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The iRobot Roomba s9+ and Braava m6 are the robots you should trust to clean your house well

Posted by | Assistant, contents, Gadgets, Google, hardware, home, home appliances, Home Automation, iRobot, Reviews, robot, robotic vacuum cleaner, robotics, Roomba, samsung galaxy s9, smart devices, TC, Vacuum | No Comments

This holiday season, we’re going to be looking back at some of the best tech of the past year, and providing fresh reviews in a sort of ‘greatest hits’ across a range of categories. First up: iRobot’s top-end home cleaning robots, the Roomba s9+ robot vacuum, and the Braava m6 robot mop and floor sweeper. Both of these represent the current peak of iRobot’s technology, and while that shows up in the price tag, it also shows up in performance.

iRobot Roomba S9+

The iRobot Roomba S9+ is actually two things: The Roomba S9, which is available separately, and the Clean Base that enables the vacuum to empty itself after a run, giving you many cleanings before it needs you to actually open up a bin or replace a bag. Both the vacuum and its base are WiFi-connected, and controllable via iRobot’s app, as well as Google Assistant and Alexa. Combined, it’s the most advanced autonomous home vacuum you can get, and it manages to outperform a lot of older or less sophisticated robot vacuums even in situations that have historically been hard for this kind of tech to handle.

Like the Roomba S7 before it (which is still available and still also a great vacuum, for a bit less money), the S9 uses what’s called SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping), and a specific variant of that called vSLAM (the stands for ‘visual’). This technology means that as it works, it’s generating and adapting a map of your home to ensure that it can clean more effectively and efficiently.

After either a few dedicated training runs (which you can opt to send the vacuum on when it’s learning a new space) or a few more active vacuum runs, the Roomba S9 will remember your home’s layout, and provide a map that you can customize with room dividers and labels. This then turns on the vacuum’s real smart superpowers, which include being able to vacuum just specific rooms on command, as well as features like letting it easily pick up where it left off if it needs to return to its charging station mid-run. With the S9 and its large battery, the vacuum can do an entire run of my large two-bedroom condo on a single charge (the i7 I used previously needed two charges to finish up).

The S9’s vSLAM and navigation systems seem incredibly well-developed in my use: I’ve never once had the vacuum become stuck, or confused by changes in floor colouring, even going from a very light to a very dark floor (this is something that past vacuums have had difficulty with). It infallibly finds its way back to the Clean Base, and also never seems to be flummoxed by even drastic changes in lighting over the course of the day.

So it’s smart, but does it suck? Yes, it does – in the best possible way. Just like it doesn’t require stops to charge up, it also manages to clean my entire space with just one bin. There’s a lot more room in here thanks to the new design, and it handles even my dog’s hair with ease (my dog sheds a lot, and it’s very obvious light hair against dark wood floors). The new angled design on the front of the vacuum means it does a better job with getting in corners than previous fully round designs, and that shows, because corners are were clumps of hair go to gather in a dog-friendly household.

The ‘+’ in the S9+ is that Clean Base as I mentioned – think of it like the tower of lazy cleanliness. The base has a port that sucks dirt from the S9 when it’s done a run, shooting it into a bag in the top of the tower that can hold up to 30 full bins of dirt. That ends up being a lot in practice – it should last you months, depending on house size. Replacement bags cost $20 for three, which is probably what you’ll go through in a year, so it’s really a negligible cost for the convenience you’re getting.

Braava m6

The Roomba S9’s best friend, if you will, is the Braava m6. This is iRobot’s latest and greatest smart mop, which is exactly what it sounds like: Whereas Roomba vacuums, the Braava uses either single use disposable, or microfibre washable/reusable pads, as well as iRobot’s own cleaning fluid, to clean hardwood, tile, vinyl, cork and other hard surface floors once the vacuuming is done. It can also just run a dry sweep, which is useful for picking up dust and pet hair, as a finishing touch on the vacuum’s run.

iRobot has used its unique position in offering both of these types of smart devices to have them work together – if you have both the S9 and the Braava m6 added to your iRobot Home app, you’ll get an option to mop the floors right after the vacuum job is complete. It’s an amazing convenience feature, and one that works fairly well – but there are some differences in the smarts powering the Braava m6 and the Roomba s9 that lead to some occasional challenges.

The Braava m6 doesn’t seem to be quite as capable when it comes to mapping and navigating its surroundings. My condo layout is relatively simple, all one level with no drops or gaps. But the m6 has encountered some scenarios where it doesn’t seem to be able to cross a threshold or make sense of all floor types. Based on error messages, it seems like it’s identifying some surfaces as ‘cliffs’ or steep drops when transitioning back from lighter floors to darker ones.

