Apple’s revamped TV app is ready to stream its new shows

Along with the long-awaited introduction of Apple’s TV and movie streaming service, the company also introduced a new Apple TV app for iPhone, iPad and Apple TV.  The updated design is meant to make it easier to find content, no matter the source – whether that’s Apple’s new TV channels service, Apple TV+, your iTunes library, cable or satellite TV, or other streaming services, like Amazon Prime Video or Hulu.

The updated app includes a new “Watch Now” tab where you can pick up where you left off on current shows, see suggestions of trending and popular content, or dive into personalized recommendations that get smarter the more you’re on the app.

The interface looks much like what you’d expect from a streaming service – with sections like “What to Watch” or “New and Noteworthy” where image thumbnails of the shows are browsed through horizontally.

When you find things you like, you can add items to your Watch Later list.

Similar to Roku’s TV and movies hub, The Roku Channel, or Amazon’s Prime Video Channels, the Apple TV app will also offer a simple way to subscribe to premium channels.

With a few clicks, you can start a free trial to paid channels like HBO, Showtime, Starz and others, using your saved payment information.

To navigate the app, you can tap on the sections across the top: Watch Now, Movies, TV shows, Sports, Kids and Library. Some of these have had small changes, as well.

For example, the brand new Kids experience lets children browse by their favorite characters, similar to Netflix.

There are other nice touches as well – like the ability to skip shows’ intros to get straight to the action – and, of course, you can still use Siri to find content and control the experience.

The revamped app will be available on Apple TV, iPhone, and iPad in May, and will come for the first time to the Mac this fall. It will also become available worldwide in over 100 countries, when the OS update arrives.

As previously announced, the Apple TV will be available on non-Apple devices for the first time, too. This includes smart TVs like those from Samsung, LG, Sony, and Vizio, as well as on Roku and Amazon Fire TV platforms at a later date.

Apple Arcade is Apple’s new cross-platform gaming subscription

Apple wants to tilt the balance from ad-laden freemium gaming titles towards all-access ad-free gaming experiences that can be downloaded across platforms on iOS, macOS and tvOS.

At the company’s services event this morning, they announced Apple Arcade, their new premium subscription service for gaming across their hardware products. “We want to make gaming even better,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said onstage.

The subscription will boast 100+ new and exclusive games while Apple will be adding new content “all the time.” It looks like the company will have a hand in building out the titles by working directly with developer partners to product titles. Early partners include names like Disney, Konami and Lego.

Another important note, all games will be playable offline. This is a content play rather than a tech product like Google’s recently-announced Stadia game-streaming platform. The subscription will provide access to all of the content in the games without ads.

Apple has the benefit of building this directly into the App Store, you’ll be able to access Apple Arcade from a new bottom tab in the App Store app. This may be the company’s best chance at leveraging its strength on iOS to finally build a better home for games on Mac.

The service is coming this fall. Apple oddly didn’t detail pricing though they did share it would be launching 150 regions.

Apple Arcade is Apple’s new cross-platform gaming subscription

Apple wants to tilt the balance from ad-laden freemium gaming titles towards all-access ad-free gaming experiences that can be downloaded across platforms on iOS, macOS and tvOS.

At the company’s services event this morning, they announced Apple Arcade, their new premium subscription service for gaming across their hardware products. “We want to make gaming even better,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said onstage.

The subscription will boast 100+ new and exclusive games while Apple will be adding new content “all the time.” It looks like the company will have a hand in building out the titles by working directly with developer partners to product titles. Early partners include names like Disney, Konami and Lego.

Another important note, all games will be playable offline. This is a content play rather than a tech product like Google’s recently-announced Stadia game-streaming platform. The subscription will provide access to all of the content in the games without ads.

Apple has the benefit of building this directly into the App Store, you’ll be able to access Apple Arcade from a new bottom tab in the App Store app. This may be the company’s best chance at leveraging its strength on iOS to finally build a better home for games on Mac.

The service is coming this fall. Apple oddly didn’t detail pricing though they did share it would be launching 150 regions.

Apple unveils its $9.99 per month news subscription service, Apple News+

Apple today unveiled a revamped Apple News app which now includes a premium tier called Apple News+,  offering access to over 300 magazines and newspapers for $9.99 per month. At launch, the subscription includes magazine titles like Bon Appétit, People and Glamour, along with top publishers like The Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times, among others.

