This Week in Apps: Redesigning the iOS 14 home screen, app makers form ‘fairness’ coalition, latest on TikTok ban

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 Stories

iOS 14 Home screen Customization Craze

The release of iOS 14 included one of the biggest updates to the iPhone’s user interface in years. Apps can now be stored off screen in the new App Library where they’re organized for you, as opposed to you being forced to categorize apps yourself into various folders. And Apple finally allows for home screen widgets — a development that left Android users snickering about how “behind” their iPhone-using counterparts have been all this time.

But as with iOS apps, Apple’s design constraints and rules around widgets mean there’s a standard that all widgets have to meet to be approved. As a result, widgets have a consistent look-and-feel, thanks to things like size limitations and other design guidelines. They can’t be stretched out indefinitely or moved all over the screen, either.

Apple may have originally envisioned widgets as a way for existing iOS apps to gain a larger presence on users’ home screens, while delivering key information like news, weather or stock updates, for example. But a handful of iOS developers instead built apps that allowed users to design widgets themselves — by selecting colors, fonts, sizes, backgrounds and what information the widget would display.

Meanwhile, TikTok users and other Gen Z’ers began teaching each other how to create custom icons for their apps using Apple’s Shortcuts app. These tutorials were starting to trend even before iOS 14’s release, but the addition of the App Library and widgets meant users could now finally customize their entire home screen. That prompted a more enthusiastic adoption of the icon customization technique.

On the Twitter hashtag #iOS14homescreen, users shared their creations — a showcase of creativity where home screens looked fully themed at last, with custom icons, widgets, decorative photos, matching wallpapers and more. The results have been fantastic.

And at the top of the App Store, there now sit a trio of must-have tools for this new era: Widgetsmith, Color Widgets and Photo Widget today continue to claim the top three spots on the free apps chart.

Users are also now demanding Apple to change how app shortcuts open. Currently, an app shortcut first launches Apple’s Shortcuts app, which then opens the target app. With the popularity of custom icons, users want that intermediate step cut out.

Apple is aware of the customization craze as it has in the days since iOS 14’s release run App Store editorial features about iOS 14’s design changes, suggested widgets to try, creative tools and more. It also featured apps at the top of the App Store, which are benefiting from the trend, like apps offering great widgets, like Fantastical, or those that are booming, like Pinterest — which recently broke its daily download record.

App makers team up to take on Apple and Google

A number of top app makers have banded together to fight against Apple’s control of its App Store and, to a lesser extent, Google’s control of the Play Store — a topic of increased regulatory scrutiny in recent months. Today, 13 app publishers, including Epic Games, Deezer, Basecamp, Tile, Spotify and others, have launched the Coalition for App Fairness.

The new organization formalizes efforts the companies already have underway that focus on either forcing app store providers to change their policies, or ultimately pushing the app stores into regulation.

On the coalition’s website, the group details its key issues, which include anti-competitive practices, like the app stores’ 30% commission structure, and the inability to distribute software to billions of Apple devices through any other means but the App Store, which the group sees as an affront to personal freedom.

Google allows apps to be side-loaded, so it’s not as much of a target on this front. In fact, much of the focus of the coalition’s efforts have to do with Apple’s business, given its stricter guidelines.

The group has also published a list of 10 “App Store Principles” it would like to see enacted industry-wide. These include the ability to distribute apps outside of app stores, protections from having their own data used against them to compete, timely access to developer documentation, the right to communicate with users through its app for legitimate business purposes, no requirements to use the app store’s payment systems, no requirements to pay unfair fees and more.

The website is also aiming to recruit new members to join the coalition. App makers who feel similarly oppressed by Apple’s practices are able to fill out a form to request to join.

Apple responded to the hardball tactics with a barrage of new material and data meant to highlight the benefits of its App Store platform. The company on Thursday revealed the number of rejections it enforces is quite low compared to the number of submissions. It said it rejected 150,000 apps in 2020 but sees 100,000 submissions per week. It also has removed more than 60 million user reviews it believed to be spam.

The company noted its Developer program has over 28 million developers worldwide, whose apps have seen over 50 billion promotions — meaning when a user sees an app Apple has promoted on the App Store, in emails, on social media or in other general advertising.