What this means in practice is that a couple of times per run, I have to reposition the Braava manually. There are ways to solve for this, however, built into the software: Thanks to the smart mapping feature, I can just direct the Braava to focus only on the rooms with dark hardwood, or I can just adjust it when I get an alert that it’s having difficulty. It’s still massively more convenient than mopping by hand, and typically the m6 does about 90 percent of the apartment before it runs into difficult in one of these few small trouble areas.

If you’ve read online customer reviews fo the m6, you may also have seen complaints that it can leave tire marks on dark floors. I found that to be true – but with a few caveats. They definitely aren’t as pronounced as I expected based on some of the negative reviews out there, and I have very dark floors. They also only are really visible in direct sunlight, and then only faintly. They also fade pretty quickly, which means you won’t notice them most of the time if you’re mopping only once ever few vacuum runs. In the end, it’s something to be aware of, but for me it’s not a dealbreaker – far from it. The m6 still does a fantastic job overall of mopping and sweeping, and saves me a ton of labor on what is normally a pretty back-hostile manual task.

Bottom line

These iRobot home cleaning gadgets are definitely high-end, with the s9 starting at $1,099.99 ($1,399.99 with the cleaning base) and the m6 staring at $499.99. You can get a bundle with both staring at $1439.98, but even that is still a lot for cleaning appliances. This is definitely a case where the ‘you get what you pay for’ maxim proves true, however. Either rate s9+ alone, or the combo of the vacuum and mop represent a huge convenience, especially when used on a daily or similar regular schedule, vs. doing the same thing manually. The s9 also frankly does a better job than I ever could wth my own manual vacuum, since it’s much better at getting into corners, under couches, and cleaning along and under trip thanks to its spinning brush. And asking Alexa to have Roomba start a cleaning run feels like living in the future in the best possible way.

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SocialRank sells biz to Trufan, pivots to a mobile LinkedIn

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Apps, Enterprise, Exit, funding, Fundings & Exits, M&A, Mobile, Personnel, Recent Funding, Social, Startups, TC | No Comments

What do you do when your startup idea doesn’t prove big enough? Run it as a scrawny but profitable lifestyle business? Or sell it to a competitor and take another swing at the fences? Social audience analytics startup SocialRank chose the latter and is going for glory.

Today, SocialRank announced it’s sold its business, brand, assets, and customers to influencer marketing campaign composer and distributor Trufan which will run it as a standalone product. But SocialRank’s team isn’t joining up. Instead, the full six-person staff is sticking together to work on a mobile-first professional social network called Upstream aiming to nip at LinkedIn.

SocialRank co-founder and CEO Alex Taub

Started in 2014 amidst a flurry of marketing analytics tools, SocialRank had raised $2.1 million from Rainfall Ventures and others before hitting profitability in 2017. But as the business plateaued, the team saw potential to use data science about people’s identity to get them better jobs.

“A few months ago we decided to start building a new product (what has become Upstream). And when we came to the conclusion to go all-in on Upstream, we knew we couldn’t run two businesses at the same time” SocialRank co-founder and CEO Alex Taub tells me. “We decided then to run a bit of a process. We ended up with a few offers but ultimately felt like Trufan was the best one to continue the business into the future.”

The move lets SocialRank avoid stranding its existing customers like the NFL, Netflix, and Samsung that rely on its audience segmentation software. Instead, they’ll continue to be supported by Trufan where Taub and fellow co-founder Michael Schonfeld will become advisors.

“While we built a sustainable business, we essentially knew that if we wanted to go real big, we would need to go to the drawing board” Taub explains.

SocialRank

Two-year-old Trufan has raised $1.8 million Canadian from Round13 Capital, local Toronto startup Clearbanc’s founders, and several NBA players. Trufan helps brands like Western Union and Kay Jewellers design marketing initiatives that engage their customer communities through social media. It’s raising an extra $400,000 USD in venture debt from Round13 to finance the acquisition, which should make Trufan cash-flow positive by the end of the year.

Why isn’t the SocialRank team going along for the ride? Taub said LinkedIn was leaving too much opportunity on the table. While it’s good for putting resumes online and searching for people, “All the social stuff are sort of bolt-ons that came after Facebook and Twitter arrived. People forget but LinkedIn is the oldest active social network out there”, Taub tells me, meaning it’s a bit outdated.

Trufan’s team

Rather than attack head-on, the newly forged Upstream plans to pick the Microsoft-owned professional network apart with better approaches to certain features. “I love the idea of ‘the unbundling of LinkedIn’, ala what’s been happening with Craigslist for the past few years” says Taub. “The first foundational piece we are building is a social professional network around giving and getting help. We’ll also be focused on the unbundling of the groups aspect of LinkedIn.”

Taub concludes that entrepreneurs can shackle themselves to impossible goals if they take too much venture capital for the wrong business. As we’ve seen with SoftBank, investors demand huge returns that can require pursuing risky and unsustainable expansion strategies.

