This Week in Apps: League of Legends goes mobile, Tim Cook talks to China and more

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

The app industry in 2018 saw 194 billion downloads and more than $100 billion in purchases. Just in the past quarter, consumer spending exceeded $23 billion and installs topped 31 billion. It’s a fact: we spend more time on our phones than we do watching TV.

This week, Chinese censorship is still a big topic, and one which sees Apple CEO sitting down with Chinese regulators to discuss. China was also found to have forced a spy app on its people, according to a code review. Meanwhile, TikTok got cloned in Russia. It also decided to bring in corporate lawyers to help it to figure out how to moderate its content and be transparent.

We also take a look at headlines about Luna Display’s response to sherlocking, an Arcade developer’s localization efforts, and hear from a former App Store reviewer, among other things.

Let’s get to it.

T-Mobile partners with Jeffrey Katzenberg’s mobile streaming service Quibi

On the heels of getting the FCC’s proposal to merge with Sprint, T-Mobile announced a plan to partner with Jeffrey Katzenberg’s mobile streaming service, Quibi. According to statements provided to the LA Times, and confirmed by Variety, Quibi CEO Meg Whitman specifically called out T-Mobile’s “impressive 5G road map” as a good fit for the soon-to-launch streaming service.

The partnership will give T-Mobile’s 83.1 million customers access to Quibi’s premium content, but no details as to how it would be bundled into the carrier’s plans are currently available. It’s possible that Quibi will either be offered at a discount for T-Mobile users, or it could be available as an add-on or available with a special bundle deal.

The deal will present a new competitor to AT&T’s streaming services, AT&T TV Now (previously DirecTV Now) and low-cost WatchTV, as well as its upcoming premium service, HBO Max. Verizon (TechCrunch’s parent company) also dabbled with mobile streaming with go90, but that service was shut down last year after failing to gain adoption.

The news of the T-Mobile deal comes on the heels of a series of rapid-fire announcements about the shows and celebs who will be contributing to Quibi, which will provide a range of programming, including news, lifestyle, comedy, drama, horror, reality, action and more. And all is broken up into shorter-form bits — or “quick bites,” hence the service’s name.

As for the programming, Quibi has brought in big names like Sam Raimi, Guillermo del Toro, Antoine Fuqua and producer Jason Blum, Liam Hemsworth, Lorne Michaels, Steven Speilberg, Tyra Banks, Idris Elba, Trevor Noah, Queen Latifah, Sophie Turner and others.

“Quibi will deliver premium video content for millennials on a technology platform that is built exclusively for mobile, so a telecommunications partner like T-Mobile, with their broad coverage today and impressive 5G road map, is the perfect fit,” Quibi chief executive Meg Whitman said in a statement run by the LA Times.

“Quibi is leading the way on how video content is made and experienced in a mobile-first world,” said Mike Sievert, president and chief operating officer of T-Mobile. “That’s why our partnership makes perfect sense — two mobile-centric disrupters coming together to give customers something new and remarkable.”

Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

The companies confirmed the news to TechCrunch, following the L.A. Times report.

Google Maps adds more Waze-like features, including driving-incident reports

Google Maps is starting to look a lot more like Waze. Google today announced a series of new features that will allow drivers using the Maps app on iOS to report accidents, speed traps and traffic jams. And on both iOS and Android, users will be able to report other driving hazards and incidents, like road construction, lane closures, disabled vehicles and objects in the road — like debris. These are all core Waze features and among the primary reasons why many users opt for Waze over Google Maps.

Google had already offered accident, speed trap and traffic slowdown reports on Android before today.

The new updates follow a steady launch of Waze-like additions to the Google Maps app.

For example, Google launched speed limits and speed trap alerts in more than 40 countries in Google Maps back in May. And it had been testing various driving hazard alerts before now. Google Maps also previously adopted other Waze features, like the ability to add a stop to your route while in navigation mode, or the ability to view nearby gas prices.Mid trip UGC ReportWhen you’re navigating your route in Google Maps, you can tap to add a report, then choose from a long list that now includes: Crash, Speed Trap, Slowdown, Construction, Lane Closure, Disabled vehicle and Object on Road.

With the additions, Google is chipping away at the many reasons why people still turn to Waze.

However, Waze is still better for planning a trip by connecting to your personal calendar or Facebook events, while Google Maps has instead focused more on helping users plan their commutes. Waze also is more social and includes a carpooling service.

The benefit of more users switching to Maps means more aggregate data to help power Google’s other products. Data collection from Google Maps is behind features like those that show the wait times, popular times and visit duration at local businesses, for example. Plus, Google Maps is a jumping off point for Google’s My Business platform, which has more recently been challenging Facebook Pages by allowing Maps users to follow their favorite businesses to track promotions and events, and even message the businesses directly.