However, the backlash has also forced Apple to be more transparent about some of its until-now fairly secretive programs. For example, Apple has now published a page that clarifies how its Video Partner program works — a program that had before only been detailed via background conversations with reporters who then relayed the information to readers. The page reveals the program’s requirements and that over 130 premium subscription video entertainment providers have since joined. If the guidelines are followed, these providers can pay only a 15% commission to Apple instead of 20%.

Current members include Amazon Prime Video, Binge, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Claro, C More, DAZN, Disney+, Globo, HBO Max, Joyn, Molotov, MUBI, myCanal, STARZ and Viaplay, the website said.

TikTok deal chaos continues

No, seriously, what is going on with the TikTok deal? (We feel you, Walmart.)

The deal that Trump was poised to approve solved some but not all concerns by making Oracle a trusted technology partner responsible for hosting U.S. user data and ensuring other security requirements were in place. But issues around how the TikTok algorithm could be used to influence U.S. users or censor content were not addressed.

The ban got a week’s extension as a result of promising progress and the announcements that seemed to indicate the parties were in agreement on terms.

But this week, China jumped in to say it won’t approve a TikTok sale. In China Daily, an official English-language newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, an editorial slammed the deal that would see Oracle and Walmart effectively taking over TikTok in the U.S. as one based on “bullying and extortion.”

At the same time, TikTok is chasing a legal means of preventing its ban in the U.S.

TikTok filed a motion to stop the Commerce Department from enforcing the Trump administration’s ban that would otherwise be set to start this weekend. The move came shortly after WeChat users were granted an injunction in a federal court last week that blocked the app from being banned. TikTok’s filing asks the court to set a hearing before the rules take effect at 11:59 PM on September 27, 2020. But unlike the WeChat case, TikTok is the one asking the court to stop the ban, not its users.

A federal judge said Thursday that the Trump administration must either delay the ban on U.S. app stores or file its legal response to defend the decision by 2:30 PM Friday. The Justice Department filed its opposition Friday, saying that U.S. user data being stored outside the country is a “significant” risk.  The judge will still need to rule on the injunction — that is, whether the ban should go into effect Sunday, as planned.

Stay tuned to TechCrunch for the latest on this never-ending saga.

Weekly News Round-up

Platforms

  • Google will increase its push for apps to give it a cut of in-app purchases. Following Apple’s lead, Google will begin to push harder to demand a cut of transactions on Android by enforcing a requirement for apps to use Google’s billing service, Bloomberg reports.
  • New Google Play Console arrives on November 2, 2020. Over 350K developers now use the new Play Console today. On November 2, it exits beta — meaning you’ll be redirected to the updated experience when you log in. The console features reorganized navigation, speed and performance improvements, personalized messaging, a new Publishing overview page, acquisition reports and more.
  • Apple temporarily waived App Store fees for Facebook’s online events. Facebook last month launched paid online events to help businesses impacted by the pandemic. But at the time, Apple wouldn’t waive its own fees. The company has now changed its mind, and will waive fees until December 31, but says this won’t apply to gaming creators.
  • Apple and Facebook fight over messaging. But all is not well between the two tech giants on other fronts. Now that Apple has lifted its rules over default apps for email and web browsing, Facebook is pushing the company to allow Messenger to become a default messaging app too.
  • iOS 14.0.1 and iPadOS 14.0.1 released. The update patches the bug that reset web browser and email apps back to Apple’s defaults after a restart, and other fixes.
  • iOS 14 adoption surpasses 25% in five days after release. According to data from Mixpanel, iOS 14 (including iPadOS 14) reached 25% of active devices by Monday, September 21. As of the time of writing, it has reached 30.7%.
  • Apple’s Swift comes to Windows. The programming language is available on Windows for the first time, six years after its debut on Apple platforms.
  • Schoolwork 2.1 beta released. The updated iPad app for teachers and students is now in beta. Apps that use the latest ClassKit will be more discoverable by teachers in Schoolwork.

