

Sony has always had a hard time with Android. Its Xperia line of phones for years were considered competent — I owned a few myself — and arguably industry-leading in the camera department. But no one bought them. And the one they bought the least of, or at least proportional to the hype it got, has to be the Xperia Play. This thing was supposed to be a mobile gaming platform, and the idea of a slide-out keyboard is great — but the whole thing basically cratered.

What Sony had illustrated was that you couldn’t just piggyback on the popularity and diversity of Android and launch whatever the hell you wanted. Phones didn’t sell themselves, and although the idea of playing Playstation games on your phone might have sounded cool to a few nerds, it was never going to be enough to make it a million-seller. And increasingly that’s what phones needed to be.

Samsung Galaxy Note (2012)

As a sort of natural climax to the swelling phone trend, Samsung went all out with the first true “phablet,” and despite groans of protest the phone not only sold well but became a staple of the Galaxy series. In fact, it wouldn’t be long before Apple would follow on and produce a Plus-sized phone of its own.

The Note also represented a step towards using a phone for serious productivity, not just everyday smartphone stuff. It wasn’t entirely successful — Android just wasn’t ready to be highly productive — but in retrospect it was forward thinking of Samsung to make a go at it and begin to establish productivity as a core competence of the Galaxy series.

Google Nexus Q (2012)

This abortive effort by Google to spread Android out into a platform was part of a number of ill-considered choices at the time. No one really knew, apparently at Google or anywhere elsewhere in the world, what this thing was supposed to do. I still don’t. As we wrote at the time:

Here’s the problem with the Nexus Q:  it’s a stunningly beautiful piece of hardware that’s being let down by the software that’s supposed to control it.

It was made, or rather nearly made in the USA, though, so it had that going for it.

HTC First — “The Facebook Phone” (2013)

The First got dealt a bad hand. The phone itself was a lovely piece of hardware with an understated design and bold colors that stuck out. But its default launcher, the doomed Facebook Home, was hopelessly bad.

How bad? Announced in April, discontinued in May. I remember visiting an AT&T store during that brief period and even then the staff had been instructed in how to disable Facebook’s launcher and reveal the perfectly good phone beneath. The good news was that there were so few of these phones sold new that the entire stock started selling for peanuts on Ebay and the like. I bought two and used them for my early experiments in ROMs. No regrets.

HTC One/M8 (2014)

This was the beginning of the end for HTC, but their last few years saw them update their design language to something that actually rivaled Apple. The One and its successors were good phones, though HTC oversold the “Ultrapixel” camera, which turned out to not be that good, let alone iPhone-beating.

As Samsung increasingly dominated, Sony plugged away, and LG and Chinese companies increasingly entered the fray, HTC was under assault and even a solid phone series like the One couldn’t compete. 2014 was a transition period with old manufacturers dying out and the dominant ones taking over, eventually leading to the market we have today.

Google/LG Nexus 5X and Huawei 6P (2015)

This was the line that brought Google into the hardware race in earnest. After the bungled Nexus Q launch, Google needed to come out swinging, and they did that by marrying their more pedestrian hardware with some software that truly zinged. Android 5 was a dream to use, Marshmallow had features that we loved … and the phones became objects that we adored.

We called the 6P “the crown jewel of Android devices”. This was when Google took its phones to the next level and never looked back.

Google Pixel (2016)

If the Nexus was, in earnest, the starting gun for Google’s entry into the hardware race, the Pixel line could be its victory lap. It’s an honest-to-god competitor to the Apple phone.

Gone are the days when Google is playing catch-up on features to Apple, instead, Google’s a contender in its own right. The phone’s camera is amazing. The software works relatively seamlessly (bring back guest mode!), and phone’s size and power are everything anyone could ask for. The sticker price, like Apple’s newest iPhones, is still a bit of a shock, but this phone is the teleological endpoint in the Android quest to rival its famous, fruitful, contender.

The rise and fall of the Essential phone

In 2017 Andy Rubin, the creator of Android, debuted the first fruits of his new hardware startup studio, Digital Playground, with the launch of Essential (and its first phone). The company had raised $300 million to bring the phone to market, and — as the first hardware device to come to market from Android’s creator — it was being heralded as the next new thing in hardware.

Here at TechCrunch, the phone received mixed reviews. Some on staff hailed the phone as the achievement of Essential’s stated vision — to create a “lovemark” for Android smartphones, while others on staff found the device… inessential.

Ultimately, the market seemed to agree. Four months ago plans for a second Essential phone were put on hold, while the company explored a sale and pursued other projects. There’s been little update since.

