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.

Shure’s Aonic 50 wireless noise-cancelling headphones offer best-in-class audio quality

The noise-cancelling over-ear headphone category is an increasingly competitive one, and consumers have never been more spoiled for choice. Shure entered the market this year with the Aonic 50, a premium-priced headset ($399) that offers active noise cancelling, Bluetooth connectivity and USB-C charging. Shure’s reputation for delivering top-quality sound is definitely part of the package, and there’s a lot more to recommend the Aonic 50, as well.

Basics

Shure offers the Aonic 50 in either black or brown finishes, and they have physical controls on the right ear cup for volume, turning noise cancellation on and off, power, activating voice assistances and skipping tracks. There’s a USB-C port for charging, and a 2.5mm stereo connector on the left ear cup for using the included cable to connect via wire, which allows you to use them even while the internal battery is depleted or the headset is powered down (albeit without active noise cancelling, obviously).

The Aonic 50 also comes with a round, flat carrying case — the ear cups swivel to fit in the zippered storage compartment. This takes up more of a footprint than the typical folding design of these kind of ANC headphones, but it’s less bulky, too, so it depends on how you’re packing them whether this is good or bad.

Shure offers a mobile app for iOS and Android called ShurePlus Play that can provide EQ controls, as well as more specific tuning of both the active noise cancelling, and the environmental mode that pipes in outside sound. This allows for a lot of customization, but with one major caveat — EQ settings only apply when playing music via the app itself, which is an unusual and disappointing choice.

Design and performance

Shure’s Aonic 50 excel in a couple of areas where the company has a proven track record: sound quality and comfort/wearability. The ample faux leather-wrapped padding on both the headband and the ear cups make them very comfortable to wear, even for longer sessions, which is great for work from home practicality. I often forgot I had them on while moving around the house, which gives you an idea of how well they fit.

As for sound, Shure has aimed for a relatively neutral, flat tone that provides an accurate recreation of what the original producer intended for any track, and the results are great. Music detail is clear, and they’re neither too heavy on bass or overemphatic on treble. This is a sound profile that audiophiles will appreciate, though it might not be the best for anyone who’s looking for a bass-heavy soundstage. That said, bass-favoring headphones are easy to find in this category, so Shure’s offering, with its clear highs, stands apart from the field in the ANC arena. To be clear, the bass is excellent, but overall the market has moved toward muddy, artificially enhanced bass versus true rendering, which the Aonic 50 delivers.

The button controls on the Aonic 50 are well-placed and cover the spectrum in terms of what you’d want to be able to control right from the headset. USB-C charging is much-appreciated in an era where that’s far and away the standard for most of the mobile devices in your life, as well as many computers. The included stereo cable is a great addition for when the battery runs out — but Shure’s advertised 20-hour or so battery life estimate is accurate, so it’ll be quite a while before you have to resort to that, as long as you remember to charge once in a while.

If there’s one place where Shure’s performance falls a bit short, it’s in noise cancellation. The ANC does a decent job of blocking out unwanted environmental sound, but it’s not quite up to the standard of the like of Bose or Sony’s top-end ANC headphones. It still gets the job done most of the time, and the trade-off is better sound.

Bottom line

As I said above, people looking for active noise-cancelling headphones are spoiled for choice these days. But the Shure Aonic 50 offers something that discerning audio pros won’t be able to find from alternatives, including those from Bose or Sony, and that’s an excellent soundstage and sound quality that just can’t be beat. Wearability is also tops, which makes these a great option for audiophiles who want a wire-free, sound-blocking solution for a home office.

Google introduces song matching via humming, whistling or singing

Google has added a new feature that lets you figure out what song is stuck in your head by humming, whistling or singing – a much more useful version of the kind of song-matching audio feature that it and competitors like Apple’s Shazam have offered previously. As of today, users will be able to open either the latest version of the mobile Google app, or the Google Search widget, and then tap the microphone icon, and either verbally ask to search a song or hit the ‘Search a song button’ and start making noises.

The feature should be available to anyone using Google in English on iOS, or across over 20 languages already on Android, and the company says it will be growing that user group to more languages on both platforms in the future. Unsurprisingly, it’s powered behind the scenes by machine learning algorithms developed by the company.

