Apple HomePod update brings Intercom and other new features

Apple HomePod owners, starting today, will be able to use the newly announced “Intercom” feature to send messages between their HomePod smart speakers. The feature, which arrives via a software update, brings this and several other new features to Apple’s smart speakers, including those introduced at Apple’s event last week where the company debuted its $99 HomePod mini.

Of these, Intercom is the most notable update, as it helps the HomePod catch up to rival smart speakers, like those from Apple and Google, which have offered similar broadcast messaging systems for years.

But in Apple’s case, Intercom doesn’t just send a user’s voice message — like “dinner’s ready!” or “time to go!” — across the family’s HomePod speakers. It’s also meant to work across Apple’s device ecosystem, by adding support for iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and even AirPods and CarPlay.

This could be a competitive advantage for HomePod, particularly because Amazon — which leads the U.S. market with its affordable Echo devices — no longer has its own smartphone business.

However, Apple says Intercom’s expanded support for other devices isn’t being rolled out today. Instead, it will arrive through further software updates later this year.

To use Intercom, HomePod owners with multiple devices can say things like:

“Hey Siri, Intercom, Has anyone seen my glasses?”

“Hey Siri, tell everyone, Dinner is ready.”

“Hey Siri, Intercom to the kitchen, Has the game started?”

And to reply, users can say something like “Hey Siri, reply, Yes.”

In addition to the new support for Intercom, the software update also introduces deeper integration with Apple Maps and iPhone, the ability to set and stop timers and alarms from any HomePod, the ability to continue listening to a podcast with multiuser support, and more.

The deeper integration means HomePod owners can now ask Siri for information about traffic conditions, as well as nearby restaurants and businesses. A Siri suggestion will then automatically appears in Maps on your iPhone so the route is available as soon as you get in the car.

HomePod owners can also now ask Siri to search the web, which then sends results to the iPhone.

Two other new features will arrive later this year, including the ability to connect one HomePod (or more) to Apple TV 4K for stereo, 5.1 and 7.1 surround, and Dolby Atmos for movies, TV, games and more.

The other upcoming feature, called Personal Update, will soon let you ask Siri “what’s my update” or “play my update,” to get all the info you need to start your day, including news, weather, calendar events, and any reminders.

Google Photos revives its prints subscription service, expands same-day print options

Google Photos is reviving its photo printing subscription service and introducing same-day prints. The company earlier this year had briefly tested a new program that used A.I. to suggest the month’s 10 best photos, which were then shipped to your home automatically. But Google ended the test on June 30.

During the trial, Google had offered users a $7.99 per month subscription that would automatically select 10 photos from one of three themes, including people and pets, landscapes, or “a little bit of everything” mix. The 4×6 photos were printed on matte, white cardstock with a 1/8-inch border.

Image Credits: Google

The new subscription, launching soon, leverages feedback from the early tests to now give users more control over which prints they receive and how they look. It also drops the price to $6.99 per month, including shipping and before tax.

With the new Premium Print Series, as the subscription is called, Google Photos will use machine learning techniques to pick 10 of your recent photos to print. But users can edit the photo selection and they can choose either a matte or glossy finish or add a border before the photos ship.

The photos can optionally be turned into postcards, thanks to the cardstock paper backing, Google notes.

Subscribers can also opt to skip a month and can easily cancel the service, if they’re no longer using it.

This updated version of service was recently discovered by reverse engineer Jane Manchun Wong, who detailed the new customization options and the lower price point.

Google says the Premium Print Series will make its ways to Google Photos users in the next few weeks.

The company today is also launching same-day printing at Walgreens, available immediately. This expands Google Photos’ existing same-day options, which already included same-day pickup from CVS and Walmart.

Using the Google Photos app, customers can now order 4×6, 5×7, or 8×10 photo prints for same-day pickup at Walgreens . This nearly doubles the number of stores offering same-day prints to Google Photos users, Google says.

In addition to prints and subscriptions, Google Photos continues to offer canvas prints and photo books — the latter now with up to 140 pages — as part of its online print store.

Image Credits: Google

The launch of the expanded photo printing services and subscription comes at a time when people are traveling less often, due to the pandemic, and are attending fewer large events where photo-taking may take place — like parties or concerts, for example.

But even if times have changed, people are continuing to take photos — though they may not be posting them across social media in order to avoid judgement.The subject of the photos may have changed, too, to now include more family and pets or nature scenes, instead of large, crowded places or big social gatherings, for instance.

The nostalgia for pre-pandemic times could see users turning to prints to help them relive fond memories, too.

Google didn’t say exactly when the new subscription will launch, but said users should be able to access the feature in the coming weeks.