Google says the new Google Maps features start rolling out globally on Android and iOS this week.

Live Caption, Google’s automatic captioning technology, is now available on Pixel 4

Live Caption, Google’s automatic captioning system first introduced at its I/O developer conference this May, is now officially available, alongside the launch of the new Pixel 4. But unlike some of the other technologies highlighted at the company’s Pixel hardware event yesterday, Live Caption won’t be limited to Google’s new smartphone alone. After the initial debut on Pixel 4, the automatic captioning technology will roll out to Pixel 3, Pixel 3 XL, Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL before the year-end, says Google, and will become more broadly available in 2020.

The company has already offered automatic captions on YouTube for a decade, but that same sort of experience isn’t available across the wider web and mobile devices. For example, Google explains, you can’t read captions for things like the audio messages sent by your friends, on trending videos published elsewhere on social media, and on the content you record yourself.

There’s a significant accessibility issue with the lack of captions in all these places, but there’s a convenience issue, as well.

If you’re in a loud environment, like a commuter train, or trying to watch content privately and forgot your headphones, you may need to just use the captions. Or maybe you don’t want to blare the audio, which disturbs others around you. Or perhaps, you want to see the words appear because you’re having trouble understanding the audio, or just want to be sure to catch every word.

With the launch of the Pixel 4, Live Caption is also available for the first time to the general public.

The technology will capture and automatically caption videos and spoken audio on your device, except for phone and video calls. This captioning all happens in real-time and on your device — not in the cloud. That means it works even if your device lacks a cell signal or access to Wi-Fi. The captions also stay private and don’t leave your phone.

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This is similar to how the Pixel 4’s new Recorder app functions. It, too, will do its speech-to-text processing all on your device, in order to give you real-time transcriptions of your meetings, interviews, lectures, or anything else you want to record, without compromising your privacy.

You can launch the Live Captions feature with a tap from the volume slider that appears, then reposition the caption box anything on your screen so it doesn’t get in the way of what you’re viewing.

Currently, the feature supports English only. But Google says it’s working to add more languages in the future.

After today’s launch on Pixel 4 and the rollout to the rest of the modern Pixel line of smartphones this year, it will start to show up in other new Android phones. Google says it’s working with other manufacturers to make the technology available to more people as soon as next year.

 

TikTok taps corporate law firm K&L Gates to advise on its U.S. content moderation policies

As TikTok continues its rapid U.S. growth, the company is being challenged to better explain its content moderation choices. Why, for example, is the short-form video app censoring the Hong Kong protests but not U.S. political content? Why is it banning political ads, but supports hashtags like #trump2020 and #maga, each with millions, or even hundreds of millions, of views? TikTok so far has struggled to answer these questions. Now, it’s hoping to change that with the formation of a new committee of experts who will help TikTok craft its content moderation policies and increase transparency around these topics and others that afflict popular social media platforms.

That is to say, the committee’s focus won’t only be on political censorship —  that’s just the most important, hot-button issue facing TikTok in the U.S. today.

However, TikTok says the new committee will advise across a wider range of issues beyond censorship, including also child safety, hate speech, misinformation, bullying, and other potential issues, both existing and those yet to come.

To aid in this, the company is working with a group from corporate law firm K&L Gates, including former Congressmen Bart Gordon and former U.S. House Rep, now government affairs counselor Jeff Denham, who bring their expertise in the technology sector to the initiative.

K&L Gates was chosen for this initiative after TikTok talked to several firms for some time. It says that K&L Gates made the cut because it was considered to be a top-5 public affairs firm with an outstanding reputation, and because Bart Gordon’s previous role as Chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology, in particular, offered TikTok strong expertise in the space.

TikTok says its committee, which has not yet been formed, will look to include outside and independent voices to help it better craft its policies. It couldn’t identify who else would be on the committee as those people haven’t been selected.

The committee will focus on helping TikTok strengthen its own internal moderation teams, moderation and content policies, and overall transparency, the company says.

“TikTok is beloved because it provides an outlet for creative expression and a uniquely genuine and inspiring app experience. It’s amazingly rewarding to know that we’re bringing joy to so many – but it also brings great responsibility on our part,” said TikTok U.S. General Manager, Vanessa Pappas, in a statement. “We are committed to meeting this responsibility fully,” she added.

Initially, TikTok will create the committee of outside experts with the help of its new advisors at K&L Gates. It will then work to increase its transparency around content moderation and continue to build out a deeper bench of internal leaders in order to tackle the challenges caused by its rapid expansion.