TechCrunch’s premium product, Extra Crunch, is among the new participants.

“When we created Apple news over three years ago, we wanted to provide the best way to read the news on your iPhone and iPad,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook, in introducing the company’s plans for Apple News+. “And we felt we can make a difference in the way that news is experienced and understood – a place where the news would come from trusted sources and be curated by experts,” he added.

The subscription introduces a new design feature called “Live Covers,” which shows animated images instead of static photos for the magazine’s cover. Inside the digital magazine’s pages, readers can view a table of contents, swipe through beautifully designed pages filled with text, photos and infographic content, and more. The experience looks very much like the popular digital magazine app, Flipboard.

The magazine publishers can also express their own unique look and feel through their design and photography, noted Apple designer Wyatt Mitchell, in presenting the new feature.

The News+ tab is where you can begin to explore the available magazines, while the Today tab features more recommendations of articles and issues. The service will also customize itself to your interests, but won’t do so by tracking what you read.

Instead, Apple says the service will download groups of articles from its servers. And then it uses on device intelligence to make recommendations. That means Apple won’t know what you read and won’t allow advertisers to track you either.

When you subscribe, your whole family can access the magazines through Apple Family Sharing, for the same price.

Apple had signaled its intention to enter the premium news subscription businesses when it acquired digital newsstand startup Texture in spring 2018. Shortly thereafter, reports surfaced that Apple was planning to relaunch Texture’s product as part of the existing Apple News application. The company had been courting high-profile publishers, but industry reaction was mixed.

That appears to remain the case as the service goes to launch. While it does offer The Wall Street Journal – announced ahead of today’s event – other top publishers like The New York Times and The Washington Post have chosen not to participate.

Apple News+ is available today in the U.S. and Canada, starting today. In Canada, The Star is participating. Later this year, Apple News+ will arrive in Europe, starting with the UK, and Australia.

TikTok quietly picked up the assets of GeoGif, which created animated, location-specific overlays for video

Video sharing app TikTok passed 1 billion downloads last month, and its parent company ByteDance is ramping up its efforts to monetize those users with ads, while also continuing to add more features to the app to keep people engaged. In a move that could help both of those efforts, ByteDance has made a small acquisition, picking up the assets of a defunct startup called GeoGif, which developed location-specific, animated stickers and overlays for videos, suggested to users when they capture video or images in specific places.

It seems that the location-based, animated element of what GeoGif built is the key part of what might be coming soon to TikTok, since the app already had a range of visual and audio filters and stickers to alter appearances and your voice, or just to embellish and further personalize your video.

Here’s the general gist of what GeoGif can do for a video if you are, for example, in Miami for Spring Break. (Note: This is not the greatest example given the naff and objectifying subject matter, but it’s the only example the startup has provided.)

The terms of the acquisition have not been disclosed, although we are asking both Dean Glas, one of GeoGif’s co-founders, as well as ByteDance and we will update if we learn more. In any case, the deal appears to include only the assets of the startup, which ceased operating more than two years ago, judging by activity on its social media accounts and LinkedIn profiles. CEO Dean Glas and his co-founder Mendy Raskin are now both working on new startups.

“We are excited for GeoGif to have a new home at TikTok,” said GeoGif’s CEO Dean Glas, “and we believe our features will be enjoyed by millions of users. We will work closely to make sure it’s a smooth transition that provides a long-term positive impact for the TikTok community.”

A TikTok spokesperson also confirmed that the features that were built for GeoGif will get rolled into the main TikTok app: “GeoGif and TikTok share a common goal which is enabling people to connect, consume, and create great content. We’re impressed with what the team at GeoGif has built and with TikTok’s resources, we believe that we will deliver an even better user experience for our millions of users who love using TikTok to express their creativity through short videos.”

With TikTok, China’s ByteDance has created one of the world’s biggest video apps — and subsequently become one of the world’s most valuable startups — and it has used acquisition as a key lever for adding both users and features.