 

 

Instagram rolls out fan badges for live videos, expands IGTV ads test

Instagram is today introducing a new way for creators to make money. The company is now rolling out badges in Instagram Live to an initial group of over 50,000 creators, who will be able to offer their fans the ability to purchase badges during their live videos to stand out in the comments and show their support.

The idea to monetize using fan badges is not unique to Instagram. Other live streaming platforms, including Twitch and YouTube, have similar systems. Facebook Live also allows fans to purchase stars on live videos, as a virtual tipping mechanism.

Instagram users will see three options to purchase a badge during live videos: badges that cost $0.99, $1.99, or $4.99.

On Instagram Live, badges will not only call attention to the fans’ comments, they also unlock special features, Instagram says. This includes a placement on a creator’s list of badge holders and access to a special heart badge.

The badges and list make it easier for creators to quickly see which fans are supporting their efforts, and give them a shout-out, if desired.

Image Credits: Instagram

To kick off the roll out of badges, Instagram says it will also temporarily match creator earnings from badge purchases during live videos, starting in November. Creators @ronnebrown and @youngezee are among those who are testing badges.

The company says it’s not taking a revenue share at launch, but as it expands its test of badges it will explore revenue share in the future.

“Creators push culture forward. Many of them dedicate their life to this, and it’s so important to us that they have easy ways to make money from their content,” said Instagram COO Justin Osofsky, in a statement. “These are additional steps in our work to make Instagram the single best place for creators to tell their story, grow their audience, and make a living,” she added.

Additionally, Instagram today is expanding access to its IGTV ads test to more creators. This program, introduced this spring, allows creators to earn money by including ads alongside their videos. Today, creators keep at least 55% of that revenue, Instagram says.

The introduction of badges and IGTV ads were previously announced, with Instagram saying it would test the former with a small group of creators earlier this year.

The changes follow what’s been a period of rapid growth on Instagram’s live video platform, as creators and fans sheltered at home during the coronavirus pandemic, which had cancelled live events, large meetups, concerts, and more.

During the pandemic’s start, for example, Instagram said Live creators saw a 70% increase in video views from Feb. to March, 2020. In Q2, Facebook also reported monthly active user growth (from 2.99B to 3.14B in Q1) that it said reflected increased engagement from consumers who were spending more time at home.

TikTok’s QAnon ban has been ‘buggy’

TikTok has been cracking down on QAnon-related content, in line with similar moves by other major social media companies, including Facebook and YouTube, which focus on reducing the spread the baseless conspiracy theory across their respective platforms. According to a report by NPR this weekend, TikTok had quietly banned several hashtags associated with the QAnon conspiracy, and says it will also delete the accounts of users who promote QAnon content.

Tiktok tells us, however, these policies are not new. The company says they actually went on the books earlier this year.

TikTok had initially focused on reducing discoverability as an immediate step by blocking search results while it investigated, with help from partners, how such content manifested on its platform. This was covered in July by several news publications, TikTok said. In August, TikTok also set a policy to remove content and ban accounts, we’re told.

Despite the policies, a report this month by Media Matters documented that TikTok was still hosting at least 14 QAnon-affiliated hashtags with over 488 million collective views. These came about because the platform had yet to address how QAnon followers were circumventing its community restrictions using variations and misspellings.

After Media Matters’ report, TikTok removed 11 of the 14 hashtags it had referenced, the report noted in an update.

Today, a number of QAnon-related hashtags — like #QAnon, #TheStormIsComing, #Trump2Q2Q” and others — return no results in TikTok’s search engine. They don’t show under the “Top” search results section, nor do they show under “Videos” or “Hashtags.”

Instead of just showing users a blank page when these terms are searched, TikTok displays a message that explains how some phrases can be associated with behavior or content that violates TikTok’s Community Guidelines, and offers a link to that resource.

Image Credits: TikTok screenshot via TechCrunch

Media Matters praised the changes in a statement to NPR as something TikTok was doing that was “good and significant” even if “long overdue.”

While TikTok’s ban did tackle many of the top search results and tags associated with the conspiracy, we found it was overlooking others, like pizzagate and WWG1WGA, for instance. In tests this afternoon, these terms and many others still returned much content.

TikTok claims what we saw was likely “a bug.”

We had reached out to TikTok today to ask why searches for terms like “pizzagate” and “WWG1WGA” — popular QAnon terms — were still returning search results, even though their hashtags were banned.

For example, if you just searched for “pizzagate,” TikTok offered a long list of videos to scroll through, though you couldn’t go directly to its hashtag. This was not the case for the other banned hashtags (like #QAnon) at the time of our tests.

