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UK eyeing switch to Apple-Google API for coronavirus contacts tracing — report

Posted by | alpha, Android, api, Apple, apple inc, Apps, Australia, BBC, Bluetooth, ceo, Colombia, computing, estonia, Europe, Google, Health, instagram, ios 11, iPhone, ireland, Mobile, mobile app, National Health Service, NHS, NHSX, operating systems, privacy, Singapore, smartphone, smartphones, spokesperson, switzerland, The Financial Times, United Kingdom, wi-fi | No Comments

The UK may be rethinking its decision to shun Apple and Google’s API for its national coronavirus contacts tracing app, according to the Financial Times, which reported yesterday that the government is paying an IT supplier to investigate whether it can integrate the tech giants’ approach after all.

As we’ve reported before coronavirus contacts tracing apps are a new technology which aims to repurpose smartphones’ Bluetooth signals and device proximity to try to estimate individuals’ infection risk.

The UK’s forthcoming app, called NHS COVID-19, has faced controversy because it’s being designed to use a centralized app architecture. This means developers are having to come up with workarounds for platform limitations on background access to Bluetooth as the Apple-Google cross-platform API only works with decentralized systems.

The choice of a centralized app architecture has also raised concerns about the impact of such an unprecedented state data grab on citizens’ privacy and human rights, and the risk of state ‘mission creep‘.

The UK also looks increasingly isolated in its choice in Europe after the German government opted to switch to a decentralized model, joining several other European countries that have said they will opt for a p2p approach, including Estonia, Ireland and Switzerland.

In the region, France remains the other major backer of a centralized system for its forthcoming coronavirus contacts tracing app, StopCovid.

Apple and Google, meanwhile, are collaborating on a so-called “exposure notification” API for national coronavirus contacts tracing apps. The API is slated to launch this month and is designed to remove restrictions that could interfere with how contact events are logged. However it’s only available for apps that don’t hold users’ personal data on central servers and prohibits location tracking, with the pair emphasizing that their system is designed to put privacy at the core.

Yesterday the FT reported that NHSX, the digital transformation branch of UK’s National Health Service, has awarded a £3.8M contract to the London office of Zuhlke Engineering, a Switzerland-based IT development firm which was involved in developing the initial version of the NHS COVID-19 app.

The contract includes a requirement to “investigate the complexity, performance and feasibility of implementing native Apple and Google contact tracing APIs within the existing proximity mobile application and platform”, per the newspaper’s report.

The work is also described as a “two week timeboxed technical spike”, which the FT suggests means it’s still at a preliminary phase — thought it also notes the contract includes a deadline of mid-May.

The contracted work was due to begin yesterday, per the report.

We’ve reached out to Zuhlke for comment. Its website describes the company as “a strong solutions partner” that’s focused on projects related to digital product delivery; cloud migration; scaling digital platforms; and the Internet of Things.

We also put questions arising from the FT report to NHSX.

At the time of writing the unit had not responded but yesterday a spokesperson told the newspaper: “We’ve been working with Apple and Google throughout the app’s development and it’s quite right and normal to continue to refine the app.”

The specific technical issue that appears to be causing concern relates to a workaround the developers have devised to try to circumvent platform limitations on Bluetooth that’s intended to wake up phones when the app itself is not being actively used in order that the proximity handshakes can still be carried out (and contacts events properly logged).

Thing is, if any of the devices fail to wake up and emit their identifiers so other nearby devices can log their presence there will be gaps in the data. Which, in plainer language, means the app might miss some close encounters between users — and therefore fail to notify some people of potential infection risk.

Recent reports have suggested the NHSX workaround has a particular problem with iPhones not being able to wake up other iPhones. And while Google’s Android OS is the more dominant platform in the UK (running on circa ~60% of smartphones, per Kantar) there will still be plenty of instances of two or more iPhone users passing near each other. So if their apps fail to wake up they won’t exchange data and those encounters won’t be logged.

On this, the FT quotes one person familiar with the NHS testing process who told it the app was able to work in the background in most cases, except when two iPhones were locked and left unused for around 30 minutes, and without any Android devices coming within 60m of the devices. The source also told it that bringing an Android device running the app close to the iPhone would “wake up” its Bluetooth connection.

Clearly, the government having to tell everyone in the UK to use an Android smartphone not an iPhone wouldn’t be a particularly palatable political message.

This is effectively a form of Android Herd Immunity: for the good of Britain, vaccinate your friends by giving them Androids!

— Michael Veale (@mikarv) May 5, 2020

One source with information about the NHSX testing process told us the unit has this week been asking IT suppliers for facilities or input on testing environments with “50-100 Bluetooth devices of mixed origin”, to help with challenges in testing the Bluetooth exchanges — which raises questions about how extensively this core functionality has been tested up to now. (Again, we’ve put questions to the NHSX about testing and will update this report with any response.)