A Cambrian explosion in hardware

In the ten years since its launch, Android has become the most widely used operating system for hardware. Some version of its software can be found in roughly 2.3 billion devices around the world and its powering a technology revolution in countries like India and China — where mobile operating systems and access are the default. As it enters its second decade, there’s no sign that anything is going to slow its growth (or dominance) as the operating system for much of the world.

Let’s see what the next ten years bring.

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UK report highlights changing gadget habits — and our need for an online fix

Posted by | Amazon, BBC, Brits, computing, digital media, eCommerce, Europe, Gadgets, generation z, Google, Instant Messaging, internet access, Mobile, mobile phone, ofcom, online purchases, online shopping, smartphone, smartphones, social media, United Kingdom | No Comments

A look back at the past decade of consumer technology use in the UK has shone a light on changing gadget habits, underlining how Brits have gone from being smartphone dabblers back in 2008 when a top-of-the-range smartphone cost ~£500 to true addicts in today’s £1k+ premium smartphone era.

The report also highlights what seems to be, at times, a conflicted relationship between Brits and the Internet.

While nine in ten people in the UK have home access to the Internet, here in 2018, some web users report feeling being online is a time-sink or a constraint on their freedom.

But even more said they feel lost or bored without it.

Over the past decade the Internet looks to have consolidated its grip on the spacetime that boredom occupied for the less connected generations that came before.

The overview comes via regulator Ofcom’s 2018 Communications Market report. The full report commenting on key market developments in the country’s communications sector is a meaty, stat and chart-filled read.

The regulator has also produced a 30-slide interactive version this year.

Commenting on the report findings in a statement, Ian Macrae, Ofcom’s director of market intelligence, said: “Over the last decade, people’s lives have been transformed by the rise of the smartphone, together with better access to the Internet and new services. Whether it’s working flexibly, keeping up with current affairs or shopping online, we can do more on the move than ever before.

“But while people appreciate their smartphone as their constant companion, some are finding themselves feeling overloaded when online, or frustrated when they’re not.”

We’ve pulled out some highlights from the report below…

  • Less than a fifth (17%) of UK citizens owned a smartphone a decade ago; the figure now stands at 78% — and a full 95% of 16-24 year-olds. So, yeah, kids don’t get called digital natives for nothin’
  • People in the UK check their smartphones, on average, every 12 minutes of the waking day. (‘Digital wellbeing’ tools clearly have their work cut out to kick against this grain… )
  • Ofcom found that two in five adults (40%) first look at their phone within five minutes of waking up (rising to 65% of the under 35s). While around a third (37%) of adults check their phones five minutes before lights out (again rising to 60% of under-35s). Shame it didn’t also ask how well people are sleeping
  • Contrary to a decade ago, most UK citizens say they need and expect a constant Internet connection wherever they go. Two thirds of adults (64%) say it’s an essential part of their life. One in five adults (19%) say they spend more than 40 hours a week online, up from 5% just over ten years ago
  • Three quarters (74%) of people say being online keeps them close to friends and family. Two fifths (41%) say it enables them to work more flexibly

Smartphone screen addicts, much?

  • Seventy-two per cent of adults say their smartphone is their most important device for accessing the Internet; 71% say they never turn off their phone; and 78% say they could not live without it
  • Ofcom found the amount of time Brits spend making phone calls from mobiles has fallen for the first time — using a mobile for phone calls is only considered important by 75% of smartphone users vs 92% who consider web browsing on a smartphone to be important (and indeed the proportion of people accessing the Internet on their mobile has increased from 20% almost a decade ago to 72% in 2018)
  • The average amount of time spent online on a smartphone is 2 hours 28 minutes per day. This rises to 3 hours 14 minutes among 18-24s

Social and emotional friction, plus the generation gap…

  • On the irritation front, three quarters of people (76%) find it annoying when someone is listening to music, watching videos or playing games loudly on public transport; while an impressive 81% object to people using their phone during meal times
  • TV is another matter though. The majority (53%) of adults say they are usually on their phone while watching TV with others. There’s a generation gap related to social acceptance of this though: With a majority (62%) of people over the age of 55 thinking it’s unacceptable — dropping to just two in ten (21%) among those aged 18-34
  • Ofcom also found that significant numbers of people saying the online experience has negative effects. Fifteen per cent agree it makes them feel they are always at work, and more than half (54%) admit that connected devices interrupt face-to-face conversations with friends and family — which does offer a useful counterpoint to social media giant’s shiny marketing claims that their platforms ‘connect people’ (the truth is more they both connect & disconnect). While more than two in five (43%) also admit to spending too much time online
  • Around a third of people say they feel either cut off (34%) or lost (29%) without the Internet, and if they can’t get online, 17% say they find it stressful. Half of all UK adults (50%) say their life would be boring if they could not access the Internet 
  • On the flip side, a smaller proportion of UK citizens view a lack of Internet access in a positive light. One in ten says they feel more productive offline (interestingly this rises to 15% for 18-34 year-olds); while 10% say they find it liberating; and 16% feel less distracted