To help break into the US, the main app itself merged with Musical.ly last year after being acquired for between $800 million and $1 billion by Toutiao (a ByteDance sub-brand) in 2017. Other acquisitions have included Flipagram — another music-video app and startup — in 2017 for an undisclosed sum; the AR selfie camera FaceU in 2018, reportedly for $300 million; payments startup UIPay also in 2018; and — just last week — it appears ByteDance acquired a gaming startup, Mokun Technology, from previous owner 37 Interactive, also for an undisclosed sum.

It’s likely that the GeoGif acquisition was for a small sum: the company did not have anything close to mass-market traction, and it had raised only seed round of an undisclosed amount. It was originally spun out of parent company Bivid — which is also now defunct but had been a hyperlocal social network akin to YikYak, Highlight and Zenly, suggesting friends and others who were near to you for chit-chat and simply to know their whereabouts.

TikTok already runs ads and has other paid features in China, but in Western markets like the US, the company has largely only been doing limited runs and tests of different formats, such as this native video ad test we spotted in February.

In January, a leaked ad deck from the company in Europe also mentioned several advertising and marketing units it was running and planning to run including brand takeovers; in-feed native video; hashtag challenges; Snapchat-style 2D lens filters for photos; and 3D and AR lenses. It’s the latter of these where GeoGif’s efforts could be rolled in.

Also in January, Bloomberg reported that in 2018, ByteDance, for the first time, had failed to beat its own revenue forecasts: It had told investors when it was fundraising a monster $3 billion round that it expected to make between $7.4 billion and $8.1 billion in revenues for the year, and sources said it would be coming in at the lower end of that range.

These are, relatively speaking, huge numbers when you consider that ByteDance’s currency is social media apps, which often spend years making no money at all. But in the context of missing growth expectations, this slower expansion could be a lever for the company launching more ad formats in more places and launching more products, such as the Slack competitor it is also reportedly building.

Google launches a new real-time data product for journalists

It’s been just over a year since Google announced its $300 million News Initiative, which included funding for independent journalism efforts along with products developed by Google.

One of those products was News Consumer Insights, which has been used by publishers like BuzzFeed, Business Insider and Conde Nast. It takes data already collected through Google Analytics and makes it more useful for publishers, particularly when it comes to understanding different audience segments and whether they’re likely to become paying subscribers.

“It’s turning raw data into business intelligence and actionable insights,” said Amy Adams Harding, Google’s head of analytics and revenue optimization and head of publisher development.

Now Google is building on the NCI product with a new tool called Real-time Content Insights.

As the name implies, RCI is focused on telling publishers what’s happening on their site at this moment, and on helping them identify trending news stories that could attract more readers. The initial NCI data is more useful for the publisher’s business or audience development teams, Harding said RCI is designed “to help the editorial side of our partners understand the dynamics of content on their site — what’s trending, what’s falling off, what’s getting traction.”

RCI - Screenshot

Real-time Content Insights

Google is hardly the first company to offer real-time data to news publishers, but Harding said this “off-the-shelf, click-to-play” product could be particularly useful for smaller newsrooms that don’t have a lot of resources and aren’t particularly data-savvy.

“Local is a huge pillar of the Google News Initiative,” Harding said. “What can we do to help develop tools where we can be support mechanisms for our partners as they try to stay sustainable during this transition … not only to digital, but one more transition over to this diversified revenue stream? That’s something that many of our publishers are not resourced well enough to take on on their own.”

RCI presents the data in the form of an image-heavy dashboard showing how many readers are looking at a story currently, and how many views the story’s gotten in the past 30 minutes. You can also see how well the site is doing today, compared to a normal day’s traffic, and break down your traffic by geography and referral sources.

The dashboard also shows the topics that are currently trending on Google and Twitter. Of course, not all of those topics will be right for your publication, but Harding said it can help editors and writers identify the gaps in their coverage, based on, “What are people curious about?” (on Google) and “What are people talking about?” (on Twitter).

At first glance, RCI doesn’t seem to tie directly into the bigger goals of helping publishers building sustainable, diversified business models. However, Harding that it can be used in conjunction with the existing NCI product, which helps them identify their most valuable audiences.

“Where the publisher would see value is, ‘Okay, we know that users coming from direct referral traffic are more valuable, [and] this article is driving is driving viewership from those types of readers,'” she said.

