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Facebook, Google face first GDPR complaints over ‘forced consent’

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Android, data protection, Europe, european union, Facebook, General Data Protection Regulation, Google, instagram, lawsuit, Mark Zuckerberg, Max Schrems, privacy, Social, social network, social networking, terms of service, WhatsApp | No Comments

After two years coming down the pipe at tech giants, Europe’s new privacy framework, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), is now being applied — and long time Facebook privacy critic, Max Schrems, has wasted no time in filing four complaints relating to (certain) companies’ ‘take it or leave it’ stance when it comes to consent.

The complaints have been filed on behalf of (unnamed) individual users — with one filed against Facebook; one against Facebook-owned Instagram; one against Facebook-owned WhatsApp; and one against Google’s Android.

Schrems argues that the companies are using a strategy of “forced consent” to continue processing the individuals’ personal data — when in fact the law requires that users be given a free choice unless a consent is strictly necessary for provision of the service. (And, well, Facebook claims its core product is social networking — rather than farming people’s personal data for ad targeting.)

“It’s simple: Anything strictly necessary for a service does not need consent boxes anymore. For everything else users must have a real choice to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” Schrems writes in a statement.

“Facebook has even blocked accounts of users who have not given consent,” he adds. “In the end users only had the choice to delete the account or hit the “agree”-button — that’s not a free choice, it more reminds of a North Korean election process.”

We’ve reached out to all the companies involved for comment and will update this story with any response. Update: Facebook has now sent the following statement, attributed to its chief privacy officer, Erin Egan: “We have prepared for the past 18 months to ensure we meet the requirements of the GDPR. We have made our policies clearer, our privacy settings easier to find and introduced better tools for people to access, download, and delete their information. Our work to improve people’s privacy doesn’t stop on May 25th. For example, we’re building Clear History: a way for everyone to see the websites and apps that send us information when you use them, clear this information from your account, and turn off our ability to store it associated with your account going forward.”

Schrems most recently founded a not-for-profit digital rights organization to focus on strategic litigation around the bloc’s updated privacy framework, and the complaints have been filed via this crowdfunded NGO — which is called noyb (aka ‘none of your business’).

As we pointed out in our GDPR explainer, the provision in the regulation allowing for collective enforcement of individuals’ data rights is an important one, with the potential to strengthen the implementation of the law by enabling non-profit organizations such as noyb to file complaints on behalf of individuals — thereby helping to redress the power imbalance between corporate giants and consumer rights.

That said, the GDPR’s collective redress provision is a component that Member States can choose to derogate from, which helps explain why the first four complaints have been filed with data protection agencies in Austria, Belgium, France and Hamburg in Germany — regions that also have data protection agencies with a strong record of defending privacy rights.

Given that the Facebook companies involved in these complaints have their European headquarters in Ireland it’s likely the Irish data protection agency will get involved too. And it’s fair to say that, within Europe, Ireland does not have a strong reputation as a data protection rights champion.

But the GDPR allows for DPAs in different jurisdictions to work together in instances where they have joint concerns and where a service crosses borders — so noyb’s action looks intended to test this element of the new framework too.

Under the penalty structure of GDPR, major violations of the law can attract fines as large as 4% of a company’s global revenue which, in the case of Facebook or Google, implies they could be on the hook for more than a billion euros apiece — if they are deemed to have violated the law, as the complaints argue.

That said, given how freshly fixed in place the rules are, some EU regulators may well tread softly on the enforcement front — at least in the first instances, to give companies some benefit of the doubt and/or a chance to make amends to come into compliance if they are deemed to be falling short of the new standards.

However, in instances where companies themselves appear to be attempting to deform the law with a willfully self-serving interpretation of the rules, regulators may feel they need to act swiftly to nip any disingenuousness in the bud.

“We probably will not immediately have billions of penalty payments, but the corporations have intentionally violated the GDPR, so we expect a corresponding penalty under GDPR,” writes Schrems.

Only yesterday, for example, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg — speaking in an on stage interview at the VivaTech conference in Paris — claimed his company hasn’t had to make any radical changes to comply with GDPR, and further claimed that a “vast majority” of Facebook users are willingly opting in to targeted advertising via its new consent flow.

“We’ve been rolling out the GDPR flows for a number of weeks now in order to make sure that we were doing this in a good way and that we could take into account everyone’s feedback before the May 25 deadline. And one of the things that I’ve found interesting is that the vast majority of people choose to opt in to make it so that we can use the data from other apps and websites that they’re using to make ads better. Because the reality is if you’re willing to see ads in a service you want them to be relevant and good ads,” said Zuckerberg.

He did not mention that the dominant social network does not offer people a free choice on accepting or declining targeted advertising. The new consent flow Facebook revealed ahead of GDPR only offers the ‘choice’ of quitting Facebook entirely if a person does not want to accept targeting advertising. Which, well, isn’t much of a choice given how powerful the network is. (Additionally, it’s worth pointing out that Facebook continues tracking non-users — so even deleting a Facebook account does not guarantee that Facebook will stop processing your personal data.)

Asked about how Facebook’s business model will be affected by the new rules, Zuckerberg essentially claimed nothing significant will change — “because giving people control of how their data is used has been a core principle of Facebook since the beginning”.

“The GDPR adds some new controls and then there’s some areas that we need to comply with but overall it isn’t such a massive departure from how we’ve approached this in the past,” he claimed. “I mean I don’t want to downplay it — there are strong new rules that we’ve needed to put a bunch of work into making sure that we complied with — but as a whole the philosophy behind this is not completely different from how we’ve approached things.

“In order to be able to give people the tools to connect in all the ways they want and build community a lot of philosophy that is encoded in a regulation like GDPR is really how we’ve thought about all this stuff for a long time. So I don’t want to understate the areas where there are new rules that we’ve had to go and implement but I also don’t want to make it seem like this is a massive departure in how we’ve thought about this stuff.”

Zuckerberg faced a range of tough questions on these points from the EU parliament earlier this week. But he avoided answering them in any meaningful detail.

