Pinterest CEO and a team of leading scientists launch a self-reporting COVID-19 tracking app

There have been a few scattered efforts to leverage crowd-sourced self-reporting of symptoms as a way to potentially predict and chart the progress of COVID-19 across the U.S., and around the world. A new effort looks like the most comprehensive, well-organized and credibly backed yet — and it has been developed in part by Pinterest co-founder and CEO Ben Silbermann.

Silbermann and a team from Pinterest enlisted the help of high school friend, and CRISPR gene-editing pioneer / MIT and Harvard Broad Institute member, Dr. Feng Zhang to build what Silbermann termed in a press release a “bridge between citizens and scientists.” The result is the How We Feel app that Silbermann developed along with input from Zhang and a long list of well-regarded public health, computer science, therapeutics, social science and medical professors from Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Weill Cornell and more.

How We Feel is a mobile app available for both iOS and Android, which is free to download, and which is designed to make it very easy to self-report whether or not they feel well — and if they’re feeling unwell, what symptoms they’re experiencing. It also asks for information about whether or not you’ve been tested for COVID-19, and whether you’re in self-isolation, and for how long. The amount of interaction required is purposely streamlined to make it easy for anyone to contribute daily, and to do so in a minute or less.

The app doesn’t ask for or collect info like name, phone number or email information. It includes an up-front request that users agree to donate their information, and the data collected will be aggregated and then shared with researchers, public health professionals and doctors, including those who are signed on as collaborators with the project, as well as others (and the project is encouraging collaborators to reach out if interested). Part of the team working on the project are experts in the field of differential privacy, and a goal of the endeavor is to ensure that people’s information is used responsibly.

The How We Feel app is, as mentioned, one of a number of similar efforts out there, but this approach has a number of advantages when compared to existing projects. First, it’s a mobile app, whereas some rely on web-based portals that are less convenient for the average consumer, especially when you want continued use over time. Second, they’re motivating use through positive means — Silbermann and his wife Divya will be providing a donated meal to nonprofit Feeding America for every time a person downloads and uses the app for the first time, up to a maximum of 10 million meals. Finally, it’s already designed in partnership with, and backed by, world-class academic institutions and researchers, and seems best-positioned to be able to get the information it gathers to the greatest number of those in a position to help.

How We Feel is organized as an entirely independent, nonprofit organization, and it’s hoping to expand its availability and scientific collaboration globally. It’s an ambitious project, but also one that could be critically important in supplementing testing efforts and other means of tracking the progress and course of the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19. While self-reported information on its own is far from a 100% accurate or reliable source, taken in aggregate at scale, it could be a very effective leading indicator of new or emerging viral hotspots, or provide scientific researches with other valuable insights when used in combination with other signals.

This Week in Apps: Apple launches a COVID-19 app, the outbreak’s impact on social and video apps and more

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

The app industry saw a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019, according to App Annie’s “State of Mobile” annual report. People are now spending 3 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 Extra Crunch series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

This week, we’re continuing our special coverage of how the COVID-19 outbreak is impacting apps and the wider mobile app industry as more COVID-19 apps appear — including one from Apple built in partnership with the CDC, among others. We also take a look at the gains made by social and video apps in recent weeks as people struggle to stay connected while stuck at home in quarantine. In other headlines, we dig into Instagram’s co-watching feature, the Google for Games conference news, Apple’s latest releases and updates, Epic Games expansion into publishing and more.

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Social video apps are exploding due to the COVID-19 pandemic

Volvo’s Polestar begins production of the all-electric Polestar 2 in China

Polestar has started production of its all-electric Polestar 2 vehicle at a plant in China amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has upended the automotive industry and triggered a wave of factory closures throughout the world.

The start of Polestar 2 production is a milestone for Volvo Car Group’s standalone electric performance brand  — and not just because it began in the midst of global upheaval caused by COVID-19, a disease that stems from the coronavirus. It’s also the first all-electric car under a brand that was relaunched just three years ago with a new mission.