Services

  • Amazon announces a gaming streaming service, Luna. A competitor to Microsoft xCloud and Google Stadia, Luna will allow gamers to stream titles to play across PC, Mac and iOS mobile web. Over 50 titles will be included at launch, including a Sonic game and Remedy Entertainment’s Control. Ubisoft titles will be available on subscription. Twitch integration will be a key selling point.
  • Microsoft launches Xbox remote play streaming on Android. This is not xCloud, but rather a rebrand of the service previously called Console Streaming. The games stream directly from your Xbox One console to your Android courtesy of Microsoft’s new Xbox app for Android.
  • UK launches a COVID-19 exposure notification app for England and Wales. Northern Ireland and Scotland had already launched official apps. All apps use smartphones’ Bluetooth radios to generate alerts of potential exposure to COVID-19.
  • Samsung TV+ comes to phones. Free, ad-supporting streaming service makes the leap to Samsung devices.
  • Adobe rolls out new ‘Liquid Mode’ in Adobe’s Acrobat Reader app for iOS and Android. The feature uses Adobe’s AI engine, Sensei, to analyze a PDF and automatically rebuild it for mobile devices. Adobe says it’s working on an API that will allow similar functionality for non-Adobe apps in the future.

Trends

  • Fintech apps top 1.2B installs worldwide in Q2 (report).
  • Time spent in education apps was up 90% year-over-year during the week of September 6, 2020, compared to last year, on a global basis. The numbers, via App Annie, were calculated on Android devices online. In the U.S., time spent was up 30%.
  • Home screen customization apps top the App Store. Top 20 iOS home screen customization apps reached at least 13.7 million installs and more than $1 million in consumer spending in the seven days following the iOS 14 release. Pinterest also broke its daily download record as users sought new inspiration.

Other News

  • Telepath launches a “kinder” social networking app. It aims to promote quality conversation and ban harassment and fake news. Easier said than done on today’s internet.
  • Child tips off security researchers about scam apps with 2.4 million downloads. The scam involved apps posing as entertainment, wallpaper images or music download apps targeting young users. Some served intrusive ads even when the app wasn’t active. Others charged users, gaining revenues of over $500K. The apps were available across iOS and Android.
  • Epic rejects Apple’s attempts to disparage its business. Apple tried to claim that interest in Fortnite declined 70% from October 2019 to July 2020. Epic said, no actually, daily active players grew 39% during those dates. The two sides are fighting over Apple’s right to commission Epic’s business in a continuing legal battle.

Funding and M&A (and IPOs)

  • Apple acquires Scout FM. Apple bought a startup called Scout FM that turns podcast listening into more of a traditional radio-like experience by leveraging the user’s listening history to know what sort of programming they like. Deal terms are unknown.
  • Epic Games acquires SuperAwesome. Epic acquired the kidtech pioneer whose digital engagement tools are used by 500 million kids per month across thousands of apps, including those from Lego, NBCU and Hasbro. Deal terms were not disclosed.
  • IRL app raises $16 million. Event discovery network IRL raised $16 million in Series B funding after refocusing its social calendar on virtual events during the pandemic. The move made the app, now with 5.5 million MAUs, accessible by a wider audience.
  • GoodRx IPO raises $1 billion+. GoodRx, an app that helps users comparison shop prices for prescription drugs, sold roughly 34.6 million shares at its IPO price to raise $1.14 billion at a valuation of $12.67 billion, sending its stock up 50%.
  • Robinhood raises $660 million. Stock trading app Robinhood raised $660 million in an extension of its Series G round announced last month when D1 Capital Partners invested $200 million. Robinhood is now valued at $11.7 billion.
  • Class for Zoom raises $16 million. Class for Zoom from ClassEDU is designed to make online teaching more engaging. The company was founded by former Blackboard CEO and former PrecisionHawk CEO Michael Chasen.
  • Mobile Premier League raises $90 million. Indian mobile gaming platform Mobile Premier League (MPL) raised $90 million as the company looks to expand its esports and gaming platform outside India.
  • Rappi raises over $300 million. Colombian delivery app Rappi raised over $300 million in a round from T. Rowe Price Associates and others.

Downloads

How could you not be customizing your iOS 14 home screen this week? The launch of the new mobile OS has delivered an entirely new category of apps — widget design tools. And alongside these apps, there are others that can help you get started creating a whole new look for your home screen. These could be creative tools, those for sourcing inspiration or those for building custom icons. Want a weekend project? These apps below can get you going:

  • Pinterest: Search for ideas and inspiration to get your motivation. Download wallpapers and other photos you may want to use with your icons.
  • Widgetsmith: The current No. 1 app lets you build all sorts of customized widgets in a range of colors and sizes.
  • Color Widgets: The current No. 2 app offers a customizable widget that can feature the date, time, day of the week and battery percentage for the top of your home screen.
  • Photo Widget: Simple: Another top app that lets you pick a single photo for placement on your home screen.
  • Motivation – Daily Quotes: A top 30 app lets you pin some daily inspirational quotes to your home screen.
  • Launcher and Launch Center Pro: these two apps include tools for creating custom icons.
  • PicsArt: For more creative types, PicsArt is great for sourcing photos and designing backgrounds and icons either from scratch or by remixing those others have already made.
  • Canva: The DIY design tool has added a collection of iOS home screen templates.
  • TuneTrack: If you want a Spotify widget, this app is your best option for now as no official widget is available.
  • Fonts: Why stop at the home screen? customize your keyboard theme to match your new design.
  • Fantastical: Now includes a dozen widgets for date, weather, calendar, events and more.
  • Etsy: Can’t DIY? Designers are turning to Etsy to sell packs of icons and widget cover photos that will let you create a beautiful home screen without doing all the creative work yourself.

 

Google Meet and other Google services go down (Updated)

Google’s engineers aren’t having a good day today. This afternoon, a number of Google services went offline or are barely reachable. These services include Google Meet, Drive, Docs, Analytics, Classroom and Calendar, for example.

While Google’s own status dashboards don’t show any issues, we’re seeing reports from around the world from people who aren’t able to reach any of these services. Best we can tell, these issues started around 6pm PT.

It’s unusual for this number of Google services to go down at once. Usually, it’s only a single service that is affected. This time around, however, it’s clearly a far broader issue.

We’ve reached out to Google and will update this post once we hear more about what happened.

Update (6:30pm PT): and we’re back. It looks like most Google services are now recovering.

 

Daily Crunch: Amazon unveils its own game-streaming platform

Amazon announces a new game service and plenty of hardware upgrades, tech companies team up against app stores and United Airlines tests a program for rapid COVID-19 testing. This is your Daily Crunch for September 24, 2020.

The big story: Amazon unveils its own game-streaming platform

Amazon’s competitor to Google Stadia and Microsoft xCloud is called Luna, and it’s available starting today at an early access price of $5.99 per month. Subscribers will be able to play games across PC, Mac and iOS, with more than 50 games in the library.

The company made the announcement at a virtual press event, where it also revealed a redesigned Echo line (with spherical speakers and swiveling screens), the latest Ring security camera and a new, lower-cost Fire TV Stick Lite.

You can also check out our full roundup of Amazon’s announcements.

The tech giants

App makers band together to fight for App Store changes with new ‘Coalition for App Fairness’ — Thirteen app publishers, including Epic Games, Deezer, Basecamp, Tile, Spotify and others, launched a coalition formalizing their efforts to force app store providers to change their policies or face regulation.

LinkedIn launches Stories, plus Zoom, BlueJeans and Teams video integrations as part of wider redesignLinkedIn has built its business around recruitment, so this redesign pushes engagement in other ways as it waits for the job economy to pick up.

Facebook gives more details about its efforts against hate speech before Myanmar’s general election — This includes adding Burmese language warning screens to flag information rated false by third-party fact-checkers.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Why isn’t Robinhood a verb yet? — The latest episode of Equity discusses a giant funding round for Robinhood.

Twitter-backed Indian social network ShareChat raises $40 million — Following TikTok’s ban in India, scores of startups have launched short-video apps, but ShareChat has clearly established dominance.

Spotify CEO Daniel Ek pledges $1Bn of his wealth to back deeptech startups from Europe — Ek pointed to machine learning, biotechnology, materials sciences and energy as the sectors he’d like to invest in.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

3 founders on why they pursued alternative startup ownership structures — At Disrupt, we heard about alternative approaches to ensuring that VCs and early founders aren’t the only ones who benefit from startup success.

Coinbase UX teardown: 5 fails and how to fix them — Many of these lessons, including the need to avoid the “Get Started” trap, can be applied to other digital products.

As tech stocks dip, is insurtech startup Root targeting an IPO? — Alex Wilhelm writes that Root’s debut could clarify Lemonade’s IPO and valuation.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

United Airlines is making COVID-19 tests available to passengers, powered in part by Color — United is embarking on a new pilot project to see if easy access to COVID-19 testing immediately prior to a flight can help ease freedom of mobility.