So EU regulators are essentially facing a first test of their mettle — i.e. whether they are willing to step up and defend the line of the law against big tech’s attempts to reshape it in their business model’s image.

Privacy laws are nothing new in Europe but robust enforcement of them would certainly be a breath of fresh air. And now at least, thanks to GDPR, there’s a penalties structure in place to provide incentives as well as teeth, and spin up a market around strategic litigation — with Schrems and noyb in the vanguard.

Schrems also makes the point that small startups and local companies are less likely to be able to use the kind of strong-arm ‘take it or leave it’ tactics on users that big tech is able to unilaterally apply and extract ‘consent’ as a consequence of the reach and power of their platforms — arguing there’s an underlying competition concern that GDPR could also help to redress.

“The fight against forced consent ensures that the corporations cannot force users to consent,” he writes. “This is especially important so that monopolies have no advantage over small businesses.”

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Instagram says ‘you’re all caught up’ in first time-well-spent feature

Posted by | Apps, Facebook, Health, instagram, Instagram Usage Insights, Kevin Systrom, Mark Zuckerberg, Mobile, Social, Time Well Spent | No Comments

Without a chronological feed, it can be tough to tell if you’ve seen all the posts Instagram will show you. That can lead to more of the compulsive, passive, zombie browsing that research suggests is unhealthy as users endlessly scroll through stale content hoping for a hit of dopamine-inducing novelty.

But with Instagram’s newest feature, at least users know when they’ve seen everything and can stop scrolling without FOMO. Instagram is showing some users a mid-feed alert after a bunch of browsing that says “You’re All Caught Up – You’ve seen all new post from the past 48 hours.” When asked about it, Instagram confirmed to TechCrunch that it’s testing this feature. It declined to give details about how it works, including whether the announcement means you’ve seen literally every post from people you follow from the last two days, or just the best ones that the algorithm has decided are worth showing you.

The feature could help out Instagram completists who want to be sure they never miss a selfie, sunset or supper pic. Before Instagram rolled out its algorithm in the summer of 2016, they could just scroll to the last post they’d seen or when they knew they’d last visited. Warning them they’ve seen everything could quiet some of the backlash to the algorithm, which has centered around people missing content they wanted to see because the algorithm mixed up the chronology.

But perhaps more importantly, it’s one of the app’s first publicly tested features that’s clearly designed with the “time well spent” movement in mind. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been vocal about prioritizing well-being over profits, to the point that the network reduced the prevalence of viral videos in the feed so much that that app lost 1 million users in the U.S. and Canada in Q4 2017. “I expect the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement will go down . . . If we do the right thing, I believe that will be good for our community and our business over the long term too,” he wrote.

But Instagram’s leadership had been quiet on the issue until last week, when TechCrunch broke news that buried inside Instagram was an unlaunched “Usage Insights” feature that would show users their “time spent.” That prompted Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom to tweet our article, noting “It’s true . . . We’re building tools that will help the IG community know more about the time they spend on Instagram – any time should be positive and intentional . . . Understanding how time online impacts people is important, and it’s the responsibility of all companies to be honest about this. We want to be part of the solution. I take that responsibility seriously.”

Instagram is preparing a “Usage Insights” feature that will show how long you spend in the app. Image via Jane Manchun Wong

It’s reassuring to hear that one of the world’s most popular, but also overused, social media apps is going to put user health over engagement and revenue. Usage Insights has yet to launch. But the “You’re All Caught Up” alerts show Instagram is being earnest about its commitment. Those warnings almost surely prompt people to close the app and therefore see fewer ads, hurting Instagram’s bottom line.

Perhaps it’s a product of Facebook and Instagram’s dominance that they can afford to trade short-term engagement for long-term sustainability of the product. Some companies like Twitter have been criticized for not doing more to kick abusers off their platforms because it could hurt their user count.

But with Android now offering time management tools and many urging Apple to do the same, the time-well-spent reckoning may be dawning upon the mobile app ecosystem. Apps that continue to exploit users by doing whatever it takes to maximize total time spent may find themselves labeled the enemy, plus may actually be burning out their most loyal users. Urging them to scroll responsibly could not only win their favor, but keep them browsing in shorter, healthier sessions for years to come.

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Facebook and Qualcomm will bring fast Wi-Fi to cities in mid-2019

Posted by | Facebook, Mobile, Qualcomm | No Comments

Facebook’s been talking Terragraph since way back during its 2016 F8 keynote. The social media giant’s ambitious plan to bring fast Wi-Fi to cities is taking another key step toward real world trials with the addition of Qualcomm. The chipmaking giant announced today that it will add the 60Ghz tech to its future chipsets, with plans to start trials in the middle of next year.

“It is based on the pre-802.11ay standard with enhancements provided by the Qualcomm Technologies’ chipset and the integrated software between Facebook and Qualcomm Technologies to support efficient outdoor operation and avoid interference in dense environments,” Qualcomm writes in the announcement.

San Jose has already been floated as a potential testing ground for the technology. It’s not the biggest U.S. city, but the Silicon Valley hub should prove a solid testing ground with its tech savvy population. The companies say the tech will be useful in lowering the cost of high-speed wireless and helping deliver connectivity to populated areas with significant obstacles, including those densely packed with buildings.

The latter, naturally, makes Terragraph a natural for urban environments, where digging up the ground for fiber is a nuisance, to say the least. Facebook is also looking to service more rural spots with its Antenna Radio Integration for Efficiency in Spectrum (ARIES) system, a technology that was unveiled at the same F8 event.  

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Facebook Stories reveals 150M daily viewers and here come ads

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Apps, Facebook, Facebook ads, Facebook Stories, Mobile, Snapchat Clone, Social | No Comments

After 14 months of silence since launching, Facebook Stories has finally announced a 150 million daily active user count for its Snapchat Stories clone. And now it’s time to earn some money off it. Facebook Stories will start testing its first ads today in the U.S., Mexico and Brazil.

