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Transportation Weekly: Polestar CEO speaks, Tesla terminology, and a tribute

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Welcome back to Transportation Weekly; I’m your host Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch . This is the fourth edition of our newsletter, a weekly jaunt into the wonderful world of transportation and how we (and our packages) move.

This week we chat with Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath, dig into Lyft’s S-1, take note of an emerging trend in AV development, and check out an experiment with paving. Oh, and how could we forget Tesla.

Never heard of TechCrunch’s Transportation Weekly? Catch up here, here and here. As I’ve written before, consider this a soft launch. Follow me on Twitter @kirstenkorosec to ensure you see it each week. (An email subscription is coming). 


ONM …

There are OEMs in the automotive world. And here, (wait for it) there are ONMs — original news manufacturers. (Cymbal clash!) This is where investigative reporting, enterprise pieces and analysis on transportation lives.

This week, we’re featuring excerpts taken from a one-on-one interview with Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath.

On February 27, Volvo’s standalone electric performance brand Polestar introduced its first all-electric vehicle, a five-door fastback called the Polestar 2. The EV, which has a 78 kWh battery pack and can travel 275 miles (estimated EPA guidance) on a single charge, will be manufactured at a new factory in Chengdu, China. Other notable specs: The infotainment system will be powered by Android OS, Polestar is offering subscriptions to the vehicle, and production starts in 2020.

yellow-jacket-polestar

Here is what Ingenlath had to say to me about …

EV charging infrastructure

To be very unpolitical, I think it would be totally stupid if we were to aim to develop electric charging infrastructure on our own or for our brand specifically. If you join the electric market today, of course, you would see partnerships; that’s sensible thing to do. Car companies together are making a big effort in getting out a network of necessary charging stations along the highway. 

That’s what we’re doing; we’re teaming up and have the contracts being designed and soon signed.

On the company’s approach to automation 

The terminology is important for us. We very clearly put that into a different picture, we’re not talking about, and we clearly do not ever want to label it, anautopilot.” The focus of this system is a very safe distance control, which brakes for you and accelerates for you, and of course, the lane keeping. This is not about developing an autopilot system, it is about giving your safety. And that’s where we don’t want to provoke people thinking that they have full rollout autopilot system there. But it is a system that helps you being safe and protected on the road.

I also reached out to Transportation Weekly readers and asked what they wanted to know and then sent some of those questions to Ingenlath.

TW Reader: How did it feel taking one of your personal styling elements – the C shaped rear lamps – from your previous brand over to Polestar?
Ingenlath: It’s an evolutionary process. Polestar naturally builds on its “mothers” DNA and as a new branch develops its own personality. Thor’s hammer, the rear light signature -—with each new model launch (Volvo and Polestar) those elements diverge into a brand specific species.
TW Reader: How much do you still get to do what you love, which is design?
Ingenlath: Being creative is still my main job, now applied on a broader scope — trying to lead a company with a creative and  brand building mindset. Still, I love the Fridays when I meet up with Robin and Max to review the models, sketches and new data. We really enjoy driving the design of both brands to new adventures.

Dig In

Tesla is finally going to offer customers a $35,000 Model 3. How the automaker is able to sell this electric vehicle at the long-awaited $35,000 price point is a big piece of that story — and one that some overlooked. In short, the company is blowing up its sales model and moving to an online only strategy. Tesla stores will close or be converted to “information centers” and retail employees will be laid off.

But this is not what we’re going to talk about today. Tesla has also brought back its so-called “full self-driving” feature, which was removed as an option on its website last year. Now it’s back. Owners can opt for Autopilot, which has automatic steering on highways and traffic-aware cruise control, or FSD.

FSD capability includes several features such as Navigate on Autopilot that is supposed to guide a car from a highway on-ramp to off-ramp, including navigating interchanges and making lane changes. FSD also includes Advanced Summon, Auto Lane Change, and Autopark. Later this year, the system will recognize and respond to traffic lights in more complex urban environments, Tesla says.

All of these features require the driver to be engaged (or ready to take over), yet it’s called “full self-driving.” Now Tesla has two controversially named automation features. (The other is Autopilot). As Andrew Hawkins at The Verge noted in his coverage, “experts are beginning to realize that the way we discuss, and how companies market, autonomy is significant.”

Which begs the obvious question, and one that I asked Musk during a conference call on Thursday. “Isn’t it a problem that you’re calling this full self-driving capability when you’re still going to require the driver to take control or be paying attention?” (I also wanted to ask a followup on his response, but the moderator moved onto the next reporter).

His response:

“We are very clear when you buy the car what is meant by full self driving. It means it’s feature complete, but feature complete requiring supervision.

As we get more — we really need billions of miles, if not maybe 10 billion sort of miles or kilometers on that order collectively from the fleet — then in our opinion probably at that point supervision is not required, but that will still be up to regulators to agree.

So we’re just very clear.  There’s really three steps: there’s being feature complete of full self driving that requires supervision, feature complete but not requiring supervision, and feature complete not requiring supervision and regulators agree.

In other Tesla news, the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating a crash, that at first glance seems to be similar to the fatal crash that killed Tesla owner Joshua Brown.