Google says that it’s matching tech won’t require you to be a Broadway star or even a choir member – it has built-in abilities to accommodate for various degrees of musical sensibility, and will provide a confidence score as a percentage alongside a number of possible matches. Clicking on any match will return more info about both artist and track, as well as music videos, and links that let you listen to the full song in the music app of your choice.

Google explains in a blog post announcing the feature that it’s able to do this because it basically ignores the fluff that is the quality of your voice, any accompanying instruments, tone and other details. The algorithm is basically boiling the song down to its essence, and coming up with a numerical pattern that represents its essence, or what Google calls its ‘fingerprint.’

This is an evolution of how Google’s existing music recognition tech works, which is present in the passive ‘Now Playing’ feature that’s available on its Pixel smartphones. That feature will listen passively in the background for music, and provide a match when it finds one in its offline database (all done locally). That same technology is at work in the SoundSearch feature that Google later introduced via its app.

Google isn’t the first to do this – SoundHound’s Midomi offers music matching via singing or humming. But Google is obviously much more widely used, so it’ll be interesting to see if it can achieve better hit rates, and overall usage.

Google Pixel 5 review: Keeping it simple

I’m going to be totally honest with you. I don’t really understand Google’s phone strategy right now. And for what it’s worth, I’m not really sure Google does either. I wrote about it here, but I’ll save you from having to read an additional 800 words on top of all these. The short version is that Google has three phones on the market, and there isn’t a whole heck of a lot of distinction between them.

The Pixel is a portrait of a hardware division in transition. That applies to a number of aspects, from strategy to the fact that the company recently saw a minor executive exodus. It’s pretty clear the future of Google’s mobile hardware division is going to look quite different from its present — but 2020’s three phones are most likely a holdover from the old guard.

What you’re looking at here is the Pixel 5. It’s Google’s flagship. A device that sports — among other things — more or less the same mid-range Qualcomm processor as the 4a announced earlier this year. It distinguishes itself from that budget handset, however, with the inclusion of 5G. But then here comes the 4a 5G to further muddy the waters.

There are some key distinctions that separate the 5 and 4a 5G, which were announced at the same event. The 5’s got a more solid body, crafted from 100% recycled aluminum to the cheaper unit’s polycarbonate. It also has waterproofing and reverse wireless charging, a fun feature we’ve seen on Samsung devices for a few generations now. Beyond that, however, we run into something that’s been a defining issue since the line’s inception. If you choose not to use hardware to define your devices, it becomes difficult to differentiate your devices’ hardware.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Since the very beginning of the Pixel line, the company has insisted that it will rely on software advances to push the products forward. It’s a nice sentiment after years of feature arms races between the likes of Apple and Samsung. But that means when it comes time to introduce new devices, the results can be fairly lackluster. That certainly applies to the Pixel 5.

From a hardware perspective, it’s not a particularly exciting phone. That’s probably fine for many. Smartphones have, after all, become more commodity than luxury item, and plenty of users are simply looking for one that will just get the job done. That said, Google’s got some pretty stiff competition at the Pixel 5’s price point — and there are plenty of Android devices that can do even more.

There are certainly some upgrades in addition to the above worth pointing out, however. Fittingly, the biggest and most important of all is probably the least exciting. The Pixel 4 was actually a pretty solid device hampered by one really big issue: an abysmal battery life. The 2,800mAh capacity was a pretty massive millstone around the device’s neck. That, thankfully, has been addressed here in a big way.

Google’s bumped things up to 4,080mAh. That’s also a pretty sizable bump over the 4a and 4a 5G, which sport 3,885mAh and 2,130mAh, respectively. That extra life is extra important, given the addition of both Battery Share and 5G. For the sake of disclosure, I should mention that I still live in an area with basically no 5G (three cheers for working from home), so your mileage will vary based on coverage. But using LTE, I was able to get about a day and a half of use out of the handset, besting the stated “all-day battery).