“We realized that SocialRank had potential to be a few hundred million dollar in revenue business but venture growth wasn’t exactly the model for it” Taub says. “You need the potential of billions in revenue and a steep growth curve.” A professional network for the smartphone age has that kind of addressable market. And the team might feel better getting out of bed each day knowing they’re unlocking career paths for people instead of just getting them to click ads.

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Valve confirms it’s making a ‘flagship’ Half-Life VR game

Posted by | Gaming, half life, TC, Valve, Virtual reality | No Comments

After what feels like years of rumors, it’s official: Valve is making a virtual reality Half-Life game.

Official word of the new title comes via Valve’s (brand new, but verified) Twitter account, where the company is promising more details later this week:

While it’s a bit curious to drop news like this as the first tweet from a brand new account, Valve’s long-established official Steam twitter account retweeted it — so signs are pointing toward it being legit.

Alas, we know next to nothing besides the name — Half-Life: Alyx — until 10 am on Thursday. Will we finally get a proper conclusion for Alyx Vance, whose storyline ended so abruptly when Valve dropped the Half-Life storyline mid-sentence 12 years ago ?

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Intel and Argonne National Lab on ‘exascale’ and their new Aurora supercomputer

Posted by | aurora, exascale, Gadgets, hardware, High Performance Computing, Intel, ponte vecchio, supercomputers, TC | No Comments

The scale of supercomputing has grown almost too large to comprehend, with millions of compute units performing calculations at rates requiring, for first time, the exa prefix — denoting quadrillions per second. How was this accomplished? With careful planning… and a lot of wires, say two people close to the project.

Having noted the news that Intel and Argonne National Lab were planning to take the wrapper off a new exascale computer called Aurora (one of several being built in the U.S.) earlier this year, I recently got a chance to talk with Trish Damkroger, head of Intel’s Extreme Computing Organization, and Rick Stevens, Argonne’s associate lab director for computing, environment and life sciences.

The two discussed the technical details of the system at the Supercomputing conference in Denver, where, probably, most of the people who can truly say they understand this type of work already were. So while you can read at industry journals and the press release about the nuts and bolts of the system, including Intel’s new Xe architecture and Ponte Vecchio general-purpose compute chip, I tried to get a little more of the big picture from the two.

It should surprise no one that this is a project long in the making — but you might not guess exactly how long: more than a decade. Part of the challenge, then, was to establish computing hardware that was leagues beyond what was possible at the time.

“Exascale was first being started in 2007. At that time we hadn’t even hit the petascale target yet, so we were planning like three to four magnitudes out,” said Stevens. “At that time, if we had exascale, it would have required a gigawatt of power, which is obviously not realistic. So a big part of reaching exascale has been reducing power draw.”

Intel’s supercomputing-focused Xe architecture is based on a 7-nanometer process, pushing the very edge of Newtonian physics — much smaller and quantum effects start coming into play. But the smaller the gates, the less power they take, and microscopic savings add up quickly when you’re talking billions and trillions of them.

But that merely exposes another problem: If you increase the power of a processor by 1000x, you run into a memory bottleneck. The system may be able to think fast, but if it can’t access and store data equally fast, there’s no point.

“By having exascale-level computing, but not exabyte-level bandwidth, you end up with a very lopsided system,” said Stevens.

And once you clear both those obstacles, you run into a third: what’s called concurrency. High performance computing is equally about synchronizing a task between huge numbers of computing units as it is about making those units as powerful as possible. The machine operates as a whole, and as such every part must communicate with every other part — which becomes something of a problem as you scale up.

“These systems have many thousands of nodes, and the nodes have hundreds of cores, and the cores have thousands of computation units, so there’s like, billion-way concurrency,” Stevens explained. “Dealing with that is the core of the architecture.”

How they did it, I, being utterly unfamiliar with the vagaries of high performance computing architecture design, would not even attempt to explain. But they seem to have done it, as these exascale systems are coming online. The solution, I’ll only venture to say, is essentially a major advance on the networking side. The level of sustained bandwidth between all these nodes and units is staggering.

Making exascale accessible

While even in 2007 you could predict that we’d eventually reach such low-power processes and improved memory bandwidth, other trends would have been nearly impossible to predict — for example, the exploding demand for AI and machine learning. Back then it wasn’t even a consideration, and now it would be folly to create any kind of high performance computing system that wasn’t at least partially optimized for machine learning problems.

“By 2023 we expect AI workloads to be a third of the overall HPC server market,” said Damkroger. “This AI-HPC convergence is bringing those two workloads together to solve problems faster and provide greater insight.”

To that end the architecture of the Aurora system is built to be flexible while retaining the ability to accelerate certain common operations, for instance the type of matrix calculations that make up a great deal of certain machine learning tasks.