In cooperation with the Palm Beach sheriff’s office, the NTSB is sending a team of three to conduct a safety investigation of the commercial motor vehicle and Tesla crash in Delray Beach, FL.

— NTSB_Newsroom (@NTSB_Newsroom) March 2, 2019


A little bird …

We hear a lot. But we’re not selfish. Let’s share.

blinky-cat-bird

It’s no secret that Pittsburgh is one of the hubs of autonomous vehicle development in the world. But what’s not so widely known — except for a group of government and company insiders — is that Mayor William Peduto is on the verge of issuing an executive order that will give more visibility into testing there. 

The city’s department of mobility and infrastructure is the central coordinator of this new executive order that aims to help guide testing and policy development there. The department is going to develop guidelines for AV testing, we’re told. And it appears that information on testing will be released to the public at least once a year.

Got a tip or overheard something in the world of transportation? Email me or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.


Deal of the week

Daimler and BMW are supposed to be competitors. And they are, except with mapping (both part of the HERE consortium), mobility services (car sharing, ride-sharing), and now the development of highly automated driving systems. The deal is notable because it illustrates a larger trend that has emerged as the AV industry hunkers down into the “trough of disillusionment.” And that’s consolidation. If 2016, was the year of splashy acquisitions, then 2019 is shaping up to be chockfull of alliances and failures (of some startups).

Also interesting to note, and one that will make some AV safety experts cringe, both companies are working on Level 3 driving automation, a designation by the SAE that means conditional driving automation in which multiple high levels of automation are available in certain conditions, but a human driver must be ready to take over. This level of automation is the most controversial because of the so-called “hand off” problem in which a human driver is expected to take control of the wheel in time.

Speaking of partnerships, another deal that got our attention this week involved New York-based mapping and data analytics startup Carmera and Toyota Research Institute-Advanced Development. TRI-AD is an autonomous drive unit started by Toyota with Denso and Aisin. TRI-AD’s mission is to take the research being done over at the Toyota Research Institute and turn its into a product.

The two companies are going to test a concept that will use cameras in Toyota test vehicles to collect data from downtown Tokyo and use it to create high definition maps for urban and surface roads.

TRI-AD considers this the first step towards its open software platform concept known as Automated Mapping Platform that will be used to support the scalability of highly automated driving, by combining data gathered from vehicles of participating companies to generate HD maps. AMP is new and has possible widespread implications at Toyota. And TRI-AD is full of A-listers, including CEO James Kuffner, who came from the Google self-driving project and Nikos Michalakis, who built Netflix’s cloud platform, and Mandali Khalesi, who was at HERE.

Read more on Khalesi and the Toyota’s open source ambitions here.

Other deals:


Snapshot

Snapshot this week is a bit untraditional. It’s literally a snapshot of myself and my grandmother, months before her 100th birthday. Her memorial service was held Saturday. She died at 101. She loved cars and fast ones, but not so much driving them. And every time I got a new press car, we’d hit the road and she’d encourage me to take the turns a bit faster.

She also loved road trips and in the 1920s, her father would drive the family on the mostly dirt roads from New Jersey to Vermont and even Canada. In her teens, she loved riding in the rumble seat, a feature found in a few vehicles at the time including the Ford Model A.

She was young at heart, until the very end. Next week, we’ll focus on the youngest drivers and one automotive startup that is targeting that demographic.


Tiny but mighty micromobility

Lyft’s S-1 lays out the risks associated with its micromobility business and its intent to continue relying on third parties to manufacture its bikes and scooters. Here’s a key nugget about adoption:

“While some major cities have widely adopted bike and scooter sharing, there can be no assurance that new markets we enter will accept, or existing markets will continue to accept, bike and scooter sharing, and even if they do, that we will be able to execute on our business strategy or that our related offerings will be successful in such markets. Even if we are able to successfully develop and implement our network of shared bikes and scooters, there may be heightened public skepticism of this nascent service offering.”

And another about seasonality:

“Our limited operating history makes it difficult for us to assess the exact nature or extent of the effects of seasonality on our network of shared bikes and scooters, however, we expect the demand for our bike and scooter rentals to decline over the winter season and increase during more temperate and dry seasons.”

Lyft, which bought bike-share company Motivate back in July, also released some data about its electric pedal-assist bikes this week, showing that the pedal assist bikes are, unsurprisingly, more popular than the traditional bikes. They also traveled longer distances and improved winter ridership numbers. Now, Lyft is gearing up to deploy 4,000 additional electric bikes to the Citi Bike system in New York City.

One more thing …

Google Maps has added a feature that lets users see Lime scooters, pedal bikes and e-bikes right from the transit tab in over 80 new cities around the world. Users can click the tab to find out if Lime vehicle is available, how long it’ll take to walk to the vehicle, an estimate of how much their ride could cost, along with total journey time and ETA.


Notable reads

If take the time to read anything this week (besides this newsletter), spend some time with Lyft’s S-1. The ride-hailing company’s prospectus mentions autonomous 109 times. In short, yeah, it’s something the company’s executives are thinking about and investing in.