Work on planning and developing the NHS COVID-19 app began March 7, according to evidence given to a UK parliamentary committee by the NHSX CEO’s, Matthew Gould, last month.

Gould has also previously suggested that the app could be “technically” ready to launch in as little as two or three weeks time from now. While a limited geographical trial of the app kicked off this week in the Isle of Wight. Prior to that, an alpha version of the app was tested at an RAF base involving staff carrying out simulations of people going shopping, per a BBC report last month.

Gould faced questions over the choice of centralized vs decentralized app architecture from the human rights committee earlier this week. He suggested then that the government is not “locked” to the choice — telling the committee: “We are constantly reassessing which approach is the right one — and if it becomes clear that the balance of advantage lies in a different approach then we will take that different approach. We’re not irredeemably wedded to one approach; if we need to shift then we will… It’s a very pragmatic decision about what approach is likely to get the results that we need to get.”

However it’s unclear how quickly such a major change to app architecture could be implemented, given centralized vs decentralized systems work in very different ways.

Additionally, such a big shift — more than two months into the NHSX’s project — seems, at such a late stage, as if it would be more closely characterized as a rebuild, rather than a little finessing (as suggested by the NHSX spokesperson’s remark to the FT vis-a-vis ‘refining’ the app).

In related news today, Reuters reports that Colombia has pulled its own coronavirus contacts tracing app after experiencing glitches and inaccuracies. The app had used alternative technology to power contacts logging via Bluetooth and wi-fi. A government official told the news agency it aims to rebuild the system and may now use the Apple-Google API.

Australia has also reported Bluetooth related problems with its national coronavirus app. And has also been reported to be moving towards adopting the Apple-Google API.

While, Singapore, the first country to launch a Bluetooth app for coronavirus contacts tracing, was also the first to run into technical hitches related to platform limits on background access — likely contributing to low download rates for the app (reportedly below 20%).

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This Week in Apps: Zoom gets busted, TikTok’s new record, contact tracing API launches

Posted by | Android, Apple, Apps, bytedance, contact tracing, coronavirus, COVID-19, Extra Crunch, Facebook, Google, instagram, iOS, Mobile, TC, this week in apps, tiktok, WhatsApp | No Comments

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019, according to App Annie’s “State of Mobile” annual report. People are now spending 3 hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

In this Extra Crunch series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

This week we’re continuing to look at how the coronavirus outbreak is impacting the world of mobile applications, including the latest on the U.S. and other international efforts to develop contact-tracing apps, plus the use of live-streaming apps as fundraising tools, the impact of quarantine on iPad apps and more. We’re also tracking news related to Zoom’s latest backtrack, WhatsApp’s plans to enter the credit market, the Instagram pods discovery, TikTok best quarter (better than any app… ever), Facebook’s plan for virtual dating and more.

Headlines

Apple News hits 125M monthly active users

The COVID-19 pandemic has driven a significant increase in how many people are using Apple’s News app on their mobile devices, tablets and Macs. During Apple’s earnings call this week, the company revealed Apple News now sees over 125 million monthly active users in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Australia, up from 100 million in January. Apple, however, did not note how many were subscribed to its $9.99/month premium news service, Apple News+.

Apple & Google release first version of the exposure notification API

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Rode’s new white Wireless GO and accessories extend the flexibility of the most versatile creator mic

Posted by | electronics, Gadgets, hardware, instagram, microphones, Reviews, RØDE, TC, telecommunications, usb, USB-C, wireless, wireless earbuds | No Comments

Sound industry leader Rode has done an amazing job keeping up with the needs of the fast-moving creator industry, supporting YouTubers, podcasters and Instagram and Tik Tok media mavens with a host of new products at impressive price points. The Rode Wireless GO mic system might be the most impressive of these, taking the quality you’d expect from a more expensive wireless mic pack system formerly reserved for broadcast pros and bringing it to the masses at a very compelling price point, with easy setup and use. Now, Rode has introduced a new white version of the Rode Wireless GO, along with new accessories that increase the flexibility of the already very flexible audio device.

I’ve been a fan of the Wireless GO since its launch, and previously used the original black version in a number of different capacities. The white version doesn’t mess with anything that was great about the original — it just gives you a light-colored option that is more suitable for use with light clothes when you’re shooting video. If you’re not already familiar with the Wireless GO, what you get in the box is a transmitter and a receiver (with built-in clips on the back for attachment to clothing), each of which charges via USB-C, along with wind filters, charging cables, a 3.5mm audio cable and a carrying case.

Out of the box, the receiver and transmitter are synced, so all you need to do is power them on to get started. The transmitter comes with a mic built-in, so you can immediately clip it to your collar to get started transmitting sound. The receiver pack can easily slide right into the cold shoe mount on a DSLR or mirrorless camera, and the included standard audio cable can connect from it to the camera’s mic input for direct recording.