Image Credits: TikTok screenshot via TechCrunch

The videos returned discussed the Pizzagate conspiracy — a baseless conspiracy theory which ultimately led to real-world violence when a gunman shot up a DC pizza business, thinking he was there to rescue trapped children.

While some videos were just discussing or debunking the idea, many were earnestly promoting the pizzagate conspiracy, even posting that it was was “real” or claimed to be offering “proof.”

Above: Video recorded Oct. 19, 2020, 3:47 PM ET/12:47 PM PT

Other QAnon-associated hashtags were also not subject to a full ban, including WWG1WGA, WGA, ThesePeopleAreSick, cannibalclub, hollyweird and many others often used to circulate QAnon conspiracies.

When we searched these terms, we found more long lists of QAnon-related videos to scroll through.

We documented this with photos and videos before reaching out to TikTok to ask why these had been made exceptions to the ban. We specifically asked about the two top terms — pizzagate and WWG1WGA.

Image Credits: TikTok screenshot via TechCrunch

TikTok provided us with information about the timeline of its policy changes and the following statement:

Content and accounts that promote QAnon violate our disinformation policy and we remove them from our platform. We’ve also taken significant steps to make this content harder to find across search and hashtags by redirecting associated terms to our Community Guidelines. We continually update our safeguards with misspellings and new phrases as we work to keep TikTok a safe and authentic place for our community.

TikTok said also that the search term blocking must have been a bug, because it’s now working properly.

We found that, upon receiving TikTok’s confirmation, the terms we asked about were blocked, but others were not. This includes some of those mentioned above, as well as bizarre terms only a real conspiracy fan would know, like adrenochromereptilians.

We asked Media Matters whether it could still praise TikTok’s actions to ban QAnon content, given what, at the time, had appeared to be a loophole in the QAnon ban.

“TikTok has of course taken steps but not fully resolved the problem, but as we’ve noted, the true test of any of these policies — like we’ve said of other platform’s measures — is in how and if they enforce them,” the organization said.

Even if the banned content was only showing today because of a “bug,” we found that many of the users who posted the content have not actually been banned from TikTok, it seems.

Though a search for their username won’t return results now that the ban is no longer “buggy,” you can still go directly to these users’ profile pages via their profile URL on the web.

We tried this on many profiles of those who had published QAnon content or used banned terms in their videos’ hashtags and descriptions. (Below are a few of examples.)

What this means is that although TikTok reduced these users’ discoverability in the app, the accounts can still be located if you know their username. And once you arrive on the account’s page, you can still follow them.

Image Credits: TikTok screenshot via TechCrunch

Image Credits: TikTok screenshot via TechCrunch

Image Credits: TikTok screenshot via TechCrunch

These examples of “bugs” or just oversights indicate how difficult it is to enforce content bans across social media platforms.

Without substantial investments in human moderation combined with automation, as well as tools that ensure banned users can’t return, it’s hard to keep up with the spread of disinformation at social media’s scale.

Stitcher’s podcasts arrive on Pandora with acquisition’s completion

SiriusXM today completed its previously announced $325 million acquisition of podcast platform Stitcher from E.W. Scripps, and has now launched Stitcher’s podcasts on Pandora across all tiers of the streaming service. The deal brings top Stitcher titles to Pandora, including “Freakonomics Radio,” “My Favorite Murder,” “SuperSoul Conversations from the Oprah Winfrey Network,” “Office Ladies,” “Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend,” “Literally! with Rob Lowe,” “LeVar Burton Reads” and “WTF with Marc Maron,” among others.

On Pandora, the podcasts will be indexed using the company’s proprietary Podcast Genome Project technology. This system leverages automated technology — like natural language processing, collaborative filtering and other machine learning approaches — then combines that with human curation to make personalized recommendations to podcast listeners on Pandora’s app.

The podcasts will also continue to be available in the Stitcher app in North America, the company says.

The Stitcher acquisition brought with it several key assets, including its own mobile listening app, which includes a premium tier of exclusives, and the Midroll Media network for podcast advertising. Stitcher also creates its own original programs and runs multiple content networks, via Earwolf.

That means SirusXM gained thousands of top podcasts with the deal’s closure. The company also now claims it has the “largest addressable audience in North America” across all categories of digital audio, including music, sports, talk and podcasts thanks to the combination of satellite radio service SiriusXM, streaming app Pandora and now Stitcher.

The company believes the deal will help it attract more creators to its platform, thanks to the enhanced production, marketing and distribution capabilities it offers, following the deal’s close. Advertisers, meanwhile, will be able to more precisely target podcasts for better ad efficiency, and will gain access to improved measurements, says SiriusXM.