This is helped along by a (relatively) compact display. Gone are the days of the XL (though, confusingly, the 4a 5G does have a larger screen with a bit lower pixel density). The flagship is only available in a six-inch, 2,340 x 1,080 size. It’s larger than the Pixel 4’s 5.7 inches, but at a lower pixel density (432 versus 444 ppl). The 90Hz refresh rate remains. Compared to all of the phones I’ve been testing lately, the Pixel 5 feels downright compact. It’s a refreshing change to be able to use the device with one hand.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The camera is probably the aspect of the handset where the opposing hardware-first and software-first approaches are the most at conflict with one another. Google was fairly convinced it could do everything it wanted with a single lens early on, but eventually begrudgingly gave in to a two-camera setup. The hardware is pretty similar to last year’s model, but the 16-megapixel 2x optical telephoto has been replaced by a 16-megapixel ultra-wide. Whether that represent progress is largely up to your own personal preference. Frankly, I’d prefer a little more non-distorted zooming.

Google, of course, is building on a solid foundation. I really loved the Pixel 4’s photos. The things Google’s imaging team has been able to do with relative hardware constraints is really impressive, and while you’re lacking the scope of a premium Samsung device or high-end iPhone, casual photo snappers are going to be really happy with the shots they get on the Pixel 5.

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Night Sight has been improved and now turns on when the phone’s light sensor detects a dark scene. My morning walks have gotten decidedly darker in recent weeks as the season has changed, and the phone automatically enters the mode for those pre-dawn shots (COVID-19 has made me an early riser, I don’t know what to tell you). The feature has also been added to portrait mode for better focused shots.

The Pixel’s Portrait Mode remains one of the favorites — though it’s still imperfect, running into issues with things like hair or complex geometries. It really doesn’t know what to do with a fence much of the time, for instance. The good news is that Google’s packed a lot of editing options into the software here — particularly for Portrait Mode.

You can really go crazy in terms of bokeh levels and placement and portrait lighting, a relatively subtle effect that lends the appearance of changing a light source. Changing the effects can sometimes be a bit laggy, likely owing to the lower-end processing power. All said, it’s a good and well-rounded photo experience, but as usual, I would really love to see what Google’s imaging team would be able to do if the company ever gives it a some real high-end photography hardware to play around with. Wishful thinking for whatever the Pixel 6 becomes, I suppose.

In the end, the two biggest reasons to recommend upgrading from the Pixel 4 are 5G and bigger battery. The latter is certainly a big selling point this time out. The former really depends on what coverage is like in your area. The 5G has improved quite a bit of late, but there are still swaths of the U.S. — and the world — that will be defaulting to LTE on this device. Also note that the $200 cheaper 4a 5G also offers improvements in both respects over last year’s model.

Still, $700 is a pretty reasonable price point for a well-rounded — if unexciting — phone like the Pixel 5. And Google’s got other things working in its favor, as well — pure Android and the promise of guaranteed updates. If you’re looking for something with a bit more flash, however, there are plenty of options in the Android world.

Killer Mike, former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young and Bounce TV founder Ryan Glover launch a digital bank

A group of Black Atlanta businessmen, politicians and entertainers — including former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, the entertainer Michael Render (better known as Killer Mike) and Bounce TV founder Ryan Glover — have launched a new digital bank focused on developing and promoting local communities and cultivating Black and Latinx entrepreneurs and small businesses.

Named Greenwood in an homage to the thriving Tulsa, Oklahoma, business community known as “Black Wall Street” that was destroyed by white rioters in 1921, the digital bank has several features designed to promote social causes and organizations for the Black and Latinx community.

For every sign-up to the bank, Greenwood will donate the equivalent of five free meals to an organization addressing food insecurity. And every time a customer uses a Greenwood debit card, the bank will make a donation to either the United Negro College Fund, Goodr (an organization that addresses food insecurity) or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In addition, each month the bank will provide a $10,000 grant to a Black or Latinx small business owner that uses the company’s financial services.

For Render, the decision to launch a new digital bank alongside Young and Glover was a way to link Atlanta’s well-established, centuries-old Black business community with the technologies that are redefining wealth and creating new opportunities in the twenty-first century. It was also a way to equip a new generation with financial tools that could empower them instead of undermine them.

“What I have learned about capitalism is that you’re either going to be a participant in it or a victim of it,” said Render. “The ultimate protest is focusing your dollar like a weapon.”