The Rode Wireless GO’s USB-C port acts as an audio output, too, so you can use either a USB-C headset or a USB-C to 3.5mm adapter to get direct audio monitoring from the pack, too. On the transmitter side, there’s a 3.5mm input so you can connect a lavalier (or any other) mic to up your audio game even further. Speaking of lavs, Rode also introduced a new white version of its own Lavalier GO lapel mic, which is also a fantastic, affordable option that produces very high-quality results. Below, you can hear both the sound direct from the GO itself, and a sample using the Lavalier GO attached to the transmitter.

The versatility of the Wireless GO means that they’re incredibly useful for a wide range of uses. For instance, I have them connected into a USB audio interface on my main work Mac for use during video calls — I just power them up when it comes time to conference, and no one has to deal with muffled or low-quality audio from my end in terms of clarity and ease of understanding. On the road, the Wireless GO is also a great option for podcasting, providing much better sound than what you can get out of wireless earbuds or built-in device mics. And they’re extremely portable, unlike most USB mics that would also provide a good alternative.

Rode has also debuted a couple of accessories alongside this launch that make them great for even more use cases. The Interview GO adapter, for instance, allows you to mount the transmitter on a handheld mic grip, turning it into a stick mic complete with foam filter to reduce wind sounds and plosives. That means one less mic to carry around when you’re doing on-camera interviews with passersby, or participating in a media scrum.

There’s also a new magnetic clip attachment that means you can easily adapt the Rode Wireless GO transmitter pack to clip anywhere on a subject’s clothing, rather than requiring that it clip to a collar or exposed seam. This is huge for placement flexibility with any outfit, and can help with hiding the pack, too, if you’re looking to get a clean video shot.

Rode’s Wireless GO can also perform some neat tricks that could help with other audio applications, including being able to act as a latency-free wireless converter for any set of headphones. You can connect any input to the 3.5mm port on the transmitter, and then connect a set of headphones to the receiver and get that input piped to you directly.

It’s hard to find any mic system that’s truly a jack-of-all-trades without also having to deal with significant trade-offs in one department or another, but the Rode Wireless GO is pretty near perfect for a range of use at a price point that’s hard to beat. The GO itself costs $199, while the Lavalier GO is $79. The MagClip magnet clip for the transmitter is $19, and the Interview GO handheld mic adapter is $29.

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TikTok tops 2 billion downloads

Posted by | Android, Apple, Apps, bytedance, China, Code Against COVID-19, Facebook, Google Play Store, instagram, Media, Messenger, Mobile, Social, tiktok, WhatsApp | No Comments

TikTok, the widely popular video sharing app developed by one of the world’s most valued startups (ByteDance), continues to grow rapidly despite suspicion from the U.S. as more people look for ways to keep themselves entertained amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The global app and its Chinese version, called Douyin, have amassed over 2 billion downloads on Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store, mobile insight firm Sensor Tower said Wednesday.

TikTok is the first app after Facebook’s marquee app, WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger to break past the 2 billion downloads figure since January 1 of 2014, a Sensor Tower official told TechCrunch. (Sensor Tower began its app analysis on that date.)

A number of apps from Google, the developer of Android, including Gmail and YouTube, have amassed over 5 billion downloads, but they ship pre-installed on most Android smartphones and tables.

TikTok’s 2 billion download milestone, a key metric to assess an app’s growth, comes five months after it surpassed 1.5 billion downloads.

In the quarter that ended on March 31, TikTok was downloaded 315 million times — the highest number of downloads for any app in a quarter and — surpassing its previous best of 205.7 million downloads in Q4 2018. Facebook’s WhatsApp, the second most popular app by volume of downloads, amassed nearly 250 million downloads in Q1 this year, Sensor Tower told TechCrunch.

As the app gains popularity, it is also clocking more revenue. Users have spent about $456.7 million on TikTok to date, up from $175 million five months ago. Much of this spending — about 72.3% — has happened in China. Users in the United States have spent about $86.5 million on the app, making the nation the second most important market for TikTok from the revenue standpoint.

Craig Chapple, a strategist at Sensor Tower, said that not all the downloads are as organic as TikTok, which launched outside of China in 2017 and has engaged in a “large user acquisition campaign.” But he attributed some of the surge in downloads to the COVID-19 outbreak that has driven more people than ever to look for new apps.

India, TikTok’s largest international market, accounts for 30.3% of the app’s downloads, according to Sensor Tower. The app has been downloaded 611 million times in the world’s second largest internet market.

From a platform’s standpoint, 75.5% of all of TikTok’s downloads have occurred through Google Play Store. But the vast majority of spending has come from users on Apple’s ecosystem ($435.3 million of $456 million).

TikTok’s parent firm ByteDance, which was valued at $75 billion two years ago, counts Bank of China, Bank of America, Barclays Bank, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, UBS, SoftBank Group, General Atlantic, and Sequoia Capital China among some of its investors.