“But it’s not just about performance, it has to be about programmability,” she continued. “One of the big challenges of an exacale machine is being able to write software to use that machine. oneAPI is going to be a unified programming model — it’s based on an open standard of Open Parallel C++, and that’s key for promoting use in the community.”

Summit, as of this writing the most powerful single computing system in the world, is very dissimilar to many of the systems developers are used working on. If the creators of a new supercomputer want it to have broad appeal, they need to bring it as close to being like a “normal” computer to operate as possible.

“It’s something of a challenge to bring x86-based packages to Summit,” Stevens noted. “The big advantage for us is that, because we have x86 nodes and Intel GPUs, this thing is basically going to run every piece of software that exists. It’ll run standard software, Linux software, literally millions of apps.”

I asked about the costs involved, since it’s something of a mystery with a system like this how that a half-billion dollar budget gets broken down. Really I just thought it would be interesting to know how much of it went to, say, RAM versus processing cores, or how many miles of wire they had to run. Though both Stevens and Damkroger declined to comment, the former did note that “the backlink bandwidth on this machine is many times the total of the entire internet, and that does cost something.” Make of that what you will.

Aurora, unlike its cousin El Capitan at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, will not be used for weapons development.

“Argonne is a science lab, and it’s open, not classified science,” said Stevens. “Our machine is a national user resource; We have people using it from all over the country. A large amount of time is allocated via a process that’s peer reviewed and priced to accommodate the most interesting projects. About two thirds is that, and the other third Department of Energy stuff, but still unclassified problems.”

Initial work will be in climate science, chemistry, and data science, with 15 teams between them signed up for major projects to be run on Aurora — details to be announced soon.

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Logitech accessory kit makes the Xbox Adaptive Controller even more accessible

Posted by | accessibility, Gadgets, Gaming, hardware, Logitech, Microsoft, TC, xbox, xbox adaptive controller | No Comments

Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller was a breath of fresh air in a gaming world that has largely failed to consider the needs of people with disabilities. Now Logitech has joined the effort to empower this diverse population with an expanded set of XAC-compatible buttons and triggers.

Logitech’s $100 Adaptive Gaming Kit comes with a dozen buttons in a variety of sizes, two large analog levers to control the triggers, and a Velcro-style pad to which they can all be securely attached. It’s hopefully the start of a hardware ecosystem that will be at least a significant fraction of the diversity available to the able population.

The visibility of gamers with disabilities has grown both as the communities have organized and communicated their needs, and as gaming itself has moved towards the mainstream. Turns out there are millions of people who, for one reason or another, can’t use a controller or mouse and keyboard the way others can — and they want to play games too.

Always one of the more reliably considerate companies when it comes to accessibility issues, Microsoft began developing the XAC a couple years back — though admittedly after years of, like the rest of the gaming hardware community, failing to accommodate disabled gamers.

Logitech was an unwitting partner, having provided joysticks for the project without being told what they were for. But when the XAC was unveiled, Logitech was stunned and chagrined.

“This is something that, shame on us, we didn’t think about,” said Mark Starrett, Logitech G’s senior global product manager. “We’ve been trying to diversify gaming, like getting more girls to play, but we totally did not think about this. But you see the videos Microsoft put out, how excited the kids are — it’s so motivating to see that, it makes you want to continue that work.”

And to their credit, the team got in contact with Microsoft soon after and said they’d like to collaborate on some accessories for the system.

In some ways this wouldn’t be particularly difficult: The XAC uses 3.5mm headphone jacks as its main input, so it can accept signals from a wide range of devices, from its own buttons and sticks to things like blow tubes, so there’s no worries about proprietary connections, for instance. But when it comes to accessible devices and systems like this, there are often other rigorous standards in place that need to be upheld throughout, so it’s necessary to work closely with both the platform provider (Microsoft) and, naturally, the people who will actually be using them.

“This community, you can’t make anything for them without doing it with them,” said Starrett. “When we design a gaming keyboard or mouse, we engage pros, players, all that stuff, right? So with this, it’s absolutely critical to watch them with every piece.”

“The biggest takeaway is that everybody is so different: every challenge, every setup, everyone we talked to,” he continued. “We had a 70, 80 year old guy who plays Destiny and has arthritis — all we really needed to do was put a block on the back of his controller, because he couldn’t pull the trigger. Then we worked with a girl who has a quadstick, she was playing Madden like a pro with something you just puff and blow on. Another guy played everything with his feet. So we spent a lot of time on the site just watching.”

The final set of buttons they arrived at includes three very large ones, four smaller ones (though still big compared with ordinary controller buttons), four “light touch” buttons that can be easily activated by any contact, and two big triggers. Because they knew different gamers would use the sets differently, there’s a set of labels in the box that can be applied however they like.