Polestar was once a high-performance brand under Volvo Cars. In 2017, the company was recast as an electric performance brand aimed at producing exciting and fun-to-drive electric vehicles — a niche that Tesla was the first to fill and has dominated ever since. Polestar is jointly owned by Volvo Car Group and Zhejiang Geely Holding of China. Volvo was acquired by Geely in 2010.

COVID-19 has affected how Polestar and its parent company operate. Factory closures began in China, where the disease first swept through the population. Now Chinese factories are reopening as the epicenter of COVID-19 moves to Europe and North America. Most automakers have suspended production in Europe and North America.

Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath said the company started production under these challenging circumstances with a strong focus on the health and safety. He added that the Luqiao, China factory is an example of how Polestar has leveraged the expertise of its parent companies.

Extra precautions have been taken because of the outbreak, including frequent disinfecting of work spaces and requiring workers to wear masks and undergo regular temperature screenings, according to the company. Polestar has said that none of its workers in China tested positive of COVID-19 as a result of its efforts.

COVID-19 has also affected Polestar’s timeline. Polestar will only sell its vehicles online and will offer customers subscriptions to the vehicle. It previously revealed plans to open “Polestar Spaces,” a showroom where customers can interact with the product and schedule test drives. These spaces will be standalone facilities and not within existing Volvo retailer showrooms. Polestar had planned to have 60 of these spaces open by 2020, including Oslo, Los Angeles and Shanghai.

COVID-19 has delayed the opening of the showrooms. The company will have some pop up stores opening as soon as that situation improves, so people can go see the cars and learn more while the permanent showrooms are still under construction, TechCrunch has learned.

It’s not clear just how many Polestar 2 vehicles will be produced, Polestar has told TechCrunch that it is in the “tens of thousands” of cars per calendar year. Those numbers will also depend on demand for the Polestar 2 and other models that are built in the same factory.

Polestar 2 EV

Image Credits: Screenshot/Polestar

Polestar also isn’t providing the exact number of reservations until it begins deliveries, which are supposed to start this summer in Europe followed by China and North America. It was confirmed to TechCrunch that reservations are in the “five digits.”

The Polestar 2, which was first revealed in February 2019, has been positioned by the company to go up against Tesla Model 3. (The company’s first vehicle, the Polestar 1, is a plug-in hybrid with two electrical motors powered by three 34 kilowatt-hour battery packs and a turbo and supercharged gas inline 4 up front.)

But it will likely face off against other competitors launching new EVs in 2020 and 2021, including Volkswagen, GM, Ford and startups Lucid Motors and even adventure-focused Rivian.

Polestar is hoping customers are attracted to the tech and the performance of the fastback, which is produces 408 horsepower, 487 pound feet of torque and a 78 kWh battery pack that delivers an estimated range of 292 miles under Europe’s WLTP.

The Polestar 2’s infotainment system will be powered by Android OS and, as a result, bring into the car embedded Google services such as Google Assistant, Google Maps and the Google Play Store. This shouldn’t be confused with Android Auto, which is a secondary interface that lies on top of an operating system. Android OS is modeled after its open-source mobile operating system that runs on Linux. But instead of running smartphones and tablets, Google modified it so it could be used in cars.

WhatsApp tests new feature to fight misinformation: Search the web

WhatsApp, one of the most popular instant messaging platforms on the planet, is testing a feature that could make it simpler for its 2 billion users to tell whether the assertion made in messages they have received is true.

In the recent most beta version of its Android app, the Facebook-owned service has given users the ability to quickly comb through the web with the text or video they have received for more context.

WhatsApp has been testing this feature in some capacity for several quarters now (last year, it allowed some users to look up an image on the web), but a spokesperson has now told TechCrunch that the platform plans to roll out this feature in the near future.

“We are working on new features to help empower users to find out more information about the messages they receive that have been forwarded many times. This feature is currently in testing, and we look forward to rolling it out in the near future,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

Images credit: @shrinivassg

The timely test of this feature comes at a time when WhatsApp and other messaging platforms are being used more often than ever before as people stay in touch with their friends, families, and colleagues in the face of a global pandemic.