Lyft says it has a two-pronged strategy to bring autonomous vehicles to market. The company encouraging developers of autonomous vehicle technology to use its open platform to get access to its network and enable their vehicles to fulfill rides on the Lyft platform. And Lyft is trying to build its own autonomous vehicle system at its confusingly named “Level 5 Engineering Center.”

  • The company’s primary investors are Rakuten with a 13 percent stake, GM with 7.8 percent, Fidelity with 7.7 percent, Andreessen Horowitz with 6.3 percent and Alphabet with 5.3 percent. GM and Alphabet have business units, GM Cruise and Waymo respectively, that are also developing AV technology.
  • Through Lyft’s partnership with AV systems developer and supplier Aptiv, people in Las Vegas have taken more than 35,000 rides in Aptiv autonomous vehicles with a safety driver since January 2018.
  • One of the “risks” the company lists is “a failure to detect a defect in our autonomous vehicles or our bikes or scooters”

Other quotable notables:

Check out the Pedestrian Traffic Fatalities by State report, a newly released report from Volvo Car USA and The Harris Poll called  The State of Electric Vehicles in America.


Testing and deployments

Again, deployments doesn’t always mean the latest autonomous vehicle pilot.

On Saturday, Sidewalk Labs hosted its Open Sidewalk event in Toronto. This is part of Sidewalk Toronto, a joint effort by Waterfront Toronto and Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs to create a “mixed-use, complete community” on Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront

The idea of this event was to share ideas and prototypes for making outdoor public space the “social default year-round.” One such prototype “hexagonal paving” got our attention because of its use case for traffic control and pedestrian and bicyclist safety. (Pictured below)

These individual precast concrete slabs are movable and permeable, can light up and give off heat. The idea is that these hexagonal-shaped slabs and be used to clear snow and ice in trouble spots and light up to warn drivers and pedestrians of changes to the street use or to illuminate an area for public uses or even designate bike lanes and hazard zones. And because they’re permeable they can be used to absorb stormwater or melted snow and guide it to underground stormwater management systems.

Sidewalk Labs tell me that the pavers have “plug and play” holes, which allow things like bike racks, bollards, and sign posts to be inserted. Sidewalk Labs initially built these with wood, and the new prototype is the next iteration, featuring modules built from concrete.


On our radar

There is a lot of transportation-related activity this month.

The Geneva Motor Show: Press days are March 5 and March 6. Expect concept, prototype and production electric vehicles from Audi, Honda, Kia, Peugeot, Pininfarina, Polestar, Spanish car company Hispano Suiza, and Volkswagen.

SXSW in Austin: TechCrunch will be at SXSW this coming week. Here’s where I’ll be.

  • 2 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. March 9 at the Empire Garage for the Smart Mobility Summit, an annual event put on by Wards Intelligence and C3 Group. The Autonocast, the podcast I co-host with Alex Roy and Ed Niedermeyer, will also be on hand.
  • 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. March 12 at the JW Marriott. The Autonocast and founding general partner of Trucks VC, Reilly Brennan will hold a SXSW podcast panel on automated vehicle terminology and other stuff.
  • 3:30 p.m over at the Hilton Austin Downtown, I’ll be moderating a panel Re-inventing the Wheel: Own, Rent, Share, Subscribe. Sherrill Kaplan with Zipcar, Amber Quist, with Silvercar and Russell Lemmer with Dealerware will join me.
  • TechCrunch is also hosting a SXSW party from 1 pm to 4 pm Sunday, March 10, 615 Red River St., that will feature musical guest Elderbrook. RSVP here

Self Racing Cars

Finally, I’ve been in contact with Joshua Schachter who puts on the annual Self Racing Car event, which will be held March 23 and March 24 at Thunderhill Raceway near Willows, California.

There is still room for participants to test or demo their autonomous vehicles, drive train innovation, simulation, software, teleoperation, and sensors. Hobbyists are welcome. Sign up to participate or drop them a line at contact@selfracingcars.com.

Thanks for reading. There might be content you like or something you hate. Feel free to reach out to me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share those thoughts, opinions or tips. 

Nos vemos la próxima vez.

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Netflix launches ‘smart downloads’ feature on iOS to automate offline viewing

Posted by | Apps, cord cutting, Downloads, iOS apps, Media, Mobile, Netflix, offline, streaming, streaming service, streaming video, tv, Video | No Comments

Netflix today is launching a new feature on iOS devices that will help make it easier to watch its shows when you’re offline. The “smart downloads” feature, as it’s called, will automatically delete a downloaded episode after you’ve finished watching, then download the next one — but only when you’re connected to Wi-Fi.

The idea is that users will no longer have to go through the tedious work of managing their downloads — deleting those they’ve watched or downloading new titles, for example. Instead, the app can manage the downloads for you, so people can spend more time watching Netflix shows.

Smart downloads make sense for those who plan for intermittent connectivity — like commuters who take underground trains, for instance, or those who travel through dead spots where wireless coverage drops. It also makes sense for those on limited data plans, who are careful about not using streaming video apps unless they’re on Wi-Fi.

Offline features like this are key to attracting and retaining users in emerging markets where connectivity concerns are the norm. That’s likely why Netflix prioritized Android over iOS, for the initial launch of smart downloads.