Then there are two hook and loop (i.e. Velcro) mats to which the buttons can be attached, one rigid and the other flexible, so it can be draped over a leg, the arm of a couch, etc.

Even the packaging the buttons come in is accessible: A single strip of tape pulls out and causes the whole box to unfold, and then everything is in non-sealed reusable bags. The guide is wordless so it can be used in any country, by any player.

It’s nice to see such consideration at work, and no doubt the players who will benefit from these products will be happy to have a variety of options to choose from. I was starting to think I could use a couple of these buttons myself.

Starrett seemed very happy with the results, and also proud that the work had started something new at Logitech.

“The groups we talked to brought a lot of different things to mind for us,” he said. “We’re always updating things, but now we’re updating everything with an eye to accessibility. It’s helped Logitech as a company to learn about this stuff.”

You can pick up Logitech’s Adaptive Gaming kit here for $100.

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John Legere is stepping down as CEO of T-Mobile, succeeded by deputy Mike Sievert on May 1

Posted by | adam neumann, AT&T, deutsche telekom, john legere, M&A, Mobile, Personnel, Softbank, SoftBank Group, sprint, T-Mobile, TC, telecommunications, united nations, United States, Verizon, WeWork | No Comments

He’s reportedly not going to take over WeWork, but John Legere is definitely on his way out of the CEO role at T-Mobile, the carrier that is currently merging with SoftBank-controlled Sprint. Today the carrier and Legere confirmed that Mike Sievert — currently T-Mobile’s COO — will succeed Legere as CEO on May 1 of 2020. Legere will stay on the board.

Neither Legere nor T-Mobile commented on what his next move will be, and specifically if this will pave the way for him to take over the top job at WeWork. There had been reports that Legere — something of a turnaround specialist — was being lined up for the job at the very troubled office-space startup, which had to shelve its IPO earlier this year after showing poor financials amid questionable management that not only led to the departure of its founder Adam Neumann as CEO, but a strong devaluation of the company that resulted in SoftBank, as a major creditor, taking control.

The reports of Legere coming in to fix things at WeWork seemed to get refuted quite swiftly. However, the same “sources” that quashed that story also insisted he had “no plans” to leave T-Mobile. With elements of the report in doubt, that could put the WeWork rumors (or thoughts of other SoftBank roles, for that matter) back on the table. We’ve asked Legere directly and will update this post if he replies.

Legere has been with T-Mobile since 2012, where he used his irreverent personality to directly spar with the industry while at the same time position the carrier — which has long trailed bigger competitors like AT&T and Verizon (which owns us) in size — as a growth story and different from the pack (hence the “un-carrier” marketing strategy). The stock price has over that time gone up, and the carrier is currently valued at around $65 billion. (Notably, the stock is down about 1.5% today on the back of this news.)

Sievert will be tasked with continuing the route that Legere set, T-Mobile said, “demonstrating that T-Mobile will remain a disruptive force in US wireless marketplace to benefit consumers.”

“I hired Mike in 2012 and I have great confidence in him. I have mentored him as he took on increasingly broad responsibilities, and he is absolutely the right choice as T-Mobile’s next CEO,” said Legere in a statement. “Mike is well prepared to lead T-Mobile into the future. He has a deep understanding of where T-Mobile has been and where it needs to go to remain the most innovative company in the industry. I am extremely proud of the culture and enthusiasm we have built around challenging the status quo and our ongoing commitment to putting customers first.”

“The Un-carrier culture, which all our employees live every day, will not change,” Sievert said in a separate statement. “T-Mobile is not just about one individual. Our company is built around an extraordinarily capable management team and thousands of talented, committed, and customer-obsessed employees. Going forward, my mission is to build on T-Mobile’s industry-leading reputation for empowering employees to deliver an outstanding customer experience and to position T-Mobile not only as the leading mobile carrier, but as one of the most admired companies in America.”

Regardless of whether this is a sign that SoftBank indeed has a job lined up for Legere at one of its other portfolio companies, such as WeWork, the changing of the guard makes some sense, as the merger with Sprint would leave a question mark over who would lead the combined business. The two companies were reportedly close to releasing a management line-up for the merged business earlier this year, but that has yet to happen. The merger is due to be completed early next year.

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This Week in Apps: Apple’s vaping app ban, Disney+ gets installed, apps gear up for Black Friday

Posted by | app-store, Apple, Apps, developers, e-commerce, Gaming, Google, Mobile, publishers, TC, this week in apps | 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. What are developers talking about? What do app publishers and marketers need to know? How are politics impacting the App Store and app businesses? And which apps are everyone using?

As mid-November rolls around, we’re looking at a few big stories, including Apple’s decision to ban an entire category of apps due to health concerns, the launch of Disney+ from an app perspective, what Black Friday will mean for e-commerce apps, and more.