In terms of Stitcher’s execs, CEO Erik Diehn will now report to Scott Greenstein, president and chief content officer of SiriusXM, who also oversees content at Pandora. Stitcher’s chief revenue officer, Sarah van Mosel, will report directly to John Trimble, chief advertising revenue officer of SiriusXM.

“We are deepening our position in podcasting, the fastest-growing sector in digital audio, and with completion of this transaction, our vision is taking shape,” said SiriusXM CEO Jim Meyer, in a statement about the deal’s completion. “With Stitcher and its varied assets, we are now a one-stop shop able to meet the needs of podcast creators, publishers and advertisers, while also providing listeners with access to great shows, series and programming.”

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, which disrupted many consumer trends and accelerated others, podcasting still remains one of the fast-growing digital audio industries. Podcast downloads returned to pre-COVID levels this summer, and Spotify reported that podcast consumption more than doubled in Q2, and nearly a quarter (21%) of its active users now listen to podcasts.

Stitcher was not SiriusXM’s first acquisition focused on podcasts or ad technologies. It also bought podcast management platform Simplecast this June, and before that, it acquired AdsWizz for $66.3 million to power Pandora’s advertising efforts.

Apple launches a U.S.-only music video station, Apple Music TV

Apple is expanding its investment in music with today’s launch of “Apple Music TV.” The new music video station offers a free, 24-hour livestream of popular music videos and other music content, including, exclusive video premieres, curated music video blocks, live shows, fan events, chart countdowns and guest appearances.

The service doesn’t have its own dedicated app, but is instead offered as a new feature within two of Apple’s existing entertainment apps. At launch, you can watch Apple Music TV from within the Browse tab of either the Apple Music app or the Apple TV app. (Accessible via apple.co/AppleMusicTV).

While Apple Music is a paid subscription service, Apple Music TV will be free to users in the U.S., the company says.

To kick off its launch, Apple Music TV today began with a countdown of the top 100 most-streamed songs ever across all of Apple Music, based on U.S. data.,

During brief tests of the new service, we found it to be a fairly basic (if uncensored) experience. The video stream only offered artist and song details at the beginning, instead of as the music played. It also didn’t take advantage of the integration with Apple Music to offer additional features to paying subscribers — like being able to favorite the song or add it to a playlist, for instance.

The stream would stop when the Apple Music app was closed, as it didn’t support background play.

Image Credits: Apple

There also weren’t any on-screen tools to share what you were watching via a social media post. You had to dig to find the “share” button under the three-dot, “more” menu. This would give you a link to tweet, but wouldn’t pre-fill it with text or hashtags, like the artist name or song.

While listening, you could stop the livestream and then return after a short pause. But after a bit, the stream would disconnect and the thumbnail of the paused music video reverts to the placeholder Apple Music TV image. When live, the text and icons will be shown in red. They revert to white when you’ve disconnected, as a visual cue.

Despite its simplicity, Apple Music TV gives Apple an immediate new home for its music-related original content, which over the years has included exclusive interviews, concert films, and more. It also provides Apple with another advantage with it goes to negotiate with artists for their premieres, as it introduces additional platform for reaching an artist’s fans — not only with the premiere itself, but by offering artists blocks of airtime leading up to their next debut that they can use to promote their releases.

The new station can also leverage content produced for the Apple Music 1 (formerly Beats 1) radio station, as it goes about running these promotions.

For example, on Thursday, October 22, Apple Music TV will promote the upcoming release of Bruce Springsteen’s “Letter to You” with music video blocks featuring his greatest videos, plus as exclusive interview with Zane Lowe, and a special livestream fan event.

Fridays, meanwhile, will focus on new music. This Friday, October 23, at 9 AM PT Apple Music TV will showcase two new exclusive video premieres – Joji’s “777” and SAINt JHN’s “Gorgeous.”

Apple Music TV’s biggest advantage, of course, is the fact that it’s freely accessible to millions of Apple device owners.

But it may struggle for traction as it lacks the features that make other livestream fan events or premieres engaging — like group chats or direct interactions with creators.

Instead, it’s more like a traditional TV broadcast — even MTV-like — compared with other online destinations where artists today connect with fans and promote their albums, like YouTube, VEVO, or more recently, Facebook, which just this year launched music videos.

Apple didn’t say if it planned to expand the new station outside the U.S.