The feature had first arrived on Android last summer. It’s now offered across platforms, including iOS and in the Windows 10 Netflix app, the company says.

Offline access is only one area where Netflix is focusing on the needs of those in developing markets. The company late last year also began testing a more affordable, mobile-only subscription.

Non-U.S. users accounted for 7.31 million of the 8.8 million new subscribers Netflix added in the last quarter, as the U.S. market has become more saturated.

To use smart downloads on iOS, you can toggle the option in the Netflix app settings. It then turns itself on when you’re connected to Wi-Fi, to ensure your data plan won’t be used and your device storage won’t fill up as you watch offline. The feature will alert you when the episode in question has been downloaded.

“The faster our members can get to the next episode of their favorite stories, the better. Now, fans on the Netflix iOS app can get in on the fun and convenience of Smart Downloads, spending less time managing their downloads and more time watching,” said a Netflix spokesperson in a statement about the launch. “The feature is one more way we’re making it easier for Netflix fans to take the stories they love wherever they go,” they added.

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Video game revenue tops $43 billion in 2018, an 18% jump from 2017

Posted by | america, computing, Earnings, Electronic Arts, Entertainment, entertainment software association, esa, fortnite battle royale, Gaming, HBO, Netflix, Reed Hastings, sensor tower, streaming services, TC, video game, YouTube | No Comments

Video game revenue in 2018 reached a new peak of $43.8 billion, up 18 percent from the previous years, surpassing the projected total global box office for the film industry, according to new data released by the Entertainment Software Association and The NPD Group.

Preliminary indicators for global box office revenues published at the end of last year indicated that revenue from ticket sales at box offices around the world would hit $41.7 billion, according to comScore data reported by Deadline Hollywood.

The $43.8 billion tally also surpasses numbers for streaming services, which are estimated to rake in somewhere around $28.8 billion for the year, according to a report in Multichannel News.

Video games and related content have become the new source of entertainment for a generation — and it’s something that has new media moguls like Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings concerned. In the company’s most recent shareholder letter, Netflix said that Fortnite was more of a threat to its business than TimeWarner’s HBO.

“We compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO,” the company’s shareholder letter stated. “When YouTube went down globally for a few minutes in October, our viewing and signups spiked for that time…There are thousands of competitors in this highly fragmented market vying to entertain consumers and low barriers to entry for those with great experiences.”

“The impressive economic growth of the industry announced today parallels the growth of the industry in mainstream American culture,” said acting ESA president and CEO Stanley Pierre-Louis, in a statement. “Across the nation, we count people of all backgrounds and stages of life among our most passionate video game players and fans. Interactive entertainment stands today as the most influential form of entertainment in America.”

Gains came from across the spectrum of the gaming industry. Console and personal computing, mobile gaming, all saw significant growth, according to Mat Piscatella, a video games industry analyst for The NPD Group.

According to the report, hardware and peripherals and software revenue increased from physical and digital sales, in-game purchases and subscriptions.

U.S. Video Game Industry Revenue 2018 2017 Growth Percentage
Hardware, including peripherals $7.5 billion $6.5 billion 15%
Software, including in-game purchases and subscriptions  

$35.8 billion

 

$30.4 billion

18%
Total: $43.3 billion $36.9 billion 18%

Source: The NPD Group, Sensor Tower

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Netflix thinks ‘Fortnite’ is a bigger threat than HBO

Posted by | fortnite, Gaming, Media, Mobile, Netflix | No Comments

Netflix thinks “Fortnite” is a bigger threat to its business than HBO. The company in its latest quarterly earnings report released on Thursday said that while its streaming service now accounts for around 10 percent of TV screen time in the U.S., it no longer views its competition only as those services also providing TV content and streaming video.

“We compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO,” the company’s shareholder letter stated. “When YouTube went down globally for a few minutes in October, our viewing and signups spiked for that time…There are thousands of competitors in this highly fragmented market vying to entertain consumers and low barriers to entry for those with great experiences.”

In other words, Netflix today sees its competition as anyone in the business of entertaining their customers, and eating up their hours of free time in the process. That includes breakout gaming hits like “Fortnite.”

Netflix’s statement comes at a time when the internet, mobile and gaming have been shifting consumer’s focus and attention away from watching TV.

In fact, all the way back in 2012, mobile industry experts were warning that time spent in mobile apps was beginning to challenge television. And a few years ago, apps finally came out on top. For the first time ever, time spent inside apps exceeded that of TV.

Fortnite, in particular, has capitalized on this change in consumer behavior and has now grown to more than 200 million players. (Netflix just reached 139 million, for comparison’s sake.)

In 2018, Fortnite — along with other multiplayer games like PUBG — pushed forward a trend toward cross-platform gaming that’s capable of reaching consumers wherever they are, similar to streaming apps like Netflix. According to a recent report from App Annie, this is just the tip of the iceberg, too. Cross-platform gaming, including not only Fortnite and PUBG, but also whatever comes next, is poised to grow even further in 2019.

