Mobile

Mid-range flagships like the Honor 20 Pro are giving premium phones a run for their money

Posted by | hardware, Honor, huawei, Mobile, smartphones | No Comments

Phone sales have been trending downward for some time now. There are a number of reasons for this — many of which you can read about in this piece I published last week. The creeping cost of premium handsets is pretty high on that list, with flagships now routinely topping $1,000 from many of the big names.

The big smartphone makers have begun to react to this, with budget flagship alternatives like the iPhone XR, Galaxy S10e and Pixel 3a. A new crop of mid-range flagships, however, are giving them a run for their money and serving as an important reminder that a quality handset doesn’t need to be priced in the four digits.

The Honor 20 Pro fits nicely in the latter camp, joining the likes of the recently announced OnePlus 7 Pro and Asus ZenFone 6 in demonstrating that premium specs can still be had for what was once considered a reasonable flagship price.

Of course, before we get into specifics of pricing with the newly announced handset, it bears mentioning whether Honor, a brand owned by Huawei, will actually ever make it to the States. That’s all pretty complicated — like Donald Trump in a trade war with with China complicated. The pricing on the London-launched Pro version is €599, putting it at around $670.

The phone’s got Huawei’s latest and greatest Kirin 980 processor, coupled with a 6.26-inch display with hole-punch cutout and a quartet of rear-facing cameras. Those include a wide angle with 117-degree shots, 48-megapixel main, telephoto and a macro, which is an interesting addition to the standard array. The Pro’s out at some point in the June or July time frame.

Huawei bans aside, it will be interesting to see how this new crop of more affordable premium devices impacts the rest of the big names up top.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Instagram’s IGTV copies TikTok’s AI, Snapchat’s design

Posted by | Apps, instagram, Instagram IGTV, instagram video, Mobile, Snapchat, Snapchat Discover, Social, Startups, TC, tiktok | No Comments

Instagram conquered Stories, but it’s losing the battle for the next video formats. TikTok is blowing up with an algorithmically suggested vertical one-at-a-time feed featuring videos of users remixing each other’s clips. Snapchat Discover’s 2 x infinity grid has grown into a canvas for multi-media magazines, themed video collections and premium mobile TV shows.

Instagram’s IGTV…feels like a flop in comparison. Launched a year ago, it’s full of crudely cropped and imported viral trash from around the web. The long-form video hub that lives inside both a homescreen button in Instagram as well as a standalone app has failed to host lengthier must-see original vertical content. Sensor Tower estimates that the IGTV app has just 4.2 million installs worldwide, with just 7,700 new ones per day — implying less than half a percent of Instagram’s billion-plus users have downloaded it. IGTV doesn’t rank on the overall charts and hangs low at No. 191 on the US – Photo & Video app charts, according to App Annie.

Now Instagram has quietly overhauled the design of IGTV’s space inside its main app to crib what’s working from its two top competitors. The new design showed up in last week’s announcements for Instagram Explore’s new Shopping and IGTV discovery experiences. At the time, Instagram’s product lead on Explore Will Ruben told us that with the redesign, “the idea is this is more immersive and helps you to see the breadth of videos in IGTV rather than the horizontal scrolling interface that used to exist,” but the company declined to answer follow-up questions about it.

IGTV has ditched its category-based navigation system’s tabs like “For You”, “Following”, “Popular”, and “Continue Watching” for just one central feed of algorithmically suggested videos — much like TikTok. This affords a more lean-back, ‘just show me something fun’ experience that relies on Instagram’s AI to analyze your behavior and recommend content instead of putting the burden of choice on the viewer.

IGTV has also ditched its awkward horizontal scrolling design that always kept a clip playing in the top half of the screen. Now you’ll scroll vertically through a 2 x infinity grid of recommended clips in what looks just like a Snapchat Discover feed. Once you get past a first video that auto-plays up top, you’ll find a full-screen grid of things to watch. You’ll only see the horizontal scroller in the standalone IGTV app, or if you tap into an IGTV video, and then tap the Browse button for finding a next clip while the last one plays up top.