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Facebook launches drop-in video chat Rooms to rival Houseparty

Posted by | Apps, Facebook, facebook messenger, Facebook Portal, Facebook Rooms, instagram, Mobile, Social, TC, WhatsApp | No Comments

Facebook is co-opting some of the top video chat innovations like Zoom’s gallery view for large groups and Houseparty’s spontaneous hangouts for a new feature called Rooms. It could usher in a new era of unplanned togetherness via video.

Launching today on mobile and desktop in English speaking countries, you can start a video chat Room that friends can discover via a new section above the News Feed or notifications Facebook will automatically send to your closest pals. You can also just invite specific friends, or share a link anyone can use to join your Room.

For now, up to 8 people can join, but that limit will rise to 50 within weeks, making it a more legitimate alternative to Zoom for big happy hours and such. And more importantly, users will soon be able to create and discover Rooms through Instagram, WhatsApp, and Portal, plus join them from the web without an account, making this Facebook’s first truly interoperable product.

“People just want to spend more time together” Facebook’s head of Messenger Stan Chudnovsky tells me. One-on-one and group video calling was already growing, but “Now in the time of COVID, the whole thing is exploding. We already had a plan to do a bunch of stuff here [so people could] hang out on video any time they want, but we accelerated our plans.” There’s no plans for ads or other direct monetization of Rooms, but the feature could keep Facebook’s products central to people’s lives.

Choosing to create a separate and extremely prominent space for discovering Room above the News Feed reveals how seriously Facebook is taking this product. It could have marooned Rooms in a standalone app or made them just another News Feed post that’s timeliness would get lost in the algorithm. Instead, it was willing to push the feed almost entirely off the start screen beneath the composer, Rooms, and Stories. Clearly Facebook sees sharing, ephemeral content, and synchronous connection as more key to its future than static status updates.

Facebook Goes All-In On Video

The launch of Rooms comes alongside a slew other video-related updates designed to shore up Facebook’s deficiency in many-to-many communication. Messenger and WhatsApp now see 700 million people using audio and video calls each day, while Facebook and Instagram Live videos now reach 800 million people per day. Facebook already owns the many-to-one feeds and has emerged as a leader in one-to-many livestreaming, but “the middle piece needed way more investment” Chudnovsky says.

Here’s a rundown of the other announcements and what they mean:

  • Virtual And 360 Backgrounds with mood lighting – Facebook will soon launch the ability to choose a virtual background to cover up what’s behind you on a video call, including 360 backgrounds that look different as you move around, plus mood lighting to make you look better on camera

  • WhatsApp expands group calls from four to eight max participants – Encompassing larger families and friend groups makes WhatsApp a more viable competitor to Zoom

  • Facebook Live With returns – It’s tough to be the center of attention for long periods, so being able to bring a guest on screen during Live calls keeps them interesting and low pressure
  • Donate button on live videos – This makes it much easier for musicians, activists, and normal people to raise money for causes during the coronavirus crisis
  • Live via audio only – With more musicians bringing their tours to Facebook Live, now you can listen while still going about your day when you can’t watch too or want to conserve data, and you can use a toll-free number to dial in to some Pages’ videos
  • Instagram Live on web – You can now watch Live videos and comment from desktop so you can multi-task during longer streams

  • Live on IGTV – Long live videos won’t have to disappear since they can now be saved to IGTV, encouraging higher quality Instagram Lives meant to last
  • Portal Live – You’ll now be able to go Live to Pages and Groups from Portal devices so you can move around while streaming

  • Facebook Dating Video Chat – Rather than going on a date where you have no chemistry, you’ll be able to video chat with matches on Facebook Dating to get a feel for someone first.

How To Use Facebook Rooms

Facebook strived to make Rooms launchable and discoverable across all its apps in hopes of blitzing into the space. You can launch a Room from the News Feed composer, Groups, Events, the Messenger inbox, and soon Instagram Direct’s video chat button, WhatsApp, and Portal. You’ll be able to choose a start time, add a description, and choose who can join in three ways.

You can restrict your Room just to people you invite, such as for a family catch-up. You can make it open to all your friends, who’ll be able to see it in the new Rooms discovery tray above the News Feed or inbox and eventually similar surfaces in the other apps. In this case, Facebook may notify some close friends to make sure they’ll see it. Or you can share a link to your Room wherever you want, effectively making it public.

Facebook apparently watched the PR disaster that emerged from Zoombombing, and purposefully built security into Rooms. The host can lock the room to block people from joining via URL, and if they boot someone from a Room, it automatically locks until they unlock it. That ensures that if trolls find your link, they can’t just keep joining from the web.

Naturally, Chudnovsky tried to downplay the influence of Zoom and Houseparty on Rooms. “We’re glad there are many other apps people can use when they want to see each other and stay close to each other. I don’t think we necessarily learned anything that actually became part of this product” he insisted. It’s also convenient that Rooms is essentially a non-exclusive video version of Clubhouse, the voice chat app that’s the talk of Silicon Valley right now

The Uncopyable Copier

Facebook has been quietly working on Rooms since at least 2017, exploring how to make group chats discoverable. It tried a standalone app for group video chat discovery called Bonfire that year. In fact, Facebook launched a standalone app called Rooms back in 2014 for anonymous forums.