Announcing the final agenda for TC Sessions: Mobility 2020 — TechCrunch reporters and editors will interview some of the top leaders in transportation.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

Here’s everything Amazon announced at its latest hardware event

From new Ring flying indoor drone cameras to an adorable new kids version of one of its most popular Amazon home products, Jeff Bezos’ Seattle retailer unveiled a slew of new hardware goodies just ahead of the holiday shopping season.

Echo updates

Image Credits: Amazon

Amazon kicked off its latest hardware showcase by unveiling a new version of the company’s Echo devices, which now include spherical speakers (with a version for kids featuring cute animal graphics). Amazon also unveiled an updated, more personalized Echo capabilities and a new tracking feature for its Show 10 that mirrors Facebook’s Portal in its ability to follow users as they move around a room.

Ring’s new things

Ring also had plenty to pitch at the Amazon hardware show. The security camera company is updating its line with the Always Home Cam, a diminutive drone that can be scheduled to fly preset paths, which users can determine themselves.

It also rolled out new hardware for the automotive market with three different devices focused on car owners. A Ring Car Alarm that will retail for $59.99; and the Car Cam and Car Connect will both be $199.99. Ring Car Alarm provides basic features that work with the Ring app, sending alerts to trigger a series of potential responses. The alarm also integrates with other Ring devices or Amazon Alexa hardware and connects using Amazon’s low-bandwidth Sidewalk wireless network protocol.

Meanwhile, the Car Cam allows users to check in on their car via video as long as users are in range of a wifi network, or opt-in to the additional LTE companion plan Ring is selling. The cam also includes an Emergency Crash Assist feature that alerts first responders, and a recording feature that turns on if a user says “Alexa, I’m being pulled over”. Finally, the car connect is an API that manufacturers, starting with Tesla, can use to provide Ring customers with mobile alerts for events detected around vehicles or watch footage recorded with onboard cameras.

Ring also added new opt-in end-to-end video encryption for those users who want it.

New ways to Fire TV

Image Credits: Amazon

The company’s TV platform got several updates. The biggest is probably the addition of the new, lower cost Fire TV Stick Lite at $29.99. For $39.99, meanwhile, you can pick up the new Fire TV Stick, which features a process that’s 50% faster. The platform is also adding Video Calling — a nice addition in the era of working from home — along with a new, improved layout.

Amazon goes ga-ga for gaming

Last, but certainly not least, Amazon announced its new game-streaming platform, Luna.

The long-awaited gaming competitor to Google Stadia and Microsoft xCloud is launching an early access version at a price of $5.99 per-month, the company said. Users will be able to stream titles wirelessly without downloading games and can play across PC, Mac, and iOS (via the web).

Initially, the company will have more than 50 titles in the Luna+ app, including at least one Sonic title and Remedy Entertainment’s control. There’s a partnership with Ubisoft in the works, but access to those games may require a separate subscription.

 

Here’s everything Amazon announced at its latest hardware event

From new Ring flying indoor drone cameras to an adorable new kids version of one of its most popular Amazon home products, Jeff Bezos’ Seattle retailer unveiled a slew of new hardware goodies just ahead of the holiday shopping season.

Echo updates

Image Credits: Amazon

Amazon kicked off its latest hardware showcase by unveiling a new version of the company’s Echo devices, which now include spherical speakers (with a version for kids featuring cute animal graphics). Amazon also unveiled an updated, more personalized Echo capabilities and a new tracking feature for its Show 10 that mirrors Facebook’s Portal in its ability to follow users as they move around a room.

Ring’s new things

Ring also had plenty to pitch at the Amazon hardware show. The security camera company is updating its line with the Always Home Cam, a diminutive drone that can be scheduled to fly preset paths, which users can determine themselves.

It also rolled out new hardware for the automotive market with three different devices focused on car owners. A Ring Car Alarm that will retail for $59.99; and the Car Cam and Car Connect will both be $199.99. Ring Car Alarm provides basic features that work with the Ring app, sending alerts to trigger a series of potential responses. The alarm also integrates with other Ring devices or Amazon Alexa hardware and connects using Amazon’s low-bandwidth Sidewalk wireless network protocol.

Meanwhile, the Car Cam allows users to check in on their car via video as long as users are in range of a wifi network, or opt-in to the additional LTE companion plan Ring is selling. The cam also includes an Emergency Crash Assist feature that alerts first responders, and a recording feature that turns on if a user says “Alexa, I’m being pulled over”. Finally, the car connect is an API that manufacturers, starting with Tesla, can use to provide Ring customers with mobile alerts for events detected around vehicles or watch footage recorded with onboard cameras.