Instagram seems to be trying to straddle the designs of its two competitors. The problem is that TikTok’s one-at-a-time feed works great for punchy, short videos that get right to the point. If you’re bored after five seconds you swipe to the next. IGTV’s focus on long-form means its videos might start too slowly to grab your attention if they were auto-played full-screen in the feed rather than being chosen by a viewer. But Snapchat makes the most of the two previews per row design IGTV has adopted because professional publishers take the time to make compelling cover thumbnail images promoting their content. IGTV’s focus on independent creators means fewer have labored to make great cover images, so viewers have to rely on a screenshot and caption.

Instagram is prototyping a number of other features to boost engagement across its app, as discovered by reverse-engineering specialist and frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong. Those include options to blast a direct message to all your Close Friends at once but in individual message threads, see a divider between notifications and likes you have or haven’t seen, or post a Chat sticker to Stories that lets friends join a group message thread about that content. And to better compete with TikTok, it may let you add lyrics stickers to Stories that appear word-by-word in sync with Instagram’s licensed music soundtrack feature, and share Music Stories to Facebook. What we haven’t seen is any cropping tool for IGTV that would help users reformat landscape videos. The vertical-only restriction keeps lots of great content stuck outside IGTV, or letterboxed with black, color-matched backgrounds, or meme-style captions with the video as just a tiny slice in the middle.

When I spoke with Instagram co-founder and ex-CEO Kevin Systrom last year a few months after IGTV’s launch, he told me, “It’s a new format. It’s different. We have to wait for people to adopt it and that takes time . . . Everything that is great starts small.”

But to grow large, IGTV needs to demonstrate how long-form portrait mode video can give us a deeper look at the nuances of the influencers and topics we care about. The company has rightfully prioritized other drives like safety and well-being with features that hide bullies and deter overuse. But my advice from August still stands despite all the ground Instagram has lost in the meantime. “Concentrate on teaching creators how to find what works on the format and incentivizing them with cash and traffic. Develop some must-see IGTV and stoke a viral blockbuster. Prove the gravity of extended, personality-driven vertical video.” Until the content is right, it won’t matter how IGTV surfaces it.

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Select FCC leaders announce support for T-Mobile, Sprint merger

Posted by | FCC, M&A, Mobile, Policy, sprint, T-Mobile | No Comments

It’s been more than a year since T-Mobile and Sprint formally announced a merger agreement. This morning, members of FCC leadership have issued statements voicing their support for the $26 billion proposal.

Ajit Pai was first out with a statement, suggesting that the pricey consolidation of two of the Unites States’ largest carriers would help accelerate his longstanding desire to provide more internet coverage to rural areas.

“Demonstrating that 5G will indeed benefit rural Americans,” Pai wrote, “T-Mobile and Sprint have promised that their network would cover at least two-thirds of our nation’s rural population with highs peed, mid-band 5G, which could improve the economy and quality of life in many small towns across the country.”

The FCC chairman went on to suggest that the merger “is in the public interest,” adding that he would recommend fellow members of the commission’s leadership approve it. Commissioner Brendan Carr followed soon after with his own statement of approval, suggesting that a merger would actually increase competition.

“I support the combination of T-Mobile and Sprint because Americans across the country will see more competition and an accelerated buildout of fast, 5G services,” the Commissioner writes. “The proposed transaction will strengthen competition in the U.S. wireless market and provide mobile and in-home broadband access to communities that demand better coverage and more choices.”

A number of ground rules have been laid out for approval. In a bid for approval, Sprint has promised to sell off prepaid brand Boost Mobile. “[W]e have committed to divest Sprint’s Boost pre-paid business to a third party following the closing of the merger,” T-Mobile CEO John Legere said in a blog post following the statements of support. “We’ll work to find a serious, credible, financially capable and independent buyer for all the assets needed to run – and grow – the business, and we’ll make sure that buyer has attractive wholesale arrangements.”

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Trump’s Huawei ban also causing tech shocks in Europe

Posted by | Android, China, Europe, european commission, finland, Google, Google Play, Government, huawei, Jolla, Mobile, Nokia, play store, Qwant, Sami Pienimäki, search engine, smartphone, smartphones, stmicroelectronics, Trade war, trump, United States | No Comments

The escalating U.S.-China trade war that’s seen Chinese tech giant Huawei slapped on a U.S. trade blacklist is causing ripples of shock across Europe too, as restrictions imposed on U.S. companies hit regional suppliers concerned they could face U.S. restrictions if they don’t ditch Huawei.