Young, who is also the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, had seen the ways digital banking technologies were transforming the social order in countries like India — reducing the power of payday lenders and providing greater economic access — and wanted to bring those opportunities to communities in the U.S.

Atlanta is a perfect home for a new Black-owned digital bank. After riots in 1906 destroyed Atlanta’s own bustling Black business district in a prelude to the Greenwood Massacre 15 years later, the community rebuilt with banks like Citizen’s Trust (founded in 1921) and Carver (founded in 1946) serving the city’s Black community.

Rendon, a serial entrepreneur who owns a chain of barber shops called the SWAG Shop, some real estate and a restaurant along with the rapper T.I., said that he’s not just a founder of Greenwood, he’ll soon become a customer.

“Today, a dollar circulates for 20 days in the white community but only six hours in the Black community,” said Render in a statement. “Moreover, a Black person is twice as likely as a white person to be denied a mortgage. This lack of fairness in the financial system is why we created Greenwood.”

Greenwood will offer a physical debit card and savings and checking accounts to its customers — along with all of the digital features one would expect, including integrations with Apple, Samsung and Google Pay, the ability to make peer-to-peer payments, mobile checking deposits and free ATM usage at over 30,000 locations.

“It’s no secret that traditional banks have failed the Black and Latinx community,” said Glover, in a statement. “We needed to create a new financial platform that understands our history and our needs going forward, a banking platform built by us and for us, a platform that helps us build a stronger future for our communities. This is our time to take back control of our lives and our financial future. That is why we launched Greenwood, modern banking for the culture.”

To run the bank, the founding team hired Aparicio Giddins, who’s serving as the company’s president and chief technology officer. David Tapscott, a former executive with Combs Enterprises and Green Dot, is serving as the company’s chief marketing officer. Andrew “Bo” Young III, the managing partner of Andrew Young Investment Group, and Paul Judge, the co-founder of Pindrop and TechSquare Labs, both have seats on the company’s board of directors.

The timing for Greenwood’s launch is somewhat auspicious, coming as it does nearly a century after the launch of Citizen’s Trust and days after the chief executive of Wells Fargo, Charles Scharf, said really, really dumb things about diversity in the financial services industry.

Backing the company is a $3 million commitment from undisclosed angel investors. The bank is currently taking deposits and the hope, according to Rendon, is for it to start a new wave of entrepreneurial activity among young Black and Latinx community members and their allies.

“The work that we did in the civil rights movement wasn’t just about being able to sit at the counter. It was also about being able to own the restaurant,” said Ambassador Young. “We have the skills, talent and energy to compete anywhere in the world, but to grow the economy, it has to be based on the spirit of the universe and not the greed of the universe. Killer Mike, Ryan and I are launching Greenwood to continue this work of empowering Black and brown people to have economic opportunity.”

Google Assistant can now control Android apps

Google today announced it’s making it possible to use the voice command “Hey Google” to not just open but also perform specific tasks within Android apps. The feature will be rolled out to all Google Assistant-enabled Android phones, allowing users to launch apps with their voice as well as search inside apps or perform specific tasks — like ordering food, playing music, posting to social media, hailing a ride and more.

For example, users could say something like, “Hey Google, search cozy blankets on Etsy,” “open Selena Gomez on Snapchat,” “start my run with Nike Run Club,” or “check news on Twitter .”

At launch, Google says these sorts of voice commands will work with more than 30 of the top apps on Google Play in English globally, with more apps coming soon. Some of the supported apps today include Spotify, Snapchat, Twitter, Walmart, Discord, Etsy, MyFitnessPal, Mint, Nike Adapt, Nike Run Club, eBay, Kroger and Postmates, Wayfair, to name a few.

If the specific voice command you would use to perform a common task is a little clumsy, the feature will also allow you to create a custom shortcut phrase instead. That means, instead of saying “Hey Google, tighten my shoes with Nike Adapt,” you could create a command that just said, “Hey Google, lace it.”

To get started with shortcuts, Android users can say “Hey Google, show my shortcuts” to get to the correct Settings screen.

The feature is similar to Apple’s support for using Siri with iOS apps, which also includes the ability to open apps, perform tasks and record your own custom phrase.