This Week in Apps: Apple’s big event, lidar comes to iPhone, Android gets a new IDE

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

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

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

Top Story

Apple introduces four new iPhones (and more)

Apple hosted its iPhone event this week, where it introduced the new iPhone 12… and the iPhone 12 mini, the iPhone 12 Pro and the iPhone 12 Pro Max — effectively plugging all the holes in the market. With the release of the four new iPhones, app developers will have a range of devices to build for, from small to very large — the 12 Pro Max, for example, introduces the iPhone’s biggest-ever screen and the highest resolution, at nearly 3.5M pixels.

It also, of course, includes serious camera improvements, from a redesign of the three-lens system to including a new deeper telephoto camera, now a 65 mm-equivalent instead of 52 mm, as on previous models. There’s also an improved wide-angle lens, larger sensor, the addition of sensor-level image stabilization and a revamped Night Mode. Photographers will appreciate the new Apple ProRAW format, as well. (More on that here).

The iPhone 12 mini, meanwhile, aims to serve the customer base that prefers a smaller phone, like the iPhone SE, but without sacrificing functionality.

All the devices share some key features, including 5G connectivity, the new MagSafe connector for wireless charging and snap-on magnetic accessories, OLED displays and the A14 chip. They also have a more classic look, with straight edges that allow for additional antennas, providing next-gen wireless connectivity.

One of the bigger differences, however, between the Pro models and the regular iPhone 12 is the addition of the LiDAR Scanner, which is also found in the latest iPad Pro. The scanner measures how long it takes for light to reach an object and reflect back. The new depth-sensing technology has big implications for AR, as it allows augmented reality objects to interact with objects in the real world. AR apps will be more user-friendly, too, as they won’t need to first scan the room to place the AR object in the real world. It can be placed instantly.

Apple is leveraging the sensor for the iPhone 12 Pro camera to offer up to 6x faster focus in low-light conditions. Developers, meanwhile, can leverage lidar for use cases like AR-enabled games that work in the real world, social media (like Snapchat’s new lidar-powered Lens), home design and improvement apps involving room scans, spatial layout planning (like JigSpace), better AR shopping experiences and more.

The company also announced an affordable version of its HomePod smart speaker, the $99 HomePod Mini. The item works best for those fully locked inside the Apple universe, as it will stream a handful of music services, but not one of the most popular — Spotify. However, Apple also introduced a nifty feature for the HomePod devices, Intercom, which lets you send announcements across the speakers. While Apple and Google have offered a similar feature for their smart speakers, Intercom also works across other Apple devices, including iPhone, iPod, AirPods and even CarPlay. (What, no Mac?)

If Apple isn’t too late to capture smart speaker market share, the new speaker could see more users adopting smart home devices they can voice control through the HomePod Mini.

During the event, Apple also subtly snubbed its nose at Epic’s Fortnite with the announcement that
League of Legends: Wild Rift would be coming to iPhone 12 to take advantage of its new 5G capabilities and A14 Bionic chip.

Weekly News Round-Up

Platforms

  • Lidar comes to iPhone 12 Pro. Developers can now build AR experiences that interact with real-world objects, and AR apps can now instantly place AR objects in the real world without scanning the room. The update will mean a huge increase in the usability of AR apps but is limited to the Pro model of iPhone for now. Snapchat is already using it.
  • Apple developers can now make their apps available for pre-order even earlier — up to 180 days before release on the App Store.
  • Android Studio 4.1 launches. The new, stable version of the IDE for building Android apps introduces better TensorFlow Lite support and a new database inspector. The team also fixed a whopping 2,370 bugs during this release cycle and closed 275 public issues.
  • Google introduces the Android for Cars library. The library, now in open beta, gives developers tools to design, develop and test new navigation, parking or charging apps for Android Auto. The Google Play Store will be enabled for publishing beta apps in the “coming months.”
  • Google stops selling music. The company no longer sells tracks and albums on its Play Store, shifting all its focus to YouTube Music. The latter also just launched on Apple Watch this week.

Trends

  • Shopping apps forecast. U.S. consumers were expected to spend 60M hours in Android shopping apps during Prime Day week, (which just wrapped) according to one forecast from App Annie.
  • Prime Day downloads grow. Sensor Tower estimates global installs of the Amazon app grew 23% year-over-year, to 684K, as Prime Day neared. Installs on Wednesday were up 33% to 750K. However, U.S. installs were down by 22% 10/13-10/14. Apptopia noted that app sessions, however, were up 27% year-over-year.
  • Shopping, Food & Drink app launches up more than 50% year-over-year. Shopping apps grew 52% while Food & Drink apps grew 60%, due to COVID-19 impacts, according to Sensor Tower.
  • Subscriptions. U.S. consumers spend $20.78 per month on app subscriptions, Adjust study says.
  • TikTok sale impact on ad industry. 73% of marketers said a TikTok sale in the U.S. would impact their 2021 advertising plans. 41% also believed the deal could allow Walmart to overtake Amazon in e-commerce.
  • Amazon expands AR experimentation to its boxes. The retailer launched a new AR application that works with QR codes on the company’s shipping boxes to create “interactive, shareable” AR experiences, like a pumpkin that comes to life.