Fast Facts

With Disney+’s huge launch (10+ million users!) on everyone’s minds, it’s time to think about what these streaming newcomers mean for the overall landscape and the app stores. In this case, it seems that Disney+’s user base was highly mobile. The company itself announced more than 10 million users, while data on the Disney+ app’s first few days indicates it now has over 10 million downloads. It seems like consumers definitely want to take their new streaming service with them everywhere they go.

  • In 2020, App Annie forecasts consumers will spend more than 674 billion hours in the Entertainment and Video Player and Editor categories worldwide on Android phones, up from an expected 558 billion hours in 2019. Thanks to Disney+, Apple TV+ and soon, HBO Max, Peacock and Quibi, to making the landscape both richer and more complicated.
  • On its launch day, Disney+ hit #1 by iPhone Overall downloads at 8 AM in the U.S. and at 11 AM in Canada — an indication of the ability that strong IP has can really excite consumers to come out in droves. (Unfortunately, that led to some launch day glitches, too.)
  • Apptopia estimated Disney+ was downloaded 3.2 million times in its first 24 hours. The firm also estimated users collectively spent 1.3 million hours watching Disney+ on day one — ahead of Amazon Prime Video, but well behind Netflix.

  • Sensor Tower waited to collect a little more data instead. It found that the Disney+ app was installed approximately 9.6 million times in all available markets (the U.S., Canada, and the Netherlands), since its U.S. launch on Tuesday, Nov. 12. For comparison’s sake, HBO Now’s U.S. launch only saw 180,000 installs in its first three days — or 2% of the Disney+ total. Combined with the test period installs in the Netherlands, the app has now been installed over 10 million times.
  • The hype around Disney+ has had a halo effect. Hulu and ESPN, which were offered in a bundle with Disney+, also grew as a result of the Disney+ launch. Sensor Tower found combined users of the apps in the U.S. and Canada were up 30% in the past week over the week prior.

Headlines

Apple removed all vaping apps from the App Store, citing CDC health concerns

The CDC says 42 people have died due to vaping product use and thousands more cases of lung injuries have been reported from 49 states. Now, Apple has made the controversial decision to remove all 181 vaping-related apps from its App Store — including those with news and information about vaping and even vaping-related games, Axios reported this week.

Some say Apple is helping to protect kids and teens by limiting their exposure to e-cigarette and vaping products, which are being used to addict a younger generation to nicotine and cause serious disease. Others argue that Apple is over-reaching. After all, many of the lung illnesses involve people who were vaping illegally obtained THC, studies indicated.

This isn’t the first time Apple has banned a category of apps because of what appear to be moral concerns. The company in the past had booted apps that promoted weed or depicted gun violence, for example. In the case of vaping apps, Apple cited the public health crisis and youth epidemic as contributing factors, telling Axios that:

We take great care to curate the App Store as a trusted place for customers, particularly youth, to download apps. We’re constantly evaluating apps, and consulting the latest evidence, to determine risks to users’ health and well-being. Recently, experts ranging from the CDC to the American Heart Association have attributed a variety of lung injuries and fatalities to e-cigarette and vaping products, going so far as to call the spread of these devices a public health crisis and a youth epidemic. We agree, and we’ve updated our App Store Review Guidelines to reflect that apps encouraging or facilitating the use of these products are not permitted. As of today, these apps are no longer available to download.

Existing users will still be able to use their apps, but new users will not be able to download the banned apps going forward.

Minecraft Earth arrives 

Minecraft Earth launched early last week across 9 countries on both Android and iOS and now it’s come to the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and several other markets. Some expect the app will rival the success of the AR breakout hit, Pokémon Go, which was thought at the time to be the precursor to a new wave of massive AR gaming titles. But in reality, that didn’t happen. The highly anticipated follow-up from Niantic, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite didn’t come close to competing with its predecessor, generating $12 million in its first month, compared with Pokémon Go’s first-month earnings of $300 million. With Minecraft Earth now sitting at No. 2 (c’mon, you can’t unseat Disney+) on the U.S. App Store, it seems there’s potential for another AR kingpin.

App Annie releases a user acquisition playbook

A top name in App Store intelligence, App Annie this week released a new how-to handbook focused on user acquisition strategies on mobile. Sure the free download is just a bit of lead gen for App Annie, but the guide promises to fill you in on all you need to know to be successful in acquiring mobile users. The playbook’s arrival follows App Annie’s acquisition of adtech insights firm Libring this fall, as it expands to cover more aspects of running an app business. Just as important as rankings and downloads are the very real costs associated with running an app business — including the cost of acquiring users.