The impact of (multifaceted and increasingly powerful and capable) smartphones can also be seen on some other types of gadgets. Though TV screens continue to compel Brits (possibly because they feel it’s okay to keep using their smartphones while sitting in front of a bigger screen… )

  • Ofcom says ownership of tablets (58% of UK households) and games consoles (44% of UK adults) has plateaued in the last three years
  • Desktop PC ownership has declined majorly over the past decade — from a large majority (69%) of households with access in 2008 to less than a third (28%) in 2018
  • As of 2017, smart TVs were in 42% of households — up from just 5% in 2012
  • Smart speakers weren’t around in 2008 but they’ve now carved out a space in 13% of UK households
  • One in five households (20%) report having some wearable tech (smart watches, fitness trackers). So smart speakers look to be fast catching up with fitness bands

BBC mightier than Amazon

  • BBC website visitor numbers overtook those of Amazon in the UK in 2018. Ofcom found the BBC had the third-highest number of users after Google and Facebook
  • Ofcom also found that six in ten people have used next-day delivery for online purchases, but only three in ten have used same-day delivery in 2018. So most Brits are, seemingly, content to wait until tomorrow for ecommerce purchases — rather than demanding their stuff right now

What else are UK citizens getting up to online? More of a spread of stuff than ever, it would appear…

  • Less general browsing/surfing than last year, though it’s still the most popular reported use for Internet activity (69% saying they’ve done this in the past week vs 80% who reported the same in 2017)
  • Sending and receiving email is also still a big deal — but also on the slide (66% reporting doing this in the past week vs 76% in 2017)
  • Social media use is another popular but slightly less so use-case than last year (50% in 2017 down to 45% in 2018). (Though Twitter bucks the trend with a percentage point usage bump (13% -> 14%) though it’s far less popular overall)
  • Instant messaging frequency also dropped a bit (46% -> 41%)
  • As did TV/video viewing online (40% -> 36%), including for watching short video clips (31% to 28%)
  • Online shopping has also dropped a bit in frequency (48% -> 44%)
  • But accessing news has remained constant (36%)
  • Finding health information has seen marginal slight growth (22% -> 23%); ditto has finding/downloading information for work/college (32% -> 33%); using local council/government services (21% -> 23%); and playing games online/interactively (17% -> 18%)
  • Streaming audio services have got a bit more popular (podcasts, we must presume), with 15% reporting using them in the past week in 2017 up to 19% in 2018. Listening to the radio online is also up (13% -> 15%)
  • However uploading/adding content to the Internet has got a bit less popular, though (17% to 15%)

One more thing: Women in the UK are bigger Internet fans than men.

Perhaps contrary to some people’s expectations, women in the UK spend more time online on average than men across almost all age groups, with the sole exception being the over 55s (where the time difference is pretty marginal)…

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India’s Times Internet buys popular video app MX Player for $140M to get into streaming

Posted by | Android, Apps, Asia, digital media, funding, Fundings & Exits, india, Media, mx, mx player, Netflix, reliance jio, Satyan Gajwani, smartphone, TC, Times Group, Times Internet, video hosting, world wide web, YouTube | No Comments

Times Internet, the digital arm of Indian media firm Times Group, is getting into the digital content space, but not in the way you might think.

The company’s previous venture — an OTT called BoxTV.com — shut down in 2016 after an underwhelming four-year period. Now it is taking a radically different strategy by buying video playback app MX Player for Rs 1,000 crore, or around $140 million. The company didn’t disclose its stake but said it is a majority percentage.

The service originates from Korea but it has become hugely popular in India as a way to play media files, for example from an SD card, on a mobile device. It is a huge hit India, where the app claims 175 million monthly users — while the country accounts for 350 million of its 500 million downloads.

From here, Times Internet plans to introduce a streaming content service to MX Player users which Karan Bedi, MX Player CEO, expects to go live before August. The plan is to introduce at least 20 original shows and more 50,000 content across multiple local languages in India during the first year. The duo said the lion’s share of that investment money would go into developing content.