They’re 5- to 15-second video ads users can skip, and while there’s no click-through or call to action now, Facebook plans to add that in the coming months. Advertisers can easily extend their Instagram Stories ads to this new surface, or have Facebook automatically reformat their News Feed ads with color-matched borders and text at the bottom. Facebook also plans to give businesses more metrics on their Stories performance to convince them the feature is worth their ad dollars.

Advertisers can extend their Instagram Stories ads to Facebook Stories (left), or have Facebook reformat their News Feed ads with color-matched image borders and ad copy text shown at the bottom

Facebook has to nail Stories ads to preserve its business, as CPO Chris Cox said this month that Stories sometime next year will surpass feed posts as the top way to share. CEO Mark Zuckerberg warned that Facebook must ensure “that ads are as good in Stories as they are in feeds. If we don’t do this well, then as more sharing shifts to Stories, that could hurt our business.” Despite criticism that the feature is obtrusive and redundant with Instagram Stories, Facebook is proving there’s no retreating from the ephemeral slideshow format. And Snapchat could see ad spend slip over to Facebook, especially since the big blue social network has so much targeting data on us.

The race for storytellers

My first question was how Facebook is defining a daily user for Stories. It’s anyone who watches a Story on Facebook’s app or site. That’s useful, because it means it’s not counting users who simply cross-post their Stories from Instagram or Messenger to Facebook, which would inflate the number. It’s a testament to the coercive power of the top-of-feed Stories design that Instagram pioneered and Facebook brought over, and it’s already testing bigger Stories preview tiles.

For context, here’s a breakdown of Stories daily user counts and total monthly user counts across the top players, ranked by size:

  1. WhatsApp Status: 450 million daily out of 1.5 billion monthly as of May 2018
  2. Instagram Stories: 300 million daily out of 800 million monthly as of November 2017
  3. Snapchat (whole app): 191 million daily as of May 2018, launched
  4. Facebook Stories: 150 million daily out of 2.2 billion monthly as of May 2018
  5. Messenger Day/Stories: 70 million daily out of 1.3 billion monthly as of September 2017

Instagram Stories also started showing ads when it hit 150 million users, though that was just five months after launch, while it’s taken Facebook Stories 14 months to get there.

The real opportunity for Facebook’s future engagement growth is bringing the Stories format to the international market that Snapchat has largely neglected for four years and only recently got serious about by re-engineering its Android app. WhatsApp capitalized on Snap’s focus on U.S. teens by surging to become the top Stories product thanks to youth across the globe. And now Facebook is specifically building Stories features for countries like India, such as the new audio posts to help users with non-native language keyboards, and cloud storage so you can privately save photos and videos to Facebook for those without room on their phones.

Facebook Stories lets you shoot 360 photos without a 360 camera with this cool “paint with the lens” interface

Since testing in January 2017 and then launching in March 2017, Facebook has been rapidly iterating on its version of Stories in hopes of making it more unique and apt to its audience. That includes adding cross-posting from its other apps and a desktop interface, advanced shutter formats like Boomerang and new augmented reality features like 3D doodling and real-world QR and image triggers that anchor AR to a location.

Oh, and there’s one bonus unannounced feature we’ve spotted. Facebook Stories can now shoot 360 photos without a 360 camera. It uses a cool interface that shows you where to “paint” your camera over your surroundings, so unlike a panorama where you only get one shot, you can go back and fill in missed spots.

Snap’s beaten; time to monetize

All of Facebook’s efforts seem to be paying off. Snapchat sunk to its slowest daily user growth rate ever, a paltry 2.13 percent last quarter, while the much more saturated Facebook grew a strong 3.42 percent. Snapchat actually shrank in user count during March.

That might have been the signal Facebook needed to start putting ads in its Stories. It’s effectively beaten Snapchat into submission. Without as strong of a competitor, Facebook has more leeway to pollute the Stories user experience with ads. And that comes just as Snapchat is desperate to ramp up ad sales after missing revenue estimates in Q1 and mounting losses of $385 million.

Ads in stories have added a lot of value for businesses on Instagram, and we believe we can do the same on Facebook,” Facebook product manager Zoheb Hajiyani tells me. “Ensuring that this is a good experience for people using the product will be our top priority.” Facebook has lined up a number of ad test partners it’s not disclosing, but also will be running its own ads for Oculus inside Stories.

With existing Facebook and Instagram advertisers able to easily port their ads over to Facebook Stories, and much greater total reach, they might not go to the trouble of advertising on Snap unless they seek young teens. Stories could in fact be the answer to Facebook’s issue with running out of ad space in the News Feed while it shuts down its sidebar units. Stories could generate the ad inventory needed to keep pushing more marketing into the social network.

Stories were inevitable. First launched by Snapchat in October 2013, it took almost three years for Facebook to wake up to the format as an existential threat to the company. But with the quick success of Instagram’s clone, Facebook has wisely swallowed its pride and pivoted its apps toward this style of visual communication. It was another moment, like the shift to mobile, where Facebook could have faltered. But willingness to admit its mistakes and ruthlessly compete may have won another epoch of social dominance.

For more on Stories, check out our feature piece:

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To make Stories global, Facebook adds Archive and audio posts

Posted by | Apps, Facebook, Facebook Stories, Mobile, Social, TC | No Comments

Facebook’s future rests on convincing the developing world to adopt Stories. But just because the slideshow format will soon surpass feed sharing doesn’t mean people use them the same way everywhere. So late last year, Facebook sent a team to India to learn what features they’d need to embrace Stories across a variety of local languages on phones without much storage.

Today, Facebook will start rolling out three big Stories features in India, which will come to the rest of the world shortly after. First, to lure posts from users who don’t want to type or have a non-native language keyboard, as well as micropodcasters, Facebook Stories will allow audio posts combining a voice message with a colored background or photo.

Facebook Stories will get an Archive similar to Instagram Stories that automatically saves your clips privately after they expire so you can go back to check them out or re-share the content to the News Feed. And finally, Facebook will let Stories users privately Save their clips from the Facebook Camera directly to the social network instead of their phone in case they don’t have enough space.