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Those crappy pre-installed Android apps can be full of security holes

Posted by | Android, Apps, Google, Security, TC | No Comments

If you’ve ever bought an Android phone, there’s a good chance you booted it up to find it pre-loaded with junk you definitely didn’t ask for.

These pre-installed apps can be clunky, annoying to remove, rarely updated… and, it turns out, full of security holes.

Security firm Kryptowire built a tool to automatically scan a large number of Android devices for signs of security shortcomings and, in a study funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, ran it on phones from 29 different vendors. Now, the majority of these vendors are ones most people have never heard of — but a few big names like Asus, Samsung and Sony make appearances.

Kryptowire says they found vulnerabilities of all different varieties, from apps that can be forced to install other apps, to tools that can be tricked into recording audio, to those that can silently mess with your system settings. Some of the vulnerabilities can only be triggered by other apps that come pre-installed (thus limiting the attack vector to those along the supply chain); others, meanwhile, can seemingly be triggered by any app the user might install down the road.

Kryptowire has a full list of observed vulnerabilities here, broken down by type and manufacturer. The firm says it found 146 vulnerabilities in all.

As Wired points out, Google is well aware of this potential attack route. In 2018 it launched a program called the Build Test Suite (or BTS) that all partner OEMs must pass. BTS scans a device’s firmware for any known security issues hiding amongst its pre-installed apps, flagging these bad apps as Potentially Harmful Applications (or PHAs). As Google puts it in its 2018 Android security report:

OEMs submit their new or updated build images to BTS. BTS then runs a series of tests that look for security issues on the system image. One of these security tests scans for pre-installed PHAs included in the system image. If we find a PHA on the build, we work with the OEM partner to remediate and remove the PHA from the build before it can be offered to users.

During its first calendar year, BTS prevented 242 builds with PHAs from entering the ecosystem.

Anytime BTS detects an issue we work with our OEM partners to remediate and understand how the application was included in the build. This teamwork has allowed us to identify and mitigate systemic threats to the ecosystem.

Alas, one automated system can’t catch everything — and when an issue does sneak by, there’s no certainty that a patch or fix will ever arrive (especially on lower-end devices, where long-term support tends to be limited).

We reached out to Google for comment on the report, but have yet to hear back.

Update — Google’s response:

We appreciate the work of the research community who collaborate with us to responsibly fix and disclose issues such as these.

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More layoffs at pivoting London ed tech startup pi-top

Posted by | edtech, Education, Europe, Gadgets, London, pi-top, Raspberry Pi, Startups, STEM learning, TC, United Kingdom | No Comments

London ed tech startup pi-top has gone through another round of layoffs, TechCrunch has learned.

Pi-top confirmed that eight jobs have been cut in the London office, saying the job losses resulted from “restructuring our business to focus on the U.S. education market.”

In August we broke the news that the STEM hardware-focused company had cut 12 staff after losing out on a major contract; pi-top told us then that its headcount had been reduced from 72 to 60.

The latest cuts suggest the workforce has been reduced to around 50 — although we have also heard that company headcount is now considerably lower than that.

One source told us that 12 jobs have gone in the London office this week, as well as additional cuts in the China office, where the company’s hardware team is based — but pi-top denied there have been any changes to its China team.

Pi-top said in August that the layoffs were related to implementing a new strategy.

Commenting on the latest cuts, it told us: “We have made changes within the company that reflect our business focus on the U.S. education market and our increasingly important SaaS learning platform.”

“The core of our business remains unchanged and we are happy with progress and the fantastic feedback we have received on pitop 4 from our school partners,” pi-top added.

Additionally, we have heard that a further eight roles at the U.K. office have been informed to staff as at risk of redundancy. Affected jobs at risk include roles in product, marketing, creative services, customer support and finance.

We also understand that a number of employees have left the company of their own accord in recent months, following an earlier round of layoffs.

Pi-top did not provide comment on jobs at risk of redundancy, but told us that it has hired three new staff “to accelerate the SaaS side of our education offering and will be increasing our numbers in the U.S. to service our growth in the region.”

We understand that the latest round of cuts have been communicated to staff as a cost-reduction exercise and also linked to implementing a new strategy. Staff have also been told that the business focus has shifted to the U.S schools market.

As we reported earlier this year, pi-top appointed a new executive chairman of its board who has a strong U.S. focus: Stanley Buchesky served in the Trump administration as an interim CFO for the U.S. Department of Education under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. He is also the founder of a U.S. ed tech seed fund.

Sources familiar with pi-top say the company is seeking to pivot away from making proprietary ed tech hardware to focus on a SaaS learning platform for teaching STEM, called pi-top Further.

At the start of this year it crowdfunded a fourth-gen STEM device, the pi-top 4, with an estimated shipping date of this month. The crowdfunder attracted 521 backers, pledging close to $200,000 to fund the project.