Ring also added new opt-in end-to-end video encryption for those users who want it.

New ways to Fire TV

Image Credits: Amazon

The company’s TV platform got several updates. The biggest is probably the addition of the new, lower cost Fire TV Stick Lite at $29.99. For $39.99, meanwhile, you can pick up the new Fire TV Stick, which features a process that’s 50% faster. The platform is also adding Video Calling — a nice addition in the era of working from home — along with a new, improved layout.

Amazon goes ga-ga for gaming

Last, but certainly not least, Amazon announced its new game-streaming platform, Luna.

The long-awaited gaming competitor to Google Stadia and Microsoft xCloud is launching an early access version at a price of $5.99 per-month, the company said. Users will be able to stream titles wirelessly without downloading games and can play across PC, Mac, and iOS (via the web).

Initially, the company will have more than 50 titles in the Luna+ app, including at least one Sonic title and Remedy Entertainment’s control. There’s a partnership with Ubisoft in the works, but access to those games may require a separate subscription.

 

Amazon announces Luna game-streaming platform

At its Devices and Services event, Amazon launched its own cloud gaming competitor to Google Stadia and Microsoft xCloud . It’s called Luna.

The company is launching the product in early access at an introductory price of $5.99 per month. Users will be able to stream titles wirelessly without downloading the games and can play across PC, Mac and iOS (via the web). Users in the United States can request early access starting today.

Amazon says they will be launching with more than 50 games in the Luna+ app, including at least one Sonic title and Remedy Entertainment’s Control. The company has also partnered with Ubisoft but it seems users will have to subscribe separately to get access to those titles. The whole service is powered by AWS. Amazon says that users will be able to play titles at up to 4K 60fps performance.

One of the big selling points for the platform will be its Twitch integration, which will theoretically allow gamers to dive right into the titles they just saw their favorite streamers playing. This will depend heavily on coaxing streamers to play the limited subsection of titles that are present on Luna, however. Google made much the same pitch with Stadia and YouTube Gaming, but that dream hasn’t been fully realized yet.

Much like Google Stadia, Amazon will also be selling a custom controller that connects directly to the service to reduce latency. The Alexa-enabled Luna Controller will go for $49.99 during the early access period.

With this entrance, now Google, Microsoft and Amazon are each competing to define a new gaming platform. It’s apparent that Microsoft has a huge advantage given its existing relationships with developers and its own network of Microsoft-owned studios, but we’ll see what Amazon can cook up during the platform’s early access period.

YouTube will add mail-in voting info box next to videos that discuss voting by mail

YouTube has been relatively quiet about its strategy to battle the flow of misinformation leading into the 2020 U.S. election, but the platform has a few new measures in store.

The video sharing site will begin attaching a box with vetted facts about mail-in voting on any videos that discuss the topic. The new mail-in voting info boxes will link out to the Bipartisan Policy Center, a bipartisan think tank.

YouTube first rolled these info panels out in 2018 and this year expanded them to address misinformation around COVID-19. The platform’s fact-checking info boxes resemble similarly unobtrusive info labels on Twitter and Facebook. While Twitter in particular has begun taking stronger action on election-related posts that break platform rules, social platforms have opted to broadly serve up contextual facts rather than targeting misinformation with more eye-catching warnings.

Example of YouTube COVID-19 info panel

YouTube is a little late to the party, but it will also add a few features encouraging users to register to vote. Searches about voter registration will soon point users to an info box at the top of the page leading them to state-specific resources like registration deadlines and how to check voter registration status.

Similarly, queries about “how to vote” will point YouTube users to vetted information from non-partisan third-party partners about state voting rules, requirements and deadlines. These searches will surface voting resources in both English and Spanish. The company will also begin surfacing new information in searches for federal candidates for Congress or the presidency.

Like Snapchat, Twitter, and Facebook, YouTube is also launching its own set of original informational election videos that will package facts on voting in the U.S. The YouTube videos take a playful approach, spoofing popular video trends like cooking tutorials. YouTube will also add reminders during “key moments” for the 2020 election reminding users to register and telling them how and where to vote.