Reuters reports shares fell sharply today in three European chipmakers — Infineon Technologies, AMS and STMicroelectronics — after reports suggested some already had, or were about to, halt shipments to Huawei following the executive order barring U.S. firms from trading with the Chinese tech giant.

The interconnectedness of high-tech supply chains coupled with U.S. dominance of the sector and Huawei’s strong regional position as a supplier of cellular, IT and network kit in Europe suddenly makes political risk a fast-accelerating threat for EU technology companies, large and small.

On the small side is French startup Qwant, which competes with Google by offering a pro-privacy search engine. In recent months it has been hoping to leverage a European antitrust decision against Google  Android last year to get smartphones to market in Europe that preload its search engine, not Google’s.

Huawei was its intended first major partner for such devices. Though, prior to recent trade war developments, it was already facing difficulties related to price incentives Google included in reworked EU Android licensing terms.

Still, the U.S.-China trade war threatens to throw a far more existential spanner in European Commission efforts to reset the competitive planning field for smartphone services — certainly if Google’s response to Huawei’s blacklisting is to torch its supply of almost all Android-related services, per Reuters.

A key aim of the EU antitrust decision was intended to support the unbundling of popular Google services from Android so that device makers can try selling combinations that aren’t entirely Google-flavored — while still being able to offer enough “Google” to excite consumers (such as preloading the Play Store but with a different search and browser bundle instead of the usual Google + Chrome combo).

Yet if Google intends to limit Huawei’s access to such key services, there’s little chance of that.

(In a statement responding to the Reuters report Google suggested it’s still deciding how to proceed, with a spokesperson writing: “We are complying with the order and reviewing the implications. For users of our services, Google Play and the security protections from Google Play Protect will continue to function on existing Huawei devices.”)

Going on Google’s initial response, Qwant co-founder and CEO Eric Léandri told us he thinks Google has overreacted — even as he dubbed the U.S.-China trade war “world war III — economical war but it’s a world war for sure.”

“I really need to see exactly what President Trump has said about Huawei and how to work with them. Because I think maybe Google has overreacted. Because I haven’t [interpreted it] that way so I’m very surprised,” he told TechCrunch.

“If Huawei can be [blacklisted] what about the others?,” he added. “Because I would say 60% of the cell phone sales in Europe today are coming from China. Huawei or ZTE, OnePlus and the others — they are all under the same kind of risk.

“Even some of our European brands who are very small like Nokia… all of them are made in China, usually with partnership with these big cell phone manufacturers. So that means several things but one thing that I’m sure is we should not rely on one OS. It would be difficult to explain how the Play Store is not as important as the search in Android.”

Léandri also questioned whether Google’s response to the blacklisting will include instructing Huawei not to even use its search engine — a move that could impact its share of the smartphone search market.

“At the end of the day there is just one thing I can say because I’m just a search engine and a European one — I haven’t seen Google asking to not be by default in Huawei as search engine. If they can be in the Huawei by default as a search engine so I presume that everyone else can be there.”

Léandri said Qwant will be watching to see what Huawei’s next steps will be — such as whether it will decide to try offering devices with its own store baked in in Europe.

And indeed how China will react.

“We have to understand the result politically, globally, the European consequences. The European attitude. It’s not only American and China — the rest of the world exists,” he said.

“I have plan b, plan c, plan d, plan f. To be clear we are a startup — so we can have tonnes of plans, The only thing is right now is it’s too enormous.

“I know that they are the two giants in the tech field… but the rest of the world have some words today and let’s see how the European Commission will react, my government will react and some of us will react because it’s not only a small commercial problem right now. It’s a real political power demonstration and it’s global so I will not be more — I am nobody in all this. I do my job and I do my job well and I will use the maximum opportunity that I can find on the market.”

We’ve reached out to the Commission to ask how it intends to respond to escalating risks for European tech firms as Trump’s trade war steps up.