Security

  • Robinhood said a “limited number” of its users’ accounts were hacked. The service itself was not hacked, but around 2,000 customers had accounts compromised by cybercriminals who first compromised users’ personal emails outside the trading app.

Other News

  • Zoom’s new events platform brings apps to video conferencing calls.
  • Messenger update brings new features, including cross-app communication with Instagram. The app gets fun features like chat themes, custom reactions and, soon, selfie stickers and vanish mode. But the bigger news is the (potentially anti-competitive) merging of Facebook’s chat platforms.
  • Life360 leverages TikTok teens’ complaints to start a dialogue and invent a new feature, “Bubbles,” which allows teens (or anyone) to share a generalized location instead of an exact one. The feature gives teens a bit more freedom to roam and make choices without so much parental oversight. Parents, meanwhile, can still be sure their teen is OK, as features like emergency SOS and crash alerts remain functional.
  • Must-read: The MacStories iOS and iPadOS 14 Review. Federico Viticci offers a 23-page deep dive into the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system.

Funding and M&A

    • Future raises $24M Series B for its $150/mo workout coaching app amid at-home fitness boom. The app pairs users with real-life fitness coaching for personal training at home. The round was led by Trustbridge Partners with Caffeinated Capital and Series A investors Kleiner Perkins participating.
    • River raises $10.4M for its app offering news, events and other happenings from around the web, ranging from news stories from top publishers to sports to even notable tweets. The app presents the information in a real-time stream, browsed vertically. There’s also a “For You” page, similar to TikTok.
    • Roblox confidentially filed with the SEC to go public. This cross-platform gaming platform has boomed during coronavirus lockdowns. According to reports, the listing could double Robox’s $4B valuation.
    • Robo Adviser Wealthsimple raises $87M. The funding for the investing app with comparisons to Robinhood was led by Menlo Park-based Technology Crossover Ventures (TCV), valuing the business at $1B.
    • Fitness platform Playbook raises $9.3M. The company offers tools for personal trainers who want to make their own videos, which consumers then browse in Playbook’s mobile app. Backers include E.ventures, Michael Ovitz, Abstract, Algae Ventures, Porsche Ventures and FJ Labs.
    • Live streaming app Moment House raises $1.5M seed. The startup aims to recreate live events in a digital format. LA area investors invested, including Scooter Braun, Troy Carter, Kygo’s Palm Tree Crew and Jared Leto. Patreon chief executive Jack Conte and Sequoia Capital partner Jess Lee also participated.
    • Twilio acquires Segment for $3.2B to help developers build data-fueled apps.
    • E-learning platform Kahoot raises $215M from SoftBank. The Norwegian startup claims to have hosted 1.3 billion “participating players” in the last 12 months. The company’s gamified e-learning platform is used both in schools and in enterprise environments.

Downloads

Mycons

Mycons is a new app that makes it easier for users, including non-designers, to create and buy custom icons for their iOS home screen makeovers. In the app’s “Icon Studio,” users can create icons by swapping out the background, choosing a symbol and placing it on the icon accordingly. You can also create a whole set of icons in a batch export. If you don’t feel like designing your own, you can opt to purchase premade packs instead.

The app is a free download with a one-time, in-app purchase to unlock the fully functionality of the icon designer. The icon packs, which include different variations and matching wallpaper, range from $7.99-$9.99.

Spotify’s new iOS 14 widget

Image Credits: TechCrunch screenshot of Spotify widget

It’s here! The widget a number of people have waited for since the launch of the new version of iOS has arrived. 

The widget, which arrives in the latest version of the Spotify iOS app, comes in two sizes. The smaller widget will display just your most recently listened to item, while the medium-sized widget will instead show the five most recent items — four in a horizontal row and the most recent at the top. In that case, you can actually tap on the small thumbnail for which of the five you want to now stream to be taken directly to that page in the Spotify app. The widget also automatically updates its background color to match the thumbnail photo.

Duplex, Google’s conversational A.I, has updated 3M+ business listings since pandemic

Google today offered an update on the status of Duplex, its A.I. technology that uses natural conversations to get things done — like making restaurant reservations, booking appointments, or updating a Google Business listing, for example. When the pandemic began, Google expanded its use of Duplex for business updates to eight countries, and has since made over 3 million updates to business listings — including pharmacies, restaurants and grocery stores.