And as it has happened in the past, several platforms including WhatsApp are grappling with spread of misinformation — this time about the coronavirus.

But WhatsApp has moved to take action much swiftly this time. It began reaching out to dozens of governments last month to assist in their efforts to provide accurate information to the general public, it said today.

Earlier today, India announced a WhatsApp bot to help its citizens be better informed about coronavirus. Earlier this week, the World Health Organization also announced a WhatsApp bot for people globally to bust myths about the coronavirus and answer some of the most frequently asked questions about the disease.

“The WHO Health Alert is the latest official NGO or government helpline to become available on WhatsApp, joining the Singapore Government, The Israel Ministry of Health, the South Africa Department of Health, and KOMINFO Indonesia. We are actively working to launch local services with other countries as well,” WhatsApp said in a statement.

Y Combinator-backed Kosh is a neobank for blue-collar workers in India

Dozens of startups have stepped up in India in recent quarters to improve banking experience for millions of users and businesses in the country. As a result, tens of thousands of people who could not get a loan or a credit card from a bank can now secure both from fintech startups.

But this push to bring financial inclusion to everyone still has many areas to cover. Blue-collar workers, for instance, are still facing challenges in availing some basic banking services.

Kosh, a Y Combinator-backed startup (W20), is beginning to tackle this challenge. It groups three or as many as ten blue-collar workers and gives them a loan.

“When a user logs into our Android app, they are able to apply for a loan. But before they do that, they need to add some of their colleagues and friends who are also looking for a loan,” explained Aayush Goel, co-founder of Kosh, in an interview with TechCrunch.

This way of banding together people allows Kosh to charge a lower rate of interest on the loan, said Goel.

“We have borrowed this from the world of microfinance. Essentially, we have a joint liability model. Let us say there were three people who were looking for a loan. We band them together and instead of giving each of them a separate loan, we give the group one loan” he said.

Aayush Goel (pictured above), and Sahil Bansal co-founded Kosh in March last year

In each group, at least one member is credit-worthy in the traditional sense, he explained. The startup also uses alternative data such as information gleaned from text messages to determine a person’s eligibility.

Such an arrangement has traditionally seen fewer people default (or fall behind paying their debt) because of social pressure from their colleagues and friends, as all of them are liable.

Kosh started to disburse loans in December. It currently offers loans up to twice the salary of an individual and over a tenure of up to 10 months, said Goel. The startup has disbursed close to 150 loans worth $35,000. It works with a Noida-based non-banking financial company to fund these loans.

The startup said it plans to broaden its neobanking offering this year by creating bank accounts for its customers. “There is a general lack of discipline in how these people spend their money. Having access to a bank account that works for them could prove very useful,” said Goel.

In recent years, a handful of startups such as Bangalore-based Open and NiYO Solutions have developed neobanks or alternative banks to serve businesses and individuals. In January, two former Google Pay executives announced their own neobank startup that aims to serve millennials.

GIGI Benefits, another Y Combinator-backed startup (W20), offers insurance and savings — perks that only full-time employees typically have — to gig-economy workers and freelancers.

“We help each worker set aside part of a paycheque to cover their costs of insurance, short-term expenses, and plan for their retirement,” said Sowmya Rao, founder and chief executive of GIGI Benefits, in a post.

Google’s Advanced Protection program for high-risk users now includes malware protection

Google is expanding the feature set for its Advanced Protection Program, a security offering that helps safeguard Google Accounts of those at risk for targeted attacks — like politicians, journalists, activists, business leaders, and others. The program already provides an increased level of protection for these accounts by limiting access to data, blocking fraudulent account access, supporting the use of physical security keys, and more. Today, Google is adding new malware protections to the program, as well.

For starters, those enrolled in the Advanced Protection Program will have Google Play Protect automatically enabled. This is Google’s built-in malware protection for Android that’s currently used to scan and verify 100 billion apps per day, Google notes. The system uses machine learning to automatically scan users’ device and apps to check for harmful behavior and potential security issues. Now, this will be enabled for Advanced Protection Program members and will not be able to be shut off.