Bedi, a long-time media executive who took the job at MX Player eight months ago, said the service will be freemium and very much targeted at the idea of providing an alternative to television in India. He added that the deal had been in negotiation for the past year, which validates a January report from The Ken which first broke news of acquisition.

There are plenty of video streaming services in India. Beyond Netflix and Amazon Prime, Hotstar (from Rupert Murdoch-owned Star India) is making waves alongside Jio TV from Reliance Jio, but data from App Annie suggests MX Player is way out ahead. The analytics firm pegs MX Player at nearly 50 million daily users, as of June, well ahead of Hotstar (14.1 million), JioTV (7.4 million) and others.

Both Bedi and Times Internet MD Satyan Gajwani explained to TechCrunch in an interview that a big focus is differentiation and building a digital channel for India’s young since the average viewer demographics for MX player are hugely different to Indian TV audiences. Some 80 percent of the app’s users are aged under 35 (70 percent is aged under 25), while the gender balance is skewed more towards men.

“A lot of people aren’t happy with Indian TV,” Bedi said. “There are a lot is soaps and it is not focused on young people. [The MX PLayer audience] is exactly the opposite of the Indian tv demographic.”

That not only plays into growing a place for ‘millennial’ content, but it also means the streaming service may find success with advertisers if it can offer a gateway to young Indians. Beyond audience, there’s also flexibility. Gajwani explained further that unlike traditional TV and even YouTube, the Times Internet-MX Player service will offer different options for advertisers who “work with content creators to create stuff, sponsor a show, or find various different ways to reach scale.”

“India has a $6 billion TV ad market and we think this could unlock some of the money going to TV,” he said.

Times Internet MD Satyan Gajwani

“This audience on here is genuinely different, [rather than cord-cuttters] they’re almost cord-nevers,” Bedi added. “This is a big new audience that’s never been tapped by broadcasters.”

The idea is to gently introduce programming that is accessible to a large audience in India, who might not be open to paying, and then test other revenue models later.

“Further down the line, we might include subscriptions to scale,” Gajwani added. “Subscription is growing but it’s much much smaller today, what excites us is the idea we’ll have 100 million people streaming a show.”

MX Player might not be well known, but scale is one thing it certainly has in spades. The company just crossed 500 million downloads on Android, but Bedi pointed out that many are not counted because they are side-loaded, which doesn’t register with the Google Play Store.

All told, he said, the app picks up 1.2 million downloads per day with around 350,000 coming from the official Android app store, he said. Bedi said that, among other things, the app is typically distributed by smartphone vendors in tier-two and three Indian cities to help phone buyers get the essential apps for their device right away.

The question now is whether Times Internet can leverage that organic growth to build another business on top of the basic demand for video playback. This is certainly a unique approach.

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Rapchat raises $1.6 million to help you make and share your def jams

Posted by | Android, Apps, Co-founder, Columbus, computing, digital media, mobile software, oakland, premier, producer, rapchat, RC, Snapchat, social network, Software, soundcloud, Startups, TC, United States, YouTube | No Comments

The first thing to understand about media-sharing app Rapchat is that co-founder Seth Miller is not a rapper and his other co-founder, Pat Gibson, is. Together they created Rapchat, a service for making and sharing raps, and the conjunction of rapper and nerd seems to be really taking off.

Since we last looked at the app in 2016 (you can see Tito’s review below), a lot has changed. The team has raised $1.6 million in funding from investors out of Oakland and the Midwest. Their app, which is sort of a musical.ly for rap, is a top 50 music app on iOS and Android and hit 100 million listens since launch. In short, their little social network/sharing platform is a “millionaire in the making, boss of [its] team, bringin home the bacon.”

The pair’s rap bona fides are genuine. Gibson has opened or performed with Big Sean, Wiz Khalifa and Machine Gun Kelly, and he’s sold beats to MTV. “My music has garnered over 20M+ plays across YouTube, SoundCloud and more,” he wrote me, boasting in the semi-churlish manner of a rapper with a “beef.” Miller, on the other hand, likes to freestyle.

“I grew up loving to freestyle with friends at OU and I noticed lots of other millennials did this too (even if most suck lol) … at any party at 3am – there would always be a group of people in the corner freestyling,” he said. “At the same time Snapchat was blowing up on campus and just thought you should be able to do the same exact thing for rap.”

Gibson, on the other hand, saw it as a serious tool to help him with his music.

“I spent a lot of time, energy and resources making music,” he said. “I was producing the beats, writing the songs, recording/mixing the vocals, mastering the project, then distributing & promoting the music all by myself. With Rapchat, there’s a library of 1,000+ beats from top producers, an instant recording studio in your pocket, and the network to distribute your music worldwide and be discovered…. all from a free app. Rapchat is disrupting the creation, collaboration, distribution, & discovery of music via mobile.”