These updates have been seen over 20 billion times across Maps and Search, the company says.

The A.I. technology, first introduced at the Google I/O developer conference in 2018, is able to place calls to businesses and interact with the people who answer the phone. In the case of reservations or appointment setting, it can request dates and times, respond to questions, and even make sounds to make the A.I. seem more like a person. For instance, it can insert subtle vocal breaks, like “mm-hm” and “um,” into its conversations.

Since launching, Duplex in Google Assistant has completed over a million bookings, Google announced today.

The company also noted it began to use Duplex to automatically update business information on Google Maps and Search in the U.S. last year, saving business owners from having to manually update details like store hours, or whether they offer takeout, among other things.

Last year, Google also brought Duplex to the web in the U.S., to help users book things like movie tickets and rental cars. Today, Google says it will begin piloting the same experience with other things, like shopping and ordering food for a faster checkout experience.

Just a few weeks ago, Google also introduced another Duplex-powered feature, “Hold for Me,” which lets you use Google Assistant to wait on hold on your phone call, then alert you when someone joins the line.

Thanks to advances in neural speech recognition and synthesis, and in Google’s own new language understanding models, the company says today that 99% of Duplex calls are entirely automated.

The Duplex update was one of several announcements Google made today at its Search On 2020 event, where it introduced a number of search improvements, including the ability to search for songs by humming, better guess at misspellings, point users to the correct part of a page to answer their question, tag key moments in videos, and more.

Pew: Most prolific Twitter users tend to be Democrats, but majority of users still rarely tweet

A new study from Pew Research Center, released today, digs into the different ways that U.S. Democrats and Republicans use Twitter. Based on data collected between Nov. 11, 2019 and Sept. 14, 2020, the study finds that members of both parties tweet fairly infrequently, but a majority of Twitter’s most prolific users tend to swing left.

The report updates Pew’s 2019 study with similar findings. At that time, Pew found that 10% of U.S. adults on Twitter were responsible for 80% of all tweets from U.S. adults.

Today, those figures have changed. During the study period, the most active 10% of users produced 92% of all tweets by U.S. adults.

And of these highly active users, 69% identify as Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents.

In addition, the 10% most active Democrats typically produce roughly twice the number of tweets per month (157) compared with the most active Republicans (79).

Image Credits: Pew Research Center

These highly-active users don’t represent how most Twitter users tweet, however.

Regardless of party affiliation, the majority of Twitter users post very infrequently, Pew found.

The median U.S. adult Twitter user posted just once per month during the time of the study. The median Democrat posts just once per month, while the median Republican posts even less often than that.

The typical adult also has very few followers, with the median
Democrat having 32 followers while the median Republican has 21. Democrats, however, tend to follow more accounts than Republicans do, at 126 vs. 71, respectively.

Image Credits: Pew Research Center

The new study additionally examined other differences in how members of the two parties use the platforms, beyond frequency of tweeting.

For starters, it found 60% of the Democrats on Twitter would describe themselves as very or somewhat liberal, compared with 43% of Democrats who don’t use Twitter. Self-identified conservatives on Twitter vs. conservatives not on the platform had closer shares, at 60% and 62%, respectively.

Pew also found that the two Twitter accounts followed by the largest share of U.S. adults were those belonging to former President Barack Obama (@BarackObama) and President Donald Trump
(@RealDonaldTrump).

Not surprisingly, more Democrats followed Obama — 42% of Democrats did, vs. just 12% of Republicans. Trump, meanwhile, was followed by 35% of Republicans and just 13% of Democrats.

Other top political accounts saw similar trends. For instance, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) is followed by 16% of Democrats and 3% of Republicans. Fox News personalities Tucker Carlson (@TuckerCarlson) and Sean Hannity (@seanhannity), meanwhile, are both followed by 12% of Republicans but just 1% of Democrats.

Image Credits:

This is perhaps a more important point than Pew’s study indicates, as it demonstrates that even though Twitter’s original goal was to build a “public town square” of sorts, where conversations could take place in the open, Twitter users have built the same isolated bubbles around themselves as they have elsewhere on social media.

Because Twitter’s main timeline only shows tweets and retweets from people you follow, users are only hearing their side of the conversation amplified back to them.

This problem is not unique to Twitter, of course. Facebook, for years, has been heavily criticized for delivering two different versions of reality to its users. An article from The WSJ in 2016 demonstrated how stark this contrast could be, when it showed a “blue” feed and “red” feed, side-by-side.