The program will also now limit users’ ability to install apps from outside the Play Store, where apps are now scanned for malware before approval. Those from outside the store can present a greater risk. Google will now prevent the download of non-Play Store apps on any devices enrolled in the Advanced Protection Program, with a few exceptions. Users will be able to install non-Play Store apps through other third-party app stores that may have shipped on your device from the device manufacturer. Others can be installed through the developer tool Android Debug Bridge. However, Google says non-Play Store apps that have already been installed won’t be removed and can continue to be updated.

Google launched its Advanced Protection Program in fall 2017, as an opt-in option for those who believe they’re at increased risk of online attacks. The program focuses on defending against phishing, locking down malicious apps, and fending off hackers. The trade-off is reduced convenience as there are additional steps to take during authentication and more limitations on what can be done. But the result is a safer, and free, way to increase the security of your account and device.

The new added protections will roll out gradually to accounts enrolled in Advanced Program on Android devices, to be later this year be followed by new malware protections for Chrome, Google says. However, G Suite users won’t get these new protections now — instead, they’re offered through endpoint management which helps secure devices belonging to mobile workforces.

 

China Roundup: Apple closes a 4-year-old App Store loophole

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. This week, Apple made some major moves that are telling of its increasingly compliant behavior in China where it has seen escalating competition, but investors are showing dissatisfaction with how it is approaching hot-button issues in the country.

Virus game gone

Plague Inc., a simulation game where a player’s goal is to infect the entire world with a deadly virus, was removed from the China iOS App Store this week. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus in late January, Chinese users had flocked to download the eight-year-old game, potentially seeking an alternative way to understand the epidemic.

Data from market research firm App Annie shows that the title remained the most downloaded app in China from late January through most of February, up from No. 28 at the beginning of the year.

Ndemic Creations, the U.K. studio behind the game, said in a statement that the “situation” — the removal of Plague Inc. from the Apple App Store — “is completely out of our control.” The Chinese government provided an opaque reason for the takedown, saying the game “includes content that is illegal in China as determined by the Cyberspace Administration of China,” which is the country’s internet watchdog.

The incident has gotten plenty of attention in and outside of China. Some speculate that Apple has caved to pressure from Beijing, which could find Plague Inc.’s gameplay troubling. One sticking point is that its tutorial by default picks China as the starting country, although in the main game a user can begin anywhere in the world. The Information reported in 2018 that Plague Inc. actually applied for official permission to distribute in China but was turned down on account of its “socially inappropriate” content.

Others including Niko Partners games analyst Daniel Ahmad suggested that the Chinese authority might have taken issue with a December version update that allowed players to create “fake news,” which could mislead them in seeking advice in the midst of the health crisis.

Ahmad also suggested that the ban might have been linked to the ongoing crackdown of unlicensed mobile games in China. Notably, the Plague Inc. ban coincided with Apple’s announcement this week that would require all games in its Chinese app store to obtain government approval in the form of an ISBN number beginning in July. Few details have come to light about what this new regulatory process entails. Nor do developers know whether currently published games without official approval will be removed.

Apple investors are not sitting well with the firm’s app takedowns in China. 40% of its shareholders cast support for a proposal that would force Apple to uphold human rights commitment and be more transparent on how it responds to Beijing’s requests to censor apps.

Apple’s Delay

The gaming permit requirement is not new, though. In fact, Apple is just closing a regulatory loophole that had existed for years. Back in 2016, the Chinese government stipulated that video games — both PC and mobile — must apply for an ISBN number before entering circulation China. Within months, alternative Android stores operated by domestic tech giants swiftly moved to weed out illegal games. The official Google Play store is unavailable in China.

But Apple has managed to keep unlicensed titles in stock in the world’s largest gaming market, where content is strictly monitored. The American behemoth has many incentives to do so. Despite iPhone’s eroding share in China (to be fair, all Chinese phone makers but Huawei have recently suffered declining market share), iOS apps in China, especially games, remain an important revenue source for Apple.