Notably, Fortnite, too, has become a place where you don’t just go to play — but rather “hang out.” For kids and young adults, the game has replaced the mall or other parts of the city where kids and teens just go to be around friends and socialize, wrote tech writer Owen Williams on his blog Charged.

“Not only is Fortnite the new hangout spot, replacing the mall, Starbucks or just loitering in the city, it’s become the coveted ‘third place’ for millions of people around the world,” he said.

Roblox, with it over 70 million players, serves a similar purpose.

That means it’s also a real threat to Netflix’s time. If gamers are hanging around a virtual space with friends, they have less time to stream TV. (And perhaps — given that many of the youngest Netflix never got cable to begin with — less desire to watch TV to begin with.)

“I think about it really is as winning time away, entertainment time from other activities,” said Netflix CEO Reed Hastings on Thursday, discussing the threat from those competing for users’ time. “So, instead of doing Xbox or Fortnite or YouTube or HBO or a long list, we want to win and provide a better experience. No advertising on demand. Incredible content,” he said.

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With trust destroyed, Facebook is haunted by old data deals

Posted by | Apps, BlackBerry, Facebook, facebook platform, Facebook Policy, facebook privacy, Mobile, Netflix, Social, Spotify, TC, Yahoo | No Comments

As Facebook colonized the rest of the web with its functionality in hopes of fueling user growth, it built aggressive integrations with partners that are coming under newfound scrutiny through a deeply reported New York Times investigationSome of what Facebook did was sloppy or unsettling, including forgetting to shut down APIs when it cancelled its Instant Personalization feature for other sites in 2014, and how it used contact syncing to power friend recommendations.

But other moves aren’t as bad as they sound. Facebook did provide Spotify and Netflix the ability to access users messages, but only so people could send friends songs or movies via Facebook messages without leaving those apps. And Facebook did let Yahoo and Blackberry access people’s News Feeds, but to let users browse those feeds within social hub features inside those apps. These partners could only access data when users logged in and connected their Facebook accounts, and were only approved to use this data to provide Facebook-related functionality. That means Spotify at least wasn’t supposed to be rifling through everyone’s messages to find out what bands they talk about so it could build better curation algorithms, and there’s no evidence yet that it did.

Thankfully Facebook has ditched most of these integrations, as the dominance of iOS and Android have allowed it to build fewer, more standardized, and better safeguarded access points to its data. And it’s battened down the hatches in some ways, forcing users to shortcut from Spotify into the real Facebook Messenger rather than giving third-parties any special access to offer Facebook Messaging themselves.

The most glaring allegation Facebook hasn’t adequately responded to yet is that it used data from Amazon, Yahoo, and Huawei to improve friend suggestions through People You May Know — perhaps its creepiest feature. The company needs to accept the loss of growth hacking trade secrets and become much more transparent about how it makes so uncannily accurate recommendations of who to friend request — as Gizmodo’s Kashmir Hill has documented.

In some cases, Facebook has admitted to missteps, with its Director of Developer Platforms and Programs Konstantinos Papamiltiadis writing “we shouldn’t have left the APIs in place after we shut down instant personalization.”

In others, we’ll have decide where to draw the line between what was actually dangerous and what gives us the chills at first glance. You don’t ask permission from friends to read an email from them on a certain browser or device, so should you worry if they saw your Facebook status update on a Blackberry social hub feature instead of the traditional Facebook app? Well that depends on how the access is monitored and meted out.

The underlying question is whether we trust that Facebook and these other big tech companies actually abided by rules to oversee and not to overuse data. Facebook has done plenty wrong, and after repeatedly failing to be transparent or live up to its apologies, it doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. For that reason, I don’t want it giving any developer — even ones I normally trust like Spotify — access to sensitive data protected merely by their promise of good behavior despite financial incentives for misuse.

Facebook’s former chief security officer Alex Stamos tweeted that “allowing for 3rd party clients is the kind of pro-competition move we want to see from dominant platforms. For ex, making Gmail only accessible to Android and the Gmail app would be horrible. For the NY Times to try to scandalize this kind of integration is wrong.” But countered that by noting that “integrations that are sneaky or send secret data to servers controlled by others really is wrong.”

Even if Spotify and Netflix didn’t abuse the access Facebook provided, there’s always eventually a Cambridge Analytica. Tech companies have proven their word can’t necessarily be trusted. The best way to protect users is to properly lock down the platforms with ample vetting, limits, and oversight so there won’t be gray areas that require us to put our faith in the kindness of businesses.

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What China searched for in 2018: World Cup, trade war, Apple

Posted by | Android, Apple, artificial intelligence, Asia, Baidu, China, Entertainment, Facebook, Google, huawei, iQiyi, Netflix, oppo, producer, Qualcomm, quantum computing, search engine, shenzhen, smartphone, TC, Tencent, world cup | No Comments

Soon after Google unveiled the top trends in what people searched for in 2018, Baidu published what captivated the Chinese in a parallel online universe, where most of the West’s mainstream tech services, including Google and Facebook, are inaccessible.

China’s top search engine put together the report “based on trillions of trending queries” to present a “social collective memory” of internet users, said Baidu; 802 million people have come online in China as of August, and many of them use Baidu to look things up daily.