The genius of this launch is how it combines three of Facebook’s biggest strengths to build a product that copies others but is hard to copy itself.

  • The ubiquity of its messaging apps and web compatibility make Rooms highly accessible, without the friction of having to download a new app.
  • The frequency of visits to its feeds and inboxes where Rooms can be found by the family of apps’ 2.5 billion users plus Facebook’s willingness to bet big by sticking Rooms atop our screen like it did with Stories could unlock a new era of spontaneous, serendipitous socializing.
  • The social graph we’ve developed with great breadth across Facebook’s apps plus the depth of its understanding about who we care about most allow it to reach enough concurrent users to make Rooms fun by intelligently ranking which we see and who gets notifications to join rather than spamming your whole phone book.

No other app has all of these qualities. Zoom doesn’t know who you care about. Houseparty is growing but is far from ubiquitous. Messaging competitors don’t have the same discovery surfaces.

Facebook knows the real engagement on mobile comes from messaging. It just needed a way to make us message more than our one-on-one threads and asynchronous group chats demanded. Rooms makes video calls something you can passively discover and join rather having to actively initiate or be explicitly pulled into by a friend. That could significantly increase how often and long we use Facebook without the deleterious impacts of zombie-like asocial feed scrolling.

For more of this author Josh Constine’s thoughts on tech, join his newsletter Moving Product

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Report: Apple’s iOS 14 contains code that would let you sample apps before download

Posted by | Android, app-store, Apple, apple inc, Apps, developers, DoorDash, Google, instagram, iOS, ios 11, iOS 14, ios 7, iTunes, macos, Mobile, OpenTable, operating systems, siri, Sony, Yelp | No Comments

Apple has under development a feature that would allow iOS users to interact with a third-party app, even if the app wasn’t yet installed on your device, according to a report from 9to5Mac. The report is based on information discovered in the iOS 14 code, which is not necessarily an indication of launch plans on Apple’s part — but rather an insight into some of Apple’s work in progress.

The feature is referenced internally as the “Clips” API — not to be confused with Apple’s video editing app of the same name. Based on 9to5Mac’s analysis, the new API works in conjunction with the QR Code reader, allowing a user to scan a code linked to an app, then interact with that app from a card that appears on their screen.

Described like this, the feature sounds like a marketing tool for app publishers, as it would offer a way for users to try out new apps before they download them to get a better feel for the experience than a banner ad would allow. In addition to offering some interactivity with an app before it’s downloaded, the card could also be used to redirect users to the App Store if they choose to download the full version. The card could also be used to open the app directly to the content, in the case of apps the user already had installed.

Google’s Android, the report noted, offers a similar feature called “Slices,” launched in 2018. While Google had already introduced a way to interact with small pieces of an app in an experience called Instant Apps, the newer Slices feature was meant to drive usage of apps — like booking a ride or hotel room, for example, without having to first locate the app and launch it. On iOS, perhaps, these app “clips” could be pulled up by Siri or in Spotlight search — but that functionality wasn’t demonstrated by the code the report referenced today.

It’s unclear what Apple’s intentions are with the Clips API or how experimental its efforts are at this time.

However, the report found the feature was being tested with OpenTable, Yelp, DoorDash, Sony (the PS4 Second Screen app) and YouTube. This could indicate a plan to demo examples of the app’s functionality in a future reveal to developers.

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WhatsApp introduces new limit on message forwards to fight spread of misinformation

Posted by | Android, Apps, coronavirus, COVID-19, Covid19, Facebook, instagram, Messenger, Social, Stan Chudnovsky, TC, WhatsApp | No Comments

WhatsApp is imposing additional restriction on how frequently a message can be shared on its platform in its latest effort to curtail the spread of misinformation.

The Facebook -owned instant messaging service said today that any message that has been forwarded five or more times will now face a new limit that will prevent a user from forwarding it to more than one chat (contact) at a time.

A spokesperson told TechCrunch that WhatsApp will roll out this change to users worldwide today.

Today’s move builds on WhatsApp’s effort from last year when it limited users from forwarding a message to more than five users at once. The service, used by more than 2 billion users, said the move allowed it to reduce the volume of message forwards globally by 25%.

The end-to-end encryption on WhatsApp — which the company is fighting for in several markets — prevents it from reading the content of a message, so it relies on metadata of a message to gauge its spread.

“Is all forwarding bad? Certainly not,” the company wrote in a blogpost today. “However, we’ve seen a significant increase in the amount of forwarding which users have told us can feel overwhelming and can contribute to the spread of misinformation. We believe it’s important to slow the spread of these messages down to keep WhatsApp a place for personal conversation.”