UK launches COVID-19 exposure notification app for England and Wales

The last two regions of the UK now have an official coronavirus contacts tracing app, after the UK government pushed the button to launch the NHS COVID-19 app across England and Wales today.

Northern Ireland and Scotland launched their own official apps to automate coronavirus exposure notifications earlier this year. But the England and Wales app was delayed after a false start back in May. The key point is that the version that’s launched now has a completely different app architecture.

All three of the UK’s official coronavirus contacts tracing apps make use of smartphones’ Bluetooth radios to generate alerts of potential exposure to COVID-19 — based on estimating the proximity of the devices.

A very condensed version of how this works is that ephemeral IDs are exchanged by devices that come into close contact and stored locally on app users’ phones. If a person is subsequently diagnosed with COVID-19 they are able to notify the system, via their public health authority, which will broadcast the relevant (i.e. ‘risky’) IDs to all other devices.

Matching to see whether an app user has been exposed to any of the risky IDs also takes place locally — meaning exposure alerts are not centralized.

The use of this decentralized, privacy-preserving architecture for the NHS COVID-19 app is a major shift vs the original app which was being designed to centralize data with the public health authority.

However the government U-turned after a backlash over privacy and ongoing technical problems linked to trying to hack its way around iOS limits on background access to Bluetooth.

Switching the NHS COVID-19 app to a decentralized architecture has allowed it to plug into coronavirus exposure notification APIs developed by Apple and Google — resolving technical problems related to device detection which caused problems for the earlier version of the app.

In June, the government suggested there were issues with the APIs related to the reliability of estimating distance between devices. Asked about the reliability of the Bluetooth technology the app is used on BBC Radio 4’s Today program this morning, health secretary Matt Hancock said: “What we know for absolute sure is that the app will not tell you to self isolate because you’ve been in close contact with someone unless you have been in close contact. The accuracy with which it does that is increasing all of the time — and we’ve been working very closely with Apple and with Google who’ve done a great job in working to make this happen and to ensure that accuracy is constantly improved.”

The health secretary described the app as “an important tool in addition to all the other tools that we have” — adding that one of the reasons he’d delayed the launch until now was because he didn’t want to release an app that wasn’t effective.

“Everybody who downloads the app will be helping to protect themselves, helping to protect their loves one, helping to protect their community — because the more people who download it the more effective it will be. And it will help to keep us safe,” Hancock went on.

“One of the things that we’ve learnt over the course of the pandemic is where people are likely to have close contacts and in fact the app that we’re launching today will help to find more of those close contacts,” he added.

The England and Wales app does have some of unique quirks — as the government has opted to pack in multiple features, rather than limiting it to only exposure notifications.

These bells & whistles include: risk alerts based on postcode district; a system of QR code check-in at venues (which are now required by law to display a QR code for app users to scan); a COVID-19 symptom checker and test booking feature — including the ability to get results through the app; and a timer for users who have been told to self-isolate to help them keep count of the number of days left before they can come out of quarantine, with pointers offered to “relevant advice”.

“[The app] helps you to easily go to the pub or a restaurant or hospitality venue because you can then click through on the QR code which automatically does the contact tracing that is now mandatory,” said Hancock explaining the thinking behind some of the extra features. “And it helps by explaining what the rules are and the risk in your area for people easily and straightforwardly to be able to answer questions and consult on the rules so it has a whole series of features.”

It remains to be seen whether it was sensible product design to bolt on all these extras — and QR code venue check-ins could carry a risk of confusing users. However the government’s logic appears to be that more features will encourage more people to download the app and thereby increase uptake and utility.

Once widespread, the mandatory venue QR codes will also effectively double as free ads for the app so that could help drive downloads.

More saliently, the Bluetooth exposure notification system depends on an effective testing regime and will therefore be useless in limiting the spread of COVID-19 if the government can’t improve coronavirus test turnaround times — which it has been struggling with in recent weeks, as major backlogs have built up.

Internet law expert, professor Lilian Edwards — who was on an ethics advisory panel for the earlier, now defunct version of the England & Wales app — made this point to BBC Radio 4’s World at One program yesterday.

“My main concern is not the app itself but the interaction with the testing schedule,” she said. The app only sends out proximity warnings to the contacts on upload of a positive test. The whole idea is to catch contacts before they develop symptoms in that seven-day window when they won’t be isolating. If tests are taking five to seven days to get back then by that time the contacts will have developed symptoms and should hopefully be isolating or reporting their symptoms themselves. So if we don’t speed up testing then the app is functionally useless.”