Harding added that Google is making the RCI source code available on GitHub, so that more sophisticated publishers can customize it to create their own data visualizations.

Yunji, a startup that enables social commerce via WeChat, files for $200M US IPO

China’s Pinduoduo was all the rage in 2018 as the ecommerce upstart quickly rose to challenge Alibaba and raised $1.63 billion through a Nasdaq listing. Much of its success was attributable to its link to WeChat, China’s messaging leader. Now, another emerging ecommerce player that has leveraged WeChat is gearing up for a listing in the United States.

Yunji, which was founded in 2015, the same year Pinduoduo launched, is raising up to $200 million according to its prospectus filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission last week. Reuters reported citing sources in September that Yunji planned to raise around $1 billion in the IPO at a valuation of between $7 billion and $10 billion.

Like Pinduoduo, Yunji bills itself as a “social ecommerce” service, which means it takes advantage of social relationships on apps like WeChat to acquire, engage and sell to users. The pair differ, however, in how exactly they make money. Pinduoduo generates the bulk of its revenues — nearly 90 percent in the fourth quarter — from advertising fees collected from merchants. This is akin to Alibaba’s marketplace play of connecting buyers and third-party sellers. Yunji, which was started by ecommerce veteran Xiao Shanglue, focuses on direct sales like Alibaba’s arch-foe JD.com and derived 88 percent of its fourth-quarter revenues from selling to users.

In terms of size, Yunji was about $15 million behind Pinduoduo in revenue last year. It had 23.2 million buyers in 2018, compared to Pinduoduo’s 272.6 million monthly active users. Yunji was, however, much closer to achieving profitability than Pinduoduo, which spent most of its money on sales and marketing. Most of Yunji’s expenses went to fulfillment and logistics.

pinduoduo vs yunji

From inception, Yunji has boasted of its “innovative” membership-based ecommerce model. To join, people typically pay a fee, upon which they gain access to a variety of benefits and discounts as well as the permission to open their own micro-stores. Members then get compensated for successfully selling to others and recruiting new members.

The marketing practice helped Yunji quickly build up a large network of users. As of 2018, Yunji had 7.4 million members who contributed 11.9 percent of its annual revenues and 66.4 percent of annual transactions. But the firm went too far in exploiting the social links it controlled that it started to look like a pyramid scheme, which is banned in China. In 2017, the local government slapped Yunji with a $1.4 million fine for pyramid selling. The firm subsequently apologized and promised to revamp its marketing strategy. For instance, to avoid crossing the red line of awarding salespeople with “material” or “financial” benefits, Yunji resorted to virtual Yun-coins, which are not redeemable for cash and can only be used as coupons for future purchase.

But Yunji is still on the edge. The company warns in its prospectus that China could redefine what constitutes pyramid selling anytime.

“[T]here is no assurance that the competent governmental authorities in China that we communicate with will not change their views, or the other relevant government authorities will share the same view as our PRC legal counsel, or they will find our business model, not in violation of any applicable regulations, given the uncertainties in the interpretation and application of existing PRC laws, regulations and policies relating to our current business model, including, but not limited to, regulations regulating pyramid selling.”

Some of Yunji’s more notable investors include China’s CDH Investments and Huaxing Growth Capital, China Renaissance’s subsidiary focusing on high-growth startups.

Live from Apple’s media special event

You know Apple’s got something big in the works when it went ahead and launched new iPads, iMacs and AirPods in one week with little fanfare. And while this week’s event was a bit of a surprise, Apple’s clearly been working to it for a long time.

The company sent out invites for “Show Time” a few weeks back, and since then we’ve been piecing together the clues of what we expect will be announced. A new video-streaming service will most likely be the centerpiece of the big event. The company has budgeted at least $1 billion on content for the Netflix competitor. A new news service and even a credit card also appear to be on tap for what looks to be a packed show.

Editors Matthew Panzarino and Brian Heater are on the ground in Cupertino today, set to bring you live updates from the Steve Jobs Theater. Bookmark this space. Things kick off at 10AM PT/1PM ET.

Hackers dropped a secret backdoor in Asus’ update software

Hackers targeted and compromised “hundreds of thousands” of Asus computer owners by pushing a backdoored update software tool from the company’s own servers.