The problem is being exacerbated even more in recent months, as users from both parties are now exiting mainstream platforms, like Twitter, an isolating themselves even more. On the conservative side, users fled to free speech-favoring and fact check-eschewing platforms like Gab and Parler. The new social network Telepath, on the other hand, favors left-leaning users by aggressively blocking misinformation — often that from conservative news outlets — and banning identity-based attacks.

One other area Pew’s new study examined was the two parties’ use of hashtags on Twitter.

It found that no one hashtag was used by more than 5% of U.S. adults on Twitter during the study period. But there was a bigger difference when it came to the use of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, which was tweeted by 4% of Democrats on Twitter and just 1% of Republicans.

Other common hashtags used across both parties included #covid10, #coronavirus, @mytwitteranniversary, #newprofilepic, #sweepstakes, #contest, and #giveaway.

Image Credits: Pew Research Center

It’s somewhat concerning, too, that hashtags were used in such a small percentage of tweets.

While their use has fallen out of favor somewhat — using a hashtag can seem “uncool” — the idea with hashtags was to allow users a quick way to tap into the global conversation around a given topic. But this decline in user adoption indicates there are now fewer tweets that can connect users to an expanded array of views.

Twitter today somewhat addresses this problem through its “Explore” section, highlighting trends, and users can investigate tweets using its keyword search tools. But if Twitter really wants to burst users’ bubbles, it may need to develop a new product — one that offers a different way to connect users to the variety a conversations taking place around a term, whether hashtagged or not.

 

 

 

Snapchat launches its TikTok rival, Sounds on Snapchat

Snapchat this summer announced it would soon release a new music-powered feature that would allow users to set their Snaps to music. Today, the company made good on that promise with the launch of “Sounds on Snapchat” on iOS, a feature that lets users enhance their Snaps with music from curated catalog of both emerging and established artists.

The music can be added to Snaps either pre or post capture, then shared without any limitations. You can post it to your Story or share directly with friends, as you choose.

At launch, the Snapchat music catalog offers “millions” of licensed songs from Snap’s music industry partners, the company says.

When users receive a Snap with Sounds, they can then swipe up to view the album art, the song title, and the name of the artist. There’s also a “Play This Song” link that lets you listen to the full song on your preferred streaming platform, including Spotify, Apple Music and SoundCloud.

This differentiates Snapchat’s music feature from rival TikTok, where a tap on the “sound” takes users to a page in the app that shows other videos using the same music clip. Only some of these pages also offer a link to play the full song, however.

To kick off the launch of the new Snapchat music feature, Justin Bieber and benny blanco’s new song “Lonely” will be offered as an exclusive in Snapchat’s Featured Sounds list today.

“Music makes video creations and communication more expressive, and offers a personal way to recommend music to your closest friends,” notes the company, in announcement about the feature’s launch.

Snap had said in August it would begin testing the new music feature and detailed the deals that made the addition possible.

To power Sounds on Snapchat, the company forged multi-year agreements with major and independent publishers and labels, including Warner Music Group, Merlin (including their independent label members), NMPA, Universal Music Publishing Group, Warner Chappell Music, Kobalt, and BMG Music Publishing.

The move to introduce a music feature is meant to counter the growing threat of the ByteDance-owned TikTok app, which has popularized short-form video sharing with posts set to music from a large catalog.

Though TikTok’s future in the U.S. remains uncertain due to the ever-changing nature of the Trump administration’s TikTok ban (and an election that could upset those plans), it still remains one of the top U.S. apps, with around 100 million monthly active U.S. users as of August. (TikTok is currently engaged in a lawsuit to challenge its ban, so the app remains live today.)

Social media companies have capitalized on the chaos surrounding a possible TikTok U.S. exit to promote their alternatives, like Triller, Dubsmash, Byte, and others, including, of course Instagram Reels.

Snapchat, meanwhile, touts its traction with a younger user base as its new music feature goes to launch.

In the U.S., Snapchat now reaches 90% of all 13-24 year-olds, which the company notes is more than Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger combined. It also reaches 75% of all 13-34 year-olds and, o average, more than 4 billion Snaps are created every day.

The feature is live now on iOS to start.

In other Snapchat music news, the company has partnered with Spotify to launch Spotify’s first Augmented Reality Portal Lens on Snapchat. The Lens allows users to experience a Latinx art gallery, in celebration of Latinx Heritage Month. Snapchat users open the Lens in World view to view art from include Orly Anan, Cristina Martinez, Luisa Salas, Pedro Nekoi, and D’Ana Nunez. The Lens will also raise awareness for Spotify’s Latin Hub in its own app.