EU’s antitrust probe of Google-Fitbit gets more time

European antitrust regulators now have until almost the end of the year to take a decision on whether to green light Google’s planned acquisition of Fitbit.

The tech giant announced its intention to buy the fitness tracking wearable maker in November 2019, saying it would shell out $2.1 billion in cash to make off with Fitbit and the health data it holds on some 28M+ users.

EU regulators were quick to sound the alarm about letting the tech giant go shopping for such a major cache of sensitive personal data, with the European Data Protection Board warned in February that the proposed purchase poses a huge risk to privacy.

There is also a parallel concern that Fitbit’s fitness data could further consolidate Google’s regional dominance in the ad market. And last month EU competition regulators announced a full antitrust probe — saying then they would take a decision within 90 working days. That deadline has now been extended by a further two weeks.

A Commission spokeswoman confirmed the earlier provisional December 9 deadline has been pushed on “in agreement with the parties” — citing Article 10(3) of the EU’s Merger Regulation.

“The provisional legal deadline for a final decision in this case is now December 23, 2020,” she added.

The Commission has not offered any detail on the reason for allocating more time to take a decision.

When EU regulators announced the in-depth probe, the Commission said it was concerned data gathered by Fitbit could lead to a distortion of competition if Google was allowed to assimilate the wearable maker and “further entrench” its dominance in online ad markets.

Other concerns include the impact on the nascent digital healthcare sector, and whether Google might be incentivised to degrade the interoperability of rival wearables with its Android OS once it has its own hardware skin in the game.

The tech giant, meanwhile, has offered assurances around the deal in an attempt to get it cleared — claiming ahead of the Commission’s probe announcement it would not use Fitbit health data for ad targeting, and suggesting that it would create a ‘data silo’ for Fitbit data to keep it separate from other data holdings.

However regulators have expressed scepticism — with the Commission writing last month that the “data silo commitment proposed by Google is insufficient to clearly dismiss the serious doubts identified at this stage as to the effects of the transaction”.

It remains to be seen what the bloc’s competition regulators conclude after taking a longer and harder look at the deal — and it’s worth noting they are simultaneously consulting on whether to give themselves new powers to be able to intervene faster to regulate digital markets — but Google’s hopes of friction-free regulatory clearance and being able to hit the ground running in 2020 with Fitbit’s data in its pocket have certainly not come to pass. 

Microsoft commits to putting more water than it consumes back into the ecosystems where it operates by 2030

One good trend in 2020 has been large technology companies almost falling over one another to make ever-bolder commitments regarding their ecological impact. A cynic might argue that just doing without most of the things they make could have a much greater impact, but Microsoft is the latest to make a commitment that not only focuses on minimizing its impact, but actually on reversing it. The Windows-maker has committed to achieving a net positive water footprint by 2030, by which it means it wants to be contributing more energy back into environment in the places it operates than it is drawing out, as measured across all “basins” that span its footprint.

Microsoft hopes to achieve this goal through two main types of initiatives: First, it’ll be reducing the “intensity” of its water use across its operations, as measured by the amount of water used per megawatt of energy consumed by the company. Second, it will also be looking to actually replenish water in the areas of the world where Microsoft operations are located in “water-stressed” regions, through efforts like investment in area wetland restoration, or the removal and replacement of certain surfaces, including asphalt, which are not water-permeable and therefore prevent water from natural sources like rainfall from being absorbed back into a region’s overall available basin.

The company says that how much water it will return will vary, and depend on how much Microsoft consumes in each region, as well as how much the local basin is under duress in terms of overall consumption. Microsoft isn’t going to rely solely on external sources for this info, however: It plans to put its artificial intelligence technology to work to provide better information around what areas are under stress in terms of water usage, and where optimization projects would have the greatest impact. It’s already working towards these goals with a number of industry groups, including The Freshwater Trust.

Microsoft has made a number of commitments towards improving its global ecological impact, including a commitment from earlier this year to become ‘carbon negative’ by 2030. Meanwhile, Apple said in July that its products, including the supply chains that produce them, will be net carbon neutral by 2030, while Google made a commitment just last week to use only energy from carbon-free sources by that same year.