More than a dozen deaths in recent years — several in WhatsApp’s biggest market, India — have been linked to viral circulation of misinformation on Facebook’s service.

Facebook has moved to take several efforts in recent weeks as the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic. Last month, it announced free developer tools for Messenger to combat COVID-19, and introduced an info centre atop of the news feed to prominently showcase reliable information.

Additionally, the company is also working with nonprofit organizations such as the WHO to build helplines, and has committed to donate millions of dollars. The World Health Organization’s helpline on Messenger and WhatsApp has already reached more than 10 million users, days after its launch. The Indian government also launched a helpdesk bot on WhatsApp last month.

But the vast reach of Facebook has also attracted scammers. “Unfortunately, scammers may try to take advantage of people’s vulnerability and generosity during this time,” wrote Stan Chudnovsky, VP of Messenger.

WhatsApp has also been testing a feature on the beta version of its Android app that gives users the ability to quickly comb through the web with the text or video they have received for more context.

Images credit: @shrinivassg

A spokesperson said the platform plans to roll out this feature in the near future.

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‘Content network effect’ makes TikTok tough to copy

Posted by | Apps, Content Network Effect, Entertainment, Facebook, Facebook Lasso, instagram, Instagram Reels, Media, Mobile, network effects, Remix Culture, Remixes, Social, TC, tiktok, YouTube, YouTube Shorts | No Comments

Many TikTok videos don’t start from scratch, so neither can its competitors. TikTok is all about remixes where users shoot a new video to recontextualize audio pulled from someone else’s clip, or riff on an existing meme or concept. That only works because TikTok’s had time to build up an immense armory of content to draw inspiration from.

Creators will find themselves unequipped trying to get started on TikTok copycats including Facebook Lasso, and Instagram Reels which is testing in Brazil. Direct competitors like Triller and Dubsmash are racing to build up their archives. YouTube Shorts, which The Information today reported is in development, only has a shot if Google lets users harness the 5 billion videos people already watch on YouTube each day.

This is the power of what I call “content network effect”: Each piece of content adds value to the rest. That’s TikTok.

You’re likely familiar with traditional network effect — ‘a phenomenon whereby a product or service gains additional value as more people use it.’ It’s not just the network itself that gains value, as the value delivered to each user increases too. Today’s top social networks are shining examples. The more people there are on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, the more people you can connect to, and the more material their relevance algorithms can draw on to fill your feeds.

If you had to choose between using two identical social networks, you’re probably going to pick the one with more friends or creators already onboard. Network effects raise the switching cost of moving to a different network. Even if it has better features, fewer ads, or less misinformation and bullying, you’re unlikely to leave a robust network behind and decamp to a sparser one. That makes scaled social networks difficult to Disrupt. All the top ones have been around for almost a decade or more.

Except for TikTok. The Chinese music/video app has managed to demonstrate a new concept of “content network effect”. In its case, each video uploaded to the app makes every future potential video more valuable. That’s because all the content on TikTok serves as remix fodder for the rest. Every song, dance, joke, prank, and monologue generates resources for other creators to exploit. It’s a bottomless well of inspiration.

Remixability, the ultimate creative tool

TikTok productizes remix culture by making it easy to “use this sound”. Tap the audio button on any video and it becomes yours. Click through and you’ll see all the other videos that use it. TikTok even offers a whole search engine for sorting through sounds by categories like Trending, Greatest Hits, Love, Gaming, and travel. Sometimes remixes are based on an idea rather than an audio. #FlipTheSwitch sees couples instantly swapping clothes when the light flicks off, and has collected over 3.6 billion videos across over 500,000 remixed versions of the video.

You can even duet with the original creator, sharing your video and theirs side-by-side simultaneously. A solo performance becomes a chorus as more duets are hitched together. Meanwhile, remixes of remixes of remixes provide an esoteric reward for hardcore users who recognize how a gag has evolved or spiraled into absurdity.

Other apps in the past have spawned video responses, hashtags, quote-tweets, surveys, and chain letters and other ways for pieces of content to interact or iterate. And there’s always been parodies. But TikTok proves the power of forging a social app with content network effect at its core.

Facilitating remixes offers a way to lower the bar for producing user generated content. You’d don’t have to be astoundingly creative or original to make something entertaining. Each individual’s life experiences inform their perspective that could let them interpret an idea in a new way.

What began with someone ripping audio of two people chanting “don’t be Suspicious, don’t be suspicious” while sneaking through a graveyard in TV show Parks & Recs led to people lipsyncing it while trying to escape their infant’s room without waking them up, leaving the house wearing clothes they stole from their sister’s closet, trying to keep a llama as a pet, and photoshopping themselves to look taller. Unless someone’s already done the work to record an audio clip, there’s nothing to inspire and enable others to put their spin on it.