Facebook Stories Archive

“We know that the performance and reliability of viewing and posting Stories is extremely important to people around the world, especially those with slower connections” Facebook’s director of Stories Connor Hayes tells me. “We are always working on ways to improve the experience of viewing Stories on all types of connections, and have been investing here — especially on our FB Lite app.”

Facebook has a big opportunity to capitalize on Snapchat’s failure to focus on the international market. Plagued by Android engineering problems and initial reluctance to court users beyond U.S. teens, Snapchat left the door open for Facebook’s Stories products to win the globe. Now Snapchat has sunk to its slowest growth rate ever, hitting 191 million daily users despite shrinking in March. Meanwhile, WhatsApp Status, its clone of Snapchat Stories has 450 million daily users, while Instagram Stories has over 300 million.

As for Facebook Stories, it was initially seen as a bit of a ghost town but more and more of my friends are posting there, in part thanks to the ability to syndicate you Instagram Stories there. Facebook Stories has never announced a user count, and Hayes says “We don’t have anything to share yet, but performance of Facebook Stories is encouraging, and we’ve learned a lot about how we can make the experience even better.” Facebook is hell-bent on making Stories work on its own app after launching the in mid-2017, and seems to believe users who find them needless or redundant will come around eventually.

My concern about the global rise of Stories is that instead of only recording the biggest highlights of our lives to capture with our phones, we’re increasingly interrupting all our activities and exiting the present to thrust our phone in the air.

That’s one thing Facebook hopes to fix here, Facebook’s director of Stories Connor Hayes tells me. “Saving photos and videos can be used to save what you might want to post later – So you don’t have to edit or post them while you’re out with your friends, and instead enjoy the moment at the concert and share them later.” You’re still injecting technology into your experience, though, so I hope we can all learn to record as subtly as possible without disturbing the memory for those around us.

Facebook Camera’s Save feature

The new Save to Facebook Camera feature creates a private tab in the Stories creation interface where you can access and post the imagery you’ve stored, and you’ll also find a Saved tab in your profile’s Photos section. Unlike Facebook’s discontinued Photo Sync feature, here you’ll choose to save imagery one at a time. It will be a big help to users lacking free space on their phone, as Facebook says many people around the world have to delete a photo just to save a new one.

Facebook wants to encourage people to invest more time decorating Stories, and learned that some people want to re-live or re-share their clips that expire after 24 hours. That’s why its built the Archive, a hedge against the potentially short-sighted trend of ephemerality.

On the team’s journey to India, they heard that photos and videos aren’t always the easiest way to share. If you’re camera-shy, have a low-quality camera, or don’t have cool scenes to capture, audio posts could get you sharing more. In fact, Facebook started testing voice clips as feed status updates in March. “With this week’s update, you will have options to add a voice message to a colorful background or a photo from your camera gallery or saved gallery. You can also add stickers, text, or doodles” says Hayes. With 22 official languages in India and over 100 spoken, recording voice can often be easier than typing.

Facebook Audio Stories

Some users will still hate Stories, which are getting more and more prominence atop Facebook’s feed. But Facebook can’t afford to retreat here. Stories are social media bedrock — the most full-screen and immersive content medium we can record and consume with just our phones. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself said that Facebook must make sure that “ads are as good in Stories as they are in feeds. If we don’t do this well, then as more sharing shifts to Stories, that could hurt our business.” That means Facebook Stories needs India’s hundreds of millions of users.

There will always be room for text, yet if people want to achieve an emotional impact, they’ll eventually wade into Storytelling. But social networks must remember low-bandwidth users, or we’ll only get windows into the developed world.

For more on Facebook Stories, check out our recent coverage:

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WhatsApp revamps Groups to fight Telegram

Posted by | Apps, Facebook, Mobile, Social, TC, Telegram, WhatsApp | No Comments

Facebook just installed its VP of Internet.org as the new head of WhatsApp after its CEO Jan Koum left the company. And now Facebook is expanding its mission to get people into “meaningful” groups to WhatsApp. Today, WhatsApp launched a slew of new features for Groups on iOS and Android that let admins set a description for their community and decide who can change the Groups settings. Meanwhile, users will be able to get a Group catch up that shows messages they were mentioned in, and search for people in the group.

WhatsApp’s new Group descriptions

WhatsApp Group participant search

Group improvements will help WhatsApp better compete with Telegram, which has recently emerged as an insanely popular platform for chat groups, especially around cryptocurrency. Telegram has plenty of admin controls of its own, but the two apps will be competing over who can make it easiest to digest these fast-moving chat forums.

“These are features are based on user requests. We develop the product based on what our users want and need” a WhatsApp spokesperson told me when asked why it’s making this update. “There are also people coming together in groups on WhatsApp like new parents looking for support, students organizing study sessions, and even city leaders coordinating relief efforts after natural disasters.”

Facebook is on a quest to get 1 billion users into “meaningful” Groups and recently said it now has hit the 200 million user milestone. Groups could help people strengthen their ties with their city or niche interests, which can make them feel less alone.

With Group descriptions, admins can explain the purpose and rules of a group. They show up when people check out the group and appear atop the chat window when they join. New admin controls let them restrict who is allowed to alter a group’s subject, icon, and description. WhatsApp is also making it tougher to re-add someone to a group they left so you can’t “Group-add-spam people”. Together, these could make sure people find relevant groups, naturally acclimate to their culture, and don’t troll everyone.

As for users, the new Group catch up feature offers a new @ button in the bottom right of the chat window that when tapped, surfaces all your replies and mentions since you last checked. And if you want to find someone specific in the Group, the new participant search on the Info page could let you turn a group chat into a private convo with someone you meet.

WhatsApp Group catch up

Now that WhatsApp has a stunning 1.5 billion users compared to 200 million on Telegram, its next phase of growth may come from deepening engagement instead of just adding more accounts. Many people already do most of their one-on-one chatting with friends on WhatsApp, but Groups could invite tons of time spent as users participate in communities of strangers around their interests.