Also today, Reuters reports that the German Economy Minister is examining the impact of U.S. sanctions against Huawei on local companies.

But while a startup like Qwant waits to see what the next few months will bring — and how the landscape of the smartphone market might radically reconfigure in the face of sharply spiking political risk, a different European startup is hoping to catch some uplift: Finland-based Jolla steers development of a made-in-Europe Android alternative, called Sailfish OS.

It’s a very tiny player in a Google-dominated smartphone world. Yet could be positioned to make gains amid U.S. and Chinese tech clashes — which in turn risk making major platform pieces feel a whole lot less stable.

A made-in-Europe non-Google-led OS might gain more ground among risk averse governments and enterprises — as a sensible hedge against Trump-fueled global uncertainty.

“Sailfish OS, as a non-American, open-source based, secure mobile OS platform, is naturally an interesting option for different players — currently the interest is stronger among corporate and governmental customers and partners, as our product offering is clearly focused on this segment,” says Jolla co-founder and CEO Sami Pienimäki .

“Overall, there definitely has been increased interest towards Sailfish OS as a mobile OS platform in different parts of the world, partly triggered by the on-going political activity in many locations. We have also had clearly more discussions with e.g. Chinese device manufacturers, and Jolla has also recently started new corporate and governmental customer projects in Europe.”

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Google reportedly suspends select business with Huawei over U.S. ban

Posted by | Android, Apps, Google, huawei, Mobile | No Comments

The Trump administration Huawei ban is sure to have wide-ranging and long lasting effects for all parties. In the meantime, it seems, a number of those involved in the periphery are treading lightly in hope of not burning bridges on either side. Google has taken accidental center stage, in its role providing Android and a variety of apps for the embattled handset maker.

According to a new report from Reuters, the U.S. software giant has taken some steps toward disentangling itself. Word comes from unnamed sources, who say the company has suspended all businesses with Huawei, aside from those covered by open-source licenses. The list appears to include updates to Android and popular apps like Gmail.

From the sound of it, Google is still attempting to wrap its head around how to proceed with the matter. Huawei, too, is assessing its options. Given the complexity of smartphone hardware and software, handsets routinely utilize components source from a variety of different locations. This fact has complicated things as trade tensions have begun to rise, hitting ZTE particularly hard over accusations that the company had violated U.S.-Iran sanctions.

Huawei has called the ban bad for all parties, but has continued to be defiant, noting its plans to become “self-reliant.” The company has no doubt been preparing for the seeming inevitability of heightened trade tensions, but its determination has some industry observers unconvinced that it can carry on with without any input from Google or U.S. chipmakers like Qualcomm.

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At this point, SoftBank Group is really just its Vision Fund

Posted by | ARM Holdings, Asia, Media, Mobile, SoftBank Group, Softbank Vision Fund, sprint, Tariffs, Venture Capital, yahoo japan | No Comments

Last week, SoftBank Group Corp. — Masayoshi Son’s holding company for his rapidly expanding collection of businesses — reported its fiscal year financials. There were some major headlines that came out of the news, including that the company’s Vision Fund appears to be doing quite well and that SoftBank intends to increase its stake in Yahoo Japan.

Now that the dust has settled a bit, I wanted to dive into all 80 pages of the full financial results to see what else we can learn about the conglomerate’s strategy and future.

The Vision Fund is just dominating the financials

We talk incessantly about the Vision Fund here at TechCrunch, mostly because the fund seems to be investing in every startup that generates revenue and walks up and down Sand Hill looking for capital. During the last fiscal year ending March 31st, the fund added 36 new investments and reached 69 active holdings. The total invested capital was a staggering $60.1 billion.

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The state of the smartphone

Posted by | Apple, hardware, Mobile, Samsung, smartphone | No Comments

Earlier this month, Canalys used the word “freefall” to describe its latest reporting. Global shipments fell 6.8% year over year. At 313.9 million, they were at their lowest level in nearly half a decade.

Of the major players, Apple was easily the hardest hit, falling 23.2% year over year. The firm says that’s the “largest single-quarter decline in the history of the iPhone.” And it’s not an anomaly, either. It’s part of a continued slide for the company, seen most recently in its Q1 earnings, which found the handset once again missing Wall Street expectations. That came on the tail of a quarter in which Apple announced it would no longer be reporting sales figures.