In Google’s case, the ability to perform tasks inside an app is implemented on the developer’s side by mapping users’ intents to specific functionality inside their apps. This feature, known as App Actions, allows users to open their favorite apps with a voice command — and, with the added functionality, lets users say “Hey Google” to search within the app or open specific app pages.

Google says it has grown its catalog to include more than 60 intents across 10 verticals, including Finance, Ridesharing, Food Ordering, Fitness and, now, Social, Games, Travel & Local, Productivity, Shopping and Communications, too.

To help users understand how and when they can use these new App Actions, Google says it’s building touchpoints in Android that will help them learn when they use certain voice commands. For instance, if a user said “Hey Google, show me Taylor Swift,” it may highlight a suggestion chip that will guide the users to opening the search result on Twitter.

Image Credits: Google

Related to this news, Google says it also released two new English voices for developers to leverage when building custom experiences for Assistant on Smart Displays, alongside other developer tools and resources for those building for displays.

The Google Assistant upgrade for apps was one of several Android improvements Google highlighted today. The company also says it’s adding screen-sharing to Google Duo, expanding its Verified Calls anti-spam feature to more devices (Android 9 and up), and updating the Google Play Movies & TV app to become the new “Google TV” app, announced last week.

On the accessibility front, it’s introducing new tools for hearing loss with Sound Notifications and others for communicating using Action blocks, aimed at people with cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome, autism, aphasia and other speech-related disabilities.

The features are available now.

Google Assistant gets an incognito-like guest mode

Google is launching a few new privacy features today that include a refreshed Safety Center that’s now live in the U.S. and coming soon globally, as well as more prominent alerts when the company expects that your account has been tampered with.

The most interesting new feature, however, is a new Guest mode for the Google Assistant on Google-branded devices. Not to be confused with giving guests access to your Google Chromecast, for example, this new Guest mode is more akin to the incognito mode in your browser. With Guest mode on, which you invoke by saying “Hey Google, turn on guest mode,” the Assistant won’t offer personalized responses and your interactions won’t be saved to your account. It’ll stay on until you turn it off.

Typically, the Google Assistant saves all of your interactions to your account. You can delete those manually or have Google automatically delete them after 3, 18 or 36 months. You also can prevent it from saving any audio recordings at all.

This new feature will roll out to smart speakers and displays in the coming weeks.

Talking about deleting your data, Google today also announced that you will soon be able to edit your Location History data in the Google Maps Timeline.

Also new: When you now search for “Is my Google Account secure” or use a similar query, Google will start displaying your security and privacy settings for you. That’s actually a useful step forward, given that we’ve reached a point where those settings are often hard to find.

 

Truecaller tops 250 million users

Popular caller-identification service Truecaller has amassed 250 million monthly active users and 200 million daily active users, demonstrating an accelerated pace of growth in recent quarters even as a global pandemic has hurt most businesses, it said on Wednesday.

The service, run by eponymous Stockholm-headquartered firm, allows users to avoid spam calls by identifying the callers and also filters similar texts. The service is popular in many parts of the world, but India, where everyone receives dozens of such calls each month, is Truecaller’s biggest market.

Even as Apple and Google have improved the caller ID feature in their mobile operating systems in recent years and taken several other steps to curb spam calls, Truecaller’s offerings remain unmatched.

Truecaller had 200 million monthly active users in February this year, and it reached 100 million daily active users milestone in April 2018. More than 150 million of its monthly active user base are in India. In fact, Truecaller is the only app not made by Google or Facebook on the list of top 10 most used apps in the country, according to mobile insights firm App Annie (data of which an industry exec shared with TechCrunch).

In recent years, Truecaller has expanded its platform to add messaging and payments services, which has also allowed it to broaden the scope to monetize users. The company told TechCrunch that its revenue grew 90% in the quarter that ended in September, compared to the same period last year. Earlier this year, the company launched a new product that allows businesses to authenticate users on their apps without giving them a call.

The 11-year-old, Sequoia Capital -backed firm is also preparing to go public within the next two years, its co-founder and chief executive Alan Mamedi told TechCrunch in an interview early this year.