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8 big announcements from Google I/O 2018

Posted by | Android, Apps, artificial intelligence, Developer, Facebook, Google, Google Assistant, Google I/O 2018, machine learning, ML, natural language processing, Sundar Pichai, TC, YouTube | No Comments

Google kicked off its annual I/O developer conference at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California. Here are some of the biggest announcements from the Day 1 keynote. There will be more to come over the next couple of days, so follow along on everything Google I/O on TechCrunch. 

Google goes all in on artificial intelligence, rebranding its research division to Google AI

Just before the keynote, Google announced it is rebranding its Google Research division to Google AI. The move signals how Google has increasingly focused R&D on computer vision, natural language processing, and neural networks.

Google makes talking to the Assistant more natural with “continued conversation”

What Google announced: Google announced a “continued conversation” update to Google Assistant that makes talking to the Assistant feel more natural. Now, instead of having to say “Hey Google” or “OK Google” every time you want to say a command, you’ll only have to do so the first time. The company also is adding a new feature that allows you to ask multiple questions within the same request. All this will roll out in the coming weeks.

Why it’s important: When you’re having a typical conversation, odds are you are asking follow-up questions if you didn’t get the answer you wanted. But it can be jarring to have to say “Hey Google” every single time, and it breaks the whole flow and makes the process feel pretty unnatural. If Google wants to be a significant player when it comes to voice interfaces, the actual interaction has to feel like a conversation — not just a series of queries.

Google Photos gets an AI boost

What Google announced: Google Photos already makes it easy for you to correct photos with built-in editing tools and AI-powered features for automatically creating collages, movies and stylized photos. Now, Photos is getting more AI-powered fixes like B&W photo colorization, brightness correction and suggested rotations. A new version of the Google Photos app will suggest quick fixes and tweaks like rotations, brightness corrections or adding pops of color.

Why it’s important: Google is working to become a hub for all of your photos, and it’s able to woo potential users by offering powerful tools to edit, sort, and modify those photos. Each additional photo Google gets offers it more data and helps them get better and better at image recognition, which in the end not only improves the user experience for Google, but also makes its own tools for its services better. Google, at its heart, is a search company — and it needs a lot of data to get visual search right.

Google Assistant and YouTube are coming to Smart Displays

What Google announced: Smart Displays were the talk of Google’s CES push this year, but we haven’t heard much about Google’s Echo Show competitor since. At I/O, we got a little more insight into the company’s smart display efforts. Google’s first Smart Displays will launch in July, and of course will be powered by Google Assistant and YouTube . It’s clear that the company’s invested some resources into building a visual-first version of Assistant, justifying the addition of a screen to the experience.

Why it’s important: Users are increasingly getting accustomed to the idea of some smart device sitting in their living room that will answer their questions. But Google is looking to create a system where a user can ask questions and then have an option to have some kind of visual display for actions that just can’t be resolved with a voice interface. Google Assistant handles the voice part of that equation — and having YouTube is a good service that goes alongside that.

Google Assistant is coming to Google Maps

What Google announced: Google Assistant is coming to Google Maps, available on iOS and Android this summer. The addition is meant to provide better recommendations to users. Google has long worked to make Maps seem more personalized, but since Maps is now about far more than just directions, the company is introducing new features to give you better recommendations for local places.

The maps integration also combines the camera, computer vision technology, and Google Maps with Street View. With the camera/Maps combination, it really looks like you’ve jumped inside Street View. Google Lens can do things like identify buildings, or even dog breeds, just by pointing your camera at the object in question. It will also be able to identify text.

Why it’s important: Maps is one of Google’s biggest and most important products. There’s a lot of excitement around augmented reality — you can point to phenomena like Pokémon Go — and companies are just starting to scratch the surface of the best use cases for it. Figuring out directions seems like such a natural use case for a camera, and while it was a bit of a technical feat, it gives Google yet another perk for its Maps users to keep them inside the service and not switch over to alternatives. Again, with Google, everything comes back to the data, and it’s able to capture more data if users stick around in its apps.

Google announces a new generation for its TPU machine learning hardware

What Google announced: As the war for creating customized AI hardware heats up, Google said that it is rolling out its third generation of silicon, the Tensor Processor Unit 3.0. Google CEO Sundar Pichai said the new TPU is 8x more powerful than last year per pod, with up to 100 petaflops in performance. Google joins pretty much every other major company in looking to create custom silicon in order to handle its machine operations.

Why it’s important: There’s a race to create the best machine learning tools for developers. Whether that’s at the framework level with tools like TensorFlow or PyTorch or at the actual hardware level, the company that’s able to lock developers into its ecosystem will have an advantage over the its competitors. It’s especially important as Google looks to build its cloud platform, GCP, into a massive business while going up against Amazon’s AWS and Microsoft Azure. Giving developers — who are already adopting TensorFlow en masse — a way to speed up their operations can help Google continue to woo them into Google’s ecosystem.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA – MAY 08: Google CEO Sundar Pichai delivers the keynote address at the Google I/O 2018 Conference at Shoreline Amphitheater on May 8, 2018 in Mountain View, California. Google’s two day developer conference runs through Wednesday May 9. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Google News gets an AI-powered redesign

What Google announced: Watch out, Facebook . Google is also planning to leverage AI in a revamped version of Google News. The AI-powered, redesigned news destination app will “allow users to keep up with the news they care about, understand the full story, and enjoy and support the publishers they trust.” It will leverage elements found in Google’s digital magazine app, Newsstand and YouTube, and introduces new features like “newscasts” and “full coverage” to help people get a summary or a more holistic view of a news story.

Why it’s important: Facebook’s main product is literally called “News Feed,” and it serves as a major source of information for a non-trivial portion of the planet. But Facebook is embroiled in a scandal over personal data of as many as 87 million users ending up in the hands of a political research firm, and there are a lot of questions over Facebook’s algorithms and whether they surface up legitimate information. That’s a huge hole that Google could exploit by offering a better news product and, once again, lock users into its ecosystem.