Overall, Chinese internet users were transfixed on a mix of sports events, natural disasters, politics and entertainment, a pattern that also prevails in Google’s year-in-search. On Baidu, the most popular queries of the year are:

  1. World Cup: China shares its top search with the rest of the world. Despite China’s lackluster performance in the tournament, World Cup managed to capture a massive Chinese fan base who supported an array of foreign teams. People filled bars in big cities at night to watch the heart-thumping matches, and many even trekked north to Russia to show their support.
  2. U.S.-China trade war: The runner-up comes as no surprise, given the escalating conflict between the world’s two largest economies. A series of events have stoked more fears of the stand-off, including the arrest of Huawei’s financial chief.
  3. Typhoon Mangkhut: The massive tropical cyclone swept across the Pacific Ocean in September, leaving the Philippines and South China in shambles. Shenzhen, the Chinese city dubbed the Silicon Valley for hardware, reportedly submitted more than $20.4 million in damage claims after the storm.
  4. Apple launch: The American smartphone giant is still getting a lot of attention in China even as local Android competitors like Huawei and Oppo chip away at its market share. Apple is also fighting a legal battle with chipmaker Qualcomm, which wanted the former to stop selling certain smartphone models in China.
  5. The story of Yanxi Palace: The historical drama of backstabbing concubines drew record-breaking views for its streamer and producer iQiyi, China’s answer to Netflix that floated in the U.S. in February. The 70-episode show was watched not only in China but also across more than 70 countries around the world.
  6. Produce 101: The talent show in which 101 young women race to be the best performer is one of Tencent Video’s biggest hits of the year, but its reach has gone beyond its targeted young audience as it popularized a meme, which made it to No. 9 on this list.
  7. Skr: A buzzword courtesy of pop idol Kris Wu, who extensively used it on a whim during iQiyi’s rap competition “Rap of China,” prompting his fans and internet users to bestow it with myriad interpretations.
  8. Li Yong passed away: The sudden death of the much-loved television host after he fought a 17-month battle with cancer stirred an outpouring of grief on social media.
  9. Koi: A colored variety of carps, the fish is associated with good luck in Chinese culture. Yang Chaoyue, a Produce 101 contestant whom the audience believed to be below average surprisingly rose to fame and has since been compared to a koi.
  10.  Esports: Professional gaming has emerged from the underground to become a source of national pride recently after a Chinese team championed the League of Legend finals, an event regarded as the Olympics for esports.

In addition to the overall ranking, Baidu also listed popular terms by category, with staple areas like domestic affairs alongside those with a local flavor, such as events that inspire national pride or are tear-jerking.

This was also the first year that Baidu added a category dedicated to AI-related keywords. The search giant, which itself has pivoted to go all in AI and has invested heavily in autonomous driving, said the technology “has not only become a nationwide buzzword but also a key engine in transforming lives across the globe.” In 2018, Chinese people were keen to learn about these AI terms: robots, chips, internet of things, smart speakers, autonomous driving, face recognition, quantum computing, unmanned vehicles, World Artificial Intelligence Conference and quantum mechanics.

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Netflix just had a record-breaking November on mobile

Posted by | Apps, Media, Mobile, Netflix, sensor tower, streaming, streaming services, TC | No Comments

Netflix just broke new records on consumer spending in its mobile apps, according to new data app intelligence firm Sensor Tower has shared with TechCrunch. In November, Netflix pulled in an estimated $86.6 million in worldwide consumer spending across its iOS and Android apps combined — a figure that’s 77 percent higher than the $49 million it generated last November. That’s a new record.

Before, the biggest month Netflix had to date was July 2018, when it grossed an estimated $84.7 million. At the time, that was the most it had made on mobile since it began monetizing on mobile in September 2015.

To date, Netflix has grossed more than $1.58 billion on mobile.

The firm didn’t speculate as to what, specifically, drove Netflix to break records again in November, but there are probably a few factors at play, including the trend toward cord cutting and shift toward streaming services for traditional “TV” viewing.

But most notably is the increasing revenue coming to Netflix from its international markets.

Sensor Tower did point out that Netflix’s U.S. app revenue grew 76 percent year-over-year in November, but other countries contributing more than $1 million in gross revenue were higher. For example, Germany grew 90 percent, Brazil was 94 percent, South Korea was 107 percent and Japan was 175 percent.

However, the U.S. still accounts for the majority of Netflix’s in-app subscription revenue, at 57 percent in November, or $49.4 million. But with Netflix’s international expansion, its share is declining. When Netflix first began offering subscriptions in fall 2015, the U.S. then accounted for 71 percent of its revenue.

Netflix in recent weeks has been doubling down on mobile. The company is now testing a mobile-only subscription aimed at making its service more affordable in Asia and other emerging markets.

In Q3, the company gained nearly 7 million new subscribers, with 5.87 million of those coming from international markets.

Image credit: Sensor Tower 

Note: Post updated with corrected percentages after publication due to a Sensor Tower calculation error. 