TikTok’s archive vs the world

That’s why I wrote that Mark Zuckerberg misunderstands the huge threat of TikTok after the CEO told Facebook’s staff that “I kind of think about TikTok as if it were Explore for Stories”. Facebook and Instagram found massive success cloning Snapchat Stories because all they had to do was copy its features. Stories are autobiographical life vlogging. All you need are the creative tools, which Instagram and Facebook rebuilt, and people to share to, which the apps had billions of.

But TikTok isn’t about sharing what you’re up to like Stories that typically start from scratch since each user’s life is different. It’s micro-entertainment powered by content network effect. If TikTok competitors give people the same video recording features and distribution potential, they’ll still be missing the archive of source material.

Facebook’s Lasso looks just like TikTok but it’s failed to gain steam since launching in November 2018. Instagram Reels smartly copies TikTok’s remixing tools, but if the Brazilian tests go well and it eventually launches in English, it will start out flat footed.

When YouTube launches Shorts, as The Information’s Alex Heath and Jessica Toonkel report it’s planning to do before the end of the year, it will be buried inside its main app. That could make it impossible to compete with a dedicated app like TikTok that opens straight to its For You page. Its one saving grace would be if YouTube unlocks its entire database of videos for remixing.

Thanks to its position as the default place to host videos and its experience with searchability that Facebook and Instagram lack, YouTube Shorts could at least have all the ingredients necessary. But given YouTube’s non-stop failures in social with everything from Google+ to YouTube Stories to its dozen deadpooled messaging apps, it may not have the chef skills necessary to combine them.

[Postscript: Or maybe YouTube will be worse at cloning TikTok than anyone. Record labels and YouTube should understand that short videos promote rather than pirate music, as TikTok propelling Lil Nas X and many other musicians up the charts prove. But if YouTube ruthlessly applies Content ID and takes down Shorts with unauthorized audio, the feature is dead in the water.]

Other social networks should consider how the concept applies to them. Could Facebook turn your friends’ photos into collage materials? Could Instagram let you share themed collections of your favorite posts? Remix culture isn’t going away, so neither will the value of fostering content network effects. With video consumption outpacing professional production, remixes are how the world will stay entertained and how amateurs can contribute creations worthy of going viral.

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Facebook Messenger preps Auto Status location type sharing

Posted by | Apps, Facebook, facebook messenger, Facebook Messenger emoji status, instagram, Instagram Threads, location sharing, Mobile, Social, TC | No Comments

Facebook Messenger could soon automatically tell your closest friends you’re at the gym, driving or in Tokyo. Messenger has been spotted prototyping a ported version of the Instagram close friends-only Threads app’s Auto Status option that launched in October.

The unreleased Messenger feature would use your location, accelerometer and battery life to determine what you’re up to and share it with a specific subset of your friends. But instead of sharing your exact coordinates, it overlays an emoji on your Messenger profile pic to indicate that you’re at the movies, biking, at the airport or charging your phone.

It’s unclear if or when Messenger might launch Auto Status. But if released, the feature could become Facebook’s version of the AOL Away Message, allowing people to stay in closer touch without the creepiness of exact location sharing. It might also help people coordinate online or offline meetups by revealing what friends are up to. Auto Status creates an ice breaker, so if it says a close friend is “at a cafe,” or “chilling,” you could ask to hang out.

Back in 2016, I wrote about how exact location sharing had failed to become mainstream because knowing where someone is doesn’t tell you their intention. What matters is whether they’re free to interact with you, which none of the social networks offered.

A few products, like Down To Lunch and Free, came and went in the meantime. Snapchat’s Snap Map and its acquisition of Zenly both doubled down on precise location sharing, yet still we’re often stuck home wondering if anyone we care about is similarly bored and might want to hang out.

Facebook has been experimenting in this space since at least early 2018, when its manual Emoji Status was spotted. That allowed you to append an emoji of your choosing to your Messenger profile pic. Then in October, Facebook introduced Auto Status, but only in the Instagram side-app Threads.

Some users were initially creeped out by the idea of Facebook relaying battery status. But Instagram director of Product Management Robby Stein explained to me that because you might not respond to a message if your phone goes dead or is left on the charger, it’s useful info to relay to friends who might be wondering what you’re doing.

Then earlier this month, reverse engineering master and constant TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong revealed a new, unreleased version of Emoji Status hidden in Messenger’s Android code. Then today, Wong showed off how she similarly spotted Facebook trying to port Auto Status to Messenger. That would bring the feature to more than one billion monthly users compared to the relatively small base for Threads.

With Auto Status, you can “Let specific friends see what you’re up to as you go about your day. Share location info, weather, and more, even when you’re not in the app.” Auto Status is only visible to a special list of friends you can change at any time, similar to Instagram Close Friends. And the feature shares “no addresses or place names. Just types of locations, like “at a cafe.” Movement (driving, biking, walking), venue (at the movies, airport), cities (in Tokyo) and battery status (low battery, charging) are some of categories of what Auto Status shares.