Google unveils ML Kit, an SDK that makes it easy to add AI smarts to iOS and Android apps

What Google announced: Google unveiled ML Kit, a new software development kit for app developers on iOS and Android that allows them to integrate pre-built, Google-provided machine learning models into apps. The models support text recognition, face detection, barcode scanning, image labeling and landmark recognition.

Why it’s important: Machine learning tools have enabled a new wave of use cases that include use cases built on top of image recognition or speech detection. But even though frameworks like TensorFlow have made it easier to build applications that tap those tools, it can still take a high level of expertise to get them off the ground and running. Developers often figure out the best use cases for new tools and devices, and development kits like ML Kit help lower the barrier to entry and give developers without a ton of expertise in machine learning a playground to start figuring out interesting use cases for those appliocations.

So when will you be able to actually play with all these new features? The Android P beta is available today, and you can find the upgrade here.

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Facebook united

Posted by | Apps, Facebook, Mobile, Opinion, Personnel, Social | No Comments

Facebook was a mess. The independence it dangled to close acquisition deals with Instagram and WhatsApp turned the company into a tangle of overlapping products. Every app had its own messaging and Stories options. Economies of scale were squandered. Top innovators led mature products already bursting at the seams with features while new opportunities went unseized.

Facebook was effectively drowning in its own success because the different arms couldn’t coordinate to paddle in the same direction.

But today Facebook announced its biggest reorganization ever, which could cut the redundancy, apply talent to fresh problems and unite the company under a common banner.

Putting the family first

Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer, will fly that flag. He now oversees the “Facebook Family of Apps,” including Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp. Messenger’s VP of Product Stan Chudnovsky will take over as head of Messenger, replacing David Marcus, who’s moving to lead a new blockchain group at Facebook (more on that later).

Facebook’s head of News Feed Adam Mosseri is taking the Instagram VP of Product role, taking over for Kevin Weil, who’s going to Marcus’ project. Mosseri is replaced by Facebook VP of Product Management John Hegeman. Meanwhile, Facebook’s head of Internet.org Chris Daniels will take the lead role at WhatsApp, recently vacated by Jan Koum as he departed the corporation altogether.

Image via Recode

These changes could reduce the autonomy of Instagram and WhatsApp, at least in philosophy if not in formal hierarchy. That might make them less appealing places to work, after WhatsApp veterans like Nikesh Arora were passed over in favor of an installed Facebook exec. It could spook future acquisition candidates, who might see the reorganization as Facebook reneging on its promise of independence. And it could hinder the apps’ role as hedges against harm to Facebook’s core brand. Many users don’t realize they’re owned by Facebook, and therefore didn’t extend to them the backlash about recent privacy scandals.

But Facebook will gain the ability to execute a more coherent strategy. Mosseri, a long-time member of Mark Zuckerberg’s inner circle, will bring to Instagram his experience turning News Feed into one of the world’s most popular inventions as Instagram is hoping to ramp up monetization now that it’s achieved utter dominance over Snapchat in photo sharing. Few know the Facebook playbook better than Mosseri, who could help Instagram get out ahead of problems he’d been in the thick of, like fake news and declines in original sharing.

Daniels’ days connecting the developing world fits well at WhatsApp, whose users across the globe often deal with slow mobile networks. This also leaves room for new blood at Internet.org. It’s now connected 200 million people to some form of the internet, but its Free Basics app has been banned in several countries over net neutrality concerns and partners have pulled out over sustainability concerns. WhatsApp, too, is ready to monetize, having recently launched its WhatsApp for Business product, and Daniels’ background in biz dev and partnerships at Facebook around the IPO could serve him well.

Mark Zuckerberg discusses the Facebook family of apps at F8 2015

But more important than their siloed efforts is what a more unified family under Cox could accomplish. Over 2016 and 2017, all four apps launched isolated Stories products. While Instagram’s and WhatsApp’s took off, Facebook’s and Messenger’s felt absurdly redundant and underpopulated. It took until late 2017 for Facebook to realize it should synchronize Stories across Instagram, Facebook and Messenger so users could post once to their audiences everywhere.

The reorg could prevent Facebook from haphazardly tripping over itself in an attempt to seize on emerging trends. As visual communication becomes the new Facebook mandate, the company could similarly align its efforts in augmented reality, ephemeral and encrypted messaging and e-commence tools. Mosseri and Daniels can implement the Facebook strategy and shield their apps from the same old pitfalls. Instagram and WhatsApp have instituted themselves in their respective markets, and now have the leaders to make them well-oiled cogs in the Facebook machine.

Move fast and shake things up

Few hires have had the impact at Facebook of Marcus and Weil. The former president of PayPal, Marcus has brought Messenger from 200 million monthly users in 2014 to more than 1.3 billion now. He successfully managed the forced migration of users off Facebook’s chat feature to Messenger, laid the foundation for advertising and business tools and turned the app into a platform for games and useful utilities (beyond the initially half-baked bots).

Weil, formerly SVP of Product at Twitter, where changes came at molasses pace, turned Instagram into a rapid-fire launcher of new features. Most significantly, he implemented Zuckerberg and Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom’s plan to copy Snapchat’s Stories. Instagram was growing stale, showing just the occasional highlights of users’ lives. Instagram Stories solved that, and Weil grew it to more than 300 million daily users — much bigger than Snapchat’s whole 191 million user audience. Meanwhile, using Stories to spark conversation, Instagram Direct grew into one of the most popular messaging apps.

But today, Messenger and Instagram have begun to feel bloated. Marcus had to announce a plan to simplify the chat app at the start of 2018 after its version of Stories, called Messenger Day, steamrolled the rest of the product’s design. The camera, games and bots got as much space in the navigation bar as the core chat product. Last week Messenger revealed a redesign that refocuses on… messaging, giving the app a sensible roadmap. Instagram, now having effectively won the Stories war with Snapchat and having acclimated users to an algorithmic feed, left Weil without as many urgent changes to make.