Asked if an entirely new set of policies would be the result of this activity, a spokesperson couldn’t say, noting that a decision on that front will be the role of the committee.

This effort has been in the works for some time, and is not a result of the increasing amount of bad press about the censorship on TikTok’s platform.

But the decision to announce the news of a committee formation is an attempt by TikTok to help manipulate the narrative here. The reality, however, is that TikTok isn’t censoring all political content or just the “non-fun” stuff, as it would have you believe.

If that were true, then there would be no TikTok hashtags focused on U.S. politics — like #dumptrump or #trumptrain, for example. Nor would the app offer hashtags for causes like #blacklivesmatter or its controversial counterslogan with racist undertones, #alllivesmatter. All these and more are in the app today, with hundreds of millions of combined views.

TikTok’s announcement comes at a time when the company is again coming under the eye of the U.S. government and regulators. The app was already fined $5.7 milliion for children’s privacy law (COPPA) violations. And now, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin Wednesday requesting that the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States look into ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, for its 2017 acquisition of Musical.ly. The letter claims that there is “growing evidence” that TikTok’s U.S. platform is engaging in censorship.

TikTok, before today, had admitted its content guidelines were out of date, and said it took a localized approach to its moderation choices. But a hashtag like #hongkong in TikTok shows “barely a hint of unrest,” The Washington Post recently reported.

With legal — and soon, independent — advice and strategic consulting in the works, TikTok hopes to figure out how a Chinese-owned app can participate in the democratic U.S. social media market, without becoming another mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party.

None of the controversies around TikTok seem to be impacting its growth in the U.S., however. TikTok in September was the No. 3 most-downloaded (non-game) app in the U.S., ahead of Facebook and Messenger, according to Sensor Tower. It was also the No. 1 social media app worldwide at that time.

Google’s new voice recorder app transcribes in real-time, even when offline

At Google’s hardware event this morning, the company introduced a new voice recorder app for Android devices which will tap into advances in real-time speech processing, speech recognition and A.I. to automatically transcribe recordings in real-time as the person is speaking. The improvements will allow users to take better advantage of the phone’s voice recording functionality, as it will be able to turn the recordings into text even when there’s no internet connectivity.

This presents a new competitor to others in voice transcriptions that are leveraging similar A.I. advances, like Otter.ai, Reason8, Trint, and others, for example.

As Google explained, all the recorder functionality happens directly on the device — meaning you can use the phone while in airplane mode and still have accurate recordings.

“This means you can transcribe meetings, lectures, interviews, or anything you want to save,” said Sabrina Ellis, VP of Product Management at Google.

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The Recorder app was demonstrated on stage during the event, live, and was offering — from what was shown — an error-free transcription. In real-world environments, voice transcription apps often fail because of background noise or bandwidth issues. It’s unclear how well the Recorder app will fare when it’s not hooked up directly to an audio source, as it likely was for this event, but rather placed on a tabletop or used in a noisier environment.

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The app also offers an advanced search functionality where you’ll be able to search for sounds, words, or phrases. In the search results, everywhere the search term was spoken are highlighted in the playback bar so you can tap to go right to the part of the recording you need.

The voice recorder app is among many advances Google has made recently in terms of voice processing and real-time transcriptions. The company this spring introduced a new speech recognition system that works instantly and offline, which first launched in its keyboard app, Gboard, on Pixel devices.  And at Google I/O, it rolled out live transcription and captioning in Android, as accessibility improvements. It only makes sense that the voice recorder app itself would receive a similar upgrade.

The app was introduced among a series of improvements coming to Google’s new smartphone, the Pixel 4.

TiVo’s ad-supported streaming service, TiVo Plus, launches today

TiVo’s answer to The Roku Channel, TiVo Plus, is launching today. The company had already unveiled its plans for ad-supported streaming earlier this month with the debut of two new models of its DVR, the TiVo Edge. Like The Roku Channel, TUBI, Vudu’s Movies on Us, and others, TiVo Plus is available to stream for free. But unlike others in this space, TiVo Plus is available exclusively to TiVo devices owners.

The service is enabled by a TiVo partnership with XUMO, Jukin Media and other publishers.

It includes a variety of content from sources like TMZ, America’s Funniest Home Videos, FilmRise, Outside TV+, PowerNation, FailArmy, Hell’s Kitchen | Kitchen Nightmares, Food52, Ameba, BatteryPOP, Baeble Music, Kid Genius, Journy, NatureVision, People are Awesome, Puddle Jumper, The Asylum, The Pet Collective, The Preview Channel, Unsolved Mysteries, Adventure Sports Network, AllTime, Complex, and others.