Tim Cook has placed much of the iPhone’s slide at the feet of a disappointing Chinese market. It’s been a tough nut for the company to crack, in part due to a slowing national economy. But there’s more to it than that. Trade tensions and increasing tariffs have certainly played a role — and things look like they’ll be getting worse before they get better on that front, with a recent bump from a 10 to 25% tariff bump on $60 billion in U.S. goods.

It’s important to keep in mind here that many handsets, regardless of country of origin, contain both Chinese and American components. On the U.S. side of the equation, that includes nearly ubiquitous elements like Qualcomm processors and a Google-designed operating system. But the causes of a stagnating (and now declining) smartphone market date back well before the current administration began sowing the seeds of a trade war with China.

Image via Miguel Candela/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The underlying factors are many. For one thing, smartphones simply may be too good. It’s an odd notion, but an intense battle between premium phone manufacturers may have resulted in handsets that are simply too good to warrant the long-standing two-year upgrade cycle. NPD Executive Director Brad Akyuz tells TechCrunch that the average smartphone flagship user tends to hold onto their phones for around 30 months — or exactly two-and-a-half years.

That’s a pretty dramatic change from the days when smartphone purchases were driven almost exclusively by contracts. Smartphone upgrades here in the States were driven by the standard 24-month contract cycle. When one lapsed, it seemed all but a given that the customer would purchase the latest version of the heavily subsidized contract.

But as smartphone build quality has increased, so too have prices, as manufacturers have raised margins in order to offset declining sales volume. “All of a sudden, these devices became more expensive, and you can see that average selling price trend going through the roof,” says Akyuz. “It’s been crazy, especially on the high end.”

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Minecraft Earth makes the whole real world your very own blocky realm

Posted by | Apps, augmented reality, Gadgets, Gaming, Microsoft, Minecraft, Mobile, niantic, TC | No Comments

When your game tops 100 million players, your thoughts naturally turn to doubling that number. That’s the case with the creators, or rather stewards, of Minecraft at Microsoft, where the game has become a product category unto itself. And now it is making its biggest leap yet — to a real-world augmented reality game in the vein of Pokémon GO, called Minecraft Earth.

Announced today but not playable until summer (on iOS and Android) or later, MCE (as I’ll call it) is full-on Minecraft, reimagined to be mobile and AR-first. So what is it? As executive producer Jesse Merriam put it succinctly: “Everywhere you go, you see Minecraft. And everywhere you go, you can play Minecraft.”

Yes, yes — but what is it? Less succinctly put, MCE is like other real-world-based AR games in that it lets you travel around a virtual version of your area, collecting items and participating in mini-games. Where it’s unlike other such games is that it’s built on top of Minecraft: Bedrock Edition, meaning it’s not some offshoot or mobile cash-in; this is straight-up Minecraft, with all the blocks, monsters and redstone switches you desire, but in AR format. You collect stuff so you can build with it and share your tiny, blocky worlds with friends.

That introduces some fun opportunities and a few non-trivial limitations. Let’s run down what MCE looks like — verbally, at least, as Microsoft is being exceedingly stingy with real in-game assets.

There’s a map, of course

Because it’s Minecraft Earth, you’ll inhabit a special Minecraftified version of the real world, just as Pokémon GO and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite put a layer atop existing streets and landmarks.

The look is blocky to be sure, but not so far off the normal look that you won’t recognize it. It uses OpenStreetMaps data, including annotated and inferred information about districts, private property, safe and unsafe places and so on — which will be important later.

The fantasy map is filled with things to tap on, unsurprisingly called tappables. These can be a number of things: resources in the form of treasure chests, mobs and adventures.

Chests are filled with blocks, naturally, adding to your reserves of cobblestone, brick and so on, all the different varieties appearing with appropriate rarity.

A pig from Minecraft showing in the real world via augmented reality.Mobs are animals like those you might normally run across in the Minecraft wilderness: pigs, chickens, squid and so on. You snag them like items, and they too have rarities, and not just cosmetic ones. The team highlighted a favorite of theirs, the muddy pig, which when placed down will stop at nothing to get to mud and never wants to leave, or a cave chicken that lays mushrooms instead of eggs. Yes, you can breed them.