If Facebook wasn’t careful, it could have lost these leaders to the CEO or COO role of a growing startup, or seen them leave to launch something of their own. Marcus had already taken a board seat at crypto giant Coinbase, while Weil took one at exercise community Strava.

Kevin Weil (Instagram) at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2017

That’s why it was so wise to give Marcus the latitude to build a new team of fewer than a dozen, including Weil, focused on finding how Facebook could take advantage of the blockchain. It’s a massive, open new problem space in which to operate. One that needs visionaries in both product and business.

It’s unclear what they’ll build together, but there are plenty of opportunities.

They could explore payments facilitated by the blockchain’s lack of transaction fees. Messenger and Instagram both added native payment systems recently. Cutting out the credit card companies could be a lucrative shot for Facebook. And micropayments could open new ways to tip creators or compensate news outlets. Cloud storage based on blockchains could help Facebook cut its massive server bills. And the decentralized nature of the blockchain might unlock new paradigms for social networking with increased autonomy that might threaten Facebook if invented elsewhere.

Perhaps they’ll conclude Facebook doesn’t need the blockchain. That’s fine. The risk would be leaving the space unmined and ripe for someone else’s taking.

Facebook has lasted this long by identifying new threats of disruption, and thwarting them with its build, buy or copy strategy. Streams like FriendFeed and Twitter? Facebook built News Feed. Photos and chat? Facebook bought Instagram and WhatsApp. Ephemeral content? Facebook copied Snapchat.

The reorganization recognizes how Facebook had become a danger to itself — disruption through internal redundancy and wasted chances. It saw the discombobulated wings of Google lead it to massive failure in messaging, with a half-dozen chat apps all competing while confusing users. And it saw how internet giants like Microsoft and Apple ignored social because it was outside their wheelhouse, only to end up sharing the titan’s table with Facebook.

Zuckerberg loves to say the journey is 1 percent finished. Today Facebook proved it’s always looking for a new finish line.

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‘Facebook Avatars’ is its new clone of Snapchat’s Bitmoji

Posted by | Apps, Avatars, Bitmoji, Facebook, Mobile, Snapchat Clone, Social, TC | No Comments

Hidden inside the code of Facebook’s Android app is an unreleased feature called Facebook Avatars that lets people build personalized, illustrated versions of themselves for use as stickers in Messenger and comments. It will let users customize their avatar to depict their skin color, hair style and facial features. Facebook Avatars is essentially Facebook’s version of Snapchat’s acquisition, Bitmoji, which has spent years in the top-10 apps chart.

Back in October I wrote that “Facebook seriously needs its own Bitmoji,” and it seems the company agrees. Facebook has become the identity layer for the internet, allowing you to bring your personal info and social graph to other services. But as the world moves toward visual communication, a name or static profile pic aren’t enough to represent us and our breadth of emotions. Avatars hold the answer, as they can be contorted to convey our reactions to all sorts of different situations when we’re too busy or camera-shy to take a photo.

The screenhots come courtesy of eagle-eyed developer Jane Manchun Wong, who found the Avatars in the Facebook for Android application package — a set of files that often contain features that are unreleased or in testing. Her digging also contributed to TechCrunch’s reports about Instagram’s music stickers and Twitter’s unlaunched encrypted DMs.

Facebook confirmed it’s building Avatars, telling me, “We’re looking into more ways to help people express themselves on Facebook.” However, the feature is still early in development and Facebook isn’t sure when it will start publicly testing.

In the onboarding flow for the feature, Facebook explains that “Your Facebook Avatar is a whole new way to express yourself on Facebook. Leave expressive comments with personalized stickers. Use your new avatar stickers in your Messenger group and private chats.” The Avatars should look like the images on the far right of these screenshot tests. You can imagine Facebook creating an updating reel of stickers showing your avatar in happy, sad, confused, angry, bored or excited scenes to fit your mood.

Currently it’s unclear whether you’ll have to configure your Avatar from a blank starter face, or whether Facebook will use machine vision and artificial intelligence to create one based on your photos. The latter is how the Facebook Spaces VR avatars (previewed in April 2017) are automatically generated.

Facebook shows off its 3D VR avatars at F8 2018. The new Facebook Avatars are 2D and can be used in messaging and comments.

Using AI to start with a decent lookalike of you could entice users to try Avatars and streamline the creation process so you just have to make small corrections. However, the AI could creep people out, make people angry if it misrepresents them or generate monstrous visages no one wants to see. Given Facebook’s recent privacy scandals, I’d imagine it would play it conservatively with Avatars and just ask users to build them from scratch. If Avatars grow popular and people are eager to use them, it could always introduce auto-generation from your photos later.

Facebook has spent at least three years trying to figure out avatars for VR. What started as generic blue heads evolved to take on basic human characteristics, real skin tones and more accurate facial features, and are now getting quite lifelike. You can see that progression up top. Last week at F8, Facebook revealed that it’s developing a way to use facial tracking sensors to map real-time expressions onto a photo-realistic avatar of a user so they can look like themselves inside VR, but without the headset on.

But as long as Facebook’s Avatars are trapped in VR, they’re missing most of their potential.

Bitmoji’s parent company Bitstrips launched in 2008, and while its comic strip creator was cool, it was the personalized emoji avatar feature that was most exciting. Snapchat acquired Bitstrips for a mere $64.2 million in early 2016, but once it integrated Bitmoji into its chat feature as stickers, the app took off. It’s often risen higher than Snapchat itself, and even Facebook’s ubiquitous products on the App Store charts, and was the No. 1 free iOS app as recently as February. Now Snapchat lets you use your Bitmoji avatar as a profile pic, online status indicator in message threads, as 2D stickers and as 3D characters that move around in your Snaps.

It’s actually surprising that Facebook has waited this long to clone Bitmoji, given how popular Instagram Stories and its other copies of Snapchat features have become. Facebook comment reels and Messenger threads could get a lot more emotive, personal and fun when the company eventually launches its own Avatars.

Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly said that visual communication is replacing text, but that’s forced users to either use generic emoji out of convenience or deal with the chore and self-consciousness of shooting a quick photo or video. Especially in Stories, which will soon surpass feeds as the main way we share social media, people need a quick way to convey their identity and emotion. Avatars let your identity scale to whatever feeling you want to transmit without the complications of the real world.

For more on the potential of Facebook Avatars, read our piece calling for their creation:

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Instagram code reveals upcoming music feature

Posted by | Apps, Entertainment, Facebook, Facebook Sound Collection, instagram, Instagram Stories, Mobile, Social, TC | No Comments

Instagram is preparing to let you add music to your Stories, judging by code found inside its Android app. “music stickers” could let you search for and add a song to your posts, thanks to licensing deals with the major record labels recently struck by Facebook. Instagram is also testing a way to automatically detect a song you’re listening to and display the artist and song title as just a visual label.

Listenable music stickers would make Instagram Stories much more interesting to watch. Amateur video footage suddenly looks like DIY MTV when you add the right score. The feature could also steal thunder from teen lip syncing app sensation Musically, and stumbling rival Snapchat that planned but scrapped a big foray into music. And alongside Instagram Stories’ new platform for sharing posts directly from third-party apps, including Spotify and SoundCloud, these stickers could make Instagram a powerful driver of music discovery.

TechCrunch was first tipped off to the hidden music icons and code from reader Ishan Agarwal. Instagram declined to comment. But Instagram later confirmed three other big features first reported by TechCrunch and spotted by Agarwal that it initially refused to discuss: Focus mode for shooting portraits, QR-scannable Nametags for following people and video calling, which got an official debut at F8.

[Update: Jane Manchun Wong tells TechCrunch she was briefly able to test the feature, as seen in the screenshot above. The prototype design looks a bit janky, and Instagram crashed when she tried to post anything using the music stickers. Beyond the music sticker search interface seen on the right, Wong tells us Instagram automatically detected a song she was currently playing on her phone and created a sticker for it (not using audio recognition like Shazam).]

Facebook and Instagram’s video editing features have been in a sad state for a long time. I wrote about the big opportunity back in 2013, and in 2016 called on both Facebook and Instagram to add more editing features, including soundtracks. Finally in late 2017, Facebook started testing Sound Collection, which lets you add to your videos sound effects and a very limited range of not-popular artists’ songs. But since then, Facebook has secured licensing deals with Sony, Warner, Universal and European labels.

For years, people thought Facebook’s ongoing negotiations with record labels would power some Spotify competitor. But streaming is a crowded market with strong solutions already. The bigger problem for Facebook was that if users added soundtracks themselves using editing software, or a song playing in the background got caught in the recording, those videos could be removed due to copyright complaints from the labels. Facebook’s intention was the opposite — to make it easier to add popular music to your posts so they’d be more fun to consume.

Instagram’s music stickers could be the culmination of all those deals.

How Instagram music stickers work

The code shows that Instagram’s app has an unreleased “Search Music” feature built-in beside its location and friend-mention sticker search options inside Instagram Stories. These “music overlay stickers” can be searched using tabs for “Genres,” “Moods,” and “Trending.” Instagram could certainly change the feature before it’s launched, or scrap it all together. But the clear value of music stickers and the fact that Instagram owned up to the Focus, Nametags and Video Calling features all within three months of us reporting their appearance in the code lends weight to an upcoming launch.

It’s not entirely clear, but it seems that once you’ve picked a song and added it as a music sticker to your Story, a clip of that song will play while people watch. It’s possible that the initial version of the stickers will only display the artist and title of the song similar to Facebook’s activity status updates, rather than actually adding it as a listenable soundtrack.

These stickers will almost surely be addable to videos, but maybe Instagram will let you include them on photos too. It would be great if viewers could tap through the sticker to hear the song or check it out on their preferred streaming service. That could make Instagram the new Myspace, where you fall in love with new music through you friends; there are no indicators in the code about that.

Perhaps Instagram will be working with a particular partner on the feature, like it did with Giphy for its GIF stickers. Spotify, with its free tier and long-running integrations with Facebook dating back to the 2011 Open Graph ticker, would make an obvious choice. But Facebook might play it more neutral, powering the feature another way, or working with a range of providers, potentially including Apple, YouTube, SoundCloud and Amazon.

Several apps like Sounds and Soundtracking have tried to be the “Instagram for music.” But none have gained mass traction because it’s hard to tell if you like a song quickly enough to pause your scrolling, staring at album art isn’t fun, users don’t want a whole separate app for this and Facebook and Instagram’s algorithms can bury cross-posts of this content. But Stories — with original visuals that are easily skippable, natively created and consumed in your default social app — could succeed.

Getting more users wearing headphones or turning the sound on while using Instagram could be a boon to the app’s business, as advertisers all want to be heard, as well as seen. The stickers could also get young Instagrammers singing along to their favorite songs the way 60 million Musically users do. In that sense, music could spice up the lives of people who otherwise might not appear glamorous through Stories.

Music stickers could let Instagram beat Snapchat to the punch. Leaked emails from the 2014 Sony hack showed Snap CEO Evan Spiegel was intent on launching a music video streaming feature or even creating Snapchat’s own record label. But complications around revenue-sharing negotiations and the potential to distract the team and product from Snapchat’s core use case derailed the project. Instead, Snap has worked with record labels on Discover channels and augmented reality lenses to promote new songs. But Snapchat still has no sound board or soundtrack features, leaving some content silent or drowned in random noise.

With the right soaring strings, the everyday becomes epic. With the perfect hip-hop beat, a standard scene gains swagger. And with the hottest new dance hook, anywhere can be a party. Instagram has spent the past few years building all conceivable forms of visual flair to embellish your photos and videos. But it’s audio that could be the next dimension of Stories.

For more on the future of Stories, read our feature pieces:

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