On Wednesday, Truecaller also announced it has appointed Fredrik Kjell as its new Chief Operating Officer. Kjell previously served as Chief Product Officer at Kindred Group, an online gambling company.

“With Fredrik’s strong operational background from previous consumer companies, and vast experience in a large publicly traded company, we believe he will be a great addition to the company and the global executive team. We’re on an exciting journey to take Truecaller to the next level, and this is a great step towards it,” said Mamedi in a statement.

I’m a software engineer at Uber and I’m voting against Prop 22

I’ve been a software engineer at Uber for two years, and I’ve also been a ride-hail driver. I regularly drove for Lyft in college, and while my day job involves writing code for the Uber Android app, I still make deliveries for app-based companies on my bike to understand the state of the gig economy.

These experiences have made me realize a crucial factor in the gig economy: Uber works because it’s cheap and it’s quick. The instant gratification when we book a ride and a car shows up only minutes later gives us a sense of control. It’s the most convenient thing in the world to go to your friend’s house, the grocery store or the airport at the click of a button.

But it’s become clear to me that this is only possible because countless drivers are spending their personal time sitting in their cars, waiting to pick up a ride, completely unpaid. Workers are subsidizing the product with their free labor.

I’ve decided to speak out against my employer because I know what it’s like to work with no benefits. Before joining Uber, I worked a range of low-wage jobs from customer service at Disneyland to delivering pizza with no benefits. Uber is one of several large companies bankrolling California’s Proposition 22. They’ve now contributed $47.5 million dollars to the campaign. At work, management tells us that passing Prop 22 is for the best because it is critical for the company’s bottom line. Yet, a corporation’s bottom line will not and should not influence my vote.

Uber claims Prop 22 would be good for drivers, but that depends on Uber the company treating drivers better. I know from my experience working as an Uber engineer there is a slim chance of that happening. At the beginning of the pandemic, we learned Uber was about to embark on a round of layoffs. For weeks we sat around not knowing if we’d keep our jobs and health insurance.

Ultimately the company laid off 3,500 workers in the middle of a pandemic, and they did it via a three-minute Zoom call. For many of us, the layoffs seemed random and arbitrary, as if managers had been given a quota of people they should fire, not dissimilar to the way in which Uber deactivates drivers without recourse. The entrenched culture of not caring about workers had extended to engineers. We realized we too are a fungible resource.

As a software engineer, I have a very different experience working for Uber than drivers do. Being classified as an employee affords me benefits including healthcare, a retirement plan, stock vesting and the ability to take paid vacation and sick leave. Uber drivers are not afforded these benefits, since Uber misclassifies them as independent contractors. Since January 1 of this year, the law has been clear: Gig drivers should be classified as employees. Yet Uber refuses to obey the law and is now seeking to get Prop 22 passed so they can write a new set of rules for themselves.

There’s a misconception that all Uber drivers are part-time. Maybe they drive as a fun hobby in retirement or pick up a few hours after class in college, as I did. These drivers exist, but the drivers who are essential to Uber’s business are full-time workers. A study commissioned by the city of San Francisco released in May found that 71% of the city’s gig drivers work at least 30 hours per week. It is these drivers who give the majority of the rides. California legally requires employers to provide benefits to all workers working at least 30 hours per week, so 71% of daily drivers are currently denied benefits required by the state.

Were it not for my background as a Lyft driver, I would have accepted my employer’s argument at face value. This was never about disrupting an industry; their business model is the same as any other company’s — cut costs no matter what in order to increase profits. I’ve been lucky to meet some of Uber’s fantastic drivers while organizing with the advocacy organization Gig Workers Rising. Everyone knows about the high cost of living in San Francisco — these folks are often trying to make do on less than minimum wage. I’ve met drivers who have to sleep in their cars, risk financial ruin over a single doctor’s appointment or go without life-saving medication. There’s no way around it, Uber’s Prop 22 is a multimillion dollar effort to deny these workers their rights.

My message to other tech workers and to the public at large is this: Research ballot propositions on your own. When your employer tells you to vote for something because it’s what is best for the company, consider that your employer’s interests might not align with your own, or with society’s.

To employees at Uber, Lyft, DoorDash or other gig economy companies: Get to know the drivers who use your product every day. In many ways, we have more in common with these workers than we do with the executives making millions from our labor.