Last are adventures, which are tiny AR instances that let you collect a resource, fight some monsters and so on. For example you might find a crack in the ground that, when mined, vomits forth a volume of lava you’ll have to get away from, and then inside the resulting cave are some skeletons guarding a treasure chest. The team said they’re designing a huge number of these encounters.

Importantly, all these things — chests, mobs and encounters — are shared between friends. If I see a chest, you see a chest — and the chest will have the same items. And in an AR encounter, all nearby players are brought in, and can contribute and collect the reward in shared fashion.

And it’s in these AR experiences and the “build plates” you’re doing it all for that the game really shines.

The AR part

“If you want to play Minecraft Earth without AR, you have to turn it off,” said Torfi Olafsson, the game’s director. This is not AR-optional, as with Niantic’s games. This is AR-native, and for good and ill the only way you can really play is by using your phone as a window into another world. Fortunately it works really well.

First, though, let me explain the whole build plate thing. You may have been wondering how these collectibles and mini-games amount to Minecraft. They don’t — they’re just the raw materials for it.

Whenever you feel like it, you can bring out what the team calls a build plate, which is a special item, a flat square that you virtually put down somewhere in the real world — on a surface like the table or floor, for instance — and it transforms into a small, but totally functional, Minecraft world.

In this little world you can build whatever you want, or dig into the ground, build an inverted palace for your cave chickens or create a paradise for your mud-loving pigs — whatever you want. Like Minecraft itself, each build plate is completely open-ended. Well, perhaps that’s the wrong phrase — they’re actually quite closely bounded, as the world only exists out to the edge of the plate. But they’re certainly yours to play with however you want.

Notably all the usual Minecraft rules are present — this isn’t Minecraft Lite, just a small game world. Water and lava flow how they should, blocks have all the qualities they should and mobs all act as they normally would.

The magic part comes when you find that you can instantly convert your build plate from miniature to life-size. Now the castle you’ve been building on the table is three stories tall in the park. Your pigs regard you silently as you walk through the halls and admire the care and attention to detail with which you no doubt assembled them. It really is a trip.

It doesn’t really look like this but, you get the idea

In the demo, I played with a few other members of the press; we got to experience a couple of build plates and adventures at life-size (technically actually 3/4 life size — the 1 block to 1 meter scale turned out to be a little daunting in testing). It was absolute chaos, really, everyone placing blocks and destroying them and flooding the area and putting down chickens. But it totally worked.

The system uses Microsoft’s new Azure Spatial Anchor system, which quickly and continuously fixed our locations in virtual space. It updated remarkably quickly, with no lag, showing the location and orientation of the other players in real time. Meanwhile the game world itself was rock-solid in space, smooth to enter and explore, and rarely bugging out (and that only in understandable circumstances). That’s great news considering how heavily the game leans on the multiplayer experience.

The team said they’d tested up to 10 players at once in an AR instance, and while there’s technically no limit, there’s sort of a physical limit in how many people can fit in the small space allocated to an adventure or around a tabletop. Don’t expect any giant 64-player raids, but do expect to take down hordes of spiders with three or four friends.

Pick(ax)ing their battles

In choosing to make the game the way they’ve made it, the team naturally created certain limitations and risks. You Wouldn’t want, for example, an adventure icon to pop up in the middle of the highway.

For exactly that reason the team spent a lot of work making the map metadata extremely robust. Adventures won’t spawn in areas like private residences or yards, though of course simple collectibles might. But because you’re able to reach things up to 70 meters away, it’s unlikely you’ll have to knock on someone’s door and say there’s a cave chicken in their pool and you’d like to touch it, please.

Furthermore adventures will not spawn in areas like streets or difficult to reach areas. The team said they worked very hard making it possible for the engine to recognize places that are not only publicly accessible, but safe and easy to access. Think sidewalks and parks.

Another limitation is that, as an AR game, you move around the real world. But in Minecraft, verticality is an important part of the gameplay. Unfortunately, the simple truth is that in the real world you can’t climb virtual stairs or descend into a virtual cave. You as a player exist on a 2D plane, and can interact with but not visit places above and below that plane. (An exception of course is on a build plate, where in miniature you can fly around it freely by moving your phone.)