So it’s in Apple’s best interest to clear hurdles for apps publishing in the country. Where there is a will, there is a way. Prior to 2016, publishing a game in China was relatively hassle-free. Following the regulatory change that year, Apple began asking games for proof of government license — but it didn’t go all out to enforce the policy. Local media reported that developers could get by with fabricated ISBN numbers or circumvent the rule by publishing in an overseas iOS App Store first and switching to China later.

This questionable practice did not go unnoticed. In August 2018, a Chinese state media lambasted Apple for its lousy oversight over App Store approvals.

Stepping up inspection on games will likely have little impact on China’s gaming titans who enjoy the financial and operational resources to secure the much-needed permit. Rather, their challenge is devising content that aligns with Beijing’s ideological guidelines, exemplified by Tencent’s patriotic makeover of PUBG.

Those that will be worst hit will most likely be small-time, independent studios, as well as firms that create “sockpuppet games” (马甲包), a practice whereby a developer exploits app stores’ loopholes to publish a troop of clones with similar gameplay and mask their appearance with altered names, logos and characters. Doing so can often help the publisher gain more traffic and revenue, but these sockpuppets will have a low chance of passing the authority’s strict scrutiny, which, as a Chinese gaming blog speculates, will potentially put an end to the surreptitious practice.

Apple to begin online sales in India this year, open first retail store in 2021

For a decade, Apple has solely relied on third-party sellers, stores, and marketplaces to sell its products in India. That will begin to change this year.

At the company’s annual shareholder meeting Wednesday, chief executive Tim Cook told investors that Apple will open its online store in India, the world’s second largest smartphone market, at some point this year, and set up its first flagship brick-and-mortar store next year.

“I’m a huge believer in the opportunity in India,” said Cook. “It’s a country with a vibrancy and demographics that are just unparalleled.”

TechCrunch reported last month that Apple was planning to open its online store in Q3 this year and was unlikely to be able to have its brick-and-mortar store ready in the country this year.

India, perhaps the last great growth market for American technology giants, has been a conundrum for Apple and several firms that sell premium items.

It’s a big market that continues to report growth, but most people in the country can’t afford Apple’s products. In fact, the vast majority of smartphones that ship in India carry a price tag of $150 or lower, according to research firm Counterpoint.

For Apple, the other challenge has been the heavy import duty that New Delhi levies on electronic items. This has made iPhone even more expensive for people in India as the company passes the additional cost to customers.

Apple has attempted to broaden its appeal in India by looking to reduce prices of its handset. For years, it urged the government to provide it with some tax benefits. When those talks did not materialize, Apple moved to do something that all the Chinese phone makers have done in India: Assemble smartphones locally.

New Delhi provides companies that assemble electronic items locally with several incentives. Two years into the process, Apple contractors Foxconn and Wistron are assembling a range of iPhone models in India, and that has lowered the prices for a number of models (except those in the current generation lineup.)

These moves have already proven useful for the company. Apple shipped close to 925,000 iPhone units in India in the quarter that ended in December, research firm Canalys estimated. That figure, up 200% year-over-year, was the iPhone-maker’s best year in the country to date, the research firm added.

Madhumita Chaudhary, an analyst with Canalys, said Apple’s decision to become more aggressive with pricing — partnering with banks to offer more incentives to customers — helped the company improve its position in a market with 99% Android smartphones.

Apple has also held discussions with content studios to bulk up its movies and TV shows offerings for the Indian audience. Two years ago, for instance, it was in late stages of talks to acquire the Indian business of Eros Now for $300 million — something which has not been previously reported — with option to expand its stake in the publicly listed global company, sources with direct knowledge of the matter told TechCrunch a few months ago.

But the deal did not materialize.

TechCrunch also reported last month that Cook may plan an India visit for the opening of the online store. Apple did not comment on that story.