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Facebook Lasso app lead Brady Voss leaves for Netflix right after launch

Posted by | Apps, Brady Voss, Facebook, Mobile, Netflix, Personnel, Social, Talent, TC, tiktok, Video | No Comments

Facebook Lasso has a steep uphill climb ahead as it hopes to chase the musical video app it cloned, China’s TikTok (which merged with Musically). Lasso lets you overlay popular songs on 15-second clips of you lip syncing, dancing or just being silly — kind of like Vine with a soundtrack. It’s off to a slow start since launching Friday, having failed to reach the overall app download charts as it falls from No. 169 to No. 217 on the U.S. iOS Photo and Video App chart, according to App Annie. Sensor Tower estimates Lasso has been downloaded fewer than 10,000 times across both iOS and Android.

Forme Facebook Lead Product Designer Brady Voss

And now one of the Lasso team’s bosses, Brady Voss, is leaving Facebook for a job at Netflix. He’d spent five years as a lead product designer at Facebook working on standalone apps like Hello and major feature launches like Watch, Live, 360 video and the social network’s smart TV app. He previously designed products for TiVo and Microsoft’s Xbox.

“After five life-changing years at Facebook, my last day will be this Friday, 11/16,” Voss wrote on Facebook. “Following our launch of our new app, Lasso, a project I’ve been working on for a while now, the timing works well to explore what’s coming next…. As for what’s next? I have accepted a position at Netflix in Los Gatos, California.” A Facebook spokesperson responded that “Yes, I can confirm that Brady is leaving Facebook.”

Voss added some color about joining Facebook, noting, “There was actually a discussion about whether or not I’d be a great culture fit because I wore a tie to my interviews–which is funny because we don’t believe dressing like that is what enables people to bring their best everyday. Thankfully, they saw past the common clichés–because suits and ties are not me.” As for Facebook’s troubles, he wrote that “I was even there for the big freak out moments along the way–we’ll keep them unnamed 🙃”, which could refer to his work on Facebook Live that spawned big problems with real-time broadcasts of violence and self-harm.

While it’s reasonable for anyone to want a change of pace after five years, especially after the brutal year Facebook’s had in the press, his departure just a week after Lasso’s launch doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence in the app’s trajectory. It might have been a sensible stopping point haven gotten the app out the door, but you’d also think that if Lasso had a real shot at popularity, he’d have wanted to stick around to oversee that growth.

Lasso’s first rodeo

TechCrunch first broke the news last month that Lasso was in development, citing Voss as one of the team’s heads. But in the meantime, the world’s highest valued private startup ByteDance managed to push its TikTok app past Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube on the download charts. It’s now at No. 5 on the U.S. iOS overall charts and No. 1 in Photo and Video. Facebook seems to have shooed Lasso out a little prematurely before losing more ground, given it lacks many of the augmented reality features and filters found in Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok .

Facebook Lasso

TechCrunch asked the company for some more details about the Lasso roadmap. A spokesperson told me that Facebook will be evolving Lasso and adding new features with time, and may test a feature for uploading videos instead of being restricted to shooting them in-app right now. Voss’ departure post includes a “Made With Lasso” video featuring an augmented reality effect with him conjuring Facebook Like thumbs-ups out of his hand. [Update: He tells me he added this in AfterEffects, but it shows that Facebookers think AR should be part of Lasso.]

As for monetization, Facebook tells me there are no plans to show ads right now. Typically, Facebook tries to build products to have hundreds of millions of users before it potentially endangers growth by layering in revenue generators. I asked if users might be able to pay their favorite video creators with tips, and the company says that while that’s not currently available, it hopes to explore ways to allow creators to earn money in the future. Instagram said the same thing about IGTV when it launched in June, and we still haven’t heard anything on that front. Facebook likely won’t be able to lure creators to new platforms with smaller audiences than their main channels unless it’s going to let them earn money there.

If Facebook is truly serious about challenging TikTok, it may need to build closer ties between Lasso and Instagram. Facebook left its previous standalone video apps like Slingshot and Poke out to dry, eventually shuttering them after providing little cross-promotion. Given the teen audience Lasso craves is already on Instagram, it will be fascinating to see if former VP of News Feed Adam Mosseri, who’s now running Instagram, will insert some links to Lasso. A Facebook spokesperson says that Facebook may investigate promoting Lasso on its other apps down the line.

And one final concern regarding Lasso is that Facebook isn’t doing much to prevent underage kids below 13 from getting on the app. Tweens flocked to Musically, leading to some worrisome content. Ten-year-old girls in revealing clothing singing along to the scandalous lyrics of pop songs frequently populated the Musically leaderboard. That prompted me to question Musically CEO Alex Zhu onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt London 2015 about whether his app violated the Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) that prohibits online services from collecting photos or videos of kids under 13. He denied wrongdoing with flimsy excuses, claiming parents were always aware of what kids were doing, and stormed out of the backstage area after our talk.

So I asked Facebook how it would prevent such issues on Lasso, where all content is public and adults can follow children. A spokesperson told me that you need a Facebook or Instagram account to sign up for Lasso, and those services require people to be 13 older. But “require” isn’t exactly the right word. It asks people to state they’re of age, but doesn’t do anything to confirm that. Lasso does have a report button for flagging inappropriate content, and the company claims to be taking privacy and safety seriously.