“We have a much bigger but also more active community than any other music creation app,” said Miller.

While it’s clear the world needs another sharing platform like it needs a hole in the head, thanks to a rabid fan base and a great idea, the team has ensured that Rapchat is not, as they say, wicka-wicka-whack. That, in the end, is all that matters.

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StudioBricks is a Barcelona-based startup that sends you a studio in a box

Posted by | barcelona, digital media, Gadgets, ikea, Ohio, Software, spain, StudioBricks, TC, United States, world wide web, YouTube | No Comments

My friend Rick is a voice-over artist and works in Ohio — right along the flight path for jets taking off and landing at the Columbus airport. As a result, he said, he had to record late at night when the airport closed, a limitation that he found exasperating.

Enter StudioBricks, a cool startup from Barcelona. Founded by Guillermo Jungbauer, the small company makes and sells soundproof studios that click together like LEGO. The company started in 2008 and created a USA subsidy in 2014.

StudioBricks aren’t cheap. Rick paid $9,940 for his, including almost $2,000 in shipping. However, he said, it’s been a life-saver.

“The StudioBricks sound isolation booths are designed to be incredibly fast and easy to install without compromising the booth’s excellent sound isolating properties,” said Jungbauer. “This is achieved thanks to its modular panels, which are built of high-performance sound-isolating materials and can simply be slotted together.”

The company sold 1,053 cabins in 207 and they’re on track to keep growing.

“About 10 years ago I created the first booth as rehearsal space out of my own need as a saxophonist,” said Jungbauer. “I developed the first bricks with acoustic engineers already having in mind the market possibilities.”

The system includes a ventilation system, a heavy, sound-proof door, and solid, sound-proofed wall panels. Rick, in his long build post, found it easy to build and quite effective at keeping the plane noise at bay.

“From the beginning on, StudioBricks aims to be eco-friendly. We are in a continuous process of improvement and have a strong commitment with the environment,” said Jungbauer. “That means that both on an organisational level and product level we are improving continuously our processes and product, considering the best options regarding the environment. For example, years ago we changed our lacquer to a water-based one. Our plant is the first and right now only in Spain using a biomass-based central heating boiler.”

It’s cool to see a small European company selling a niche product gain such success. Because the company solves a notoriously difficult and wildly frustrating problem they are getting all the organic traction they need to keep going. Given the rise of corporate podcasting and other recording needs, a system like StudioBricks makes perfect sense. Considering it can be put together by two people in a few hours, it is almost like the IKEA of vocal studios — compact, easy to build and incredibly useful.

And now Rick doesn’t have to worry about the Delta flight from JFK intruding on his audio book reading session. Ganar-ganar, as they say in Barcelona.

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Snapchat adds GIF stickers via Giphy, plus new Friends and Discover screen tabs

Posted by | Apps, computing, digital media, giphy, instagram, Mobile, mobile software, photo sharing, snap inc, Snapchat, Social, social media, Software, sticker, TC | No Comments

 Snapchat is bringing one of the best recent features of Instagram Stories to its own app, with the ability to add GIF stickers from Giphy to your posts. This is a notable reversal of the typical pattern we’ve seen of Instagram cloning Snapchat features, but it’s a good one for users since GIF stickers for Stories are basically the greatest thing ever invented on social media. The… Read More

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Cybex starts selling its $330, app-enabled car seat made for safety geeks

Posted by | car seat, Cybex, digital media, Gadgets, hardware, Health, TC, TechCrunch, technology, world wide web | No Comments

 Normally, I wouldn’t be writing about a car seat for for TechCrunch but as I’ve been in the market for such an item lately (and have been hit up for all things baby tech as my due date nears) the high-tech Cybex Sirona M with SensorSafe 2.0 stood out. Cybex is manufactured in Germany and is a mostly European brand that’s gaining momentum in the U.S. market. Its newest carseat… Read More

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New Destiny 2 Alexa skills let you ask Ghost to do stuff in-game

Posted by | Alexa, amazon alexa, computing, destiny, destiny 2, digital media, first person shooters, Gadgets, Gaming, ghost, hardware, Software, TC | No Comments

 Destiny 2 fans will know that you get your own virtual assistant of source in the game world – Ghost, who sort of floats around and guides you. The new Alexa skill for Destiny 2 allows you to ask Ghost to do a number of things for you, including provide guidance about your in-game mission, calling backup, equipping different armour and weapon sets and providing lore and fictional… Read More

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