That’s a shame for people who can’t move around easily, though you can pick up and rotate the build plate to access different sides. Weapons and tools also have infinite range, eliminating a potential barrier to fun and accessibility.

What will keep people playing?

In Pokémon GO, there’s the drive to catch ’em all. In Wizards Unite, you’ll want to advance the story and your skills. What’s the draw with Minecraft Earth? Well, what’s the draw in Minecraft? You can build stuff. And now you can build stuff in AR on your phone.

The game isn’t narrative-driven, and although there is some (unspecified) character progression, for the most part the focus is on just having fun doing and making stuff in Minecraft. Like a set of LEGO blocks, a build plate and your persistent inventory simply make for a lively sandbox.

Admittedly that doesn’t sound like it carries the same addictive draw of Pokémon, but the truth is Minecraft kind of breaks the rules like that. Millions of people play this game all the time just to make stuff and show that stuff to other people. Although you’ll be limited in how you can share to start, there will surely be ways to explore popular builds in the future.

And how will it make money? The team basically punted on that question — they’re fortunately in a position where they don’t have to worry about that yet. Minecraft is one of the biggest games of all time and a big money-maker — it’s probably worth the cost just to keep people engaged with the world and community.

MCE seems to me like a delightful thing, but one that must be appreciated on its own merits. A lack of screenshots and gameplay video isn’t doing a lot to help you here, I admit. Trust me when I say it looks great, plays well and seems fundamentally like a good time for all ages.

A few other stray facts I picked up:

  • Regions will roll out gradually, but it will be available in all the same languages as Vanilla at launch
  • Yes, there will be skins (and they’ll carry over from your existing account)
  • There will be different sizes and types of build plates
  • There’s crafting, but no 3×3 crafting grid (?!)
  • You can report griefers and so on, but the way the game is structured it shouldn’t be an issue
  • The AR engine creates and uses a point cloud but doesn’t, like, take pictures of your bedroom
  • Content is added to the map dynamically, and there will be hot spots but emptier areas will fill up if you’re there
  • It leverages AR Core and AR Kit, naturally
  • The HoloLens version of Minecraft we saw a while back is a predecessor “more spiritually than technically”
  • Adventures that could be scary to kids have a special sign
  • “Friends” can steal blocks from your build plate if you’re playing together (or donate them)

Sound fun? Sign up for the beta here.

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Asus’ $499 ZenFone 6 has a flip-up camera and a giant battery

Posted by | asus, hardware, Mobile, smartphones | No Comments

Premium smartphone manufacturers have moved the needle on pricing, but 2019 may well go down as a kind of golden age for budget flagships. Apple, Google and Samsung are all in that business now, and OnePlus has once again shown the world how to offer more for less. And then there’s the new ZenFone.

It’s a bit of an understatement to suggest that Asus has had trouble breaking into the smartphone space. And things aren’t likely to get any easier as the market further consolidates among the top five players. But you’ve got to hand it to the company for swinging for the fences with the $499 ZenFone 6.

First thing’s first. Like the excellent OnePlus 7 Pro, the phone (fone?) forgoes the notch and hole punch, instead opting for a clever pop-up that flips up from the back. That means one camera is doing double duty, toggling between the front and rear with the push of an on-screen button. Like the OnePlus, there’s built-in fall detection that retracts the camera if it slips from your hand.

5000 > 1+7+3700, so why choose ordinary when you can #DefyOrdinary? #ZenFone6 pic.twitter.com/x8R24953mS

ASUS (@ASUS) May 14, 2019

That whole dealie would be enough to help the phone stand out in a world of similar handsets, but this is a solid budget handset through and through. Inside is a bleeding-edge Snapdragon 855, coupled with a beefy 5,000 mAh battery. The new ZenFone also sports a headphone jack, because it’s 2019 and rules don’t apply to smartphones anymore.

Is that all enough to right the ship? Probably not, but it’s nice to see Asus stepping up with a compelling product at an even more compelling price point. More information on the phone’s U.S. release should be arriving soon.

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