In November, you will have a choice to either stand with other workers and vote no on Prop 22, or align yourself with executives and billionaires by voting yes.

Stand with workers — vote no on Prop 22.

Standing by developers through Google v. Oracle

The Supreme Court will hear arguments tomorrow in Google v. Oracle. This case raises a fundamental question for software developers and the open-source community: Whether copyright may prevent developers from using software’s functional interfaces — known as APIs — to advance innovation in software. The court should say no — free and open APIs protect innovation, competition and job mobility for software developers in America.

When we use an interface, we don’t need to understand (or care) about how the function on the other side of the interface is performed. It just works. When you sit down at your computer, the QWERTY keyboard allows you to rapidly put words on the screen. When you submit an online payment to a vendor, you are certain the funds will appear in the vendor’s account. It just works.

In the software world, interfaces between software programs are called “application programming interfaces” or APIs. APIs date back to the 1950s and allow developers to write programs that reuse other program functionality without knowing how that functionality is performed. If your program needs to sort a list, you could have it use a sorting program’s API to sort the list for your program. It just works.

Developers have historically used software interfaces free of copyright concerns, and this freedom has accelerated innovation, software interoperation and developer job mobility. Developers using existing APIs save time and effort, allowing those savings to be refocused on new ideas. Developers can also reimplement APIs from one software platform to others, enabling innovation to flow freely across software platforms.

Importantly, reusing APIs gives developers job portability, since knowledge of one set of APIs is more applicable cross-industry. The upcoming Google v. Oracle decision could change this, harming developers, open-source software and the entire software industry.

Google v. Oracle and the platform API bargain

Google v. Oracle is the culmination of a decade-long dispute. Back in 2010, Oracle sued Google, arguing that Google’s Android operating system infringed Oracle’s rights in Java. After ten years, the dispute now boils down to whether Google’s reuse of Java APIs in Android was copyright infringement.

Prior to this case, most everyone assumed that copyright did not cover the use of functional software like APIs. Under that assumption, competing platforms’ API reimplementation allowed developers to build new yet familiar things according to the API bargain: Everyone could use the API to build applications and platforms that interoperate with each other. Adhering to the API made things “just work.”

But if the Google v. Oracle decision indicates that API reimplementation requires copyright permission, the bargain falls apart. Nothing “just works” unless platform makers say so; they now dictate rules for interoperability — charging developers huge prices for the platform or stopping rival, compatible platforms from being built.

Free and open APIs are essential for modern developers

If APIs are not free and open, platform creators can stop competing platforms from using compatible APIs. This lack of competition blocks platform innovation and harms developers who cannot as easily transfer their skills from project to project, job to job.

MySQL, Oracle’s popular database, reimplemented mSQL’s APIs so third-party applications for mSQL could be “ported easily” to MySQL. If copyright had restricted reimplementation of those APIs, adoption of MySQL, reusability of old mSQL programs and the expansion achieved by the “LAMP” stack would have been stifled, and the whole ecosystem would be poorer for it. This and other examples of API reimplementation — IBM’s BIOS, Windows and WINE, UNIX and Linux, Windows and WSL, .NET and Mono, have driven perhaps the most amazing innovation in human history, with open-source software becoming critical digital infrastructure for the world.

Similarly, a copyright block on API-compatible implementations puts developers at the mercy of platform makers say so — both for their skills and their programs. Once a program is written for a given set of APIs, that program is locked-in to the platform unless those APIs can also be used on other software platforms. And once a developer learns skills for how to use a given API, it’s much easier to reuse than retrain on APIs for another platform. If the platform creator decides to charge outrageous fees, or end platform support, the developer is stuck. For nondevelopers, imagine this: The QWERTY layout is copyrighted and the copyright owner decided to charge $1,000 dollars per keyboard. You would have a choice: Retrain your hands or pay up.

All software used by anyone was created by developers. We should give developers the right to freely reimplement APIs, as developer ability to shift applications and skills between software ecosystems benefits everyone — we all get better software to accomplish more.

I hope that the Supreme Court’s decision will pay heed to what developer experience has shown: Free and open APIs promote freedom, competition, innovation and collaboration in tech.