A Facebook Messenger communications representative confirmed to TechCrunch that the Auto Status feature was being prototyped by Messenger, noting that “We’re always exploring new features to improve your Messenger experience. This feature is still in early development and not externally testing.” The company also tweeted the statement.

One of the biggest unsolved problems in social networking and messaging remains knowing whether friends are free to chat or hang out without having to ask them directly. Reaching out at the wrong time only to be ignored or rejected can feel awkward or intimidating, and can discourage connection later. But if you have a vague idea of what a close friend is up to, you can more deftly plan when to message them, and be more likely to get to spend time together in person or just online.

That could be a cure to the loneliness that endless feed scrolling by ourselves can leave us feeling.

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Instagram launches Co-Watching of posts during video chat

Posted by | Apps, coronavirus, COVID-19, facebook messenger, Facebook Watch together, instagram, Instagram Co-Founder Kevin Systrom Interview, Instagram Direct, Instagram video calling, Media, Mobile, privacy, Screensharing, Social, Squad, Startups, TC | No Comments

Now you can scroll Instagram together with friends, turning a typically isolating, passive experience into something more social and active. Today Instagram launched Co-Watching, which lets friends on a video chat or group video chat browse through feed posts one user has Liked or Saved, or that Instagram recommends.

Co-Watching could let people ooh, ahh, joke and talk about Instagram’s content instead of just consuming it solo and maybe posting it to a chat thread so friends can do the same. That could lead to long usage sessions, incentivize users to collect a great depository of Saved posts to share and spur more video calls that drag people into the app. TechCrunch first reported Instagram was testing Co-Watching a year ago, so we’ll see if it managed to work out the technical and privacy questions of operating the feature.

The launch comes alongside other COVID-19 responses from Instagram that include:

  • Showing a shared Instagram Story featuring all the posts from you network that include the “Stay Home” sticker
  • Adding Story stickers that remind people to wash their hands or keep their distance from others
  • Adding coronavirus educational info to the top of results for related searches
  • Removing unofficial COVID-19 accounts from recommendations, as well as virus-related content from Explore if it doesn’t come from a credible health organization
  • Expanding the donation sticker to more countries so people can search for and ask friends for contributions to relevant nonprofits

These updates build on Instagram’s efforts from two weeks ago, which included putting COVID-19 prevention tips atop the feed, listing official health organizations atop search results and demoting the reach of coronavirus-related content rated false by fact checkers.

But Co-Watching will remain a powerful feature long after the quarantines and social distancing end. The ability to co-view content while browsing social networks has already made screensharing app Squad popular. When Squad launched in January 2019, I suggested that, “With Facebook and Snap already sniffing around Squad, it’s quite possible they’ll try to copy it.” Facebook tested a Watch Together feature for viewing Facebook Watch videos inside Messenger back in April. And now here we are with Instagram.

The question is whether Squad’s first-mover advantage and option to screenshare from any app will let it hold its own, or if Instagram Co-Watching will just popularize the concept and send users searching for more flexible options like Squad. “Everyone knows that the content flooding our feeds is a filtered version of reality,” Squad CEO Esther Crawford told me. “The real and interesting stuff goes down in DMs because people are more authentic when they’re 1:1 or in small group conversations.”

Squad, which lets you screenshare anything, including websites and your camera roll, won’t be fully steamrolled. When asked if Instagram would build a full-fledged screensharing feature, Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri said they’re “Not currently working on it . . . screensharing is not at the top of the list for us at Instagram.”

With Co-Watching, Instagram users can spill the tea and gossip about posts live and unfiltered over video chat. When people launch a video chat from the Direct inbox or a chat thread, they’ll see a “Posts” button that launches Co-Watching. They’ll be able to pick from their Liked, Saved or Explore feeds and then reveal it to the video chat, with everyone’s windows lined up beneath the post.

Up to six people can Co-Watch at once on Instagram, consuming feed photos and videos but not IGTV posts. You can share public posts, or private ones that everyone in the chat are allowed to see. If one participant is blocked from viewing a post, it’s ineligible for Co-Watching.

Co-Watching could finally provide an answer to Instagram’s Time Well Spent problem. Research shows how the real danger in social network overuse is passive content consumption, like endless solo feed scrolling. It can inspire envy, poor self-esteem and leave users deflated, especially if the highlights of everyone else’s lives look more interesting than their own day-to-day reality. But active sharing, commenting and messaging can have a positive effect on well-being, making people feel like they have a stronger support network.

With Co-Watching, Instagram has found a way to turn the one-player experience into a multi-player game. Especially now with everyone stuck at home and unable to crowd around one person’s phone to gab about what they see, there’s a great need for this new feature. One concern is that it could be used for bullying, with people all making fun of someone’s posts.

But in general, the idea of sifting through cute animal photos, dance tutorials or epic art could take the focus off the individuals in a video chat. Not having one’s face as the center of attention could make video chat less performative and exhausting. Instead, Co-Watching could let us do apart what we love to do together: just hang out.

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