In the pi-top 4 Kickstarter pitch the device is slated as being supported by a software platform called Further — which is described as a “free social making platform” that “teaches you how to use all the pi-top components through completing challenges and contributing projects to the community,” as well as offering social sharing features.

The plan now is for pi-top to monetize that software platform by charging subscription fees for elements of the service — with the ultimate goal of SaaS revenues making up the bulk of its business as hardware sales are de-emphasized. (Hardware is hard; and pi-top’s current STEM learning flagship has faced some challenges with reliability, as we reported in August.)

We understand that the strategic change to Further — from free to a subscription service — was communicated to staff internally in September.

Asked about progress on the pi-top 4, the company told us the device began shipping to backers this week. 

“We are pleased to announce the release of pi-top 4 and pi-top Further, our new learning and robotics coding platform,” it said. “This new product suite provides educators the ability to teach coding, robotics and AI with step-by-step curriculum and an integrated coding window that powers the projects students build. With pi-top, teachers can effectively use Project Based Learning and students can learn by doing and apply what they learn to the real world.”

Last month pi-top announced it had taken in $4 million in additional investment to fund the planned pivot to SaaS — and “bridge towards profitability,” as it put it today.

“The changes you see are a fast growing start-up shifting from revenue focus to a right-sized profit generating company,” it also told us.

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Facebook quietly built “Popular Photos”, an in-app Instagram

Posted by | Apps, Facebook, Facebook ads, facebook photos, instagram, Mobile, Social, TC | No Comments

Facebook is copying Instagram while simultaneously invading its acquisition with branding and links back to the mothership. TechCrunch has spotted Facebook testing a feature called Popular Photos, which affixes an endless scroll of algorithmically selected pics from friends beneath the full-screen view of a photo opened from the News Feed. The result is an experience that feels like the Instagram feed, but inside of Facebook.

Popular Photos could offer users a more relaxing, lean-back browsing experience that omits links you have to click through, status updates you have to read, and other content types that bog down the News Feed. Instead, users can just passively watch the pretty pictures go by.

Facebook’s text and link-heavy feed looks increasingly stodgy and exhausting compared to visual communication-based social networks like Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. Users have to do the work of digging into the meaning of News Feed each post rather than being instantly entertained. That experience doesn’t fit as well into short browsing sessions throughout the day, or when users are already drained from work, school, or family. Facebook used to have a dedicated Photos bookmark on desktop that would let you just browse that content type, but at some point it disappeared.

A Facebook spokesperson confirms that Facebook was running a small test of Popular Photos in October when we spotted it. That trial has concluded but the team is now iterating on the product and plans to do updated tests in the future. The company refused to disclose more details or its motives for Popular Photos. Given Facebook already has Stories, messaging, profiles, and its IGTV-esque Watch video hub, it’s only the Explore tab and a dedicated media feed that are missing from it being a full clone of Instagram.

Here’s how Popular Photos works. When users discover a photo in the News Feed or a profile, they can tap on it to see it full-screen on a black theater-view background. Typically, if users swipe or scroll on that photo, they’re just booted back out to where they came from. But with the Popular Photos feature, Facebook splays out more images for users to scroll through after the original.

By scrolling down past the Popular Photos title, they’ll see additional pics and a “See More Photos” label beckoning them to keep whipping through more public and friends-only images shared by friends and who they follow. Like on Instagram but unlike the News Feed, Facebook truncates the captions of Popular Photos after only around 65 characters so the stream doesn’t look overwhelmingly wordy. The black backgrounds give a more cinematic feel to the Popular Photos, putting emphasis on the imagery.

Facebook started showing Related Videos in 2014 when users scrolled past a video they’d opened full-screen. Now this “More Videos” feature will auto-play the next video and automatically bump users down the feed to view it. The feature even shows video ads. That could foreshadow Facebook inserting advertisers’ photos into the Popular Photos tab to monetize the extra browsing.

Facebook hasn’t been shy about trying to leverage Instagram to benefit itself. The company has placed an Open Facebook button in the Instagram navigation sidebar.

Previously, Instagram tried showing Facebook alerts in its own Notifications tab, and an annoying red counter for Facebook notifications on the three-line hamburger button that opens the Instagram sidebar in an attempt to drive referral traffic back to the Facebook app. Facebook has also tried notifying users in its app asking them to Like the Facebook Pages of people they follow on Instagram. And now, a “from Facebook” and new FACEBOOK logo can be found appended to the Instagram loading screen.

For Facebook to keep growing after 15 years in the market, it needs to fully embrace visual communication. It’s already copied Snapchat Stories and implemented the ephemeral photo and video format across its apps. Clearly it’s not above copying its own subsidiary Instagram to offer an alternative take on feed scrolling. I wonder how Instagram’s team feels about its parent company building a direct competitor?

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