The bombshell claims, first reported by Motherboard, said the hackers digitally signed the Asus Live Update tool with one of the company’s own code-signing certificates before pushing it to Asus’ download servers, which hosted the backdoored tool for months last year. The malicious updates were pushed to Asus computers, which has the software installed by default.

TechCrunch can confirm much of Motherboard’s reporting after we learned of the attack some weeks ago from a source with direct knowledge of the incident.

Kaspersky, which first found the backdoored software, said the malicious update tool was installed on as many as half a million computers. The backdoor would scan a device for a target’s unique MAC address and pulls a malicious payload from a command and control server.

Motherboard’s reporting said the backdoor was scanning for some 600 MAC addresses, matching what TechCrunch has learned, that the backdoor was likely targeted to infect only a small number of victims rather than cause infections on a large scale.

Symantec confirmed Kaspersky’s findings, the company told TechCrunch, describing it as a software supply chain attack. “Our findings suggest the trojanized version of the software were sent to ASUS customers between June and October,” said spokesperson Jennifer Duffourg.

It’s believed the hackers had access to Asus’ own certificates to sign the malware. One of the backdoored files used a certificate created in mid-2018 but were different from Asus’ regularly used certificates. Motherboard reported the certificates were still active and had not been revoked, posing a continued risk to Asus customers.

It’s not known exactly what payload was delivered to victims, however.

The backdoor bears a resemblance to CCleaner, which similarly used a code-signing certificate to hide any malicious component. Some 2.3 million customers were affected by the backdoor, blamed on hackers who reportedly targeted tech giants.

Asus has not informed customers of the vulnerability after it was discovered earlier this year. Motherboard said Kaspersky reported the backdoored software on January 31. Taiwan-based Asus is said to have some 6 percent of the computer market share, according to Gartner, shipping tens of millions of computers each year.

When reached last week about the claims, Asus spokesperson Gary Key had no immediate answer to several questions we had and referred comment to its headquarters.

Kaspersky’s Sarah Kitsos did not comment on the findings.

Fortnite, copyright and the legal precedent that could still mean trouble for Epic Games

A new US Supreme Court decision is pitting entertainers and video game developers against one another in a high-stakes battle royale.

The decision in Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com LLC raises interesting questions about several lawsuits brought against Epic Games, the publisher of popular multiplayer game Fortnite.

In Fortnite, players may make in-game purchases, allowing player avatars to perform popular dance moves (called emotes), such as the Carlton, the Floss, and the Milly Rock.

Five performers, all represented by the same law firm, recently filed separate lawsuits against Epic Games in the Central District of California, each alleging: (i) the performer created a dance; (ii) the dance is uniquely identified with the performer; (iii) an Epic emote is a copy of the dance; and (iv) Epic’s use of the dance infringes the plaintiff’s copyright in the dance move and the dancer’s right to publicity under California statutory and common law.

In short, the dance creators argue that Epic Games used their copyrightable dance moves in violation of existing law.

The building battle

What do these Fortnite lawsuits in California have to do with the US Supreme Court?  US copyright law says that a copyright owner can’t sue for copyright infringement until “registration of the copyright claim has been made” with the US Copyright Office.  Prior to the recent Supreme Court decision in Fourth Estate, lower federal courts split over what this language means.

Some (including the federal courts in California) concluded that a copyright claimant could sue an alleged infringer upon delivering a completed copyright application to the Copyright Office.  Other lower federal courts held that the suit could not be brought until the Copyright Office issued a registration, meaning that the Office viewed the work to be copyrightable.

Because the Copyright Office now takes over seven months to process a copyright application and issue a registration, claimants often chose to sue in California federal courts, which had adopted the quicker “application approach.”  This was the route chosen by the plaintiffs in all five Fortnite cases.

Down (but not out)

On March 4, 2019, in Fourth Estate, the Supreme Court ruled that California federal courts and others following the application approach were wrong, and that a plaintiff cannot sue for copyright infringement unless the Copyright Office has issued a copyright registration.

This had an immediate impact on the Fortnite lawsuits because the Copyright Office had not yet registered any of the dances and, indeed, had found two of the plaintiffs’ dances uncopyrightable.  Recognizing their vulnerability, plaintiffs preemptively withdrew these lawsuits, announcing they would refile the complaints once the Copyright Office issued registrations.