India eased sourcing norms for single-brand retailers last year, which paved the way for companies like Apple to open online stores before they establish presence in the brick-and-mortar market.

Chinese firms rush to bring 5G smartphones to India

India is unlikely to have any substantial coverage of 5G until at least the end of next year, with telecom operators in the country yet to participate in spectrum auction. But that hasn’t stopped Chinese vendors Oppo, Vivo, and Xiaomi from bringing 5G-enabled smartphones to the world’s second largest handset market.

Xiaomi, Vivo’s sub-brand iQoo, and Oppo’s sub-brand Realme have all moved in tandem to unveil their 5G smartphones in the last one week. While Xiaomi, which has been the top handset vendor in India for more than two years, only showcased its recently unveiled 5G-enabled MiMix Alpha smartphone at several of its physical stores in the country, the other two companies have moved to launch new phones.

Vivo, India’s second largest phone vendor, launched the iQoo 3, which features a 6.44-inch display with screen resolution of 1080 x 2400 pixels, 4,440mAh battery (with support for 55W fast charging ), and runs Android 10. It is powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon 865, coupled with 8GB of RAM, and 128GB storage. It sports four rear-cameras — 48MP main shooter, 13MP telephoto, 13MP ultra-wide, and 2MP depth-sensor — and a 16MP selfie sensor.

The phone’s prices start at 36,990 Indian rupees ($515), which goes up to 44,990 ($627) Indian rupees for variants with additional storage and memory.

Realme, which is giving the top phone makers a run for their money in India, launched the X50 Pro 5G that features a 6.44-inch display of screen resolution 1080 x 2400 pixels with support for 90Hz refresh rate. It is powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 SoC, coupled with 12GB of RAM, and 4,200mAh battery with 65W Super Dart charging support.

On the photography front, it houses a 65MP primary shooter, 8MP ultra-wide sensor, 12MP telephoto shooter, and a 2MP portrait sensor. On the front is a setup of duo-selfie sensors of 32MP and 8MP.

The Realme X50 Pro 5G is priced at 37,999 Indian rupees ($530), which goes as high as 44,999 Indian rupees ($627) for variants with additional storage and memory.

Executives at the companies said that the rationale behind launching a 5G phone so ahead of time was to offer future-proof devices. Additionally, Qualcomm also requires phone vendors to use X55 5G modem if they want to use its flagship Snapdragon 865 SoC.

An executive with Poco, which recently spun out of Xiaomi, also chimed in:

Do phones need to fold?

As Samsung (re)unveiled its clamshell folding phone last week, I kept seeing the same question pop up amongst my social circles: why?

I was wondering the same thing myself, to be honest. I’m not sure even Samsung knows; they’d win me over by the end, but only somewhat. The halfway-folded, laptop-style “Flex Mode” allows you to place the phone on a table for hands-free video calling. That’s pretty neat, I guess. But… is that it?

The best answer to “why?” I’ve come up with so far isn’t a very satisfying one: Because they can (maybe). And because they sort of need to do something.

Let’s time-travel back to the early 2000s. Phones were weird, varied and no manufacturers really knew what was going to work. We had basic flip phones and Nokia’s indestructible bricks, but we also had phones that swiveled, slid and included chunky physical keyboards that seemed absolutely crucial. The Sidekick! LG Chocolate! BlackBerry Pearl! Most were pretty bad by today’s standards, but it was at least easy to tell one model from the next.

(Photo by Kim Kulish/Corbis via Getty Images)

Then came the iPhone in 2007; a rectangular glass slab defined less by physical buttons and switches and more by the software that powered it. The device itself, a silhouette. There was hesitation to this formula, initially; the first Android phones shipped with swiveling keyboards, trackballs and various sliding pads. As iPhone sales grew, everyone else’s buttons, sliders and keyboards were boiled away as designers emulated the iPhone’s form factor. The best answer, it seemed, was a simple one.

Twelve years later, everything has become the same. Phones have become… boring. When everyone is trying to build a better rectangle, the battle becomes one of hardware specs. Which one has the fastest CPU? The best camera?