TiVo also has deals with Gannett, Loop Media, Revry, Newsy, Tastemade, Latido Music and Mobcrush to expand TiVo Plus even further.

The company says there will be “thousands” of movies and TV shows available in an app-free environment.

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Despite the obvious comparisons to The Roku Channel, the TiVo Plus interface isn’t as well-designed. Where Roku puts the focus on the content that’s available for free streaming, TiVo Plus highlights the publishers. The content is organized in generic and broad groupings, like “Movies and TV,” “Sports,” “Kids and Family,” “Entertainment, Comedy Pop Culture,” and others, instead of being more editorially curated or personalized to the viewer.

Though TiVo Plus is a free service, being a TiVo owner is not. For example, the new TiVo Edge DVR for cable customers is $400, followed by a $14.99 per month service fee, which can be paid either as an annual fee ($149.99) or all at once with a lifetime plan ($549.99).

The same DVR for cord-cutters is $350 and the service fee is $6.99 per month, or $69.99 per year and $249.99 for a lifetime fee.

The DVRs include support for Dolby Atmos, Dolby Vision HDR, 2TB of storage, TiVo’s OnePass, SkipMode (automatic commercial skip),

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This was the first time that TiVo lowered its subscriptions for the DVR for antenna users, in an effort to respond to market pressures. Most streaming media devices — like Fire TV, Roku, Apple TV, etc. — don’t require subscriptions, as the companies don’t license TV guide data for their users nor do they operate with cable TV-like business model involving ongoing service fees. That’s allowed customers, and particularly cord-cutters, to get comfortable with one-time purchase fees and has weakened TiVo’s position.

With a dwindling customer base, TiVo has turned to advertising — not only with its new ad-supported streaming service on its devices, but also with skippable pre-roll ads on DVR recordings, as recently reported and confirmed by TiVo. 

TiVo Plus is rolling out starting today and continuing over the next few weeks to customers with Series 6 devices with Experience 4 (TE4). It will be available on the Home screen, when it goes live.

Hulu rolls out 4K content to Xbox One, with Amazon Fire TV and others coming ‘soon’

Hulu this summer finally brought back 4K content to its service, after abruptly removing it in 2018 while it focused on other priorities. Initially, its 4K content was only available on Apple TV 4K and Chromecast Ultra. Today, Hulu says it’s available on Xbox One devices, with support for Amazon Fire TV and LG WebOS in the works. More devices will also be supported soon, the company notes.

The streaming service had never really prioritized 4K content, having first rolled out support in December 2016 — years after rivals Netflix and Amazon Prime Video had done the same. Its lineup was also fairly minimal at the time, with 20 James Bond films and a handful of Hulu Originals. And then it was pulled.

Today, Hulu’s 4K lineup is again focused largely on its original programming, including shows like “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “The First,” “Castle Rock,” “Catch-22” and others. The company’s FAQ says most of its originals are available in 4K Ultra HD, and stream at 16 Mbps.

Netflix, by comparison, has a much larger library, thanks in part to its more sizable investment in original programming, which it has increasingly shot in 4K over the past few years. Amazon Prime Video also includes its own originals in 4K and around 50 other licensed films.

However, access to Netflix’s 4K library requires its more expensive ($15.99/mo) Premium plan. Accessing Hulu’s 4K library does not require an upgrade.

There are plenty of other ways to get to 4K content, including through iTunes and Google Play Movies & TV — the latter which began offering 4K content for purchase back in 2016. Roku also dedicates a section to 4K content within its main navigation. Apple TV+ originals will also be available in 4K HDR and Dolby Atmos, when it launches in November. Disney+ is also promising 4K at no extra cost. And there’s 4K content available on Vudu, YouTube, FandangoNow, fuboTV and others.

Hulu’s lack of attention to 4K hasn’t stalled its growth, however, as most consumers don’t consider 4K availability as a reason not to subscribe. In fact, Hulu’s subscriber growth in the U.S. has been steadily climbing, reaching 28 million earlier this year, up 12% from the end of 2018. And with a Disney+ bundle deal now in the works, Hulu is set to grow even faster in the near future.

Disney+ tweets all the movies and shows coming to its streaming service

In an impressive bit of pre-launch marketing, Disney today announced by way of a massive Twitter thread basically every movie and TV show coming to its upcoming streaming service Disney+. The thread, which was posted in chronological order starting with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in 1937, reveals not just Disney’s best-known titles but also its long tail of cult classics, flops, oddities and other lesser-known films.

To date, Disney has advertised the extensive catalog coming to Disney+, which launches on November 12, by highlighting the top titles from Disney, Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, NatGeo and more.