Epic question #1: are the emote dances copyrightable?

The central question is whether the dances used in Fortnite emotes are copyrightable material  protected under US law. If not, then Epic Games’ use of the dances is not copyright infringement, and in-game sales of the particular dances may continue unfettered.

Dance moves fall into a gray area in copyright law.  Copyright law does protect “choreographic works,” but the Copyright Office says that “social dance steps and simple routines” are not protected. What’s the difference between the two? The Copyright Office says that choreography commonly involves “the composition and arrangement of a related series of dance movements and patterns organized into a coherent whole” and “a story, theme, or abstract composition conveyed through movement.”  Dances that don’t meet this standard can’t be copyrighted, even if they are “novel and distinctive.”

So are the Fortnite plaintiffs’ dances “choreographic works” in the eyes of the Copyright Office?  Herein lies a clash of cultures. The performer-plaintiffs undoubtedly feel they have created something not just unique, but a work entitled to protection for which they are owed damages.  But the buttoned-down Copyright Office may not agree.

The Copyright Office has already denied Alfonso Ribeiro a copyright registration for the Carlton, a widely recognized dance popularized by Ribeiro during his days as Carlton Banks on the show Fresh Prince of Bel Air.  The Office stated that the Carlton was “a simple routine made up of three dance steps” and “is not registrable as a choreographic work.”

The plaintiffs’ lawyer in the Epic Games cases has disclosed that 2 Milly’s application for copyright in the Milly Rock was also rejected, but that a long “variant” of Backpack Kid’s Floss dance was accepted for registration.  The Copyright Office’s view on the other two plaintiffs’ dances has not yet been reported.

If a registration is denied

Denial of a copyright registration is not necessarily a dead end for these lawsuits.  The Copyright Act allows a plaintiff who has been refused a copyright registration by the Copyright Office to still sue a potentially offending party for copyright infringement.  However, the Copyright Office can then join the lawsuit by asserting that the plaintiff’s work is not entitled to copyright protection.

Historically, the federal courts have usually followed the Copyright Office’s view that a work is uncopyrightable.  If the other Fortnite plaintiffs are denied registration, as Ribeiro and 2 Milly were, they will all face an uphill fight on their copyright claims.

Other issues to overcome

Even if the plaintiffs’ copyright claims survive, they face other problems, including originality, which is a requirement of copyright.  If their dances are composed of moves contained in dances previously created by others, the plaintiffs may fail to convince the court that their dances are sufficiently original to warrant their own copyright.  For example, Ribeiro has stated in interviews that moves by Eddie Murphy, Courtney Cox and Bruce Springsteen inspired him when he created the Carlton.

Ownership of the dance can also be at issue if the dance was created in the course of employment (such as while working as an actor on a television show), as the law may hold that the employer owns the copyright.

Epic question #2: the right to publicity

The plaintiffs’ right to publicity arguments could go further than their copyright infringement claims. The right to publicity claims were based on the assertion that plaintiffs’ dances are uniquely associated with them and that Epic Games digitally copied the plaintiffs performing the dances, then created a code that allows avatars to identically perform the dances.  Some side-by-side comparisons of the original dance performances and the Epic emote versions (speed adjusted) look strikingly similar for the few seconds the emote lasts. According to plaintiffs, this use misappropriated their “identity.”

Their assertion is not as far-fetched as it may seem, given the broad reading courts in California have given to the state’s common law and statutory publicity law.  For example, the Ninth Circuit has previously ruled that an ad featuring a robot with a wig that turned letters on a board wrongfully took Vanna White’s identity, and that animatronic robots sitting at airport bars vaguely resembling “Norm” and “Cliff,” characters from the popular TV show Cheers, misappropriated the identities of the actors who played the roles, George Wendt and John Ratzenberger.

There remains an open question on whether the courts will be willing to take another step and find that a game avatar having no physical resemblance to a performer misappropriates the performer’s publicity rights just because the avatar does a dance popularly associated with the performer.

Once the Copyright Office announces its decisions on the outstanding copyright applications, the Fortnite plaintiffs may choose to re-file their cases; and this question could eventually be decided.