But if the tech giants are going to build apps purposefully designed for young audiences, asking for kids to merely promise they’re old enough to join may not be sufficient.

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Live streaming studio, Culture Genesis, launches its first show, the quiz-based Trivia Mob

Posted by | Apple, Culture Genesis, executive, Gaming, HQ Trivia, Jeopardy, live streaming, Los Angeles, mlb, Netflix, player, qi, TC, United States | No Comments

A new generation of entrepreneurs is emerging to refashion the Los Angeles studio system for the digital age, forming companies that combine live-streamed video, podcasts and the newfound social media celebrities to craft entertainment for a new breed of consumer.

Two of those startup founders, longtime Apple executive Cedric Rogers and former developer for VEVO and MLB digital Shaun Newsum, are now pulling the curtains back on the first fruit of their production studio, Culture Genesis, with the launch of TriviaMob — a new quiz show targeting urban audiences.

The two creators envision their company as a combination of 106 & Park and Jeopardy with questions aimed at cultural references for the Highsnobiety and Complex set.

TriviaMob banner

TriviaMob players can win up to $10,000 in cash by competing individually or as part of a group (or “mob”) to win collective prizes by tuning in and competing to shows that stream every Sunday. Each player has 10 seconds to answer 10 questions around art, music, science and history. Players that answer all of the questions correctly will get a share of the $10,000 prize and participants who opt to be part of the “mob” can earn points for sponsored prizes.

For its foray into live-streamed appointment entertainment, Culture Genesis has tapped Melvin Gregg, the influencer and star of Netflix’s American Vandal series along with a host of… well… hosts, including former Miss USA contestant, Brittany Lucio; DJ Damage, the co-host of Sean “P. Diddy” Combs’ flagship show, REVOLT Live; Jessica Flores; and TV host and comedic actress Dariany Santana.

Backed initially by Los Angeles-based accelerator MuckerLab and Betaworks’ latest LiveCamp program, the two founders see Culture Genesis as tapping into the twin trends of gaming and mobile technology adoption in young African American and Latinx communities. The founders cite statistics indicating that 73 percent of African Americans and 72 percent of Latinx consumers over 13 years old identify as gamers.

“We’re building software for an urban, multicultural audience that continues to lead and influence culture — not just in the U.S. but around the world,” said Rogers, in a statement. “We see this influence growing in Hollywood but it’s not happening fast enough in Silicon valley. We want to accelerate this shift.”

The business model mimics that of HQ Trivia, the once-popular quiz show whose success has waned even as it scored massive gains in venture fundraising — valuing the company at a reported $100 million.

But the founders of Culture Genesis see their first product as fundamentally different from HQ. “People want to see things for them by them,” says Rogers. “From our perspective HQ meant nothing to our audience.”

Newsum, the company’s chief technology officer, goes even further. “I think HQ was a prime example of our thesis. HQ from a multicultural perspective — that didn’t appeal to our audience. Part of what we’re doing with Cultural Genesis is bringing that urban understanding.”

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Netflix’s hackathon produces a way to navigate its iOS app with ARKit and Face ID

Posted by | Apps, augmented reality, face id, hackathon, Mobile, Netflix | No Comments

Netflix’s internal hackathons have consistently produced fun and often silly hacks, from that “Netflixtendo” hack a few years ago that let you run Netflix on the original NES to the more recent “audiobook mode” that turned Netflix series into old-school radio shows by way of Audio Descriptions. This year’s hackathon doesn’t disappoint either, with new hacks that are both as goofy and interesting as in years past, including an AR and Face ID-powered hack that lets you navigate Netflix with just your eyes, another designed for “Sharknado” fans and more.

“Jump to Shark” lets viewers skip right to the good parts of the so-bad-it’s-good “Sharknado,” so they can watch the bloody action sequences with sharks, instead of having to sit through the movie’s actual plot. It’s pretty great, as the video shows.

The AR hack, Eye Nav, is fairly impressive, too.

The hack uses Apple’s ARKit and the technology that enables Face ID for tracking eye position and facial expressions. It tracks your eye position to move a pointer around the screen, then measures the time spent on the same area to trigger a “tap.”

If you want to dismiss a screen, you can just stick your tongue out.

While the resulting hack is definitely fun, there are also implications for accessibility use cases in the future.

The hack was produced in 24 hours, so it may not be stable enough for real-world use, but it’s definitely an interesting idea.

A third hack doesn’t involve Netflix, but rather the productivity software Slack, used by Netflix employees.

“LunchBot” connects co-workers who are too busy to go to lunch, by inviting them to eat lunch together — virtually, while in a Slack chat. The app also checks everyone’s calendars to make sure they’re free.

Other hacks this year included those for product improvements, enhancements to its internal tools and some that were just for fun. A few of these were showcased in its Hackday 2018 video, such as a map for locating studio production resources, an “easy login” system and a version of Animoji using Netflix characters.

But the larger goal of Netflix’s hackathon, as you can probably tell, isn’t necessarily about creating features that will later be productized (although, c’mon…Jump to Shark!), but they sometimes serve as inspiration for features further down the road, the company says.

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