It has also touted its dozens of upcoming original productions like “The Mandalorian,” a “Lady and the Tramp” remake, a “Rogue One” prequel, “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” and many others.

But today’s Twitter thread is a reminder that Disney’s back catalog goes deep.

For every Disney animation classic, there’s a crappy direct-to-video sequel, like “Belle’s Magical World,” for example. There are the cheesy ’80s TV shows. And while Pixar may have spun “Toy Story” into one of its best-known franchises, it also produced the broadly panned “Cars 2.”

Then there are the titles you may have forgotten — or never knew existed in the first place — from “Meet the Deedles” to “Zenon Girl of the 21st Century” to “Fuzzbucket” to “The Computer Who Wore Tennis Shoesto that movie about the country bears.

For anyone who grew up on Disney, the list is a nostalgic look back at not just the studio’s hits, but also the titles that quickly faded from your memory, or those that even make you cringe.

While most streaming services today round out their catalog lineup with less popular content in order to claim a larger number of total titles available, they don’t tend to promote their B movies and crappy TV shows in any of their marketing or advertising, for obvious reasons.

Disney’s approach, by comparison, is refreshingly transparent.

While you may never have watched “The Biscuit Eater” or “Justin Morgan Had a Horse” or “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad,” and may never care to, Disney+ is at least letting you know what sort of filler content comes with your $6.99 per month subscription.

As you scroll your way down through one of the biggest tweetstorms ever, you’ll likely come across a few niche titles that appeal to you, despite not being the stuff of headlines. And because each title gets its own tweet, you can let everyone know exactly how excited you are for “The Cat from Outer Space,” or anything else that strikes you.

Today’s massive tweetstrom wasn’t the only way that Disney overloaded one of its social channels to demonstrate the size of its back catalog. It also put together an over 3-hour YouTube video that previews everything coming to Disney+.

Disney+ is available for pre-order ahead of its November 12 launch.

Reddit now lets iOS users share to Snapchat

Reddit users can now share their favorite content from the site to Snapchat, thanks to a new integration that allows sharing of text, link, and image-based posts on iOS from Reddit’s “Safe for Work” communities. The move makes Snapchat the first platform partner that Reddit is testing content sharing integration with, the company says, and it hopes the result will be an influx of younger users to the site.

Unlike many social media platforms, Reddit has tended to skew a little older when it comes to its user demographics. According to Pew Research Center, just 22% of U.S. adults aged 18 to 29 used the site, compared with 34% of those 30 to 49 and 25% of those 50 to 64. And 19% were aged 65 and up, Pew found. While that particular study was performed a few years ago, a 2019 study continues to show Reddit as one of the lesser-used online platforms among all U.S. adults, Pew found.

And with a growing advertising business that’s set to cross $100 million in revenues this year, Reddit needs to even out its user demographics and increase its overall usage to be competitive.

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To use the new sharing feature, Reddit users who have Snapchat installed on their iOS device will be able to tap the “Share” icon on a posts in the Reddit iOS app, then select the Snapchat option.

You can then choose to send the post to a few friends or post it to your story so all your friends can see it. The content will appear in Snaps and Snap Stories as a new sticker designed specifically for this integration that includes the Reddit logo and source information.

If the viewer also has the Reddit app installed, they can swipe up on the Snap to visit the post. If they don’t have the app installed, they’ll be directed to the App Store to download it.

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“Reddit empowers discovery and discussion that many Snapchatters love. With this integration, Snapchatters will be able to share interesting posts they find, adding new context and conversation-starters to their Snaps,” said Ben Schwerin, VP of Partnerships at Snap Inc., in a statement about the launch. “As shared Snaps drive engagement back to Reddit — this helps advance the power of community and connection across both platforms,” he added.

Because Reddit tends to host a wide range of content — some of which may violate Snapchat’s terms of use —  the new integration is only being enabled on Reddit’s “Safe for Work” subreddit communities, which are those that don’t host adult content. The communities must also be in good standing, Reddit says.

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“Snapchat is the first platform partner with whom we’re testing a content sharing integration, and we’re excited to see how the feature will shape the sharing habits and experiences among our users,” said Vaibhav Sahgal, Reddit’s Head of Growth Product, in a statement. “We hope the integration empowers redditors to share Reddit content more frequently, while simultaneously exposing new users to the unique content only found on Reddit.”

The launch follows Reddit’s $300 million funding round led by China’s Tencent earlier this year, that valued the site at $3 billion. This puts Reddit in competition with Facebook and Google for internet ad dollars — a challenge considering its userbase has historically skewed older and male, and users are often anonymous.

The company says the sharing feature will roll out to Android users soon.